Hello, Brooklyn

Exactly one year ago Makeshift Society launched in San Francisco. It was an experiment at the time, intended by Rena Tom to free herself and others from the overwhelming stillness of working from home, alone. I’m proud of what Rena, Victoria, Suzanne, and the team have accomplished in the intervening year, and happy to share that soon we will be opening a second location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yup: we. I’ve joined the business to help shape its future. If what you read below sounds worthy of your support, you can help too, by contributing to our Kickstarter.

We'll be in Williamsburg, close to the L and G trains

Our ground floor.

On paper Makeshift Society seems quite distant from the work I’ve done over the past five years, most of which was helping the Finnish government learn how to utilize. Makeshift is a move from a national remit to a very focused one; it’s a shift from working within the public sector, to the private; Sitra has a billion dollars in the bank, Makeshift… doesn’t. Yet the reason I’m stepping up my involvement in this project is because I think we have the freedom to explore the most important design challenge of the 21st century: redesigning and reimagining the institutions of our everyday life.

Makeshift is a trojan horse, in that sense. It is a coworking space and a community, but it’s about providing people in the creative fields with new pathways to independence by giving them the resources, agency, and accountability they need to excel.

We want to be the best place for people to start and sustain a creative business. In the US “entrepreneurship” is so often treated as though it’s short for “high-growth technology entrepreneurship” that other pursuits get marginalized. As important as tech is, as much money as tech generates, a healthy society (and market, for that matter) is not predicated on one field. At Makeshift we are tackling the challenge of supporting low and medium growth businesses, including freelancers, because we believe in independence and insist that we can do better than a Task Rabbit economy.

Introducing Makeshift in this way reveals my own opinion that straight up coworking is actually pretty boring as a business; it’s tiny, desk-sized real estate. We’re not in it for the desks, per se, but it turns out that tables are a uniquely useful alibi for our larger goals.

Singapore

Helsinki

Monterey Country, California

Washington, DC

Bran, Romania

I am a fan of tables. They naturally incline people to linger, and that means to share. A table is always the center, even when it’s on the edge.

When I moved from Helsinki to New York at the beginning of the year I left a small community of friends involved in just about every aspect of creative production (even tables). What I learned is that the luxury of Finland is not in consumption but in creation, in being surrounded by acts of design and manufacture such that many of the objects, environments, and pieces of media comprising my daily life were in some way touched by a friend’s effort. It was a bubble in the best sense.

As a newcomer to Finland, however, I was alone in a quiet place. After months searching for the cafe or corner joint where a density of my people could be found, I realized that Helsinki is not built on that logic. Districts are defined by character more than trade, and commercial real estate is parceled into tiny portions that atomizes the many thriving design studios all over the city. The raw spatial equality that this brings is eminently Finnish in its own way, but also means there’s no easy ‘in’ for newcomers like myself. So I seeded my own densely creative corner of the city once per month, around a shared table and heaping mounds of Szechwan peppers.

At those meals the table* did its thing. New links started forming as illustrators and baristas, architects and authors, chefs and strategists, photographers and furniture makers joined for a bite to eat. It was a casual ritual, but a meaningful one, and is now sustained by friends who’ve remained there in Helsinki, regularly sharing a meal with a rotating group of faces, familiar and fresh.

Landing in a city that is nearly twice as large as the entire country of Finland I was reminded of the specialization that rules here in the creative fields. In New York it’s not the individuals that feel distant from each other, but the disciplines. NYC has so many bubbles of activity all packed in among each other, and all rather insular. They’re alone together, and this seems like something that Makeshift could nudge in a different direction.

As we prepare to launch Makeshift in Brooklyn our primary focus is making a top notch place for creatives to work, learn, and hang out. There are many details that must be attended to that might seem unnecessary, but we are obsessing about all of them. We do this because deep collaboration begins with being in the same place at the same time, long enough time to get to know each other. Fostering a community of people who are stronger together than they are alone is a lofty goal, and it starts with a good table in a good room.

If this piques your interest, keep track of our progress on the blog, Twitter, or Facebook, and Kickstarter or drop by early next year when we have the doors open in Williamsburg.

 

* Through empirical study conducted over the course of 13 months I’ve concluded that the perfect table for a social gathering of 8-16 people is 2 meters in diameter. At this size a group will be able to maintain a single conversation without any one individual being so distant from their complement on the opposite side that it is not possible for them to discuss. Likewise, the round shape allows all to share a single conversation if they choose, without preventing people from breaking into smaller subgroups. Also important: the broccoli is never further away than the arm-span of two people.

Thoughts on Venice Architecture Biennale 2012

Curated on the theme of Common Ground by David Chipperfield, the Biennale was a bit scattered for me. Though, as a Martti pointed out, even when you remove all of the banal parts of the show the sheer volume of the Biennale leaves plenty to make up a decent exhibition of its own. We’re cursed by abundance.

Nevertheless, I struggled to find the linkages, the Common Ground that the curators hinted at in the opening room of the show. What links Norman Foster’s boom-boom room of glittery architecture and riot films to Peter Märkli’s collection of borrowed phallic sculptures? What does Urban Think Tank, Justin McGuirk, and Iwan Baan’s excellent Gran Horizonte cafe share with Zaha Hadid’s metal flowers and developmentally-challenged stingrays? FAT’s Museum of Copying was fantastic (best in show for me), and it shared something with Ines Weizman look into the copyright of Loos’ Baker House, but what links these two to the rest of the Arsenale?

Why do we feel compelled to claim a common ground if there is not much of one?

Instead I found two installations which spoke to the common ground which every practice involved with the show, and surely every visitor, can appreciate and truly share.

Free and open wifi:

And a healthy respect for fire safety:

Cultures of Decision Making

Note: Much of the text below is assembled from conversations with my colleagues Marco, Justin, and Dan in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra. For more on these topics, check the HDL blog or see Dan’s excellent recent eBook: Trojan Horses & Dark Matter: A Strategic Design Vocabulary.  

 

In the past year 542 humans scaled to the highest point on earth, one visited the planet’s lowest, and a team at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. Right now someone in California is controlling a remote vehicle at least 54.6 million kilometers away on the surface of Mars while a separate vehicle is poised to exit our solar system, still sending back signals. The accomplishments of the past twelve months alone are, taken in and of themselves, staggering. As the human race, it would seem that we’re able to do what we want. An uninitiated traveler who visits from another time, less jaded, and with different baggage, would be sent reeling by these accomplishments, and some of them, like summiting Everest, can now even be considered rather mundane.

As a human race we’re able to launch almost 37 million commercial flights into the air in a single year with a very small fraction of them suffering catastrophic problems, and yet we’re still unable to care for every person on the planet in the most basic of ways. Twenty two percent of the human population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Planet Earth is suffering too, as we know, and have known for some time, yet we’re still trying to agree to do something about it on a global scale. Some places, like the US, are still amassing the will to even confront climate change as a fact, giving us a strong piece of evidence to support Bruno Latour’s assertion that we’ve moved from a world of fixed facts to one of mutable concerns.

From climate change to panda bears, AIDS to homelessness, causes abound and each has someone lobbying for our support. This is life in a world without facts: levels of importance, funding, and attention given to every thing, every idea, every person are choices made by a balance of individuals and collectives. That balance fluctuates, and the decisions fluctuate over time as well. But I think the Goonies may have put it more succinctly:

Down here, in the messy world, it’s our time. We cannot rely on anyone or anything else to tell us what to do, and there are no Adults or Gods up above to help us settle our disputes. Immutable rules do not come from the heavens anymore, nor from nature, nor from institutions. The social contract is a conversation and the choices are ours to make, but how will we make them?

Invoking Latour again, we might compose a “common world… built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.” The litany of accomplishments and failures that I opened this post with seem to imply that we do not have a common world at our disposal. We have a surplus of ability, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily applied or distributed in the ways we might like it to be. Why?

Narratives of political inaction are littered with villains and their conspiracies. While it makes for good movies, this approach amounts to mythologizing the status quo. Putting the emphasis on blockages and bottlenecks is debilitating because it reduces progress to the conquering of a monolithic enemy. This in turn demands singular heros and lets everyone else off the hook. It’s too simple, too easy.

Single points of corruption, evil, or difficulty that stifle the good and the just certainly exist, but are they the sole explanation for the fractured state of human decision-making today? As a thought experiment, let’s abstain from considering evil and incompetence for a moment. If we remove the easy outs, what is keeping us from agreeing to agree?

I suspect that we suffer from an unacknowledged profusion of cultures of decision-making, and that the fine-grain differences between these various cultures makes agreement across silos of knowledge increasingly difficult. Due to its defining internal coherence, agreement within one culture is easier than agreement between two cultures, which is itself easier than agreement among three, and so on. My hypothesis is that accepting, understanding, and confronting the gaps between our different cultures of decision-making will allow us to work together more effectively.

Geographic and linguistic distinctions are taken for granted, but humans participate in multiple overlapping cultures. Professional cultures are particularly tricky because they are both global and localized at the same time. Content unifies on one layer while geography can divide on another. For example, until recently it was illegal to build large buildings out of wood in Finland, yet legal 1 hour away in Sweden where the same wood construction technology exists, as does a kindred culture. Weathering the climate crisis and the restructuring of society that networked communication continues to unfurl will require that we get comfortable with taking larger risks, and to do that we need to have better knowledge of where we’re safe and where we’re going out on a limb.

The way we make decisions is affected by our professional role(s), including the spaces(s), jargon(s), and relationships that come with that professional community. A dentist will decide what is risky, innovative, good, or bad differently from a lawyer, not just because the content of their decisions is different but because the stew of expectations and incentives that the cultures of dentistry and law have created are distinct from each other, as they are from all other professional communities. And of course individuals are part of families, clubs, parties, and geographies or linguistic communities that each have a unique culture which affects decision-making as well.

Unique cultures have different currencies for personal reputation; they have different standards about sharing credit (or not); they may weight accuracy over precision or vice versa, or not even have a notion of accuracy; they value formal institutions differently; think about scale and time in different ways; construct arguments using different accepted building blocks; use different fonts; go to different bars and live in different cities; dress differently; work under lamps of different power and different temperature; and speak in different tongues. By suggesting that we need to pay attention to cultures of decision-making if we want to learn to act together more effectively, I’m suggesting that we re-internalize these factors which have been assumed to be outside and irrelevant to moments of choice.

The individual is important, but it’s also the part we understand best right now. Thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman we are beginning to have a sketch of the psychology of decision-making. There’s an emerging picture of the sorts of competing forces that are at play inside an individual’s mind when considering options, but how are these individual considerations layered over by the pressures of various groups that one is part of? Cultures of decision-making is about understanding the micro-sociology of conclusions.

Cultures of decision-making in a context of silo’d knowledge is especially tricky, and therefore important. With more specialized knowledge come more silos, and every extra silo exponentially increases the number of silo-to-silo connections. More silos with their own unique ways of making decisions means more of a translation cost—more friction—when those silos have to work together. In our world they increasingly do.

A common response to silo-ification is to create horizontal bridges that link up multiple silos. The Strategic Design Unit I’m part of at Sitra is one example. We have an explicit mandate to work with all parts of the organization to help conceptualize and deliver collaborative projects. By definition these horizontal units will always be the minority, so they might help but they’re not the answer. If we want to deal with the difficulty of working between multiple silos, we’ll have to develop a more robust understanding of their cultures so that individuals can more easily construct their own empathic connections.

Untitled

A travel guide to Finland, circa 1938

We build scaffolds that enable empathy across national cultures. A tourist heading to Europe will learn that in Switzerland they kiss on the cheeks three times, while across the border in France they do it only twice. It’s a cultural choice with no right or wrong answer but a good bit of potential for awkwardness if bungled. Because we know that, there is some effort taken to discuss and publicize these local choices so that visitors and locals alike can negotiate a common existence. In the future, will there be booklets telling us that neuroendocrinologists prefer short sentences with words of latin root, that plumbers require at least 10 minutes of smalltalk before opening their toolbox, and that Swedish Engineers require 5 decimal places of accuracy to be comfortable? Surely somewhere in an advertising office this knowledge is already codified, so we need to play catch up.

The easy answer is that we rise above what could be considered minor differences, but if it were easy to rise above cultural differences we would have done it already, right? People are trying. Coming to grips with different cultures of decision-making is one of the things that ethnography helps us do, which leads me to read the recent interest in service design, design ethnography, and similar modes of need-finding within business (and increasingly the public sector) as a tacit recognition that we have to understand our customers and our citizen-peers’ own decision making much better if we want to create useful and meaningful experiences, products, services, and interactions for them. That is, if we want people to choose us over the others, we need to understand how they’re doing the choosing. This work is often being led by designers, or at least design studios, which is a bit of a quandary: if needs-finding is the work to be done, and ethnography is the tool, why not go straight to the social sciences?

Without the comfort of easy to find Right Answers, we need new sources of stability to sit between multiple parties who bringing multiple cultures to the table. In this situation matter becomes important, and the design disciplines are the ones who shape matter. Material things are important because they offer us a single source from which divergent interpretations may result. We can go back to things again and again, reformulating the language we use to understand them until there’s a common consensus in ways that are simply more difficult when you’re starting point are words and your ending point also words. One may be able to politicize the implications of a website, a building, a door handle, but it’s hard to argue with atoms. They’re stubbon and far more patient that most humans. I suspect design (like “evidence” in very large quotation marks) is often implicated in strategic circles out of a desire to have something inarguable. As we apply it in the Strategic Design Unit, design is a tool to navigate between the material world and the meta, the abstract, intangible, tacit or unknown aspects of the world. Yes, the dark matter. We often design probes for the explicit purpose of exciting the dark matter so that it becomes visible to us. In our conception of design nothing is fixed, per se, but it’s a way to find your fix, your navigation points.

Latour argued for the importance of things, now it’s our job to build to tools that change the status quo. Our work at Sitra has often gravitated around interfaces between different cultures. Brickstarter is concerned with the interface between municipal government and active citizens. Helsinki Street Eats is attempting to build an interface between enthusiastic hobbyists and pan-searing entrepreneurship. Interfaces imply systems, and in the contemporary world that means platforms: systems which expose their seams and enable participants to do something that was impossible or cost-prohibitive before. But here’s the trick: the interfaces that we need to build are often between ourselves. Democracy needs new interfaces so that we can use it more effectively, more equitably, to resolve our conflicts and make shared decisions.

So in things we find the gaps between our cultures of decision-making illuminated. Below are a few of the stories I’ve collected over the last 18 months, each a vignette showing how mis-matched cultures are making our daily life more frustrating and, ultimately, inhibiting our ability to make progress on Big Issues.

Here are some of my favorites.

 

Open Office Mouse

Chuffed with the success of developing the Open Office project, an open source clone of Microsoft Office, a group of people decided to create a piece of open source hardware: a mouse to be used with the program.

There probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the get go. After all, spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, and most people manage with two or three buttons. The material reality of the Open Office mouse is shocking because it demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions in a zero-sum situation—in a matter battle.

When designing a piece of software, you can have it all. Prefer to use a menu option to make words bold? Ok. How about a keyboard command? Yes! And an icon on the toolbar just to be sure? No problem. Those choices are not made in connection to one another because they are not competing for the same resources. The decision-making process can be less rigorous without becoming a glaring monument to indecision. But apply the same logic to material and your indecision is mirrored back to you in the form of an 18 button mega mouse that no one wanted and no one will use.

As an example of clashing cultures of decision-making, I suspect that diligent ethnography would reveal this to be the product of office software aficionados and more than a couple gamers, the latter have more need for things like thumb joysticks than the average Excel jockey. The tools this group had at hand to resolve disputes in a software project are effective in that arena, but did not work as well for resolving conflicts in the material world. They need new tools and they’re not alone. As cultures of decision-making grind into deadlock we will have to create new tools to help us create our compositions of just-so-ness. It’s poetic that after some disputes about whether the project is making legitimate use of the Open Office branding they have rebranded it as the War Mouse. Zero-sum indeed.

 

Not in my backyard (NIMBY)

This wind turbine is part of a small wind farm in Hamina, Finland and it owes its existence to the fact that it was moved 500 meters from where it was originally proposed. In this particular case the dispute was over the noise of the turbine which a nearby part-time resident was concerned about. In Finland the maximum acceptable noise levels in an area zoned for summer cottage use are actually lower than they are in permanent residential areas. In other words, cottages that are used at most 3 months out of the year are institutionally more protected than homes which are in use 12 months out of the year.

In the specific example of this turbine there’s a conflict between the engineering of the turbine’s existence and its perception in eyes of some nearby individuals. The former has to do with things like soil stability, wind patterns, land ownership, grid infrastructure, and low carbon energy production. The latter involves aspects such as personal preference, individual physiology, life patterns, and national narratives about ‘the good life.’

In Hamina all of these factors were composed in such a way that the turbine could be built, just in a slightly different location. There are reams of counter examples where no amount of flexibility on behalf of either side would lead to a constructive agreement, and this is what makes NIMBY an excellent example of the friction between different cultures of decision-making. “I like your idea, I just don’t want it in my backyard” is a monolithic villain that can only be conquered by a persistent hero. If we want to reduce NIMBYism and make it easier to execute sustainable infrastructure projects—to pick an example out of a hat—then we need to decompose the monolithic. We will have, as Hamina has begun, to engage the specifics of the cultures in question and negotiate a tentative, wending path to decision.

 

Parliament Fights

Why are these Ukranian MPs fighting in their chambers? And it’s not only them, it’s also in Korea, Canadians, Indians, Kenya, Taiwan, and probably just about every national chamber of deliberation at some point in history. Although we like to take potshots at our Congresses and our Parliaments, if we take ourselves seriously they should be the places in which the most deliberative, rational, and focused decision-making occurs. I’m curious why they’re not.

Part of the problem is that representative democracy as we’ve inherited it from the 19th century needs facts to argue about. Inherent in the representative model is that facts are constant, so they merely need to be loaded into the deliberative chamber and then representatives can hash out how limited resources are applied across a diverse land. Remove objective facts from this equation and you have an organism that’s all muscle and no bone. Without some form of resistance it’s hard to build up stable conclusions. Decisions and the principles used to make them must be constantly revisited, and every time it’s a task of translating not only between the customs of one corner of the realm and another, but also trying to find some way to compose the relative incongruities of, say, energy production, health, and national security. Add to this the fact that we’re experiencing rapid technological change and it’s a frothy mix where it’s hard to be right, let alone know with confidence that you are right. No wonder it comes to blows.

 

An apple is not an apple

This example is borrowed from my colleague Marco Steinberg who uses it to illustrate the difficulty of the contemporary design task. How do you compete in a market where differences are materially imperceptible?

On the flip side, how do you make decisions when those differences are invisible, abstract, and in conflict with one another? Of the two above, which apple is the better apple?

Comparing them on a single axis is not too difficult, but making decisions when you, a consumer who just wants a healthy snack, has to figure out how to make sense of competing factors is not insignificant. Is it better to be organic but shipped in from 1000 miles away, or to go with conventionally farmed apples that have a lower carbon footprint? Is your palette prepared to skip the apple altogether if your wallet cannot afford the kind of apple that your values lead you to appreciate? How do you balance hard factors like cost, against hard-but-difficult to quantify factors such as impact on soil biodiversity and carbon foot print, against soft factors such as flavor and appearance?

Multiply this by an entire grocery list and it’s a small feat that shoppers are not reduced to a blubbering mess when walking into the super market. We simplify because we have to, and that’s OK, but this is also a place where it would be useful to know more about how communities pick their allegiances—and how they might be convinced to change.

I usually buy my food with carbon as the primary concern, preferring local products over those from distant shores. Others are more concerned with ensuring that their food is organic for personal health reasons. Still others prefer organic because they are concerned that conventional farming is destroying the ecosystem.

That’s why we need to devote more time to understanding the world’s myriad cultures of decision-making: none of these beliefs are mutually exclusive in the shopping cart, but they often become so at the till.

Makeshift Society backstory

Today Rena Tom and her team are opening the doors of the Makeshift Society in San Francisco. It’s a 1000 square foot private clubhouse where members can make, learn, teach, and think.

A big congratulations is due to the team, who’ve done a great job realizing their vision. And I should mention up front that I’ve made a small investment in the project, so I’m not completely objective in what I write below.

Makeshift Society is about building creative ideas more than it is building businesses. This is what sets it outside the usual grouping of coworking spaces like the Hub or General Assembly. Business may happen at Makeshift Society, but it’s not the driver. What it does borrow from co-working spaces, however, is a recognition that density of activity is important. Being around other people pursuing similar goals increases the interconnectivity of partially formed thoughts, and that’s where good ideas come from. It’s the primary ingredient in what Brian Eno calls “scenius,” the genius of a scene.

Shared studios are common in the creative communities of many cities, so what I find interesting about Makeshift Society beyond colocation is that it introduces within the tech-focused microcosm of San Francisco a place to be serious about matter; a place to remember that atoms exist and although software may eat the world, it won’t necessarily digest it. I hope that Makeshift Society is a place where we can start to make sense of what that implies.

That Rena would end up creating something like this is almost a forgone conclusion if you know her, because she’s both a hyper-connector and an effortless host. The most convincing evidence I have for this is a visit to her home. At Rena’s place an afternoon tea with friends is simple but never plain.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch at close range as Rena traced out the concept for what has become Makeshift Society and then dragged it from the pristine peaks of Good Idea, through the bogs of Reality, and up distant slopes to dry out on the far side, pointing us to new ways of being creative together.

While writing this post I took the opportunity to dig up old emails, some of which are pasted below because I have a soft spot for backstories.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 1:39:22 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

[…]

About space: because you want flexibility for different uses by different groups concurrently, the circulation is almost as important as the square footage. Where are the entrances? How many? How do you move from one room to the next? These are critical. It depends on the specifics.

[…]

Clubs have records. Guilds have important but opaque books, and tools of the trade. So, yes, I am drawn to this and I think it plays into a larger movement that is going on. Have you been to the Hub there? It’s pretty cool here in Europe. Not the same as what you’re talking about, but worth you having a look: http://bayarea.the-hub.net/public/

I think you might be creating a guild for people who think with their hands, make with their heads, and vice versa.

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 5:47:02 AM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer

[…]

haven’t checked out the Hub but i guess i will do some visits this year.

what i’m thinking now is: front desk/small selling area, book area, lockers and kitchenette, and then one seating area that is comfy, with coffee/side tables. i don’t even know if i want full-size tables because i don’t want it to be laptop central. i could bring out a nice large table/chairs if people want to rent the space for powwows but i don’t think i want it out all the time.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 9:06:48 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

[…]

Laptops: just have a rule. We don’t do that here. This is a place for another ritual. You could even ‘offer’ to check peoples’ phones at the door (inside a Danish teak desk, I think). Cubby holes! Adam jokes about opening a cafe called Faraday’s—not far off!

A large table with room to spread out books and things is so so nice. I love large tables with few chairs.

Your space is for time travelers: it’s one for people who appreciate the best parts of the past, who enjoy living today, and are building tomorrow. Seems to me there’s something deeply non-linear about it.

[…]

I think you probably need some sort of short but not too short (and very clever and passionate) explanation of what the space is for in simple terms. Like: it’s for not working when you’re not at home. Or: it’s for thinking with other people. Or: it’s for conversation. If libraries were massively supported by Rockefeller as a way to spread knowledge, Contrariwise is started by rena to…..?

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 7:49:35 PM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer

customer service is expensive and very awesome. though in the bay area, people are so used to doing things for themselves (proudly whipping out their iphone etc) that i have to make sure things are efficient, yet luxurious, right? like getting a fancy cocktail made.

[…]

i don’t know if i can enforce laptop check. would love to though. i could have charging station concierge for phones like banana republic used to do though, that would help a little. if there are no tables for laptops, it will cut it down tremendously.

so ok, we leave the large table in – but no laptops and no outlets. just nice reading lamps.

i like “think with your hands, make with your heads” very much. might steal that. i guess i should start writing all of this down, huh?

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 19, 2011 8:46:43 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

This is so good!

There’s still room, so go have a peek and then sign up if you need a thirdspace in San Francisco.

Street Food in Helsinki

Nene Tsuboi and Åbäke have been working on a project entitled Unbuilt Helsinki, carefully digging up bits of the city that were planned but never made, and presenting them back to us in the form of installations and other experiments. We have lots of interests in common, so I was not surprised when they came to us asking about the street food work that we’ve been engaged in. One of the Unbuilt Helsinki subjects are the city’s ubiquitous grilli kioskis, our hotdog stands.

Untitled

As Nene and Benjamin prepare their grilli-themed installation for the Flow Festival, I wanted to share the street food missive that I contributed to the poster announcing their work. Here’s what the poster looks like in full technicolor:

The poster features unbuilt grilli kioski designs rendered in custom Meccano parts. They’re pretty great little things that look like this:

You can see them at Flow. And in the meantime, here’s the text:

The most visible food in the streets of Helsinki today has already passed through the human body and been reborn into the world as site specific installations of urine and temporary constructions of vomit. While we’re a city that’s comfortable with pissing in the street, eating is puzzlingly hidden. It’s mostly reserved for the drunken stumble to a grilli (which everyone hopes to forget the next morning) and slurping porridge in a tori (where one is hidden amongst the ubiquitous orange tarps).

Despite Helsinki’s architectural commentary by bodily function we have all the right ingredients for an urban culinary renaissance. In 2012 Nordic food is the envy of the world and Helsinki’s specific architectural heritage gifts it a variety of iconic lippakioskis and grilli structures waiting to be linked into a city-wide network of grub hubs. If only they served something worth remembering.

Oh but they will! Bring on the curry siika, poro bratwurst, and birch soda. This is anything but a trend. It’s a sign of a culture that embraces diversity, in a meal and on the street. Street food is about relearning how to make the city our own not just for occasional festivals but a real—and really delicious—part of everyday life.

DIY Summer Reading: The Prince

Next week I head to Venice for a seminar at the European Center for Living Technology and will spend a week or so on holiday afterwards with Laura. Faced with the eternal question of What To Read, and specifically What To Read In Bright Sunlight, I settled upon re-reading The Prince. On paper. It’s a book that has been bubbling up here and there in conversation lately and it has been a while since I read it. Plus, it’s in the public domain, being some 497 years old, so it’s cheap.

Just as I was about to hit Apple-P and send the text to the printer in a flurry of Courier, I decided to take a different path. Why not spend an hour or two laying it out and printing it up as a proper booklet? Why not! Europe doesn’t seem to have a decent Print On Demand service (not like the US options are much good either), so that was out. Making the booklet myself gave me an excuse to break out the X-Acto. Hello,blade!

I’ve tried this experiment before, namely with the Federalist Papers. The Prince worked out a bit better, mostly because I knew how to use InDesign’s quirky “Print Booklet” options now. This go-around also benefitted from an ample supply of rubber bands on hand from Clues To Open Helsinki and Helsinki Street Eats, two recent projects that used them. The Prince looks like this:

The cover features a collage of various images returned by a google Image search for “The prince” and the title is set in TpDuro, by pal Martin Lorenz and Juanra “Wete” Pastor.

The interiors were printed as 2-leaf signatures. I glued them together quickly on the edge in a very basic sort of perfect binding. But what’s really holding it together is a quick notch on the top and bottom to hold a rubber band in place. Let’s see how this weathers by the pool…

The PDF is available here in case you also want to print a copy.

Notes from Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation

In an effort to keep a record of useful readings, below are my notes from Richard Sennett’s latest book, Together: the rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation. As ever, these notes are a hedge against the risk of such accidents as losing my copy of the book with notes in it already or wanting a reference while being away from my bookshelf.

My copy has a different cover than the one on Amazon:

Which is a bit of a bummer, because it looks like the US copy bears a really great photography by Frances Johnston. For a text that makes reference to images and material things on a regular basis, I wish Together were illustrated. The fact that it’s not would have been a big inconvenience before the internet. Today it’s just a quirk.

Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work from the Hampton Album by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Source: Moma.org

All in all, Together is a fantastic and quick read. If I have one quibble it’s with Sennett’s attempt at deconstructing Google Wave. He introduces the erstwhile collaboration platform as a way of highlighting the value of dialogue and dialogical thinking which, he argues, is easier in person-to-person interactions than via online platforms. But Sennett doesn’t seem to acknowledge that no one liked Google Wave and it shuttered shortly after launch. Because of this, he comes off as a conservative a pre-internet intellectual struggling to stretch his argument to be relevant to lolcat’ing internet natives. In my opinion, the book suffers because of his constant return to Google Wave as an (irrelevant) whipping post. Instead I have a wish: someone graft Richard Sennett’s brain onto Clay Shirky’s and magic will happen. Just saying. They teach at the same school, so how hard should it be?

Notes…

8: “Superficial relations and short term institutional bonds together reinforce the silo effect: people keep to themselves, so not get involved in problems which are none of their immediate business, particularly with those in the institution who do something different.”

9: “People are losing the skills to deal with intractable differences as material inequality isolates them, short-term labour makes their social contacts more superficial and activates anxiety about the Other.”

13: “Experiment involves doing new things, and more, structuring these changes over time.”

14: “Usually when we speak of communication skills, we focus on how to make a clear presentation, to present what we think or feel. Skills are indeed required to do so, but these are declarative in character. Listening well requires a different set of skills, those of closely attending to and interpreting what others say before responding, making sense of their gestures and silences as well as declarations.”

17: “Ritual makes expressive cooperation work.” Or put differently, ritual is an expressive form of cooperation.

39: “Sociality is not an active reaching out to others; it is mutual awareness instead of action together. Sociality thus contrasts to solidarity.”

49: “Irrational it may be, but conspiracy is one way of making sense on the ground of everyday impotence. Reforms in the name of people done through back-room deals translate into conspiracies that deprive ordinary people both of their rights and of their respect.”

56: Booker T Washington’s workshops taught skills such as horticulture, carpentry, metal-working, and animal husbandry. But to graduate they had to now only show mastery of the skills, but also learn how to teach. The workshop became a self-replicating dispensary of knowledge.

69: “Social insects, for instance, possess enough genetic code to take over, when sickness or misadventure requires, some of the specialized tasks performed by other members of the nest or hive.”

89: The three building blocks of ritual: “Rituals depend on repetition for their intensity.” “Rituals transform objects [and] bodily movements or bland words into symbols… The point of a handshake is more than feeling another person’s skin.” Rituals are an act of dramatic expression. “Walking down the aisle if you get married is nothing like walking down a street, even if your gait is similar.”

114: When the printed word emerged, “ways of making” could be written down in how-to books and spread further and faster than word of mouth would ever allow know-how to travel.

116: “Chivalry focused in large part on taming violent sexual behavior” by invoking shared rituals of behavior to restrain personal desires and behaviors, particularly with regards to sexual urges and matters of reputation. Courtesy expanded this into other “realms of of experience” with niceties enabling smoother communication and cooperation between individuals who do not necessarily come from the same culture. This included such things as “how to speak clearly without referring to persons or places a stranger may not know” [thus bringing them into the conversation]. Castiglione’s introduced sprezzatura in his Book of the Courtier, providing a practicable way for people to act in public with “less self, more [social]“. “Sprezzatura oiled the show of informal, open talk” in a way that was casual but still restrained, deliberate.

151: In a passage describing how authority differs from power (authority = power + legitimacy), Sennett describes Peter Zumthor in his studio. Zumthor describes his process like this:

“At the beginning I come with a sketch, and we talk. We walk about the idea, we talk about how to start… As I walk through the office, I pass all the work … I am good at giving structure to our talks … where we have several opinions, I cut off all academic, theoretical arguments … I get other people in, even the secretary, and ask ‘would you like a hotel bedroom like this or like this?’”

Sennett continues, “Zumthor is obviously no pussycat in the studio, a mere mediator; he’s in charge. But he engages others seriously, and by all accounts he elicits deep dedication from his staff.”

178: “Short-term time is the solvent of civility.” !!!!!!

186: “There’s a difference between feeling secure and feeling complacent. When we feel inwardly secure, we can become willing to experiment, to unleash curiosity… Complacency is not outward-looking… rather, it is a cousin to narcissism in expecting experience to conform to a pattern already familiar to oneself; experience seems to repeat routinely rather than evolve.”

199: Making and repair. Making has a more creative reputation, but repair is also a highly creative act.

201: “The quiver is an important image in skill development. Sometimes it’s imagined that becoming skilled means finding the one right way to execute a task, that there is a one-to-one match between means and ends. A fuller path of development involves learning to address the same problem in different ways. The full quiver of techniques enables mastery of complex problems; only rarely does one single right way serve all purposes.”

208: “Informal is not the same as shapeless.” Informal speech, gestures, interactions are infused with accumulated experience.

210: “In practicing music, when confronted by a sour note or a hand-shift gone wrong, the performer gets nowhere by forcing. The mistake has to be treated as an interesting fact; then the problem will eventually be unlocked.”

212: Three kinds of repair: restoration, remediation, and reconfiguration. Restoration is a humble act which aspires to return the broken object or situation to a previous state. Remediation allows for old components to be replaced by new ones. It’s a skill that is practiced by “fixers”. In Sennett’s words “inventory skills are the fixer’s stock in trade; he or she knows of all the alternatives.” Reconfiguration often involves “an analytical, theoretical rethink” that is spurred by detailed issues. Reconfiguration, in other words, uses specific needs to prompt a general rethinking of the original problem that was solved, and then follows that rethinking through to new repairs executed as well-resolved details.

229: “The repair of conflict, like a workshop repair, re-formats an issue so that it becomes changeable.”

236: “We often imagine compromisers as the people skilled at meetings and the act of striking a compromise to be enabled by formality. Not so. The compromiser assumes that beliefs and interests are just bargaining chips, which supposes that the people holding these views aren’t firmly committed… Meetings which chip away at these beliefs in the name of compromise often leave engaged participants with the sour sense that they’ve been sold out by the meeting, or, worse, that they’ve sold themselves out… The real virtue of the formal meeting is that it can avoid this vice of appeasement. If a written record of talk is kept, people can put their views as strongly as they like, knowing that these will be preserved. The record makes of official transparency, and more, if the meeting does wind up with a compromise, the participants can still feel that they have not been personally compromised.”

Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents

“Globalization destabilizes and redefines both the way architecture is produced and that which architecture produces. Architecture is no longer a patient transaction between known quantities that share cultures, no longer the manipulation of established possibilities, no longer a possible judgement in rational terms of investment and return”

—Rem Koolhaas, Globalization, S,M,L,XL

Your lungs are full of foam fumes, your eyes are bloodshot from exhaustion, you’ve slept at your desk. But you stick with it, because you enjoy a pleasing degree of freedom to pursue design ideas that challenge accepted reason, so long as the lead designer sees something they like. Sound familiar?

If so, it’s likely that you work in one of the many global architecture offices who practice in the style of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Your work may look different but that’s not the focus of this discussion. The operations follows a similar logic.

Amongst the most critically acclaimed offices of the last two decades, OMA has consistently produced innovate architectural ideas, methods, and as we will see below, organizational models. This much is undeniable. The question at hand is whether the almost contagious ability of OMA to replicate itself in the habits of other offices is the result of duplication by admiration, a legitimate response to the challenges of globalized architecture practice which OMA may have pioneered, or the charismatic quirk of OMA’s success overshadowing other possibilities.

This essay is written without any direct knowledge of the inner workings of the offices in question. It’s largely a mythology of the habits of organization, production, and decision making that one office has pursued, written from the outside, aided by accumulated anecdotes.

If the OMA style of working has become a popular drug, this is an attempt to figure out what we’re all taking, why, and what other options may exist. It’s a story that begins in the British countryside 39 years before the founding of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Computing Success

Half way between the brain trusts of Cambridge and Oxford sits Bletchley Park, a spunky but anonymous building that came to house one of the most important British installments of World War II. Inside, a team of scientists and mathematicians were focused on breaking the codes that the Germans used to protect their communications from the prying eyes and ears of the Allies. With some of the brightest minds in the country assembled, the task was difficult enough to still evade them, leaving the Allies no choice but to employ a technique called brute force code breaking.

When a message is encrypted one must have the password— or cipher—to decrypt the message from a jumble of nonsense into legible text. The right password returns sensible text, while the wrong password merely turns gibberish into a different kind of equally useless gibberish. If one cannot obtain the cipher they must devise a way to get it. In other words, if you can’t find the right password, another way to break through is by trying every… single… one… of the wrong possible passwords until you’re left with the single, working, correct option. Those at Bletchley and others in the community of cryptographers call this a brute force attack.

A young mathematician named of Alan Turing was working on a bruce force code cracking machine called the Bombe. It was like playing a game of “guess what word I’m thinking of” by starting on word one, page one of a dictionary and going from there. Except in the case of the Turing’s team their dictionary had up to 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 ‘words’ that had to be tested before the right answer could be found.

When it’s not possible to intelligently find a flaw in the algorithm used to encode the message, the brute force attacker simply tries every possible option until one proves useful. It’s the same technique that lends hackers access to email accounts today: attempt millions of different passwords and one is bound to work. This is why banks and other sensitive sources encourage us to use c0mpLic4t3d! passwords. Each extra letter, number, or punctuation mark expands the possible number of combinations, or “search space”, and makes the password exponentially harder to guess.

As the name implies, brute force attacks are uncomplicated and rely on the most basic ability of the computer to do repetitive tasks ad nauseam without stepping out for a smoke. The faster all the wrong answers can be eliminated, the sooner the correct cipher will be revealed. Two variables determine the speed that a cipher will be broken: the time it takes for each break attempt, and the number of attempts you can make simultaneously. The latter is akin to dividing up the dictionary into sections A-H, I-N, O-Z and giving them to three people to work on at the same time. Parallel processing, as it’s called, only works in situations where the overall task can be neatly divided and the piecemeal portions worked on in isolation of each other.

Decades after Alan Turing and others who made Bletchley Park a famous mansion of mathematics, the same methods were being put to in another industry altogether.

Through the unlikely combination of innovations in drawing and model making techniques, combined with a new theoretical understanding of architecture, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) rewired their office of the late 1990s into a brute force computational device whose efficiency would become wildly contagious.

OMA has been one of the most consistently interesting offices during the past couple decades but we’re more concerned with the how than the what. In probing these depths we want to gain a more sophisticated understand of this engine of success, and perhaps discover some ways in which the downsides may be minimized without losing the potency of its output.

Keeping everything in play

Lesson number 36: Abstraction is a requirement for design because you just can’t take everything into account.

—OMA Progress exhibition pamphlet, curated by Rotor

Architecture can be a hard thing to discuss because it’s an art of integration. The difficulty of separating the overall design task into smaller units of work is at least part of the reason that the stereotype of the architect is one of obsessive detail-oriented control, the Maestro, the creative genius. The lead designer is often one of the only people privy to the way that all of the cumulative decisions in a project come together; seeing, as it were, the many narrowly avoided conflicts that any matter battle is riddled with.

The factors that go into an architectural proposition run the gamut from calculable aspects such as structural performance under gravity loads, financial constraints under a given budget, and the practical realities of human ergonomics as much as they rely on the cultural and symbolic meaning of forms and materials, or even the individual whims of the client. Looking at any of these elements in isolation leads to woe, yet integrating all of them all of the time leads to paralysis.

The design process in most offices follows a general progression from a prompt, to wide range of options, to narrowing in on one or two promising possibilities for further refinement. At the beginning a lead designer offers their team a design question such as “how should this building sit on the site” or “how will people move around this structure” and the team work as individuals to sketch a variety of proposals that answer the question. This basic process is repeated again and again at successive levels of detail until the ‘scheme’ for the entire building has been resolved and can be drawn up as construction documents.

In architecture offices that discuss design proposals as integrated and holistic, these design cycles are drawn out into discussions can take a long time because even the smallest detail, such as a handrail, must be coherent with the logic that defines the whole building. Idea generation and evaluation phases tend to be less distinct in these kinds of offices, as there is an ongoing dialog among colleagues about whether a particular design tactic is appropriate to the project, and to the office’s work in general. Such discussions are often lengthy and full of nuance, consideration, and coffee breaks. It’s a perfectly good model, but it’s one that works best when everyone on the team share a similar level of acumen and are present for the full duration of the design process—if possible in the same room. This is the classic mode of the design atelier complete with a strong-willed lead designer at the helm.

OMA’s invention was to turn lead designers into grand editors. For an office who had global aspirations and highly mobile directors, a more efficient way of working was needed that would allow idea generation phases to happen without extensive indoctrination of young designers to the office’s philosophy and stylistic interests, and without constant supervision of the frenetic leaders. Diversity within any design cycle would be maximized and the ‘time cost’ of decision making would be lowered. Together these two changes made OMA more efficient at iterating through proposals until a viable one could be found.

OMA’s first breakthrough came in the writing of Rem Koolhaas. Initially as analytical observations in Delirious New York and later in a theoretical essay entitled Bigness, Koolhaas describes buildings as related collections of ideas rather than integrated wholes. If previously a building’s outside and inside were meant to add up to one coherent thing, in Koolhaas’ logic they are free to be separate, each with their own logics. This essential cleavage was levied against all aspects of the building. The old model of seeing a building as one integrated design task was now shattered into a family of many individual tasks.

The Dis-integrated building

“Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”
—Rem Koolhaas, Bigness essay in S,M,L,XL

Although post modernism had already legitimized the collage aesthetic that this approach encourages, Koolhaas’ writing made it OK for designers—especially those in his office—to treat the design of a building as many separate, smaller design tasks and the outcome of each did not necessarily need to bear clear resemblance to the others. On the contrary, buildings that displayed multiple ideas, forms, and materials became central to the aesthetic of OMA.

Koolhaas’ radically dis-integrated approach to architecture relieved junior designers from having to understand the full nuance of the overall project and freed the lead designer from the burden of providing constant ongoing feedback to keep their team on track with the big picture. Instead, feedback need be applied only at specific points (such as internal reviews) where a range of options are evaluated for their intrinsic value more than than their appropriateness to an external, overriding logic. In this operational model the lead designer need not play the role of Maestro. Rather, they initiate the design process with a provocation and continually curate the results. It’s more like editing a live broadcast than it is painting an image.

With the theoretical means to suspend disbelief during productive phases of idea generation, the individuals on a design team were free to go wild. If the review after a period of wild design proposals did not yield anything satisfactory the process could be repeated again. And again. And again until something useful came out.

The phases of production and evaluation were allowed to become distinct and extreme. Production phases could involve maximum divergence, and evaluations could be viciously binary. Here we find the basic mechanism of brute force hacking: find success by exhausting failure. As many former employees could tell you, it could also be the motto of OMA (and the many offices that now use its model).

The quicker a yes/no decision could be made, the quicker the search space of answers to a given design problem could be iterated through by a group of young designers, even working almost at random. But how to accelerate this process even further?

Blue Foam

New and faster ways to evaluate architectural proposals were needed, namely new means of drawing and model making that shortened the time it required to definitively say yes or no. The answer was blue foam.

OMA is famous for its use of blue foam as a model making material, a technique that uses polystyrene foam cut into desired shapes with a heated wire. Working with foam is a skill that one learns relatively quickly and it allows quick and easy iterations that would be more time consuming to achieve in cardboard. For instance, making a cube from foam can be done with as few as two or three cuts. The same shape out of cardboard would require 24 cuts and the gluing of 6 pieces. Whereas working with cardboard requires planning ahead and some translation of ideas into a workflow of making, with foam the workflow and ideas are collapsed into one. Making is thinking.

One can picture the spark that must have lit up in the eye of a young model maker as their tired fingers parted with a bright yellow Olfa knife and embraced the electrically charged wire of a foam cutter, slicing effortlessly through a block of cool blue foam for the first time.

Working with foam instead of more traditional materials allowed the design teams at OMA to model their ideas quicker, which in turn allowed more ideas to be considered in the same span of time. The adoption of this new technique was akin to upgrading the processor speed of the office.

More so than cardboard or other model making materials, blue foam erases the signature of its creator allowing for an easier ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The anonymizing uniformity of the cut surfaces and alien blueness of the foam itself allowed multiple workers to prepare options in parallel without the differences of personal craft becoming an element of distraction during moments of evaluation. The cumulative effect means that a table covered in foam models all produced by different individuals can be assessed for their ideas rather than the quirks of who made them or how they were created. What’s on display are the ideas themselves, without any distracting metadata or decoration. This is the model making equivalent of Edward Tufte’s quest to eliminate chartjunk.

With extraneous degrees of difference eliminated from the process, the signal to noise ratio of the discussion could be as high as possible. Under these conditions the person making a decision is set up to compare and execute quickly. Once a promising option is chosen, the team can quickly produce an entirely new table of variations based on that as a starting point. The time required for each cycle of development is reduced as much as possible such that a maximum number of iterations are seen, tested, and discarded on the way to finalizing a design proposal.

What blue foam did for model making, the diagram did for drawings. Traditional architectural drawings are laden with detail whereas the diagram is all punch. Favoring diagrams over more traditional means of plans and sections, even in sketch form, allows for the essence of an idea to be transmitted in as compact a form as possible so that it can be iterated as quickly as possible.

This is the essence of brute force architecture. To test and discard as many ideas, produced as quickly as possible, is a luxury that is only afforded to an office that has a theoretical framework allowing design tasks to be simplified and separated, the right tools to do so, and a large pool of able and willing hands to put those tools in motion.

Geography, language, labor, and practice

Thanks to the clarity of roles, the relative degrees of freedom afforded to junior designers, and the reining effect of the blue foam and diagram tactics, brute force architecture is a mode of working that is more resilient to participants coming and going. OMA’s office in Rotterdam could be humming with proposals for the facade of a hotel in Manhattan while Koolhaas and was lecturing in Seoul, without being impeded by the low bandwidth media of international telephone calls and grainy intercontinental facsimiles. The media of decision making was already so compressed that it could survive even the most dreadful of landline connections and thermal paper.

OMA is famous for two things: its astounding output, and the extent to which its operations chew through the majority of the human capital that walks through its doors. As an office that had already made a name for itself and was lucky to enjoy a steady flow of applications from aspiring young interns, OMA could organize around a workflow that depended on the maximum variety and quantity of design explorations before electing one to carry forward. Like Turing 60 years prior, OMA’s operations are based on brute forcing through the search space. Whereas Turing relied on something that would later come to be known as computing power, OMA relies on employees who willfully work long hours to be part of the magical machine.

This maximum variety is the direct output of the bloodshot eyes and over-caffeinated bodies of the legion workforce pushing themselves to create just a few more iterations before calling it quits. Now taking advantage of the very globalized condition that brought it into being, the diversity of the individuals in the office (nationality, language, design background) further enhance the spread of the collective design iterations they churn through, effectively expanding the ability of the machine to exhaust possibilities at an accelerated pace.

The simplification of the way in which ideas were presented through models and diagrams smoothed over the difficulties of running an office with many different mother tongues by giving preference to image over language, in effect turning a potential hurdle into a mechanism to bolster the brute force production system.

The sum of this way of working is one where the search space of ideas is exhausted seconds before the individuals doing the searching. If so, success has been achieved. If not, the office collapses under its own entropy. So far OMA has been able to keep the lights on, but at significant cost. Particularly to the lower ranks who put the “brute” in “brute force”.

OMA has been singled out because their contribution has been so definitive to the last couple generations of professional practice. Although the offices of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and others are on similar or perhaps even higher levels of success in terms of productive output, none have had as large an impact on the practice of architecture as OMA.

From the point of view of architectural practice, the dominant story of the last twenty years of architecture has been one of OMA-ification. It’s hard to walk through an office nowadays without feeling some shadow of OMA. If not the obsessive model making, then the diagrammatic drawings as idea telegrams. If not the masses of interns, the hands-off yes/no interaction between junior employee and lead designer. Beyond these high level similarities, the specific tactics of OMA are contagious: sections with oversized text stuffed into different programmatic zones, barcode diagrams, unrolled plans, renderings collaged with glib inhabitants, etc.

The pervasiveness of OMA’s habits in other offices are so extreme that one is tempted to ask whether this way of working is a logical outcome of globalized practice, but the dearth of competing operational models hints that perhaps this is not the case. At a moment when formal, tectonic, and material diversity are at the extreme, we as a community of architects lack a healthy discussion of operational models. OMA’s model trundled into a second generation with firms such as MVRDV, BIG, and REX but who else has proposed a coherent idea about how to operate an architecture firm?

Yes, there is interest in potential futures for architecture as a discipline, and this is incredibly important work, but there remains room for innovation in the most traditional of practices. How else might the idea of an office that designs and oversees the construction of buildings be articulated in a way that’s relevant to a global market, and able to survive its wiles? The search space for ways of working hardly seems exhausted, so what’s next?

When thinking about the future of practice after Brute Force, one wonders what models we may employ to develop not only the next generation of architectural ideas, but the next generation of architectural offices as well.

How does an office represent ideas to itself? How do they evaluate proposals as fast as possible? How does an office continually challenge itself by entertaining the most divergent set of propositions it can muster? What mechanisms does an office use to know when they are producing good work?

In a way, these are the easy questions. Or at least the ones that architects and designers have battled with implicitly or explicitly for centuries. The challenge that will define the next generation of architecture is one of organization and operation. How do offices effectively divide tasks? How do they honor a commitment to both community and client? How do they contribute both hard and soft value to the world?

New models of organizing work, new business models, new income streams, and new value propositions are the rich territory for tomorrow’s architects to figure out. As the global market struggles with deleveraging, architecture’s connection to the real economy is an asset waiting to be articulated.

Those who dare to do so assume all the risk of taking the leap away the dissatisfying-but-known practice of brute force architecture. If they’re lucky, and if we’re lucky, a few will land on solid ground.

Tale of Two Hearts

I wrote the essay below for Helsinki Beyond Dreams, a book edited by Hella Hernberg and available… today! It’s a collection of essays from a variety of contributors speculating on how to use the city as a resource for all. A bit exasperated after writing a lot earlier in the year, I chose to write my piece as a bit of near-future fiction.

Illustration by Pent Talvet

A generation from now, will Helsinki and Tallinn be connected as a twin city filled with local urbane industries: small factories, craft workshops, courtyard cafes and scientific research labs flourishing side by side in the city centre?

As soon as she glances at the teacup rattling in its saucer, the jostling stops. “Eighteen minutes left”, Anna says to her seatmate. The rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn – the longest in the world – is also its largest timepiece. It tells one time only, but does it precisely. Eighteen minutes before coming to a careful stop at Helsinki’s Hernesaari station the train passes over a small dimple in the tracks that sets things jittering about, as if to let you know there’s still time for another cup of tea. It’s the kind of quirk that inevitably comes from making real things. Anna appreciates this as she can share the same charms with customers who seek out the bikes built in her courtyard factory in downtown Helsinki.

The train comes to a stop beneath a station built as a careful snowflake of timber and glass. Ghanaian and Chinese tourists are snapping pictures of this curious crystal, as they always do, while daily commuters drowsily sip flat whites and cinnamon rolls at the station’s reputable cafes.

Built in the 2020’s, during a time of careful but daring investment, the connection between Tallinn and Helsinki is now the crown jewel of the Baltic Ring Rail. Many were skeptical about the project, but with some hindsight it was an infrastructural gambit that has breathed a new spirit into the pair of sleeper capitals. It was sold as a mere ‘link’ between the two cities but instead it has proven to be more substantial. Essential, even. At a moment when global cities were fighting aggressively to distinguish themselves, Helsinki and Tallinn willingly rebuilt themselves as conjoined twins.

People who move back and forth frequently refer to “the other side of the lake”. Anna is one of those, having traded her apartment in Vallila, uptown Helsinki, for a townhouse just inside the walls of medieval Tallinn. Although most days she can and does work from home, Anna looks forward to the opportunity to visit her small factory in Punavuori.

Seven minutes by tram and Anna finds herself in the center of Punavuori’s lumpy streetscape. The district is now living a new revival as its many courtyards, previously closed and divided between housing cooperatives, have been opened up. In the end it was a citizens’ initiative in the neighborhood council that pushed through changes to property law and real estate tax and enabled new uses for the large interior spaces of the blocks. Many of the district’s courtyards have been converted into thriving pockets of activity including communal gardens, micro industrial parks, and restaurants.

In the past fifteen years, Helsinki has managed to capitalize on its deep legacy of craft. The hybrid businesses of neighborhoods like Punavuori are recognized as world-leading for their unique blend of technical excellence and pragmatic whimsy. The city’s bet on making better use of the numerous courtyards has paid off by creating new jobs, sure, but also by knitting the city together through the casual necessity of collaboration. Small business in the district’s many manufacturing hotspots would be difficult propositions on their own, but an immense asset when joined up into a flexible network of collaborators.

The building on Tehtaankatu (Factory Street) attracted Anna because its courtyard is renovated into something of an industrial piazza. The large doors that line the court reveal behind them enough talent and tools to manufacture just about anything. It’s a beautiful and productive chaos.

Today’s mix in the block suits Anna’s business better than it did in the past. The addition of an appliance repair shop has allowed her to quickly pull in additional help by hiring their staff during downtimes. This diversity makes sense for her business, and also helps the neighborhood feel more knitted together. The ma  who operates the adjacent shop, comes out to offer a friendly “mooooooi” as Anna watches the front of her bicycle factory slowly fold into the ceiling.

“What do you have for me today?”

“The coating I mentioned yesterday is behaving better. Nothing sticks to it!”

“When you can figure out how to apply that to carbon fibre we have a mountain bike waiting to happen.”

That a nanochemist and a cycling entrepreneur would have anything to chit chat about at the start of the day, let alone collaborate on, was the gamble that the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn took when they adopted the Joined, Overlapping, & Dense strategy. By encouraging a diversity of endeavors to flourish in proximity to each other, by making this legible and by creating new incentives to encourage collaboration between business, individuals, and the public sector, this strategy continues to pay dividends.  The “lake”, née Gulf of Finland, is now a go-to node in global innovation conversations, attracting clients from all over the world who desire the best of bespoke products.

Fifteen years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to find scientific research companies, factories, coffee shops and a school all in the same neighborhood, but now this kind of diversity is what allows Helsinki/Tallinn to punch above its weight.

Walking from the courtyard into the depth of her shop, Anna passes by assembly bays of differing levels of messiness containing bicycles at various states of completion. As the lights dance to life, she looks across the low tables of accessories and other wares that occupy the retail half of her shop, and out through the windows to spot the first people of the morning already on a stroll.

Despite a lucrative offer to move her family and the business to Rio de Janeiro, Anna stays because for her Helsinki/Tallinn is a city of happiness. It’s a place where small gestures matter, where connections are made easily, and where the streets are diverse and active. This is a place where one may feel part of the rushing flows of information, goods, and opinion – but still have time to enjoy a cup of tea and a bit of chatter with a friendly neighbor.

Feng Shui Panopticon

In the summer of 2008 I shared a brief residency at PROGRAM initiative for art + architecture in Berlin with the LA-based artists Katie Herzog. Katie is a painter but works in multiple media, including public librarianship. Also, she’s my cousin; but I don’t think that’s part of her art practice.

Projective Imprisonment

Our project in Berlin was a meditation on two unlikely concepts: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design and the art of Feng Shui. Although they may seem to be wildly divergent ideas, they are connected by a thread of geomancy. By combining the practice of Feng Shui with the spatial logic of the Panopticon we found unlikely allies. These opposites share a deep commitment to the corrective, rehabilitative, or restorative capacity of geometry itself.

But could they be rectified into a single thing? Could one single object satisfy Feng Shui’s rules for avoiding evil and Bentham’s attempt to eliminate it?

Pure Qi

As you might suspect, the answer was elusive. We consulted a coterie of Feng Shui specialists from Berlin to New Zealand but each conversation ended in inspired gridlock. Not to be deterred, the outcome of this collaboration was a mirrored prototype panopticon. Using Bentham’s original drawings and sheets of adhesive mirror, we built a small scale structure that gobbles up the geometry of the world around it and reflects back a carefully shattered view. It’s the rhetorical product of 18th century and ancient wisdoms combined, but the physical progeny of a disco ball. The Feng Shui Panopticon is incapable of dispensing with evil, but equally unable to prevent joy.

Katie has since been working on a book of art and essays around this theme which is due out later this year. But in the meantime, if you’re in LA you can stop by the Cirrus Gallery to see the model that we produced while in Berlin. It’s on display as part of the Once Emerging, Now Emerging group show that is up till May 5, 2012.

Next Page »