Archive for March, 2009

Moving Two Ways

When I left California two weeks ago life seemed like an abstraction, a collection of letters and numbers splayed across the page with little hint of their kinetic potential. Having arrived to Helsinki, acquired a Finnish social security number, found an apartment and stuffed some furniture in it, and then took off on the Helsinki Design Lab 2010 (sort of) Grand Tour, I am here to report that my brain is currently oscillating through perpendicular planes of excitement and exhaustion.


Last week I departed Helsinki to meet up with my colleague Marco Steinberg in balmy Singapore. Marco runs the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra, which I am part of, and has been traveling westward around this little planet since the 10th of March. As I write this Marco and our colleague Pia are making their way back to the shores of Finland, but I am continuing the tour to Seoul, Honolulu, and Los Angeles over the next two weeks.


If you plan to attend Postopolis LA you’ll be able to see me present a more complete picture of what we’re up to on April 3rd, but for those that will not make it to California you may enjoy the blog we’ve been keeping on this Tour. If you’re in Honolulu, I’ll be hosting a lunchtime salon at the University of Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies on April 1st, thanks to a kind invite from Stuart Candy.

You’re Going To Get Sick Of Me Talking About This…

…But let me try to lay out a brief vision for Helsinki Design Lab 2010, the 3rd in a series of events that started in 1968 on the island of Suomenlinna. Our goal for 2010 is to put the emphasis on doing. There are plenty of great design conferences that offer their participants an opportunity to meet great people, see good work, and talk about powerpoint slides. We’re interested in something different: we want to give our guests the opportunity to work together on real problems.

This will be a small event where designers sit at the same table as experts from the business, academic, and policy communities in a collaborative team. Our guests will meet with stakeholders within Finland who face significant challenges in their own domain (health care, education, industry, etc). The idea of HDL is then to charrette on specific, bracketed problems in search of two outcomes: a road map for their strategic rethinking and the identification of discrete opportunities that may be turned in to pilot projects. We believe strongly in using specific, tangible problems as a way to unlock the complexity that besots the massive, tangled issues which society faces today. For instance, everyone knows that health care needs help (even in a place like Finland!), but what exactly is the problem? What is the terrain of the health care? HDL 2010 will use Sitra’s unique position as a government agency to offer a framework and resources to help clarify these questions by applying the skills and mindset of the designer to strategic issues.

We’re interested in changing the world but realize that it’s going to take a while. If HDL 2010 succeeds it will be because the event proves the value of having designers involved with decisions at the highest levels of business and national policy. The problems we choose to tackle will be used as case studies that affirm a process which may be replicated in other contexts, thus making the proceedings of HDL 2010 relevant beyond the confines of Finland. After all, no single country owns climate change just as no single corporation can fix health care: these issues require a framework that is agnostic to borders of all kinds.

What’s up, Bangalore? (And ARN, LHR, BOS, SFO, NRT, SIN, HKG, ICN, HNL, LAX…)

This is the basic question we’ve been asking of each stop on the tour. We set out from Helsinki to check in with people around the planet who have a similar mindset about the potential of design to create meaningful impact beyond the shaping of objects. HDL 2010 will be a prototyping lab but we’re humble enough to realize that our efforts will be small compared to the number and diversity of problems out there in the world. This is why it’s important for us to escape the confines of Finland, see what’s happening everywhere else, and learn what keeps the rest of the world moving.

Are you redesigning your world? If so, we gotta talk.

Let’s Not Abandon Hardware

I couldn’t agree more with Kazys argument that the last thing we need is fiction about architects and architecture. Not to mention the fact that this is already going well enough without us. For example, The International, a movie which takes full advantage of famous architectural settings and even transposes Hadid’s building in Phaeno to the shores of Italy. And while I admire Geoff’s writing at BLDGBLOG, and enjoy reading it on a regular basis, let’s not confuse this with the act of designing a building.

I know that this will probably be read as a fairly reactionary position at this time (not to mention hypocritical from someone who is not practicing as an architect at the moment), but it’s lazy to let ourselves off the hook for producing buildings. Yes, let’s expand the architect, but at the end of the day we still build buildings and it’s depressing to entertain the notion that we would simply give up on this endeavor because we’ve become collectively bored by recent architectural output.

Sure, let’s have great writing inspired by and inspiring these buildings, but words on a screen (or paper!) do not a building make. If there’s an architectural fiction, it must be a way of thinking about and designing architecture and that definition of architecture better include at least a few things that could nominally be construed as buildings.1

“Performance,” that ugly word, has dominated architectural discussions for too long — and to what end? If architects are serious about performance we need to do much better about actually measuing the results of such works. Where are the post occupancy studies? Where are the charts and graphs of energy savings that wooed the client into signing the check, now refactored to compare expected and actual savings? As a profession we have largely failed to follow through on claims of performance, so in effect we’ve already arrived at an architecture of lies. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. At least fiction is self conscious of its fabrications, flaunting them as an advantage rather than hiding behind speculative chart junk.

For posterity, I’m re-posting my comment from Kazys’ site here:

might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? Or better yet, video games?

this sounds a bit like a theme restaurant to me. what is TGIFriday’s but a space carefully crafted to give its visitors an excuse to engage an alternate subjectivity: the post work flair-wearing drunkard?

it comes off sounding sarcastic, but I’m serious. (it’s also interesting to note that those sports bar type restaurants were amongst the first to start issuing guests pager/coasters while they wait for a table, a brutal and peculiar form of locative media.)

at any rate, the point is that novels, films, video games, and theme restaurants invoke immersive environments by issuing rich descriptions *and* story line. “saving energy” is a boring story (green arch). so are “this is a really crazy space” (Liebeskind) and “Oh, shiny curvy” (DS+R) etc, etc. The story line of contemporary architecture is like jumble spam: poetry without reason. unfortunately, spam filters are not so easy to develop for a world without absolutes. If there’s something that excites me about “fiction” (I think of them as fables), it’s that we may feel comfortable making judgments again. we might actually be able to discuss whether a project was a good idea or if it actually does anything rather than going on and on about the techniques used to produce it. if I had a nickel for every time I heard the word voronoi…

I appreciate the interest in architects making things besides buildings, but it’s also the easy way out. perhaps at the moment these other projects are more appealing, but that does not alleviate the burden to create buildings that contribute meaningfully to our world (in whatever definition you want to use for meaningful). although you may have a point about newspapers being in the deadpool, it will be a while before we evolve beyond the idea of constructed shelters that humans dwell in.

(…and this is coming from someone who still writes software on a regular basis)

Read Kazys’ full post and the rest of the comments here.

1. My insistence that an architecture of fiction must result in more than just words is one of the reasons that I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the BLDGBLOG manuscript and see Geoff’s fictions telegraphing through the medium of drawing. Good stuff.