File under 'better late than never'. NB: This is a write-up of a talk that took place at Postopolis! LA during April 2009. Notes are taken in real-time, with editing and context added afterward so reader beware. All Postopolis! LA entries are gathered here.
I’ve known Bryan for a few years, so it was a pleasure to have him speak at Postopolis! LA. (Note: some of the images below are from Bryan’s deck, which he kindly sent me afterwards.)
One of the more forward-thinking architects I know, Bryan exemplifies one aspect of the architecture on show at Postopolis! LA - that of fluid frontiers around the discipline, of the application of a design discipline for strategic value outside of its traditional parameters of the built environment. (There are echoes of the debates around design thinking here, even further beyond Leon van Schaik’s notion of architecture re-calibrated as “spatial intelligence” rather than “technologies of shelter”.)
Bryan describes his interest in the “intersection of structures of governance”, and outlines his academic project concerning the “redesign of the national Capitol building”. (There are two resources around this project: the site, and a webblog)
He was interested in “new ways to draw the building - to press the overbearing icon back into the realm of capital.” “it’s a symbol”, he says, “but a piece of workable architecture” also, but is interested more in new ways of seeing the Capitol. He thinks that generating new ways of seeing is one of the architects’ most valuable skills, which he describes as a kind of “x-ray vision”.
Not only this, but it’s important that “we work on important questions - (comprising) a heightened understanding of spatial logics.” In this respect, he says, “we must become fluent in understanding the social graph of realtionships within Congress” for instance (he notes a visualisation detailing how the amount of time politicians spent together on junkets affects their voting behaviour, and another similar analysis predicated on the location of offices and the elevators that they take …) Boyer describes this work as the “dense and continuous weave of matter and its consequences”.
Summarising this, Boyer says “space matters, and architects and designers are the ones who understand that the most …”
However, these are still “conversations outside the discipline of architecture - with politicians, people who studied politics etc., seeing their world in a new manner. But “there’s a lack of understanding of the importance of spatial thinking outside of our discipline - designers are typically asked to be part of important decisions at a stage that’s too late in the process as to be effective …” (Again, echoes here of several discussions at Postopolis! LA. There are of course numerous issues here, not least the fact that designers often don’t do themselves any favours, but Boyer’s talk and work felt like the most considered and advanced reflection on this aspect of design at this event.)
He notes that “by the time the architect or designers are brought in, your hands are tied”, and in a worst case you’re left with the job of applying the proverbial “lipstick on a pig”. So how to “bring the architect forward?”
With hits, he turns to his (and his colleagues’ work with Sitra), acting as “a designer sitting in a governmental context”.
I personally find Sitra a fascinating organisation, being another example of a Nordic country’s forward-thinking use of public funding (see also Norway). It was founded in 1967 and benefits from an endowment from parliament, such that it is technically part of government, but self-funded (a “tentacle of the government”). Their projects have a timeline of 10-20 years, which Boyer notes “frees them to work at the intersection of disciplines and necessities”.
They’re a ‘think and do’ tank (though Boyer doesn’t like the phrase, noting there’s only so much that white papers can do.)
Of 100 staff at Sitra, the three in the strategic design team are trained as designers (all architects). They’re interested in “holistic integrated systemic” changes, which Boyer suggests is indeed ‘design thinking’ (though again, he doesn’t like to use that term.) This applies to the “architecture of societal problems - shaping better decisions.”
By way of example, Boyer talks about the Low2No competition that Sitra are devising and running.
(Disclaimer: some months after this talk, I was part of the successful Arup team that won the Low2No competition with Sauerbruch Hutton, Experientia, and Galley Eco Capital.)
This competition to redevelop part of the southern tip of Helsinki, the former port area, as a mixed-use redevelopment, which by 2025 would be home to around 16000 residents and 6000 new jobs. It’s almost ⅓ of ‘downtown’ Helsinki.
Sitra are interested in making it a “a model for development inside city centres”, as well as a model for a more sustainable built environment within Finland.
In this respect, it’s not a traditional architectural competition, but a “sustainable development competition”, in which the primary goal is to “design a team and strategic approach before sending in the pretty pictures - to describe an approach to building and developing a new part of the city …”
(This talk of shaping better outcomes for the built environment through better competitions follows neatly from Austin Kelly’s earlier discussion of the culture around competitions in Switzerland.)
Boyer suggests that the “critical step forward is in ‘the mix’ - not in the expertise in the silos, but how that expertise is put together - to design the team that can make it happen - to design the vision for what that thing is going to be.” Although the goal is a “low-carbon, complex urban district, ultimately transitioning to zero-carbon” they’re very invested initially in “finding the right team.”
Having said that ‘the architecture’ can follow, the competition is issued primarily to the architectural community, as Boyer sees “the architect as the person that can lead this process … that can deal with a policy wonk or economist … that the designer needs to take lead role” in this.
“Things should be cross-disciplinary”, he says, “noting that the ‘60s gave birth to this”, mentioning Buckminster Fuller explicitly.
This isn’t just idle name-checking, though - Boyer’s referring directly to a particular event in Finland in 1968, now called Helsinki Design Lab. It stemmed from a reaction to craft-based design, and the need to “develop an industrial design revolution” to cater for the “emerging needs of a new world … a new kind of design”.
The list of participants was fairly extraordinary, including Buckminster Fuller, Christopher Alexander, Juhani Pallasmaa amongst others. It concerned a “fully multidisciplinary design”, including system design, computer use, anthropology and so on, running collaborative design workshops generating built prototypes (including for a “portable reindeer slaughterhouse”.)
Sitra are now working towards a kind of follow-up design event, Helsinki Design Lab 2010. Boyer notes that the population of Finland is around 5 million people, or half the population of LA area. It has a rich infrastructure, a highly educated population - “all the things you need to execute”. He sees “Finland as prototyping lab”, and that its size is “a great advantage” here, but wonders could it scale?
The US is simply too large to approach in this way, he thinks; healthcare, energy use are “a mass of conflicting interests”. Yet he is still interested in generating “strategic roadmaps”, indicating “specific projects you could choose as pilots - (they) don’t want to export solutions, but strategies”.
The Q&A includes one question wondering whether there needs to be a PR campaign for architects, akin to the re-branding of UPS. Boyer says he doesn’t like to “hate on the AIA, but that it could be “a bit more effective in transmitting the full range of architectural thinking, or the abilities of a designer, at least designers who think strategically”. He notes how this isn’t “something that we’re known for” but that if Helsinki Design Lab 2010 is a success, “then we can prove it”. We need “cases where architects and designers are working outside of their discipline and producing some kind of measurable output or change …”
This is exactly right, and was behind my earlier aside about designers not doing themselves favours - essentially, there are very few genuine examples of why designers should be ‘higher up the food chain’ (the now burgeoning literature around ‘design thinking’ notwithstanding). I’d suggest there are numerous reasons why designers should be, but few reasons, few case studies. Bryan Boyer’s emerging body of work (and that of his colleagues) is interesting because it promises to produce exactly that; several strong case studies of why multidisciplinary design should be an important part of fundamental strategic decision-making processes, across numerous arenas. Low2No and HDL are both a long way from mere lip-stick.