Somewhere in a dusty book there is likely an agreed upon point at which an ex-patriot makes the graceful transition to being, simply, a patriot minus the paperwork. I’m not there yet, but after three years living in Finland I begin to wonder about such distinctions. Not that I was ever an ex-patriot anyways. Perhaps an also patriot.

March, 2011

The third anniversary of my arrival here has been on my mind for a week or two now thanks to a stalwart reminder in my calendar. Trusty, that. In the modern world we never forget dates, even the ones that are probably best left to the leaves of discarded calendars. In this time I’ve reaffirmed my own particular interest in noting such events on a yearly basis. No need to take a personal holiday or anything, but it is nice to have a nudge to reflect on the previous 365 days in a way that is free of Hallmark.

October, 2011

The story of my third year in Finland was largely a domestic one. In both senses of the word I spent more time here, in my apartment and in the country.

Living alone in the center of town I am struck by how quiet Helsinki can be even on an average work day—how excruciatingly quiet, and how marvelously quiet. It has taken me until now to enjoy it, but I am grateful that I can appreciate the nothingness without needing it or becoming addicted to it.

I have met people who claim that even Helsinki is too loud for them and I wonder where such delicate creatures will ever be happy. After visiting a cabin in Lapland I do have a deeper appreciation for the addicting ring in your ear of nothingness, but for me this remains more of a salve than a solution.

While I spent more time than usual at home it was not always my home. I also enjoyed many visits to the gracious households and neighborhoods of friends around town. Especially Dan and Celia, whose move to Helsinki was during this period under consideration, and Justin, who despite living elsewhere occasionally shows up for a week or two and makes a go of ‘apartment’ living when he’s here.

My third year has been more about cooking too. Lohikeitto, pastas, cakes, and giant piles of roasted vegetables were most common. The most successful venture was probably a jar of cocktail cherries made at the tail end of summer and which I have been enjoying since. The bump in cooking has been less about food and more about being OK with being home. Being at home. And testing out the arch-Finnish trait/habit of being alone.

July, 2011

It was also pragmatic, as I spent the first half of 2011 engrossed in writing a book with my colleagues Marco and Justin. That mean’t a lot of time cooking so as to remove for myself the temptation to socialize instead of writing. The irony of locking myself away to complete a task that is inherently collaborative is not lost on me. 2011 was a year of connected isolation at home and in the city.

April and then September, 2011

In Helsinki it’s easy to feel alone, even when you are not. Here the blocks in the center of town present uniform street walls ranging from 125-150 meters. These almost-square blocks are divided up into a number of buildings around the perimeter and again on the interior. The result feels like a massive, solid chunk of inhabitation that has landed next to the sidewalk. But weasel your way into the block and you are likely to find a circuit of 6, 8, 12 or more courtyards, some of them stunning and many waiting to be wonderful just as soon as the parked cars are removed.

My apartment here on the 5th floor looks onto one of these courtyards. From my window I can see four housing blocks each with about five floors and in total perhaps 20-30 units. From what I can tell, two of these units are inhabited regularly. Another two have occasional occupants. Some almost never show signs of life. One set of neighbors across the way have had holiday lights on their balcony since November. And I don’t just mean physically present, I mean on and shining continuously. I noticed that they were home once when they briefly opened the blinds and then shut them again.

Cutest dog in town?
March, 2011: the owners are visible once every 5 days or so

So who lives in this block? Apparently not very many people, despite what the apartment nameplates say (they are full). Or perhaps people who do not care much for electricity, with the exception of the absentee holiday revelers.

At times it feels like I’m watching Rear Window but without noticing I’ve accidentally sat on the pause button. Where’s the action? Where’s the life?

In observing this tableau I’ve accidentally derived a basic truth of life in Finland: the thing about those that live here enjoying quiet, silence, and being alone? It’s a coping strategy for a place that has very low effective density even in its not-so-bustling center. It’s like a tall person that is happy about being able to reach things on high shelves. Tall people are good to have around. Fair enough.

February, 2012

The mystery of Where Did Everyone Go? is one that I have yet to crack. On the other hand, the mystery of What Else Is Here? is one that I enjoyed exploring during the past year with trips to Rovaniemi, Saarisalkä, Hamina, Högsåra, Lahti, and Fiskars.

With most of these trips being conducted in the cold months, I’ve gained a few extra shades of white as a kind of chromatic upgrade to my internal palette. Perhaps the light eye strain I’ve been experiencing of late is the feeling of new rods marshaling themselves at the backs of my eyes.

This is probably the sum of my experiences so far: if years one and two were about seeing new things, year three was about seeing old things in new ways.

Sloterdijk’s Bubbles

Since reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Foam City in Log when it was first published in translation and I was doing research for this old thing I’ve been hungry for more Sloterdijk. His massive three volume series Spharen (Spheres) has not been available in English until the first volume Bubbles was published this year by Semiotext(e). Finally!

It’s a book that probably requires a phd to make sense of, but why let that stop you? If you’re OK with letting your eyes temporarily glaze over when you wade through passages like this…

It makes an initial reference to its own appearance as a coherent body among coherent bodies in the real visual space, but this integral being-an-image-body means almost nothing alongside the pre-imaginary, non-eidetic certainties of sensual-emotional dual integrity

… then it can be a rewarding book. Sloterdijk is that special kind of European philosopher who seems to have intimate knowledge of every single text, painting, or other work of art that you’ve never heard of. But he is polite enough to wrap his rather challenging philosophical language around these tangible references. For me this yields a productive resonance. Your mileage may vary.

One of the things that I appreciate about Sloterdijk is that his language dips into refreshingly approachable moments. If one could have a favorite passage from a 600 page book, this would be mine:

72: In the foam, discrete and polyvalent games of reason must develop that learn to live with a shimmering diversity of perspectives, and dispense with the illusion of the one lordly point of view. Most roads do not lead to Rome—that is the situation, European: recognize it.

Below are some other passages I found useful.

20: Copernicus’ heliocentric theory initiated a series of research eruptions into the deserted outer reaches, extending to the inhumanely remote galaxies and the most ghostly components of matter. The cold new breath from outside was sensed early on, and a number of the pioneers of the revolutionary changed knowledge about the position of the earth in space did not conceal their unease in the infinity now imposed on them: thus even Kepler objected to Bruno’s doctrine of the endless universe with the words that “this very cogitation carries with it I don’t know what secret, hidden horror; indeed, one finds oneself wandering in this immensity, to which are denied limits and center and therefore all determinate places.”

23: Citizens of the Modern Age inevitably found themselves in a new situation that not only shattered the illusion of their home’s central position in space, but also deprived them of the comforting notion that the earth is enclosed by spherical forms like warming heavenly mantles. Since then, modern people have had to learn how one goes about existing as a core without a shell; Pascal’s pious and observant statement “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread” formulates the intimate confession of an epoch.

25: What makes the Modern Age special is that after the turn to the Copernican world, the sky as an immune system was suddenly useless. Modernity is characterized by the technical production of its immunities and the increasing removal of its safety structures from the traditional theological and cosmological narratives.

28: The sphere is the interior, disclosed, shared realm inhabited by humans—in so far as they succeed in becoming humans. Because living always means building spheres, both on a small and a large scale, humans are the beings that establish globes and look out to horizons.

On where ideas come from.

31: Whatever enters the imagination is not supposed to come from anywhere except somewhere over there, from without, from an open field that is not necessarily a yonder realm. People no longer want to receive their inspired ideas from some embarrassing heavens; they are supposed to come from a no man’s land of ownerless, precise thoughts.

Reconsidering the basis of Platonic forms.

42: Isolated points are only possible in the homogenized space of geometry and intercourse; true spirit, however, is by definition spirit in and in relation to spirit, and true soul is by definition soul in and in relation to soul.  … if one thinks in substances, the attributes arrive later, just as blackness is added to the horse and redness to the rose. In the intimate sharing of subjectivity by a pair inhabiting a spiritual space open for both, second and first only appear together.

Introducing the notion of ‘air conditioning’.

46: As spheres are the original product of human coexistence, however… these atmospheric-symbolic places for humans are dependent on constant renewal. Spheres are air conditioning systems in whose construction and calibration, for those living in real coexistence, it is out of the question not to participate.

71: Global markets and media have ignited an acute world war of ways of life and informational commodities. When everything has become the center, there is no longer any valid center; when everything is transmitting, the allegedly central transmitter is lost in the tangle of messages… The guiding morphological principle of the polyspheric world we inhabit is no longer the orb, bur rather foam.

84: The revolution of modern psychology does not stop at explaining that all humans live constructivistically, and that every one of them practices the profession of the wild interior designer, continually working on their accommodation in imaginary, sonorous, semiotic, ritual and technical shells.

Quoting Ficino on love.

213: Ficino remarks that humans normally do well what they do often—except in amorous matters, for “we all love constantly in some way, but almost all of us love only badly; and the more we love, the worse we love.”

220: The early Modern Age used magical terminology to communicate about the human being who will make it his business to perform acts hitherto believed impossible. What the sixteenth century… called the magus was the encyclopedically sensitive, polyvalently cosmopolitan human who learned how to cooperate attentively and artfully with the discrete interdependencies between the things populating a highly communicative universe.

Much of the book is devoted to carefully and intricately stepping through the logical consequences of imagery and stories from the earlier eras.

308: When the legendary Saint Christopher carries the baby Jesus across the water while the infant holds the entire globe in the palm of his hand, an equally paradoxical question is raised: where is Saint Christopher to place his feet while carrying the boy, when the river he is wading through is undoubtedly part of the world held by the child riding on his shoulders?

386: If individuals do not succeed in augmenting and stabilizing themselves in successfully practiced loneliness techniques—artistic exercises and written soliloquies, for example—they are predestined to be absorbed by totalitarian collectives.

415: The successful revolution is the transition to the total other that still manages to follow on from the good old days.

Describing the role of rituals, spirits, and other invisibles in human domesticity.

422: Living in house-like containers always has a dual character: it means both the coexistence of humans with humans and the community of humans with their invisible companions. It has, in a sense, always been the household spirits that have given an inhabited building dignity and meaning.

Not Sloterdijk, but Warhol in extended quotation.

462: The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem anymore. An interesting problem was an interesting tale. Everybody knew that…

473: The idiot is an angel without a message

480: Since written culture successfully asserted its law, being a subject has primarily meant this: being able, initially and usually, to resist the images, texts, speeches and musics one encounters…

Offering a possible explanation for the toppling of art by reality television and other cultural forms.

488: Siren music rests on the possibility of being one step ahead of the subject in the expression of its desire. Perhaps such an ability to be ahead is the anthropological reason for the interest of non-artists in artists, which reached its zenith in modern societies and passed it in postmodern ones.

490: Did Homer already know that bonds can only be broken by more bonds? Was it already clear to him that culture in general, and music in particular, is essentially nothing other than a division of labor in bewitching?

Taking oral fixation to a new level.

523: In order to be adequately complete human beings, we must learn at which tables we are the eaters and at which we become the eaten. The tables at which we eat are called dining tables; those at which we are eaten are called altars.

On why he thinks the Love Parades of the 1990s were cool.

527: Pop music has overtaken religious communions—Christian ones—on the archaic wing by outdoing the chances of absorption found at altars with the offer to join psychoacoustic abdominal cavities and follow passing audio gods.

And proving that he is not above humor.

90: An intellect that spends its energy on worthy objects usually prefers the sharp to the sweet; one does not offer candy to heroes.

216: As shown by the example of the husband-drinking

447: For his entire life, the navel owner looks past the memorial at the center of his body, like someone who walks past an equestrian monument every day without ever wondering whom it represents.

The Opposite of a Sandwich

27/8/2012 Update! We’ve consulted a real-deal scientist. Scroll down for details.

One of my pastimes is to consider impossible inventions. Mentally walking through the design, construction, and use of these inventions is a way to unpick a stuck brain.

I’ve annoyed many a coworker with the cliché question of whether they would choose to have a time machine or a cloning machine. Personally I’d take the time machine. Unless it’s one of the Primer units. Now that China has banned time travel and scientists in Hong Kong have cemented this ban with scientific proof that time travel is impossible, a new folly is required.

Of late the subject has been magnetism. Let’s purposefully misunderstand science and imagine that you can reach into a magnet and take out the power to attract one class of object to another. Take that power and inject it into something—anything—and see how that works out for you. It’s like using the force, except less convenient. Glass of water out of reach and you want to grab it? Find another cup and magnetically attract the water glass over to you.

The problem is, in the world of magnetism opposites attract. If you separate the concept of magnetism from the pesky science that makes it work you have the burden of finding the negative with which to attract the positive.

So the question is, what’s the opposite of a sandwich?

Answers have included miso soup, empanadas, salad, hair gell, eye glasses, dancing, and “a sandwich painted in antimatter”. What I like about this question is that to produce an answer you must first choose an angle. If soup is the opposite of a sandwich, this implies that essential sandwichness is being solid. Hot chocolate might imply that a sandwich is solid and savory, therefore the opposite should be liquid and sweet. Answering “eye glasses”, on the other hand, implies that essential sandwichness is more basic and primarily about being edible, whereas glasses scarcely are. A sandwich painted in anti matter is another thing altogether: how would you make it? What would it look like? What would happen if the sandwich and the anti-sandwich collided?

Updated August 27, 2012

When I browsed the Nomiku Kickstarter project page and saw that for $5 a plasma physicist would answer a question of my choice, I knew this was a good opportunity to find an answer to the questions above. Behold:

Bryan: What is the opposite of a sandwich, physics-wise?

Dr. Abe Fetterman:To me, a sandwich is a convenient way to deliver messy food to my mouth using bread and my hands. It would be very inconvenient if my attempt to push a sandwich into my mouth instead pushed the food away from me.

However, this is just the behavior of matter with negative mass. Any force acting on such an object causes acceleration in the direction opposite to which the force is applied. If you push a negative-mass sandwich to the left, it will move to the right. If you squeeze it together, it will fall apart.

I think this would be incredibly frustrating and would cause me to give up eating. Therefore, I think the opposite of a sandwich is a negative-mass sandwich.

Thanks, Dr. Abe!

Please In My Back Yard

You can take the boy out of the startup, but apparently not the startup out of the boy. If I weren’t super fulfilled by what I’m working on here in Helsinki I might be exploring something along these lines right now:

On the ground floor of my apartment building is a small shop that just went out of business. It used to sell snowboard clothes but during two years of residence I never spotted a single customer inside. Lacking a great cafe in my neighborhood, I would love the next person thinking about hanging their shingle to have a way to get an idea of what the market might be interested in.

What dreams does our neighborhood have for the erstwhile snowboard shop?

Now that we have a tiki bar down the street, surely there’s something else that would compliment the existing offerings on Uudenmaankatu, or the broader neighborhood of Punavuori. The thing is, the shops and services in urban centers have very weak feedback systems. Without the support and coffers of a syndicate that is able to conduct market research, an aspiring shopkeep has few tools to use other than subjective asking around. Mostly they test their hypothesis on the mean streets the old fashioned way: scraping together some cash and giving it a go.

A website called Kickstarter has grown into a community that made 386,373 investments in 2010 for a total of $27,638,318 dollars committed to capitalize projects ranging from iphone accessories to epic dance films. One thing I like about Kickstarter is that it turns entrepreneurship into a tool rather than letting it be the endgame. It’s not about building an enterprise, but using entrepreneurship to manifest an interest that is shared by creator and investor/customers. It turned the often-brutal realm of entrepreneurship into a more supportive, community oriented way to manifest new bits of reality. This is what community-scale rapid prototyping looks like.

From the buyer’s perspective Kickstarter is a marketplace of freshness, packaging specific deliverables with an extended aura of pay as you go DIYness. It allows customers to buy something that doesn’t exist yet—to vote on the specific future they want to live in, one product at a time. This brilliantly taps into the market trends that seem to be reacting to globalization by craving the unique, the limited, and the local.

But from the producers’ side Kickstarter is something much different: it’s  a demand aggregator that de-risks entrepreneurship. By allowing would-be entrepreneurs to collect commitments, they are able to look before they leap, as it were. Thereby expanding the pool of possible entrepreneurs to include individuals and groups who may never make the leap without some reassurance.

So here’s my proposition: what would happen if you took the Kickstarter strategy and applied it to the city. How could we de-risk new shops, restaurants, cafes, services, institutions, and even government outposts by aggregating commitment in advance of capital investment?

One of Helsinki’s many under-utilized spatial assets.

What would the Kickstarter of real estate look like and how might a similar demand-aggregator offer a productive counterpart to the dreaded “not in my back yard” syndrome? Is there a “please in my backyard” platform that could act as a spatial happiness engine, better empowering individuals to inflect their own corner of the city to meet their personal desires?

Could a platform such as this translate land use and zoning decisions into terms that are more personable, assessable, and ultimately arguable? Would that make the city more or less democratic?

Using a database of vacant real estate in a given city and a platform for collecting propositions or pitches, we allow entrepreneurs a marketplace of ideas that is able to match their own predilections and interests with “please in my back yard” demand. Individuals vote on the future land use and spatial assets that they want to see in their own city and their own backyard. If that voting is done with the wallet, similar to Kickstarter, would it be enough to usefully bootstrap entrepreneurs?

In practical terms this might translate into giftcards or other pay-in-advance schemes which would then be converted into a debit account if a project was funded and realized. There are a lot of very risky “ifs” in that statement, but let’s just see if this pencils out. (Using a hodgepodge of unverified sources, of course):

In 2004 Starbucks sold 21,000,000 gift cards totaling $312,000,000. That same year they had 8,569 stores globally. Assuming that the gift cards were available in all locations, and purchasing was distributed evenly, that’s a total of $36,410 spent on gift cards per store. If we divide it evenly across the 6,132 US-based locations it yields just over $50k per store. Not too shabby.

That might be just enough to change the mind of the future antique dealer who’s eager to move in downstairs.

City of Piles

One year ago.

I was fooled by the warm light, really. Expecting Istanbul to be warm in March was rather shortsighted of me.

It’s hard to imagine a place with a color palette such as Istanbul’s ever being cold, but even Hannibal’s elephants made it to the Alps.

Istanbul was cooler than expected, but every bit as bountiful.

It’s is a city of stacks and piles. Domes, buildings, chestnuts. Histories. Piles and promise.

For LLL.


Two years ago today I moved to Helsinki. Having missed the anniversary last time, I’ve gone out of my way to remember the date this year. I try to compare the duration of my residency to grad school or to the time BB,CS,LB,TE and I spent on DeepLeap. Has this felt half as long as grad school? Twice as long as that time in Austin? Time is a fickle shade.

Some reflections on the city of Helsinki and my life in and around it.

April 2, 2010

Even after two years, Helsinki is still largely inscrutable. In particular, the local habit for covering ground floor windows in shops and various commercial spaces with posters confuses me. You find this walking around the outer fringes of Kamppi or the fuzzy edges of Punavuori. What happens in these protected spaces? In a place with little light and few people, why retreat even more? Opacity is special here in a way I have yet to unlock.

May 7, 2010

My favorite breakfast of 2010 was an ad-hoc assortment of unexpected delights, consumed on a day when the air was crisp with promise. Finland can be amazing at breakfast time. Milk that comes in beer bottles, pea tendrils on bread, a pillow of cheese, and milk chocolate? See also: special opacity. Thanks to Jenna and Anni for this.

June 9, 2010

May and June were a single day. Even looking at (lots of) photos now I have difficulty remembering that period of time in any plural unit. Largely because I was so consumed by the studios that I was organizing with the rest of the team at work. This is a snapshot from one of those studios, on a day when we visited the Aalto house to have a small team dinner. Alberto and I lingered in front of the house taking pictures as everyone else filed inside and I snapped this just as Emily popped her head out to look for Alberto. The simple gesture of looking again is rendered so touchingly here by Emily that this photo is very special to me. These two people had met three days before and yet already they and their collaborators shared a unique amity. It makes me happy to think that our project created moments like this. In its many quiet pockets—the forecourt of a confident house, say—Helsinki can be a city of remarkable hospitality.

July 10, 2010

Petri’s excitement about the fire was only multiplied when I introduced the special delight of smores (with digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers) to our picnic.

August 26, 2010

A tour of the plants at the botanical gardens prophetically ended here. It had been a hectic month of small pieces loosely joined. I was ferrying between desks in Kallio, Ruoholahti, and Punavuori. Working late hours. Working weekends. Pulling things together.

HDL Global 2010: Done
September 3, 2010

This was minutes after we wrapped the event that I moved to Helsinki to put together. Well before this image was taken, even before the event started, I knew that the idea of my moving to Helsinki to produce an event was a conceit. I’m tempted to believe that the reason Marco is smiling because he knew this all along. I was exhausted but proud and all I remember of the dinner that followed this photo is that it was good.

October 17, 2010

Douglas came to visit and we took day trips to Turku and Tallinn, both of which are parallel Helsinkis to a non-native. Geography is surprisingly complicit with the rules of mathematics: (T+T)/2 = H? Fall had settled into the trees by then and the shadows were starting to run long.

November 11, 2010

When a tiny tear of sky rips open during fall it’s a special thing. This morning I was headed to Tel Aviv where the temperature was 20 degrees warmer and the sky 120 degrees around the color wheel.

December 7, 2010

Walking through Plague Park rarely saves any time but it’s hard to ignore during fall, spring, and winter when it’s liable to be beautiful. In summer it smells like a toilet, because it is a toilet. Apparently a significant percentage of Helsinki is not potty trained.

January 25, 2011

Weekend mornings I make a pot of coffee and stretch bits of work out across my long desk. When the sun is low like this is reminds me of Cambridge and the mornings I spent there dull-eyed and unshaven, sipping coffee and listening to Concord avenue wake up. From my apartment in the center of Helsinki I rarely hear any traffic. The soundtrack to this photo is the heavy rumble of the #3 tram lumbering by. To an American that’s what Europe sounds like. Trams.

February 27, 2011

Cities each have their own best scale. San Francisco congeals at the scale of the neighborhood. Manhattan is a place of heroic battles fought within each plot’s zoning envelope. Helsinki is composed street by street.

No one here seems to be able to identify the neighborhoods reliably, and while many of the buildings are interesting few are captivating. Streets here, on the other hand, are artful. Humans are small in a city whose scale is the street. Maybe this is why doorways are often diminutive in Helsinki.

Valuing Architecture

First off: I’ve re-jigged this site a little so you might need to update your RSS feeds and such. Sorry about that, but now everything should work much more smoothly.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of architecture and trying to make sense of it in relation to the other professions which together might be called the “built environment practices” including the usual engineers, contractors and consultants of various kinds as well as developers, bankers, politicians, and others who have a more distant—but no less important—impact on the built environment.

Inspired by my previous experience steeping in the startup culture of Silicon valley, I’m trying to dig into the difficulties of running an office, especially small offices, and how these difficulties might be thought of as symptoms of a misformulated profession. Or more simply: how can we hack architectural practice to make it more effective?

This is part of the puzzle:

The difference between these graphs can be read either of two ways. On the one hand it’s depressing. The size of the design fee for a significant project, relative to the income of a small office, is often substantial. This puts the office at risk should the project be stalled or canceled, and therefore increases the likelihood said office over-extends itself to satisfy their big client.

When an office’s portfolio is dominated by one client the dynamics of satisfaction begin to change. Because of the importance of the dominant client, their needs begin to eclipse the needs of others, including the development of new clients. Losing the client can mean losing the office, so what else can be done?

The diversity of an office’s portfolio is useful as a hedge against the risk of losing any particular client, but it’s also a useful way to maintain a healthy understanding of the minimum viable product (MVP) which then, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop flowing the opposite direction, increases the office’s availability for self-initiated research and business development.

MVP is a kind of strategic laziness: it’s a reminder to be focused and only develop those threads or ideas that are relevant at the moment. If laziness is choosing not to work, MVP is about choosing when and where to work.

On the other hand, the size of the design fee relative to the overall project makes half of an excellent argument about the leverage of design and its role as a multiplier that can, in the best cases, deliver value beyond its cost. This would be a reformulation from design as spending to design as an investment. Unfortunately the missing half is hard to come by: evidence of the returns. The shining example of Bilbao is often trotted out, and someone somewhere has done real calculations on how much income has been generated by the rebirth of the town (€168 million euros in 2001 alone, according to Forbes).

But this argument is not very useful when made on a case by case basis. It’s especially useless for young offices that have none of the reputation or cache that Gehry does. The more perceived value accumulates on behalf of starchitects, the more it is drained from the profession at large.

My question is how the practice might begin to develop and keep track of small indicators. How much does a renovation increase the resale value of a home, for instance? And by what percentage does a good renovation increase it over a less good renovation? How do we define “good” in a way that non-architects can understand?

How do we measure value in financial and social terms? There’s triple bottom line accounting, which works within the confines of a firm’s balance sheet, but how do we think about the perception of value from the outside? How do we find better ways to see and understand the value of architecture and spending in the built environment in general?

If I had interns they would be reading about contingent valuation and searching for ways to instrumentalize this branch of economics within the context of the built environment. But since I don’t have any interns, I will leave you with this excerpt from a paper subtitled “How to stop worrying and learn to love economics” (PDF link) which makes mention of the difficult task of valuing the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Can the impact ever be valued in an exact way? No, but it can be rigorous. And what’s instructive about this small vignette is the use of contingent valuation to assess the indirect perceptions of value which compliments more familiar ways to value the catastrophe directly.

The method has also been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, one of its biggest tests being its use to estimate the environmental damage caused by the supertanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in March 1989 off Alaska. This led to careful scrutiny in the profession, given the enormous interests and large sums of money involved. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hired two Nobel prize-winning economic theorists – Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow – to chair a panel to assess the methods. The report (Arrow et al 1993) concludes “that contingent valuation (CV) studies can produce estimates reliable enough to be the starting point of a judicial process of damage assessment, including lost passive-use values”. This last term refers precisely to the non- use values of the environment consisting of existence, option, and bequest benefits – the very same benefits which we have just been discussing in connection with the valuation of art.

This post is an expanded excerpt from a lecture presented at Aalto University Department of Architecture on February 24th, 2011.

Music (without words) for writing to?

On a writing deadline and completely worn out on my current concentration playlist, I sent a tweet in desperation asking for new music recs.

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.08.06 PM.png

What followed was an @valanche of #musicforwriting from pals such as Judith, Michael, Meg, Jason Jason, and Matt. Michael Sippey had the good idea to do something charitable and post the collected results as if it were the olden times. One generally does what Sippey asks, so here are the results which contain many gems:

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.07.21 PM.png

Update! Katie, who is undoubtedly your new favorite because it says so right there in the URL, chimes in too:

Screen shot 2011-02-01 at 7.20.16 PM.png

Matter Battle!

Gently prodded by our friends at Urbanscale, I thought that it might be good to record these thoughts before they float away. I’ve been thinking about the Matter Battle philosophy as a way to explain the difficulties of construction, particularly to audiences who are used to the fluid possibilities afforded to us by the digital. Another way to sum up what follows is a beautifully simple line from sevensixfive: “Don’t take any guff from stuff.”

One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter. Any act of construction (such as building a building) is a good example of a Matter Battle. To lesser degrees, reaching for something on a high shelf, baking a pie, drawing a line, and other similar acts also qualify as Matter Battles.


Scene from a Matter Battle

A Matter Battle is the conflict between human intentions and the laws and behaviors of the physical universe. Material acts that are without intention, or where intention is purposefully exploratory such as drip painting, are not Matter Battles.

In a Matter Battle to Undo is to Redo

Matter Battles generally involve actions for which “undo” costs a lot of time, money, or both. This is because matter tends to exhibit characteristics such as: heaviness, largeness, crumbliness, and unwieldiness. In most cases Matter is not self-healing and does not have a native ability to regenerate, therefore resulting in a situation where mistakes tend to turn a piece of matter into useless scrap.

Matter does not Share Space

Matter is mutually exclusive. This is a fancy way of saying that one bit of matter generally cannot exist in the exact same place as another bit of matter. Therefore decisions will have to be made about which bit of matter occupies space with preference, thereby causing all other bits of matter to take a subsidiary position. This is particularly tricky when mapping abstract concepts such as a grid of overlapping lines onto the physical world. Three dimensional things do not easily overlap.

The Behavior of Matter is Hard to Predict Well Without Great Expense

Most of the time it will be too expensive to fully predict the behavior of matter or the full extent of actions which will be required to execute your desires upon matter. This explains the difference in tolerance between industrial activities, such as product-making which relies on repetitive processes, and more singular activities such as building a building. Unless one has the time and money to fixate on material decisions there will be some flying by the seat of one’s pants. In certain complex piles of Matter these ad-hoc decisions may compound to produce undesirable effects.

Matter Battles are Always Low Tech

Because Matter Battles are ultimately about the inescapability of physical laws, they constantly remind us that no matter high tech your implements there is always room for basic failure. Even robots fall down. 3D printers get their nozzles gunked up; laser cutters burn their lenses; and CNC machines still require raw material to be roughly screwed into place before they are worked on. High tech tools generally have low tech components somewhere in their workflow.

Matter Battles are Hard to Understand Until You’re In One

Most people who will read this blog post are already so used to working, perhaps even living, in the digital that the Matter Battle described above might seem overhyped. This is because we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we’ve mastered the material world. And to some extent we have. We’ve been to the bottom of the ocean and the top of the heavens, and yet putting things together (or taking them apart) rarely goes exactly according to plan.

Matter Battle!

Let’s Burn Architecture

Over on his excellent blog, Rory Hyde has fired up one hell of a conversation about potential futures for design practice. The question is a good one: what will architects and designers do in the future if their involvement with the production of the built environment continues to be marginalized?


The reason I love Rory’s post is because it’s proactive rather than whiny. Admitting you have a problem is the first step and all that. I’ve been very slowly working on some of these thoughts through conversations with Dan Hill, Rory, Alejandro Aravena, and Dash Marshall but have yet to write much down. So thanks go to Rory for providing an impetus to sit down and pound out a couple paragraphs in the comments section on his blog. I’ve also included my comments below for posterity’s sake.

Comment #18:

A lot here, so I will attempt to respond in fragments. Not the best, but if I wait to congeal these thoughts into one coherent narrative it will be 2012.

@rory: your question about whether responsibility should be part of the core requirements of design is one that I think we can safely assume is implicit. A professional undertaking must be done under good intentions with a level of professional responsibility. The question is responsibility to who… and this is particularly difficult when we come to questions of buildings and cities because the multiple groups that we must be responsible to (namely the current owner, the public, future owners, etc) are not always easily represented for decision-making purposes. This brings me to pet peeve #1 when discussing architectural process with product designers. I’ve heard many variations of the question “why don’t architects do user surveys?” Does it need to be more common within architectural practice? Yes! But how do you survey the needs and desires of the person who will occupy (let alone walk by!) your building in 30-50 years time? The time scale of architecture is something that our current modes of ownership (from both financial and moral points of view) are not able to deal with.

To speak more directly to your comment that “the designer is necessarily more invested in the projects success due to increased accountability” I would respond that this is a result of the specific positioning of the architect on the pivot between “analysis” and “execution.” Groups like management consultants are in the business of doing analysis and handing it off for someone else to execute. If there’s value in a design-led method that approaches management consulting, it’s that we move beyond the role of strict analysis and are obligated (whether professionally or personally) to be involved in stewarding the execution. I also argue that it’s this involvement with the execution that is the real value proposition of the strategic architect because it forms a feedback loop which provides valuable insights into subsequent analysis phases. I’ll get back to this below under the heading of “matter representative.”

@gerard and @rory: one of the common threads between both of you is the rightful identification of how damn hard it is to produce a nice chunk of the city. Without placing blame on the profession or everyone outside of the profession (ultimately a futile discussion) I point to what seems to me a basic fact of contemporary culture in the developed ‘west:’ we’ve been bamboozled by the internet. I say this as someone who has been quite involved in the commercial web since its inception, so I’m not a luddite detractor, but my point is that the consequences of material and spatial decisions are generally not understood in any sophisticated manner within our culture(s) and specifically within decision-making in the contexts of business and government. If PwC (or McKinsey or Boston or Doblin…) have been successful it’s because they have been able to offer decision-makers tools to make what they feel are better decisions. I take pains to point out that I have not written “make better decision” but “what they feel are better decisions.”

I choose this specific phrasing because I believe, echoing @Anita’s comments above, that we’re often involved in wicked problems whether we like it or not. Paul Nakazawa is brilliant on this topic by describing the role of the contemporary, forward-thinking architect as operating in a space which is “pre factual.” If you are doing interesting [work that has spatial or material consequences] you will be operating without all the facts. This is no different than the upper echelons of finance where the specific intricacy, and in some cases fragility, of the instruments in use are not known to all players, let alone the majority of players involved, if ever knowable at all.

This begs an interesting question: would architecture be more powerful, profitable, and enjoy a more central role if it were more opaque? I hope not, but that strategy certainly has worked out for the financiers.

I’d like to add to Dan and Marcus’ discussion of hardware/software the notion of contingency. Contingencies between various bits of software and hardware are an important consideration in development and one that we could probably make better use of within architecture. How many times have you had a client ask for a change that cascades necessary adjustments across many other aspects of a project? We need better rhetorical, planning, and even software tools to deal with contingencies in a timely manner.

In conversation with Dustin Stephens, a friend and architect in California, he suggested that some architects create value for their clients and others satisfy the basic need for shelter, unquestioningly drawing up their client’s stated desires. To me this seems like a slightly troubling, yet very useful way to divide up the various ways to practice architecture, or perhaps more broadly to create chunks of the city. It seems as though the available tracks of architectural education are not helping very much. We simultaneously have over-educated draftsman, like many of my classmates who graduated from Ivy League schools and are now doing glorified drafting for starchitects, and under-educated architects, those many developers and contractors who are busy building our cities all day every day.

Medicine has doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses. Lawyers have paralegals. What do we have? We used to use technical aspects to divide our roles (e.g. draftsmen vs. architect), but perhaps we need a staged definition of professional roles instead. The reality of current architectural education is that it’s not tooled up to produce enough students, no matter how smart and strategic they are, to have an impact at scale. This is the justification that Roger Martin uses when he says that business schools must teach design thinking rather than letting design schools get their act together. Martin asserts that design schools simply don’t have enough students to make a difference. It’s an exaggerated claim but ask your self seriously, how exaggerated is it? Not very.

Which leads me to a comment which touches loosely on notes that Dan, Gerard, Marcus, and Rory have each made. If you believe my assertion above that contemporary society does not fully comprehend the spatial and material consequences of basic decisions [1], then Rory’s excellent list in this post is missing the “matter representative.” Apologies in advance for a bit of Latourian bastardization, but someone needs to figure out how to more convincingly argue for/against material decisions. Same goes for spatial decisions.

To be truly effective here is to provide an enhanced decision-making capability which is currently missing (as I stated above) in many businesses and governments. Light weight spatial analytics (GIS), more sophisticated post-occupancy analysis, and a new diagrammatic language of spatial/material/cost accounting are three areas of work that desperately need smart people to devote some attention.

IMHO, universities are failing to hold up their end of the bargain at the moment. Schools are doing a mediocre job of training students to see the bigger picture of strategic issues at play which will quite narrowly define their sandbox as run-of-the-mill architects. More damning, perhaps, is the fact that no universities are (to my knowledge) producing basic research which bolsters the profession’s ability to operate in the decision making contexts of the contemporary world, nor make explicit the value of architectural practice beyond its “cultural contributions.” Where is the robust dialog of post occupancy analysis? Where are studies of the great architectural failures of the 20th century? Where are the careful studies of all of the external factors for those failures (I’m thinking here of something like Pruitt-Igoe which is often blamed on the architect when in fact it’s a failed social experiment that no amount of skillfully crafted matter could have mitigated)? Yes, it’s a difficult and messy discourse with a tarnished image from the 60s-70s, but that doesn’t make it any less imperative. A lawyer or doctor without a demonstrable record of success is a quack, not a professional. Ouch.

[1] This was the subject of my thesis research on the US Capitol/US Congress. What were the organizational consequences of spatial decisions made without any spatial understanding? http://www.ofthiswearesure.com/capitol/paper_viewer/

Comment #31

I’ll join in everyone’s appreciation of the conversation here. Rory, I’ve been slowly working on an essay around some of these ideas, so this is a great way to alleviate me from having to finish that!

It seems safe to summarize many of the comments above by saying that there is a general desire to find a way of being more effective.

There are two questions which are touched on a number of times. I’ll replace architect/architecture with XYZ since the term is potentially problematic too:

1. How do we educate the XYZs?

2. What is the business model for XYZ?


I love the idea of rethinking educational paths through design school. And as has been pointed out, there is already a very full curriculum in many nations because the licensure requirements mandate that a certain set of courses are taken. I’ve also heard similar frustrations from colleagues teaching at architecture schools in the US, including my colleague Marco Steinberg who is very articulate about the difficulties of expanding the curriculum to include things like finance, economics, etc.

In the US this leave a school two options: give up on having an accredited program which will graduate students on a pathway towards licensure or find ways to change the accreditation requirements (set by the NAAB). If you give up the license you have a very tough sell to prospective students, whereas seeking to change accreditation is a huge effort that likely takes a long time. I’m curious here how effective programs like Harvard’s Master of Design Studies 2 yr. programs have been. Where do people in those kinds of non-accredited degrees end up? What are they doing?

Let’s take a tangential moment to consider all of the students who attend an architecture school and go off to do something else. A baby step towards legitimating the XYZ may be a comprehensive survey of all of these ex-architects and what they have done with themselves. I can say that in our anecdotal experience at Sitra/Helsinki Design Lab, we have found interesting and successful people in any number of unexpected places who happen to have an architectural education in their past.

To some extent the role of XYZ already exists, it’s just that those people are not calling themselves “architect” or XYZ, but “mogul,” “senator,” or what have you. I bring this up because I think one of the dangers in these conversations is that we see the task of creating a whole new profession (!) as overwhelming and therefore difficult to impossible (not that the voices in this thread are falling into that trap).


Similar to how the education of XYZs is made difficult by a lethargic academic definition of what it means to be an architect, I can speak from my own limited experience in the US and say that our American Institute of Architects is not helping the profession. Basic things like the terms of the standard contract are… weak. I can’t come up with any better word for it.

To think about how much time, energy, and obsessive effort my friends in Silicon Valley pour into the writing of their term sheets (for venture capital financing) I am surprised how little it seems that the average architect thinks of contracts, business model, and even fee structure as design problems.

We need to be better business people. Full stop. And not just in terms of commanding a higher fee for our services, but more importantly drafting the legal/business end of our work with as much intent as our work on form/space/material to *make accomplishing our goals in form/space more achievable.* Fewer conferences about some shiny new CNC technique and more about awesome contracts. Sound exciting, right? It’s about as exciting as drawing plumbing risers, and yet just as important.

For me there are two relatively modest do&document pairs which will help lower the barriers described above. Of course we can also talk about how to renovate institutions like the NAAB and AIA, but that’s a whole different conversation:

A. Be better at engaging atypical consultants (like economists, politicians, etc) and atypical collaborations, as per Noah’s comment above about “speak[ing] both languages” which I completely agree with

B. Be better at giving full credit, including both the collaborators mentioned above, the client, and the given context. The hero myth is baloney, let’s be in the habit of regularly reminding ourselves of this by giving full credit.

C. Take more risk in the kinds of projects we take on and how we engage in them. This is easy for me to say as a youngster, but it’s a pretty simple reality that without risk there is little progress.

D. Celebrate in whatever media/events we can those offices, groups, and individuals who are taking on new roles and pulling it off.

Comment #36

Gerard, I like the quotation from your partner about design research and I’m wondering if we could replace “design research” with the more broad term of “doing.”

Edit: OK, having read over this response which I intended to be quite quick, it has gone a little off the deep end!

“[Doing] operates on the premise that the very act of [doing] results in new knowledge, in other words, that [doing] is not simply an application of knowledge gained elsewhere but rather through the [act] of [doing] we come to know the world in ways that we did not know it prior to [doing].”

This holds true for a professional sportsman just as true as it does for a designer. Why else does a football player practice kicking a ball so many times if not to understand the specificity of the world through the act of kicking?

The argument I’d like to make is that executing on a plan, whether done literally with one’s own hands or under their supervision, introduces all of the micro, macro, and fundamental misconceptions that the plan harbored. This is something that all intentional professions share to varying degrees. For me the question is what your learning cycle is and how quick your feedback loops function.

(This reminds me that I need to dig into the Action Research literature more deeply.)

By way of example, let’s think about drawing a straight line — remember the frustrations of trying to draw a straight line during your first days in architecture school? or maybe that was just me! Or an issue much more complex such as trying to get a rocket into space. NASA as an organization learned tons while trying to launch their first hunk of metal into near-earth orbit, and I’d argue that they benefitted from a very tight feedback loop.

By extension, I would like to rephrase the value of the work of an architect (which I use separate from designer because I believe this to be something which designers can escape if they choose, but architects cannot) as instructive because (the best) architects are translators between abstract intention and concrete social things. They operate at the crux between planning and execution in a unique way. Whether through the *creation* of diagrams, drawings, models, or the carrying out of construction administration, there is a tight feedback loop which benefits the work-in-progress as well as any future work that the designer may undertake. Over the past 6-8 years we’ve seen the tech and business world catching on to the value of prototyping which is evidenced most clearly in the profusion of websites permanently in beta.

What makes the crux role of the designer unique from, say, and engineer (most engineers?) is that architects must synthesize the hard facts of gravity, budget, and others, alongside the softer and more abstract notions of culture, the client’s desires, politics, and notions of architectural correctness (whichever flavor one subscribes to). This should probably be re-written to say that *the best architects* are able to play this role. C.f. “Not all design is research.”

(The best) Architecture is forever haunted by its non-art non-science status.

There’s something to the obsessiveness of architectural planning that is also unique in that it is not applied evenly to an entire building. If we start from the most banal of details, the door jamb, we can zoom out through the layers of the building asking new questions about intention at each of a number of levels of zoom. But! Between each ‘zoom level’ there are implicit questions which the architect does not plan for nor specify except in the most extreme cases. As a young architect I’m still learning to accept that builders do not /always/ follow the details that I draw, they use them as representations of intention and apply their own knowledge to achieve the desired outcome in the best manner possible. So here there’s something about the staccato focus of an architect at certain common scales (site, floor plan, detail, for example) which is unique to the profession. Implicit in this ‘I’ll draw the dots and you connect them’ approach is an understanding that there are questions which have not been answered and that answering them all is probably too complicated or expensive to be realistic. I choose to interpret this artifact of the architectural process as something which may have developed out of the need to reduce the workload to something manageable, but may now be considered in its own right as an extremely useful paradigm through which to think about any ambiguous and dynamic problem.

(The best) Architecture is propositional.

And to get back to that door jamb, I cannot let go of the fact that (the best) design’s fixation is on using material to create non-material impacts. If there’s something here which we can offer it’s a “deep understanding to spot gaps, possibilities, potential” as Dan puts it, which I posit is the result of being sensitive to the feedback loops that feed in predictive knowledge about how the spatial/temporal context of a proposed design works (or doesn’t). Within this seems to be a kind of material empathy that (the best) designers (or XYZs) develop by observing the ways that planned things create unexpected affects when materialized according to seemingly perfect plans. I include services here as well, given that services thread through multiple devices, screens, person-behaviors, and so on.

More so that the points above, I’m interested in the designer’s closeness to material reality and their ability to see the upstream implications of material decisions (often referred to as “poor design choices”). Rory, perhaps you remember the name of the Tasmanian philosopher that I mentioned to you and who I met in Torquay? During the course of a two day “design thinking” event sponsored by Swinburne this this man reinforced the the same cutting point: descriptions of “design thinking” sound an awful lot like descriptions of “good thinkers”. Linking the work of design/architecture to an understanding of material implications is to me one unimpeachable way to escape that critique — not to mention a potential source of great value, as evidenced by the eager work of the management consultancies described above. This begs another question which has come up above in the comments of Doug and others: is the knowledge of design/architecture different from that of craft? It feels more propositional, forward thinking than craft, but I’m not able to fully articulate it.

At the moment thanks to the lack of study devoted to what social, political, and financial affects buildings create, this makes us designers more like Marie Curie: we know exactly what we’re avidly handling on a daily basis but might only know the affects of our work after it’s too late.

Since I’m now re-treading previous comments I know that I should close this post. Sorry, Gerard, if this was a bit of a hijack!

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