Archive for the 'Redesigning Design' Category

San Miguel to Suomi

Short version: I’m moving to Helsinki to work for Sitra where I am largely responsible for a very exciting project. Yay!

It has been a while since I had to do this, but for clarity’s sake everything written below is the opinion of bryan boyer the individual and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or interests of my employer, Sitra.


Unknown but striking participant from Helsinki Design Lab 1968, literally translated as “The Industrial, Environment and Product Design Seminar.” Photo copyright Kristian Runeberg.

Last week in Helsinki I spent a lot of time digging through archival material from the summer of 1968. Ostensibly I was working, but the excitement with which I poured over the photographs and documents would have made it obvious to anyone nearby that this was hardly a chore. The subject of my limited research was an event held on the island of Suomenlinna, a fortress outside Helsinki that hosted Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, Kaj Frank, Victor Papanek, and other mid century luminaries for a sort of design workshop. Conversing about topics as diverse as national energy policy and the prototyping of a portable reindeer slaughterhouse (seriously), the young Finns who organized this event did so because they felt a crisis brewing in their world: resources were exhibiting their scarcity, social unrest was spreading, and experts were increasingly entrenched in their own circles of conversation. Design, they argued, could be used as a methodology that brings with it a lateral, holistic approach to the visualization and solving of problems.

Sounds familiar, right? World-saving cross-disciplinary discussions have been undergoing a kind of second-coming recently. What struck me was the prescience of the original documents – as I read it was often hard to remember that the words were committed to paper 40 years ago. Forty years and we’re still having the same discussion. To a pessimist this would be depressing lack of progress. An optimist, however, sees the past forty years as the preparing of ground for the next forty. Perhaps now, with all this time that has passed, we’re ready as a society to listen to the nagging voice of the designer. Rather than using the aesthetic judgment of an individual solely to fixate on the development of products and buildings, this is a definition of design as a method of inquiry – a mindset in conjunction with a coterie of tools and techniques that may be applied to the production of concrete objects as readily as the development and analysis of abstract systems.

Acknowledging the many pitfalls of language that come with this territory, we could call this practice “strategic design.” A designer working in this territory would use their ability to visualize in their mind and on paper complex sets of relationships such as those existing in any plan or section. They would use their ability to pursue multiple paths to the same goal the same way any studio worth their salt presents multiple schemes. They would think about the coordination, staging, and relationship of multiple self-interested parties the same way that an architect negotiates between the trades. A designer of this sort would bring to the abstract configuration of political structures, organizations, and events the same sort of pragmatic rigor that they apply to the working drawings of an object going into production (in other words, strategic design is useless without consideration of tactical execution).

Language is indeed a problem in this discussion and it’s about to get worse. My new employer is Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund. I can imagine the look that most of you reading this site must have smeared across your face right now. Strategy and Innovation? Yikes!

I am just as skeptical of terms like “strategic, “innovation,” and “design thinking” (4 simple steps!) as you probably are. For me, this distrust comes from seeing these terms used as rubber stamps to up the hourly rate or fluff up a studio project. Making a zany proposal is not innovative and it’s certainly not strategic. Pulling some stats from Wikipedia does not “design thinking” make. If we – as a discipline of designers – are to make use of such terms we must hold ourselves accountable to external judgment while also defending the specialization of our skills. Strategic design faces the dual threats of academic inflation and business deflation. On the one hand, academic environments rarely offer any opportunities for realization (and thus testing of ideas) in a strategic context. On the other, the business world increasingly threatens to gobble up “design” as a stock solution to poor sales and destroy the credibility and effectiveness of any serious design-minded method of inquiry in the process (“Creativity! Zam! $$$ ?!?”).

Trained designers must gain enough credibility that they can reclaim these wasted terms. Credibility comes from results, which requires testing, which requires implementation, which means we have to partner with those who need help solving their own complex problems. Currently design has a very low stakes role in global decision making because we are generally brought into the process once most of the important decisions have already been made. If we really want to change the world becoming involved with decisions at higher levels, with more at stake, is essential. If designers partner with fabricators of various sorts to bring their projects into material reality, we must consider governments and corporations the fabricators of strategic design.

Snapshot from my first visit to Helsinki in 2002 as a tourist

This is exactly why working at Sitra is exciting: as a government-endowed fund that reports to the Finnish Parliament we are accountable to the decision making apparatus of the country. Sitra has both the position and the mandate to think broadly and strategically about how to enhance the “welfare of Finnish society” – and by extension the global community. To be a designer asked to bring my skills to bear on the problems that an organization like this deals with on a daily basis is… well, pretty damn awesome.

My main task, which you will be hearing more about in the near-ish future, is to organize Helsinki Design Lab 2010, an event whose heritage stretches back to the 1968 happening mentioned above. To put it bluntly, it’s my job to make sure that HDL 2010 doesn’t follow the stale model of most design conferences: a bunch of people talking about slides. Luckily for me, there’s a great foundation to build upon.

See you summer of 2010 in Helsinki?

Versioning 2009

Over at Archinect – and in great company – I’ve contributed a prediction hopeful plea for what the new year may bring us if we’re lucky. Lots of people are excited about the new presidency and the forceful wake-up call that the economic crisis has delivered to us. Rather than get frothy over green collar jobs, the new-new deal, or any of the other excellent promises we’ve been offered (and I will wait patiently for) I am excited about boredom. Specifically, I’m excited about what can happen when a large pool of supremely talented, motivated, and creative people (some of whom are architects of various ilk) realize that they have nothing better to do than to pursue their own best ideas.

Make sure you check out the predictions from pals Dan, Enrique, Fred, Javier, Kazys, Marcus, Markus, Mimi, and everyone else while you’re there. Got something else filling up your crystal ball for 2009? Leave a comment; let’s discuss.

The Ism Schism

Sea Of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich via 765

This got cut from a piece I’m writing for publication elsewhere, but it’s a question that is very important to me. Without the time to put it in a more useful context I’ll orphan it here for now:

Strangely, lacking the ghost of Modernism or any other ism to provide a unified theory of architecture, however flawed, the discipline has crumbled into increasingly fundamentalist groups furiously pursuing their specific interests at the expense of all else. While the CNC-fetishists craft ever smoother surfaces, the greens perfect the performance of their building systems, and the do-gooders find policy footholds within government, architecture has nothing to haunt it anymore. Contemporary architecture benefits from deep knowledge in a diverse set of interests but where are the Hopeful Monsters – those productive mutations that barely, but meaningfully, escape the definition of their own species?

Where Is My Flying Car?

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and GSD cohort Behrang Behin about his thesis project that examines the zero-carbon city phenomena currently popular in the Gulf. You can read the full interview at Archinect, but it’s worth sharing an excerpt here because Behrang gets at architecture’s potential to embody a careful optimism. Behrang and I have discussed this at length in the past but I have the feeling that it’s something lurking in the broader generation of designers to which we both belong. Are you tired of the overwhelming cynicism of the critical project and positivism of techno-greenwashing both? Meanwhile, the three martini cool of the projective project leaves architecture in a bit of a lurch: what matters anymore?


What I appreciate most about Ben’s project (and there’s a lot to appreciate) is his motivation of the big, scary, unknown future as a safe zone where we may actually argue for something and take our own ideas
seriously. There are no jokes in Behin’s project and that’s a rare thing if you know the current climate of the architectural community. He’s interested in difficult problems and this project develops one of those, the sustainability of a city, without delivering an “a-ha” moment. In other words, it actually makes you think and that’s something to be applauded these days. Here’s an excerpt where Behrang discusses the balanced future, utopia put back to work:

More importantly, abandoning the future as a cultural construct deprives us of a valuable instrument for defining ourselves in the present. You can learn a lot about the ethos of a society by looking at their science fiction. In that sense, the future is a place in our collective imagination, a terrain on which we fight our ideological battles and air out our common neuroses. This is precisely where architecture must play a role. Sustainable architecture shouldn’t just be concerned with the tactical level of engineering efficiency and the preservation of resources, but should also participate in the invention of alternative futures in cultural imagination.

That said, I think architecture is in a unique position to be very practical, addressing current-day issues, but to simultaneously work as a provocation (the way, as you point out, modernist utopias operated). In a sense, architecture can be provocative by engaging the banality of current concerns as the reference point for speculation, because by doing so, it can point out that alternatives exist as latent possibilities within today’s realities.

Writing this post and, indeed, through the course of developing my own thesis which also seeks to wrestle with difficult issues, I’ve started to feel a little reactionary… as if believing in architecture’s ability to tinker with market forces (rather than merely resisting or laying complicity with them) is some antiquated view that hasn’t been popular since the middle of the last century. Maybe so, or maybe architecture is undergoing a shift at the moment. John Snavely’s recent discussion of judgement as the fundamental skill of the designer is particularly useful to this discussion. May we judge not only what we produce, but why we produce it.

From Lessing to Hollywood

Enrique offers a meditation on Doris Lessing, recent Nobel laureate, whose last book imagines an alternate future where she was never born:

In undoing her own history, Lessing presents us with an interesting premise. There are plenty of works where authors write themselves out of historical narratives, give themselves different names, genders, etc. But what strikes me as particularly poignant is that Lessing has declared Alfred and Emily as her final book. Her last act as an author is to erase herself from the record. I can’t explain precisely why, but this act carries a transcendent power.

For a few years now it has been fashionable within architectural circles to claim either collaborative authorship or a lack of authorship altogether. As is typical, Architecture is a couple decades late this this philosophical party yet somehow the death of the author is apparently new to us. Lessing would be the patron saint of this movement except for the fact that she accepts her position as a writer of fiction.

As Enrique hints at, the impressive feat of her most recent book is not that it disclaims authorship but paradoxically eclipses itself, makes itself impossible. Reflected back onto the practice of architecture- where things are brought into the world with real dimensions, materials, weight- Lessing’s novel highlights for us the inescapability of architectural authorship. Paradoxical states of matter remain the realm of science, missing from any architect’s palette of material choices.

Things in this world bear testament to their creators, whether we like it or not, and until the LHC folds us into another couple dimensions the burden of physicality is that it insists that meatspace holds a mutually exclusive view towards matter. A building exists at the intersection of choice and matter, both piled in massive accumulations.

One of the unique joys of design is the interchangability of ideas, but this soup of thought always ends up puddling on somebody’s spoon. Ideas are judged and selected before they’re passed down the line to the legions of hands that will bring them into a state of physical reality. This is a long way of getting at the fact that whether one writes, curates, or picks out of a hat, there is ultimately a set of quite-visible hands and minds at work in the production of architecture and things like it. Ask anyone who worked in Rex’s supposedly collaborative office about the level of input allowed to the non-partners for verification of this strawman. Of course design teams tend to be large and varied, but the size of a team is not what matters: it’s the decision making graph.

Or to take it further, it’s the meta-characteristics of that graph, the possibilities for authorial expansion that are built in to the organization of the firm. Currently, the top eschalons of architecture are dominated for the most part by firms that still rely on the individual(s): Herzog & de Meuron, Nouvel, Foster, Gehry, et al. are difficult to imagine without their namesakes. What is OMA without Koolhaas? How many pluses can DS+R append? No wonder my generation of offices are eschewing names for more ambiguous, almost ominous labels: The Living, Para Project, UNI… Perhaps those even younger will bring us back to the time of super-acronyms with a new crop of SOMs, HOKs, and CRSes.

As more and more of our world evaporates into the cloud I expect that the percieved stability of a known author will become a premium. Brand Me is the implicit logic behind some of the more successful weblogs like Jason’s irrepressible Curation-as-authorship will doubtlessly continue as a strong phenomonea but, to return to the burden of the architect, it’s impossible to escape the requirement of producing new content. Dealing with the tricky issue of authorship on a project that has a necessarily complicated, nested and looped decision making graph is still a mess. I’d like to offer an alternative to the oppositional modes of authorial escapism and starchitect celebrity fetish: if production of buildings were thought of like the production of films the credits would bear testament to the dense network of collaborations that brought the finished product into the world. This means everything: designers, back office staff, contractors and their staff, subcontractors, etc. In other words, why doesn’t this look more like this?

Forgive me if I’m calling the bluff on whatever general sentiment towards authorless works exists right now in the architectural ether, but there’s a difference between writing yourself out of existence and productively problematizing your output. As Lessing herself puts it “There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.”

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