Future Practice

February 11, 2011

In the face of globalisation and global warming, is architecture losing relevance? Rory Hyde examines the potential future for architectural practice.

The 21st century has ushered in a radically different world than that faced by our predecessors. The rise of globalisation and the information society, OMA, PLOT, the seemingly unassailable dominance of market thinking, the impending threat of environmental degradation and the erosion of social sustainability and tolerance, are just a few of the challenges we face. In addition, each of these issues has been further compounded by the ongoing financial crisis of 2008, burdening governments and individuals with spiralling debt and unemployment, limiting our capacity to act.

All of this conspires to produce a design landscape of unprecedented complexity, one that cannot be adequately addressed by the traditional tools of the design professions.

Calls for a new kind of designer stretch back to the middle of the 20th century, most famously in Buckminster Fuller’s description of a “synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” [1] Recently, however, this vision of a new role for the designer has been gaining traction. Bruce Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries recognises that the complexity of today’s problems necessitates these challenges be taken up by the “collective intelligence of a team”. [2] The senior curator of MOMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, has described how “the figure of the designer is changing from formgiver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality” and called for designers to adopt a role as “society’s new pragmatic intellectuals.” [3] John Thackara similarly calls for designers to “evolve from being the individual authors of objects or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people.” [4]

But with all of this demand for change, where are the results? While the mainstream may be slow to adapt, there are designers around the world eagerly carving out opportunities for new kinds of engagement, new kinds of collaboration, new kinds of practice and new kinds of design outcomes, overturning the inherited assumptions of the design professions.

Here follows a brief survey of these new roles for designers, each representing potential futures for design practice.

The community enabler

Thanks to the healthy boom of the past two decades, the architect has become accustomed to producing boutique solutions for private clients; a comfortable scenario that has distracted us from our responsibilities to society at large. By reconceptualising the role of the architect, not as a designer of buildings, but as a custodian of the built environment, the space of opportunity and tools at our disposal are vastly expanded.

The Renew Newcastle project, established and led by Marcus Westbury, illustrates the value of people in the improvement of a public space. While millions had been spent by local government on rebuilding the physical aspects of Newcastle’s rundown and largely deserted Hunter Street mall, the simple gesture of opening up vacant spaces for use by creative practitioners and businesses is helping to kick-start its revival. [5]

The trans-disciplinary integrator

The complex, manifold and integrated issues of today cannot be solved by architecture alone. To be truly instrumental, we need to open ourselves to new constructive alliances with thinkers and makers from outside our discipline.

RMIT’s Design Research Institute, established in 2008 by Professor Mark Burry, is a research centre directed toward collaboration and information sharing between students and professionals from over 30 disciplinary backgrounds. By harnessing collective expertise, the DRI is able to address major social and environmental dilemmas that do not conform to the traditional boundaries of design training.[6]

By transcending our own expectations and limits, we can in turn recast society’s expectations of what we are capable of addressing.

The social entrepreneur

The economic crisis has been heralded as the end of architecture’s ‘obsession with the image’. What this hope overlooks, however, is the powerful narrative potential of architectural communication in catalysing complex visions for the future. Deploying this power to address social aims allows architects to contribute meaningfully to the future of the city by posing the critical question: ‘What if?’

PLOT’s (now BIG and JDS) scheme for the Kløvermarken park was developed in response to Copenhagen’s acute housing shortage. Through a media campaign that promoted its solution, which would provide 3000 units within a perimeter block without sacrificing a single sporting field, PLOT were able to generate significant public interest in the project. Eventually, this led to the government holding a competition for the site. Although PLOT did not win the commission, the project is proceeding nonetheless, providing much-needed housing to the inner city, and a demonstration of the value of practical vision. [7]

The visionary pragmatist

The stereotype of the architect as an obsessive, black skivvy-wearing aesthete is a pervasive one that may sometimes live up to the truth. This is a dangerous characterisation, however, as it ignores the architect’s role as a strategic thinker. By promoting our capacity to challenge the underlying assumptions of a problem and to develop responses informed by a larger context, we can hope to be invited into projects at an earlier, more decisive stage, and not as mere cake- decorators.

Chilean practice Elemental, led by Alejandro Aravena, views the larger contexts of policy, financing and social mobility as equally important territories for the architect to understand and engage. Its multi-unit housing project in Iquique proposed a unique solution to the challenge of limited social housing funding. By providing ‘half of a good house’ [8], and configuring it in a way that enabled future expansion, the residents can create housing of real personal value and utility.

The practising researcher

Architecture’s current model of charging as a percentage of the construction cost does little to justify the thinking and intelligence embedded in the design process. This lack of distinction between conceptual value and production-focused value also means architects are not natural candidates for projects that require an architectural approach, but that may not result in a building.

AMO, the think tank of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, was established precisely to focus on this type of work, by applying ‘architectural thinking in its pure form to questions of organisation, identity, culture and program’. [9] The project Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, delivers on its title with a radical scheme of integrated green power generation stretching from North Africa to Norway. By not being constrained to any particular building commission, this research can operate at a scale that holds the potential for real global impact.

The long-term strategist

While form is an important aspect of the architect’s repertoire, it is now just one tool from a larger set of devices directed at achieving results. The challenge of addressing environmental sustainability has brought with it an obligation that buildings perform as designed, and can adapt throughout their life to meet changing demands and targets. We can no longer simply design the object, but must also design the strategy of implementation and long-term evaluation as part of our responsibilities.

The Low2No competition, organised by the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, made these long-term strategies a central requirement of the design brief. [10] With the ambitious aim of producing an urban development solution for Helsinki that would over time be carbon negative, the teams were asked not only to produce an architectural vision, but a future strategy for delivering these environmental results. By looking beyond the immediate horizon of project completions, the strategist takes on a greater responsibility and interest in a successful outcome.

The design management thinker

One buzz phrase gaining popularity in the design world at the moment is ‘design thinking’. Although it has many interpretations, it could be defined as the application of a design approach to problems in fields outside of design, such as business and management. [11] This is heralded as a potential means for designers to expand their reach and to reclaim their instrumentality and relevance to other disciplines. However, we are also witnessing the rise of its inverse; a more threatening scenario whereby management consultants occupy the territory traditionally held by architects. As cities in the globalised world evolve from being purely about the delivery of quality of life, to become speculative instruments of investment, governments are increasingly turning to financial and management consultants for advice instead of urbanists or architects. This is particularly true in the Gulf region of the Middle East, where PriceWaterhouseCoopers has produced the Vision 2030 plan for Bahrain, and McKinsey & Company has been developing the plans for Saudi Arabia’s new economic cities. [12]

Architects should treat this potential future as both a warning and an opportunity for coalition.

The unsolicited architect

The reactive model of commissioning limits architects’ potential to address the challenges of the future. Volume magazine outlined the concept of ‘unsolicited architecture’ in its issue of the same name, whereby architects create their own briefs, identify their own sites, approach their own clients and find their own financing. This requires a more entrepreneurial mindset, as the tools of architecture and architectural thinking are only powerful if they can be unshackled from the constraints of a given brief.

Faced with the planned demolition of the building where it has its offices to make way for encroaching gentrification, ZUS Architects created ‘De Dépendance’, a counter proposal to reuse the building as a centre for urban culture and a hub for like-minded institutions and businesses. [13] With media exposure and support from the municipality, it was able to turn around the developer, who now backs its proposal. By developing a viable alternative, instead of merely protesting, ZUS was able to steer the project to an outcome that is both equitable and beneficial for all parties.

Acknowledgements Thanks to Tobias Pond, Maitiu Ward and Timothy Moore.

[1] Zung, TK, Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium, St Martin’s Press, 2002
[2] Mao, B, ‘Design and the Welfare of All Life’, Tilder, L, Blostein, B, (eds.) Design Ecologies: Essays on the Nature of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010, p12
[3] Antonelli, P, Design and the Elastic Mind, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2008, p17
[4] Thackara, J, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, The MIT Press, 2005, p7
[5] Presentation on Renew Newcastle by Marcus Westbury at BKK Architects, 7 May 2010 (see also www.renewnewcastle.org)
[6] Burry, M, Design Research Institute Annual Review 08/09, RMIT University, 2010
[7] Lecture by Bjarke Ingels at Monash University, 9 July 2008
[8] See interview page 24, AR#116
[9] www.oma.nl, accessed 18 September 2006
[10] See the Low2No brief here: www.low2no.org/competition/challenge (accessed 11 June 2010). Sitra’s Bryan Boyer has also written extensively on the architect as strategist
[11] Brown, T, ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, issue 86(6), 2008, p84-92
[12] Hyde, R, ‘Measuring the Presence of Consultants’ in Koolhaas, R, Reisz, T, (eds.) Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued, Volume 23, Archis Publishers, 2010, p160
[13] www.dedependance.org, accessed 11th June 2010

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