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  • Good morning.

  • When I was a little boy,

  • I had an experience that changed my life,

  • and is in fact why I'm here today.

  • That one moment

  • profoundly affected how I think about

  • art, design and engineering.

  • As background, I was fortunate enough to grow up

  • in a family of loving and talented artists

  • in one of the world's great cities.

  • My dad, John Ferren, who died when I was 15,

  • was an artist by both passion and profession,

  • as is my mom, Rae.

  • He was one of the New York School

  • abstract expressionists who,

  • together with his contemporaries,

  • invented American modern art,

  • and contributed to moving the American zeitgeist

  • towards modernism in the 20th century.

  • Isn't it remarkable that, after thousands of years

  • of people doing mostly representational art,

  • that modern art, comparatively speaking,

  • is about 15 minutes old,

  • yet now pervasive.

  • As with many other important innovations,

  • those radical ideas required no new technology,

  • just fresh thinking and a willingness to experiment,

  • plus resiliency in the face of near-universal criticism

  • and rejection.

  • In our home, art was everywhere.

  • It was like oxygen,

  • around us and necessary for life.

  • As I watched him paint,

  • Dad taught me that art

  • was not about being decorative,

  • but was a different way of communicating ideas,

  • and in fact one that could bridge the worlds

  • of knowledge and insight.

  • Given this rich artistic environment,

  • you'd assume that I would have been compelled

  • to go into the family business,

  • but no.

  • I followed the path of most kids

  • who are genetically programmed

  • to make their parents crazy.

  • I had no interest in becoming an artist,

  • certainly not a painter.

  • What I did love was electronics and machines --

  • taking them apart, building new ones,

  • and making them work.

  • Fortunately, my family also had engineers in it,

  • and with my parents,

  • these were my first role models.

  • What they all had in common

  • was they worked very, very hard.

  • My grandpa owned and operated a sheet metal

  • kitchen cabinet factory in Brooklyn.

  • On weekends, we would go together to Cortlandt Street,

  • which was New York City's radio row.

  • There we would explore massive piles

  • of surplus electronics,

  • and for a few bucks bring home treasures

  • like Norden bombsights

  • and parts from the first IBM tube-based computers.

  • I found these objects both useful and fascinating.

  • I learned about engineering and how things worked,

  • not at school

  • but by taking apart and studying

  • these fabulously complex devices.

  • I did this for hours every day,

  • apparently avoiding electrocution.

  • Life was good.

  • However, every summer, sadly,

  • the machines got left behind

  • while my parents and I traveled overseas

  • to experience history, art and design.

  • We visited the great museums and historic buildings

  • of both Europe and the Middle East,

  • but to encourage my growing interest

  • in science and technology,

  • they would simply drop me off in places

  • like the London Science Museum,

  • where I would wander endlessly for hours by myself

  • studying the history of science and technology.

  • Then, when I was about nine years old,

  • we went to Rome.

  • On one particularly hot summer day,

  • we visited a drum-shaped building that from the outside

  • was not particularly interesting.

  • My dad said it was called the Pantheon,

  • a temple for all of the gods.

  • It didn't look all that special from the outside,

  • as I said, but when we walked inside,

  • I was immediately struck by three things:

  • First of all, it was pleasantly cool

  • despite the oppressive heat outside.

  • It was very dark, the only source of light

  • being an big open hole in the roof.

  • Dad explained that this wasn't a big open hole,

  • but it was called the oculus,

  • an eye to the heavens.

  • And there was something about this place,

  • I didn't know why, that just felt special.

  • As we walked to the center of the room,

  • I looked up at the heavens through the oculus.

  • This was the first church that I'd been to

  • that provided an unrestricted view

  • between God and man.

  • But I wondered, what about when it rained?

  • Dad may have called this an oculus,

  • but it was, in fact, a big hole in the roof.

  • I looked down and saw floor drains

  • had been cut into the stone floor.

  • As I became more accustomed to the dark,

  • I was able to make out details of the floor

  • and the surrounding walls.

  • No big deal here, just the same statuary stuff

  • that we'd seen all over Rome.

  • In fact, it looked like the Appian Way

  • marble salesman showed up

  • with his sample book, showed it to Hadrian,

  • and Hadrian said, "We'll take all of it."

  • (Laughter)

  • But the ceiling was amazing.

  • It looked like a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome.

  • I'd seen these before,

  • and Bucky was friends with my dad.

  • It was modern, high-tech, impressive,

  • a huge 142-foot clear span

  • which, not coincidentally, was exactly its height.

  • I loved this place.

  • It was really beautiful and unlike anything I'd ever seen before,

  • so I asked my dad, "When was this built?"

  • He said, "About 2,000 years ago."

  • And I said, "No, I mean, the roof."

  • You see, I assumed that this was a modern roof

  • that had been put on because the original

  • was destroyed in some long-past war.

  • He said, "It's the original roof."

  • That moment changed my life,

  • and I can remember it as if it were yesterday.

  • For the first time, I realized people were smart

  • 2,000 years ago. (Laughter)

  • This had never crossed my mind.

  • I mean, to me, the pyramids at Giza,

  • we visited those the year before,

  • and sure they're impressive, nice enough design,

  • but look, give me an unlimited budget,

  • 20,000 to 40,000 laborers, and about 10 to 20 years

  • to cut and drag stone blocks across the countryside,

  • and I'll build you pyramids too.

  • But no amount of brute force

  • gets you the dome of the Pantheon,

  • not 2,000 years ago, nor today.

  • And incidentally, it is still the largest

  • unreinforced concrete dome that's ever been built.

  • To build the Pantheon took some miracles.

  • By miracles, I mean things that are

  • technically barely possible,

  • very high-risk, and might not be

  • actually accomplishable at this moment in time,

  • certainly not by you.

  • For example, here are some of the Pantheon's miracles.

  • To make it even structurally possible,

  • they had to invent super-strong concrete,

  • and to control weight,

  • varied the density of the aggregate

  • as they worked their way up the dome.

  • For strength and lightness, the dome structure

  • used five rings of coffers,

  • each of diminishing size,

  • which imparts a dramatic forced perspective

  • to the design.

  • It was wonderfully cool inside

  • because of its huge thermal mass,

  • natural convection of air rising up

  • through the oculus,

  • and a Venturi effect when wind blows across

  • the top of the building.

  • I discovered for the first time that light itself

  • has substance.

  • The shaft of light beaming through the oculus

  • was both beautiful and palpable,

  • and I realized for the first time

  • that light could be designed.

  • Further, that of all of the forms of design,

  • visual design,

  • they were all kind of irrelevant without it,

  • because without light, you can't see any of them.

  • I also realized that I wasn't the first person

  • to think that this place was really special.

  • It survived gravity, barbarians, looters, developers

  • and the ravages of time to become

  • what I believe is the longest

  • continuously occupied building in history.

  • Largely because of that visit,

  • I came to understand that,

  • contrary to what I was being told in school,

  • the worlds of art and design

  • were not, in fact, incompatible

  • with science and engineering.

  • I realized, when combined,

  • you could create things that were amazing

  • that couldn't be done in either domain alone.

  • But in school, with few exceptions,

  • they were treated as separate worlds,

  • and they still are.

  • My teachers told me that I had to get serious

  • and focus on one or the other.

  • However, urging me to specialize

  • only caused me to really appreciate those polymaths

  • like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci,

  • Benjamin Franklin,

  • people who did exactly the opposite.

  • And this led me to embrace

  • and want to be in both worlds.

  • So then how do these projects of unprecedented creative vision and technical complexity

  • like the Pantheon actually happen?

  • Someone themselves, perhaps Hadrian,

  • needed a brilliant creative vision.

  • They also needed the storytelling and leadership skills

  • necessary to fund and execute it,

  • and a mastery of science and technology

  • with the ability and knowhow

  • to push existing innovations even farther.

  • It is my belief that to create these rare game changers

  • requires you to pull off at least five miracles.

  • The problem is, no matter how talented,

  • rich or smart you are,

  • you only get one to one and a half miracles.

  • That's it. That's the quota.

  • Then you run out of time, money, enthusiasm,

  • whatever.

  • Remember, most people can't even imagine

  • one of these technical miracles,

  • and you need at least five to make a Pantheon.

  • In my experience, these rare visionaries

  • who can think across the worlds of art,

  • design and engineering

  • have the ability to notice

  • when others have provided enough of the miracles

  • to bring the goal within reach.

  • Driven by the clarity of their vision,

  • they summon the courage and determination

  • to deliver the remaining miracles

  • and they often take what other people think to be

  • insurmountable obstacles

  • and turn them into features.

  • Take the oculus of the Pantheon.

  • By insisting that it be in the design,

  • it meant you couldn't use much of the structural technology

  • that had been developed for Roman arches.

  • However, by instead embracing it

  • and rethinking weight and stress distribution,

  • they came up with a design that only works

  • if there's a big hole in the roof.

  • That done, you now get the aesthetic

  • and design benefits of light, cooling

  • and that critical direct connection with the heavens.

  • Not bad.

  • These people not only believed

  • that the impossible can be done,

  • but that it must be done.