Beyond Practice

In my previous blog, The Built Environment v 3.0, I observed how the profession of architecture is undergoing a fundamental transformation. The last 100 years of increasing specialization, which has disempowered practitioners and dwindled our scope of influence, has run its course. We are now in a time of reversal, thanks to digital ubiquity, a generation raised in it, and a profusion of processing power harnessed by tools that can drive exploration, parametric analysis, and robotics.

Radical new tools are almost always followed by tectonic shifts in thinking. So it follows that entrenched behaviors perpetuate until someone unlocks new ideas that, in the right circumstances, catch the popular imagination and ultimately seed new ground that creates a “new normal”. This, to me, describes what is happening in architecture today. We are living in a time of great opportunity for our profession, and we need to act accordingly.

In late 2010, I asked my partners for permission to craft the agenda for one of our semi-annual, firm-wide gatherings of design leaders. This became the Perkins+Will Innovation Summit, designed to explore ways of amplifying our creative thought leadership in a global context by building our awareness of people in linked businesses, those who have pioneered new paths in a shifting landscape of practice. Our inspiring speakers set the tone for our explorations:

John Nastasi who created the Product-Architecture Lab at Stevens Institute of Technology to effectively parameterize architectural exploration, showed how computation could lead to design solutions that integrate economics, environmental analysis, fabrication, and construction sequencing. His students have gone on to populate next-gen practice incubators such as SHoP Construction and SOM’s Black Box.

Bill Reed, who was a founding member of the US Green Building Council board, and is widely considered one of this country’s greenest advocates, shared insights about living systems that look holistically at nature, business, construction, and economics and find ways for each not to just co-exist but amplify one another in positive ways.

Majora Carter, whose grassroots Sustainable South Bronx initiative was born out of a desire to improve the human condition in her own back yard, showed us how inspired leadership could integrate the mostly independent worlds of politics, business, and education to create lasting value for all three. The Majora Carter Group now advises communities across the country on how to realize their most aspirational visions.

Design Leadership Forum Innovation Summit from Perkins+Will on Vimeo.

Our Summit was an inspiring two days. It opened the door to new relationships and new modes of collaboration. But it wasn’t enough. It was missing two critical ingredients: the 1,500 voices from across my firm and a forum of creative interaction focused on brainstorming the ideas that emerge from the discourse.

So I went back to the well and asked for permission to craft a new agenda – one that would unite a broader swath of our leadership and crowd-source new ideas that emerged from within our practice, from any individual who had something meaningful to share. We received 219 submissions that included such provocations as crowd-sourcing public opinion through the Internet to drive decisions (design by super-committee!) and kitting out a mobile panel truck to deliver not food but design services (kimchi and a new kitchen!).

In the end, 18 ideas were selected by a professionally and demographically diverse jury to be presented at our two-day Perkins+Will Ideas Conference this past March in Los Angeles. To help harness and amplify the energy in the room, which included over 100 attendees, we enlisted Alan Webber (co-founder of Fast Company) and Keith Yamashita (co-founder of SY Partners) to co-craft the agenda and the choreography. Throughout a 6-month planning process, these two brought powerful ideas to the table and were critical in unlocking new thinking and helping our conference reach its highest potential.

Of the 18 presenters, half had fewer than eight years of professional experience, which was unexpected. They represented a professionally diverse group and included a sustainable building advisor, a marketing coordinator, and a visualization assistant. And in spite of (or because of?) their modest experience, their ideas were provocative and exploratory. Which was exactly what we hoped for. So how do these ideas fit into (or grow out of) a transformation of architectural practice?

If Architecture v 1.0 (pre-20th Century) belonged to the polymath who built knowledge through broad exposure, and Architecture v 2.0 (20th Century) belonged to the specialist who became selectively authoritative through focused immersion, then Architecture v 3.0 (today) belongs to the integrator who broadens her reach by building connections.

Here are three ideas that speak to broadening our reach by building connections:

Idea 1: Re-Tool Exploration

One multi-office team’s proposal to establish a Design Computation Studio (DCS) is a direct analogue to Nastasi’s earlier efforts, which have already reached a near-critical mass in transforming the practice. At its core, the DCS taps into digital networks and resources to broaden and synthesize distinct yet related, areas of performative analysis, data-influenced design exploration, crowd-sourced valuation, and “byte-to-site” fabrication in order to re-frame what it means to design in the digital age. To succeed, it requires atypical partnerships and integrated work flows between currently distinct professions. Digital design seeks highest value outcomes based on empirical inputs – parameters – that are beginning to do for the built environment what the assembly line did for industrial processes.

Idea 2: Network Problem-Solving

Another proposal, to create and host an annual Knowledge Summit: The Case for Civil Dialogue, grew in out of the work that our firm had done to pioneer the Precautionary List and ensuing Transparency Website. In that case, a team of architects identified a major unsolved problem in our industry – that of the health impacts of building materials – and marshaled internal and external resources to research the problem, create, and freely share a new set of tools for architects to make better decisions that improve the health of anyone inside of a building. The Knowledge Summit proposes to institutionalize this practice, by synthesizing distinct, yet related areas of scientific research, geopolitics, socio-economics, and environmental health in order to tackle globally pressing issues around quality of life and the built environment.

Idea 3: Mash-Up Business and Education

In a re-think of foundation-based programs like the Fulbright Scholarship, the proposal to institute a Global Design Professional Exchange at our firm imagines relationship-building between design professionals in different parts of the world through the act of exchanging respective local knowledge (construction technologies, climate responses, and social paradigms, to name a few) during a period of temporary, immersive relocation. Since architecture is fundamentally local, the exchange enriches both the processes and outcomes of creating meaningful places for people beyond borders.

So what do these and other ideas mean collectively, in the larger context of architectural practice? Above all, they point to an emerging, radical expansion of the centuries-old definition of what it means for architects to engage in discourse. It taps into broad-based creative and problem-solving skills that are at the root of our training and work in order to tackle meaningful and increasingly interrelated issues that promote the creation of safe, healthy, economically viable, socially empowering, and emotionally uplifting environments. The new architect understands that these are not exclusive qualities, and that if the relationship between them is harnessed and amplified, we just may move mountains.

To Imhotep – the architect/physician/priest/engineer who helped harness and amplify related issues around holistic wellness in Ancient Egypt as much as anyone, and about whom I wrote my last blog – architecture practice today might well feel a bit like Back to the Future. DeLorean and Mr. Fusion or not, it’s an exciting time to be us.

Anthony Fieldman is design principal at Perkins+Will, New York where he initiated an Ideas Competition open to the firm’s employees. The competition was set up to bring new ideas forward, in an effort to explore the changing nature of the profession and create a firm-wide dialogue around transformative ideas.

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