Last week in New York City, the “supercharged amalgam of talent, charm, and overpowering ego” (ha! -NY Mag) that is the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels of BIG, gave a presentation with the title ‘Unsolicited Architecture’.
Now, this is a topic that’s preoccupied my thinking for a while, and I’d even situated an early project of Ingels’ (when he was still called PLOT) under the unsolicited theme, so naturally I was pretty keen to hear what he had to say*. How would somebody like Ingels ”” surely architecture’s premiere showman ”” wrap up and re-present an idea like unsolicited?
Here’s a video of the presentation, (thanks to Stephanie for sending through the link.)
bjarke ingels from Logan Mackay on Vimeo.
With beer in hand and casual swagger in full-effect, Bjarke only spoke briefly on the topic of unsolicited before jumping into the projects. And the rhetoric was very much in line with how its been discussed elsewhere, as stated in his intro: “we architects often sit around waiting for the phone to ring, or for somebody to announce a competition. Essentially we always leave it to those with power – the politicians – or those with money – the investors – to stake claims on the future of our cities.” This quote seems to capture all the core points; personal opportunism tempered by urban responsibility, and the unique role of the architect in being able to think beyond the time span of political office, or of the developers margin.
To this, Bjarke added a great anecdote as to architects’ passive role in the determining of what a project can be, by only ever being invited after the brief is written “we are like chefs who are doomed to only cook with ingredients that somebody else has bought us.” Good stuff.
He then went on to describe a number of BIG’s projects, including the Superharbour for the Baltic sea, a number of proposals for Copenhagen including a rooftop park for a department store, a bridge / apartment building, the Klovermarken project (discussed here) and a relatively new design for an energy centre / ski slope.
I’m not going to describe the projects here, you can watch the video, but one thing that did stick out was the incredible resourcefulness (or perhaps desperation) to find clients for these unsolicited proposals. The Superharbour is initially pitched at the CEO of container company Maersk Sealand – who’s logo conveniently matched the six-pointed star-shaped plan – but upon rejection, the project is redesigned with five points for a Chinese client to match the flag of the People’s Republic. Cheesey, yes, but you’ve got to applaud the guy’s determination. Similarly, the sweeping roofscape of the Klovermarken park is re-worked as a rollercoaster to rejuvenate a flagging amusement park in Abu Dhabi. Again, nice try.
Without a doubt, BIG’s work sits at the opportunistic extreme in the scope of the projects I see encompassing unsolicited architecture, and that’s also why I like it. All of the projects are designed with the numbers in mind, they solve a problem, and they claim to make money. The lesson seems to be, when proposing unsolicited projects to unsuspecting developers or governments, you need to play their game, the money game.
* This interest shouldn’t be confused with any claim to the topic on my part ”” I don’t believe unsolicited architecture should belong to anybody (and if it did, it would belong to Volume who coined the term with their issue back in 2008).
Bjarke Ingels gave this lecture as part of Moonlighter Presents, a lecture series coordinated by Stephanie DeGooyer and Justin Martin.
For more Bjarke action, here’s an interview I did with him for the radio in Melbourne back in July 2008.
Posted: February 28th, 2011
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The 21st century has ushered in a radically different world than that faced by our predecessors. The rise of globalisation and the information society, the seemingly unassailable dominance of market thinking, the impending threat of environmental degradation and the erosion of social sustainability and tolerance, are just a few of the challenges we face. In addition, each of these issues have been further compounded by the ongoing financial crisis of 2008, burdening governments and individuals with spiralling debt and unemployment, limiting our capacity to act.
All of this conspires to produce a design landscape of unprecedented complexity, one that cannot be adequately addressed by the traditional tools of the design professions.
Calls for a new kind of designer stretch back to the middle of the 20th century, most famously in Buckminster Fuller’s description of a “synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.”  A role that Bruce Mau has more recently embraced in the establishment of his Institute Without Boundaries, acknowledging that the complexity of today’s problems would necessitate these roles to be taken up by the “collective intelligence of a team”.  MOMA curator of design Paola Antonelli calls for designers to adopt the role of “society’s new pragmatic intellectuals ”¦ changing from form giver to fundamental interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic reality.”  John Thackara similarly calls for designers to “evolve from being the individual authors of objects or buildings, to being the facilitators of change among large groups of people.” 
But with all of this demand for change, where are the results? While the mainstream may be slow to adapt, there are designers around the world eagerly carving out opportunities for new kinds of engagement, new kinds of collaboration, new kinds of practice and new kinds of design outcomes; overturning the inherited assumptions of the design professions.
Here follows a brief survey of these new roles for designers, each representing potential futures for design practice.
The Community Enabler
The healthy boom of the past two decades has led the architect to become accustomed to producing boutique solutions for private clients; a comfortable scenario that has distracted us from our responsibility for society at large. By reconceiving the role of the architect not as a designer of buildings, but as a custodian of the built environment, the space of opportunity and tools at our disposal are vastly expanded.
Hunter Street Mall Newcastle in full swing during the Red Lantern Night Market, December 2009, following Renew Newcastle’s initiatives. Photo: Marni Jackson.
The Renew Newcastle project, established and led by Marcus Westbury, illustrates the value of people in the improvement of a public space. While millions had been spent by local government on rebuilding the physical aspects of Newcastle’s rundown and largely deserted Hunter St mall, the simple gesture of opening up vacant spaces for use by creative practitioners and businesses has kick-started its revival. 
The Visionary Pragmatist
The stereotype of the architect as an obsessive, black skivvy-wearing aesthete who produces detailed artefacts of beauty is a pervasive one that may sometimes live up to the truth. This is a potentially dangerous perception however, as it promotes our interest in form over our value as strategic thinkers. By promoting our capacity to challenge the underlying assumptions of a problem and to develop responses informed by a larger context, we can hope to be invited into projects at an earlier, more decisive stage, and not as mere cake-decorators.
Elemental, community housing, Iquique, Chile.
Chilean practice Elemental, led by Alejandro Aravena, views the larger contexts of policy, financing and social mobility as equally important territories for the architect to understand and engage. The multi-unit housing project in Iquique proposed a unique solution to the issue of the limited funding allocated per unit of social housing. By providing ‘half of a good house’ , and configuring it in a way that enabled future expansion, the residents can create housing of real personal value and utility.
The Trans-Disciplinary Integrator
The complex, manifold and integrated issues of today cannot be solved by architecture alone. To be truly instrumental, we need to open ourselves to new constructive alliances with thinkers and makers from beyond our discipline.
Design Research Institute studio session. Photo: Stuart Harrison.
RMIT’s Design Research Institute, established in 2008 by Professor Mark Burry, is a research centre directed toward collaboration and information sharing between students and professionals from over 30 disciplinary backgrounds. By harnessing collective expertise, the DRI is able to address major social and environmental dilemmas that do not conform to the traditional boundaries of design training. 
By transcending our own expectations and limits, we can in turn recast society’s expectations of what we are capable of addressing.
The Social Entrepreneur
The economic crisis has been heralded as the end of architecture’s ‘obsession with the image’. What this hope overlooks however, is the powerful narrative potential of architectural communication in catalysing complex visions for the future. Deploying this power to address social aims allows architects to contribute meaningfully to the future of the city by posing the critical question: ‘what if?’
PLOT’s Clover Block proposed for Klovermarken park, Copenhagen, 2006. Image thanks to Felix at JDS.
PLOT’s (now BIG and JDS) scheme for the Klovermarken park was developed in response to Copenhagen’s acute housing shortage. Through a media campaign which promoted their solution to provide 3000 units within in a perimeter block without sacrificing a single sporting field, PLOT were able to generate significant public interest in the project, which led to the government holding a competition for the site. Although PLOT did not win the commission, the project is proceeding nonetheless, providing much-needed housing to the inner city, and demonstrating the value of practical vision.  (I’ve discussed this project before in an earlier post on Unsolicited Architecture.)
The Practicing Researcher
Architecture’s current model of charging as a percentage of the construction cost does little to justify the thinking and intelligence that is embedded in the process. The inability to distinguish our conceptual value from our production-focused value that this model implies also means we are not natural candidates for projects that require the approach of an architect, but that may not result in a building.
OMA/AMO, image from the report ‘Roadmap 2050′, 2010. Thanks to Laura Baird.
AMO, the think tank of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, was established precisely to focus on this type of work, by applying ‘architectural thinking in its pure form to questions of organisation, identity, culture and program’.  The project Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, delivers on its title with a radical scheme of integrated green power generation stretching from North Africa to Norway. By not being constrained to any particular building commission, this research can operate at a scale that holds the potential for real global impact. (I have discussed this project further in an earlier post Whole Earth Rise.)
The Long-Term Strategist
While form is an important aspect of the architect’s repertoire, it is now just one of a larger set of tools directed at achieving results. The challenge of environmental sustainability has brought with it the necessary obligation that buildings perform as designed, and can adapt throughout their life to meet changing demands and targets. We can no longer simply design the object, but must also design the strategy of implementation and long-term evaluation as part of our responsibilities.
‘C_Life’ by ARUP, Sauerbruch Hutton, Experientia and Galley Eco Capital – winning entry of the Sitra Low2No competition.
The Low2No competition organised by the Finnish innovation fund Sitra made these long-term strategies a central requirement of the design brief.  With the ambitious aim of producing an urban development solution in Helsinki that would over time be carbon negative, the teams were asked not only to produce an architectural vision, but a future strategy for delivering these environmental results. By looking beyond the immediate horizon of project completions, the strategist takes on a greater responsibility and interest in a successful outcome.
Design Management Thinker
One of the current buzzwords in the design world at the moment is ‘design thinking’. Although it has many definitions, one interpretation is of the application of a design approach to problems in fields outside of design, such as business and management.  This is heralded as a potential means for designers to expand their reach and to reclaim their instrumentality and relevance to other disciplines.
McKinsey & Company, SOM, et al, Vision 2030 Bahrain. From Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued.
However, we are also witnessing the rise of its inverse; a more threatening scenario whereby management consultants occupy the territory traditionally held by architects. As the role of cities in the globalised world evolves from simply being designed to deliver quality of life, to being speculative instruments of investment, governments are increasingly turning to financial and management consultants for advice instead of urbanists or architects. This is particularly true in the Gulf region of the Middle East, where McKinsey & Company has produced the Vision 2030 plan for Bahrain, and have reportedly also been developing the plans for Saudi Arabia’s new economic cities.  This potential future should be treated by architects as both a warning and an opportunity for coalition.
The Unsolicited Architect
The potential for architects to address the challenges of the future are limited by our reactive model of commissioning. In a concept outlined by Volume magazine in the issue of the same name, unsolicited architects create their own briefs, identify their own sites, approach their own clients and find their own financing. This requires a more entrepreneurial mindset, as the tools of architecture and architectural thinking are only powerful if they can be unshackled from the constraints of a given brief.
ZUS, De Dependance proposal for Schieblock building, Rotterdam. Via.
Faced with the planned demolition of the building where they have their offices to make way for encroaching gentrification, landscape architects ZUS created ‘De DÃ©pendance’, a counter proposal to reuse the building as a centre for urban culture and a hub for like-minded institutions and businesses.  With support from the municipality and media exposure, they were able to turn around the developer, who now supports their proposal. By developing a viable alternative, instead of merely protesting, ZUS were able to steer the project to an outcome that is both equitable and beneficial for all parties.
- Zung, T. (2002) Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium, St Martin’s Press
- Mao, B. (2010) “Design and the Welfare of All Life” in Tilder, L and Blostein, B. (eds.) Design Ecologies: Essays on the Nature of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, p.12
- Antonelli, P. (2008) Design and the Elastic Mind. New York, Musuem of Modern Art, p.17
- Thackara, J. (2005) In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, The MIT Press, p.7
- Presentation on Renew Newcastle by Marcus Westbury at BKK Architects, Melbourne, 7th May 2010
- Harrison, S. & Hyde, R. (2010) Interview with Alejandro Aravena, broadcast on Triple R, 27th April (podcast)
- Burry. M (2010) Design Research Institute Annual Review 08/09, RMIT University
- Lecture by Bjarke Ingels at Monash University, 9th of July 2008
- oma.nl, accessed 18th September 2006
- See the Low2No brief here www.low2no.org/competition/challenge (accessed 11th June 2010). Sitra’s Bryan Boyer has also written extensively on the architect as strategist.
- Brown, T. (2008) “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review 86(6): pp.84-92.
- Hyde, R. (2010) “Measuring the Presence of Consultants” in Koolhaas, R. and Reisz, T. (eds.) Al Manakh 2: Gulf Continued, Volume 23, Archis Publishers, p.160
- dedependance.org, accessed 11th June 2010
This piece was written in July 2010 for Architecture Review Australia #116: Future Cites, published under the title ‘Future Practice’. Big Thanks to Mat Ward at AR, Tobias Pond and Timothy Moore for various discussions that helped to shape the text.
Posted: December 30th, 2010
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My most recent bout of fan-stalking took me to London for the Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 symposium last month at the Architecture Association, where before interrogating the organisers Geoff and Liam, I managed to corner Matt Webb, Principal and CEO of BERG London.
Matt’s presentation formed part of the ‘Near Futures’ chapter of the day, jumping from definitions of design, power sockets that look like faces, two-dimensional tomatoes in space (seriously), and of course a dash of BERG’s own design projects. It was a fantastic and fascinating lecture, you can catch the video of a similar delivery from the Reboot conference earlier in the year.
Matt refers to BERG as a ‘product invention company’, a fairly modest description for a studio which often seems to be making nothing short of magic. They created a compelling vision of a tablet magazine before the iPad even existed; they turned the presumably dull calculation of the readable volume of a RFID card into a viral video; and exposed the league tables of Britain’s public schools with little smiling buildings.
Immaterials: the ghost in the field, a video explanation of BERG’s Touch project to visualise the readable volume of RFID.
Many of their ideas or projects are communicated in short films which have arguably become BERG’s trademark, being endlessly embedded and discussed all over the web. Mixing matter-of-fact descriptions and beautiful imagery with elegant production design, the films reveal the studio’s generous approach to sharing their ideas beyond the office.
My image from the outside is of a group of thinkers and tinkerers, playing with technology, reading widely, taking things apart, drinking lots of coffee, and putting them back together again, only better. To think of BERG as our contemporary Eameses (that’s not mine, somebody said it on the tweets, but I have no idea who), is a useful comparison,Â if not one that places unwieldy expectations on such a young studio.
Like the work of the Eameses for Polaroid for instance, where the explanation and narrative is indistinguishable from the product for sale, BERG’s commercial work feels like an experiment they want to share with us. Their Making Future Magic project even spawned an app released by their collaboratorsÂ Dentsu, so you too can wave words of light about at home, if that’s your thing, and judging by the Flickr group, it turns out to be quite a few people’s thing.
My attempt at a hovering love heart using theÂ Penki app for iPhone. Developed by BERG and Dentsu London.
But what really seems to separate them is their ability to transgress disciplinary boundaries. The projects above aren’t exclusively web, product, interaction design or software, but a fluid combination. To explore this idea of an emerging discipline or new model of the designer further, I started by asking Matt about his favoured definition of design by his partner Jack Schulz, which simply states that ‘Design is about cultural invention.’
Matt Webb: I don’t have a design background, so one of the things I’m curious about running this design studio is what is design anyway? To break it apart for myself I started keeping a list of every time somebody used ‘designer’ as their job role, and I got up to seven mutually incompatible descriptions. So I started looking for other definitions of what design could be. There’s communication, product invention, understanding the world, design fiction – all these are valid. But the one that best describes the thing that we do, is we attempt to invent things and create culture. It’s not just enough to invent something and see it once, you have to change the world around you, get underneath it, interfere with it somehow, because otherwise you’re just problem solving. And I wont say that design has an exclusive hold over this – you can invent things and change culture with art, music, business practices, ethnography, market research; all of these are valid too – design just happens to be the way we do it.
Olinda, one of the most product-y projects by BERG, a digital radio hooked up to social networks that subtly displays when and what your friends are listening to.
Rory Hyde: I like this model of the designer that doesn’t solve problems but that creates culture. Are you thinking about value when you are doing this, or are you more thinking about interestingness, or things that make you smile? Are you consciously out there trying to make products, or does that just happen by accident?
MW: I think the idea of products is really important. I have these things I look for in our work; one is hope, I think our things should be hopeful, and not just functional. Another is that it should be beautiful, inventive and mainstream. I think mainstream is important because otherwise you’re just affecting a few people. A product is a good gate because you start to ask ‘how is this going to be consumed by the market?’ We don’t have many ways of judging whether something is really good, and money is one of them. And that’s kind of what products do.
I will say something about why to invent as well. Because you could see our work as experimental, or science-fiction, or futuristic; but I would say – and others in the studio may not agree with me – that our design is essentially a political act. We design ‘normative’ products, normative being that you design for the world as it should be. Invention is always for the world as it should be, and not for the world you are in. By designing it, it’s a bit like the way the Earth attracts the moon, and the moon attracts the Earth just a tiny bit. Design these products and you’ll move the world just slightly in that direction.
Availabot, a small character plugged into your computer who stands up when a particular friend comes online, and falls over when they go – a more human indicator of being able to chat with a friend on Skype.
RH: It also feels as though you’re building on a long history, I mean, you talk about the practice being about the future, but a lot of slides you showed were of the history of design fiction – such as HAL from 2001, the film War Games, and the incredible speculative images of a suburban future in space as imagined by NASA in the 70s. What role does history play in the studio?
MW: I try not to make a distinction between things that are true and things that are fictional, because they all hang together in the same human brains. Anything whether it’s 2001, or the history of Levittown, or what’s on the market right now in the Argos catalogue is ripe for research. We’re mining the same fields. Some things are conscious probes, so 2001 is a conscious probe into what it would be like to have a world where we’re surrounded by artificial intelligence. Kubrick said that very specifically. War Games probably isn’t the same kind of intellectual probe, but it works all the same because it hangs together as a story, and that means it’s true, in a certain kind of way. I don’t like to make a distinction between these things as research.
The incredible Making Future Magic video by BERG and Dentsu London.
RH: Just to explore this Argos example further, in your presentation you said that ‘the future is happening right now under our noses, and it’s in the Argos catalogue’, which you also referred to as the ‘evolutionary soup’ of product development. In particular you focused on cheap toys which employed what you termed as ‘fractional AI’. What is fractional AI and how is it different to what we understand as regular artificial intelligence?
MW: The first thing I’ll say is that the idea of Chinese manufacturers as an evolutionary soup is an idea of Bruce Sterling’s from a short story. When you read the Argos catalogue, you get the feeling that things aren’t being designed deliberately, but they’re just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and that is a system for natural selection.
About ‘fractional AI’, I reference two things there, one is artificial intelligence as it is seen in movies of the mid twentieth century; human scale or larger intelligences as seen in books by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov for instance. But then there’s this idea which emerged in the early 1900s of fractional horsepower. Horsepower used to be the thing that we measured factories by, but fractional horsepower says that instead of motors that are as big as buildings, we could have motors that were as big as fists. So we could take the fruits of these factories, make them really really tiny, and put them in our homes. Fractional horsepower enabled genuine improvements in quality of life, through appliances like washing machines, refrigerators and hairdryers. And we had half a million fractional horsepower motors in the US by the 1920s, it was an incredible explosion that made domestic life better.
My belief is that we’re going to have the same explosion with artificial intelligence. And we wont see it as was depicted in films as controlling nuclear weapons (War Games), or controlling space ships (2001). Fractional AI means that the tiny things around us will be smarter. And the very first place you see this in a very tiny way is in children’s toys. It used to be that children played with Meccano or Lego, now they play The Sims. The Sims is a representation of a world in which everything is intelligent in really tiny ways, and we’ll be seeing more of that I think in conventional products. What does an intelligent car look like? It maybe only will be as intelligent as a puppy, so what does that mean?
RH: How much of the intelligence of an object or device do we bring to it ourselves? You also showed these photos of taps, power sockets or curtain rails which we read as faces, applying a personality at some deep emotional level toÂ random inanimate stuff in the world. It seems like this step to making things smarter or more human or more magical is a very small one.
Schooloscope, a project by BERG for 4iP, which ‘turns official government data about schools into easy-to-read English, and smiling faces.’
MW: We’re already doing this, if you look at the fronts of cars, they look like faces. The arrangement of a bumper and two headlights can make a happy face, or a demanding face, or an exciting face, or an ‘I want to go faster’ face. We bring to these things our expectations of what faces mean, so yes, we bring a lot to it by our expectations. But it also points to the idea that there is a role for someone in the design of the personality, which is increasingly the behaviour of an object. So when we’re designing a computer game, or a car, or an appliance, do we want it to make us feel like we can get involved more? Or that we have to be humble to it? Or that we’re in a collaborative relationship? It used to be that we didn’t think about these things, but we’re going to have to think about how to design them soon. And I think that’s happening right now.
RH: As someone trained in architecture – a literally very ‘concrete’ and often serious disciplineÂ -Â this idea that we need to design the emotions seems kind of exciting, and potentially frivolous. But I also feel like it shouldn’t be. Is functionalism still far too dominant in how we approach design?
MW: We’ve experienced a shift in the last fifty years, in that the bleeding edge of technology used to be industry, so the objects we got in our homes were the off-cuts of industry; look at computers, or the mobile phone, or the internet; those came from industrial mainframes, or battlefield communications, or decentralised information systems. We’ve experienced a flip now, the technology we have starts on the desktop, in games consoles, or from texting your mates. That is the bleeding edge of technology, and it is leading the way. And it’s quite unsurprising that the world we were trained to be in -Â the industrial one – was one that’s a bit soulless, where you had to follow orders, be a cog in the machine. So maybe we’re not quite trained right for the things we’re being asked to design now, which start from the domestic sphere. Now that’s incredibly exciting, because we get to look at other disciplines for where we should learn our craft, and maybe that’s character animators, child psychologists, cartoonists, or architects of intimate domestic spaces instead of office buildings.
RH: Just to wrap up with one final question, we’re here in the Architectural Association, have you got any advice for young designers about to graduate into the big wide world?
MW: One of the things that impressed me when I discovered the web was the number of architects who work on it. And I started asking them why they were so well adapted to work on the web, in this brand new medium. I got lots of different answers, but one of the things that struck me was that architects reallyÂ understand how people -Â and specifically groups of people -Â respond to the structures and spaces around them and how they move through different spaces that have different expectations on them. We’re going to be in a world where there’s going to be brand new technology around us which responds to our expectations, and responds to our behaviour, which we will experience in groups. Architecture is fantastic training for that, so,Â know no boundaries.
A big thank you to Matt for his time.
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 was held at the Architecture Association on Friday the 26th of November, 2010. If you missed it, a video archive of the presentations is available in four parts (1,Â 2,Â 3,Â 4) on the AA website. See also my interview with organisers Geoff Manaugh and Liam Young.
Posted: December 20th, 2010
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Images of the Earth from space hold a profound ability to illicit philosophical reflection. They lead us to position ourselves within the vast timeline of the universe and to question our place within it. They force a big-picture view of humankind’s achievements and contributions, and prompt speculation on the future of our species. These images contain a radical power to shape our collective consciousness, acting as a mobilizing force for the shared beliefs and moral attitudes of society.
So far this collective consciousness has been shaped for the better. Although only a small handful of individuals have witnessed these sights first-hand, the widespread dissemination of these images of the Earth from space has variously been credited with catalyzing the environmental movement, global action on policy, and spurring transnational collaboration.
The most influential of these images is Earthrise, an ‘unscheduled’ photo taken by the astronauts of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968 while scouting for landing sites on the Moon. It was the first time our planet was seen to rise above the horizon of another. Commander Frank Borman later recalled the moment as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me’. The tiny, solitary blue sphere, surrounded by darkness, spoke of the fragility of Earth and the need to nurture it. It adorned the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog where it was described as having ‘established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness’ and became the icon of Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’, a call for international cooperation on issues of global importance. 
In his 2008 book Earthrise: How man first saw the Earth, Robert Poole reflects upon the almost-instant effect this image””and the similar Blue Marble photograph released in 1972””had in forging our collective conscience for the environment. ‘As soon as the Earth became visible [”¦] it began to acquire friends, starting in 1969 with Friends of the Earth. The years 1969-72 saw no fewer than seven major international environmental organizations come into being.’ Released at a time when knowledge and awareness of the harmful effects of pollution on our atmosphere was rapidly spreading, these images of the Earth from space gave the environmental movement a tangible symbol to fight for.
Another NASA photograph, known as the Pale Blue Dot, inspired one of the most reflective and deeply moving passages on our position within the Universe. Voyager 1, having completed it’s primary mission and upon leaving the Solar System, turned its cameras around and directed them back to Earth from a record distance. Within the image, Earth takes up 0.12% of a single pixel, set against the vastness of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan, who requested the photograph, wrote of it in 1990:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. [”¦] Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. [”¦] To me, [this image] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. 
Despite Sagan’s insistence that ‘this is where we make our stand’, images from space increasingly offer us the possibility of another home. Neil Armstrong’s stirring ‘one small step’ moonwalk in 1969 collapsed the science fiction idea of colonizing other planets and demonstrated it as a scientific possibility. But even more tellingly, when NASA returned to the Moon in 1971, they brought with them the ultimate symbol of home and American independence: the automobile. The photos of the lunar lander, with a flag firmly planted and the rover parked outside, made the potential of colonizing space a future we could grasp and relate to. This was the lunar equivalent of the proud suburban homeowner, standing outside, with the American flag adorning the porch and the Chevy in the driveway.
Colonization of the Moon did not take place; instead, our sights are set on the next frontier. Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program to return to the moon reveals a renewed focus for NASA directed toward sending a man to Mars. Russian cosmonauts are currently in a replica living module for two years, while doctors and scientists monitor the physical demands required for the long journey to the red planet. China, India and the UK have each established their own space agencies to cooperate on this ambitious undertaking. Current estimates suggest humans could walk on Mars in the 2030s.
While much of the same 60s-style inspirational rhetoric of a brave new era of scientific discovery is being used to galvanize voters and justify the costs – the reasons for going today are vastly different. We are building the ark. With the recent development of the capacity to wipe ourselves out””through either global epidemic, nuclear apocalypse, or environmental revenge brought on by human-driven climate change””the single frightening reason to colonize other planets is to ensure the survival of our species. As Stephen Hawking said in the Telegraph, ‘I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.’  While evoking the spirit of Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s oft-quoted justification for space exploration of 1911””‘the Earth is man’s cradle, but one cannot live in the cradle forever’””Hawking’s version is deeply pessimistic, and tantamount to giving up on the Earth.
The habitation of Mars demands we prepare for the possibility of a negative impact upon our collective consciousness, rolling back the effects of the recent period of image-driven planetary enlightenment. Demonstrating that we can live on Mars shows that we have another home, and may give cause for carelessness here on Earth. Carl Sagan’s inspirational text accompanying the Pale Blue Dot comes unstuck, as his reasons for nurturing Earth are based on the absence of an alternative.
While not exploring space for fear of discovering evidence of an alternative ‘home’ that may be detrimental to our worldview would be shortsighted, we need to prepare for this possibility and challenge it with new images. But what kinds of images can compete with the inspirational power of a glimpse at the new frontier? In the last issue of Volume tech guru and former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog Kevin Kelly gave a surprising answer to this question, asserting ‘one of the biggest agendas we should have is to get a picture of the whole Earth.’  Now hang on, surely we already have one of those. Stewart Brand’s famous campaign of badges asking ‘why haven’t we seen a photo of the whole Earth yet?’ led to the publication of the Blue Marble, a definitive picture of the whole Earth if ever there was one.
However, the Blue Marble is a photograph, and nothing more. Its impact on our collective consciousness was driven by aesthetics alone, and therefore its usefulness beyond that of an icon is limited. As the estimated threat of global warming becomes larger, our need to thoroughly understand our planet’s climate system becomes increasingly critical. Kelly is not asking for a photo, but a global atmospheric monitoring system.
Such a system was once almost realized. As Stewart Brand explains, Al Gore as US Vice President in 1998 proposed DSCOVR, ‘a space camera that would provide a constant real-time, high resolution video of the Earth turning in the sunlight, both for inspiration and for science.’  Although ridiculed by Congress as ‘Al’s screensaver’, the project found support in the National Academy of Sciences who proposed loading up the satellite with instruments to measure ‘variations in the Earth’s ozone levels, aerosols, water vapor, cloud thickness, and the reflected emitted radiation””the total energy budget””of the whole planet.’
The module was built and ready for launch in 2001, but was blocked by the incoming Bush administration who were hostile to Gore and climate science in general. If ever launched by the Obama administration, as promised, the information it generates could lead to a new understanding of the interconnectedness of our global ecosystem. More importantly, it could expose the hollow ignorance of climate change denialists and drive a more constructive convergence of global efforts to head off catastrophic global warming.
When it comes to generating new images, architects too can help. We are the image-makers for Earth, but rarely do our images inspire shifts in collective consciousness. We need to work on creating compelling images of our future here, to ‘sell’ our planet back to ourselves, by creating visions that both allow and invite us to stay home and care for our planet. Like the hoped-for composite data relayed from DSCOVR, we need to produce images with depth; multiple layers that both offer inspiration and enable a path toward a tangible solution.
Some projects reach for this illusive objective by simultaneously capturing a future narrative and providing the infrastructure to achieve it. What most architectural propositions lack is a global perspective, a barrier most famously transgressed by the quintessential global thinker Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s Whole Earth Game and global energy grids examine the crises we face on the scale required to deal with them. This spirit has been most recently evoked by OMA/AMO in the Roadmap 2050 plan for a distributed energy creation and transmission network stretching across Europe between Norway and North Africa.
OMA’s plan assigns specific regions to be equipped with the infrastructure best suited for local renewable energy generation – such as wind turbines in the Netherlands, tidal generators in the North Sea, hydroelectric dams in the French Alps, and solar power plants in North Africa. The energy generated is subsequently shared based on seasonal demand, an infrastructural collaboration that would transform Europe from the collection of nations with competing interests it is today into an integrated organism. It is Spaceship Earth in practice, deployed to head off one of Earth’s greatest challenges.
One need not have global reach to convey a global perspective. A single building, MVRDV’s Dutch pavilion for expo 2000 in Hanover, offered a compact, stacked ecology of diverse landscapes and inhabited spaces. This mini-ecosystem is an optimistic sign for the capacity of architecture to recast itself as a generator of sustainable energy and agriculture rather than merely a drain on resources. Despite its limited size and impact, it is clear how such a prototype could be expanded. What unites both these projects by MVRDV and OMA is the capacity to exploit the narrative potential of the image to reinforce their claims.
Yet projects of this sort are difficult to spot among the wasteland of excess and consumption, leading to the question of whether architecture really is up to the task. Perhaps, as Stewart Brand has argued, we need a new kind of designer, one who transgresses disciplinary boundaries to look for the shortcuts to action and results. A planetary architect, who can bridge the worlds of image making and global thinking; to create images with the instrumental and inspirational depth to convince and enable us to stay here on Earth.
 Buckminster Fuller explored this concept most substantively in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963). Although published five years before Earthrise, the photo was subsequently used on the cover of later editions.
 Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Westminster: Ballantine Books, 1994).
 Roger Highfield, ‘Colonies in space may be only hope, says Hawking’, Daily Telegraph, October 16, 2001.
 ‘Infinite Faith’, Kevin Kelly interviewed by Yukiko Bowman and Julianne Gola, Volume 24: Counterculture.
 Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), p. 279.
This piece first appeared in the Moon issue of Volume magazine.
Posted: December 5th, 2010
Comments: 2 »
Last Friday, London’s Architectural Association was taken hostage by the future. Not that this institution is unfamiliar with the speculative or unknown, but the particular futures on offer came from a far more radical place for this venerable academy; beyond architecture.
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2, the second event of a trilogy coordinated by Liam Young of Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, brought together design provocateurs, futurist/magicians, countercultural heroes, digital dream-makers, psychogeographic flaneurs, the former leader of a dystopic free state, amongst others (full list of speakers here) – none of whom are architects in the traditional sense. What links these design radicals together is an intensive focus on the future as a project, each deploying the tool of fiction to scratch out new spaces outside of our current reality.
I spoke to organisers Geoff and Liam in a noisy Italian restaurant following the nine-hour marathon day of presentations to explore further their vision of the future for architecture, and what architects can stand to learn from exposing themselves to an expanded scope of references.
Rory Hyde: I wanted to start by asking about the title, it’s clearly not ‘the post-digital city in the neo-liberal landscape’ or something, in fact it doesn’t seem to have an explicit theme at all, but simply to be pulling together all things interesting, thrilling or wondrous. What version of architecture are we talking about here?
Liam Young: The title actually comes from a pulp science fiction magazine launched in 1929 and which ran all the way through the golden era of sci-fi up until 1955. Our interest in that a publication was that it catalogued a series of visions of the future that are very iconic of the age of which they come from. Nothing dates like images of the future I suppose, but in that dating you can see the consequences and the context of which they were made much more clearly. So these Thrilling Wonder Stories are emotive, full of whimsy, they explore speculative fictions as a design enterprise, and in doing so they both project what things could be, and at the same time they talk about the way things are now in a really unique and interesting way.
RH: This idea of the ‘now’ seems to connect to your work Geoff. Liam introduced you as an ‘archaeologist of the present’””a title I like very much””and you presented rats as a way of understanding the architectural history of New York; fossilised Playstation controllers as a projected discovery of today by a future race; and the idea of ‘animal printheads,’ or bees that can create concrete honey. Many of these ideas have their source in truth, as read (or mis-read) in the newspaper or scientific journals. Is truth stranger than what we can invent, and somehow more interesting?
Geoff Manaugh: Well, one of the many things we were trying to do with this event was to look at fictions which are stranger than truth, but also to leave open the possibility that truth can be stranger than fiction. After all, they both feed into one another. The imagination of new storylines, plots and fictional cities can often produce extraordinary things, as if out-doing reality, but then something comes along and you learn something absolutely wonderful about an archaeological site, or you learn about a new project underway somewhere in the real world today, or you learn about what Nicola Twilley was presenting in her talk, about the smell of the moon being accidentally discovered by the Apollo astronauts only to be lost on their return to Earth. These stories have something by virtue of the fact that they are real””they have a particular kind of relationship to the truth, precisely because they are historical, not mythological. So, again, it works both ways.
RH: The other term that kept popping up today is ‘narrative.’ I guess that for myself coming from the more professional world of architecture, it’s not really a term that comes up in the office for instance. Of course today we’ve had presentations from comic book artist Antony Johnson, computer games writer Edward Stern, and the author Will Self; all people who think about plot and narrative experience in a very intimate way. Do you think that narrative is something which is overlooked in the professional architectural world?
LY: I think narrative has always been a part of architecture, as has fiction, the critical thing is though that there are certain points in history within the canon of architecture that it has made more sense than others. The original magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories comes from a point in time when we were intoxicated with potentials of the technologies of war, before the horrors of war onset, but then postwar America killed narrative, and it became about rationalism. A similar thing happened in Germany where German Expressionism and the narrative impulse was killed by Mies and German rationalism. And then it pops up again with Archigram and Ant Farm in the 60s, where there’s a speculation about new technologies and embracing them to see where they could take us, but then that kind of dies off again in the 70s with Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, who’s work is more about a fantasy of the imagination, not so much about narrative.
I think there’s something about where we are now that fiction and narrative starts to make sense again. Just the scale of support for BLDGBLOG and other genres of architectural discussion suggest that right now is a moment when narrative, fiction, speculation and the future can again become a project.
RH: I guess that leads onto the question which is that you guys both teach””Geoff more sporadically all over the world, and Liam here at the AA””what kind of architects are you training, and what kind of architects do you think we need today? In the background of this question I’m thinking of the recent debate over the legitimacy of the architectural blog and what’s presented on these blogs, as opposed to traditional architectural criticism, which may look at capital ‘A’ architecture, or architects who have large practices who build large public buildings. It doesn’t seem to me like you guys are interested in that, but also suggests that there might be space for architects who can exist outside of this system.
GM: Speaking only for myself, with my background as the author of BLDGBLOG and with the kind of ideas that I tend to cover there, it might come as something of a surprise to learn that, when I’m teaching, I actually tend not to push my students down a path where they’re all suddenly forced to write science fiction novels, or they all have comic books coming out instead of buildings. I guess I see it as my responsibility as an educator to find ways to bring outside ideas and influences into the classroom, things that my students might not otherwise be looking for””but, at the end of the day, they are in an architecture department and they are looking for a certain kind of spatial education.
For me to pretend that they’re actually enrolled in the English department, and that they’re actually here to write short stories or to design video game environments or to work on films””I think that would be a misunderstanding of my role as their teacher. In other words, I think my role is to be a kind of conduit between the inside and the outside, and to show up in class every morning with recommendations for things that might give my students cool ideas, whether that be a film or an ancient myth or an archaeological report or a science fiction novel. In fact, I think this is a really important aspect of architectural education today: to show how advanced spatial ideas and design concepts exist outside of the academy, outside of the architectural press, and outside of built forms altogether. At the end of the day, though, I don’t think I’m trying to train architects who are incapable of putting buildings together, where all they can do is sit around reading comic books all day. That’s definitely not my goal.
RH: Certainly the symposium today wasn’t just about pure speculation, it wasn’t an abandonment of the real world. There was even a lot of talk about market realities; Matt Webb from BERG London spoke about ‘making magic’, but he’s also interested in the way people will use it, and interested in appealing to people’s human senses because there’s a market in that. Edward Stern also discussed a similar ambition to create a unique experience, while acknowledging his obligation to sell computer games. Do you think that architects can apply this same logic in the professional world, to find the gaps inside their traditional commission to insert some kind of extra layer of interest, or an extra layer of criticality, or a bigger idea?
GM: I think there is a way to do that. In fact, a lot of architects are already inserting these sorts of Thrilling Wonder Stories-like, non-traditional ideas into their projects; they just aren’t necessarily being academically recognised for their work. You mentioned the idea of the market, and I think you would simply be catering to a different market, a different clientele. And what they want from architecture is pretty profoundly different from what the academy wants from architecture””and it’s not nearly as dumb as the academy makes it out to be.
I guess if you’re trying to do a kind of trigonometric extension of the canon into the future, and to imagine where might we be in fifteen years based on how the canon currently exists, then you’re going to produce a very referentially limited type of architecture. But if you pursue a line of design that might have some narrative in it, and it might even have some kitschy or gamey elements in it, then it might not sit well with Mies van der Rohe, but it would still be a really exciting direction for architecture to go in.
LY: I think for us there’s also a very big difference between fantasy and speculative fiction. Fantasy is about removing oneself from context and disappearing into another world, whereas speculative fiction involves some kind of relationship with something familiar and from that point you project beyond. I think that in terms of operationalising that within architectural practice it actually becomes a really interesting territory for architects to start to work in, because architects traditional field of operation often takes so long for an idea to become reality.
For the sole output of an architect to be built form, for the sole practice of an architect to involve excel spreadsheets, talking to consultants, builders, all those sorts of things, really limits the nature of how we can operate within the world. But by dealing with a fictional project””not a fanciful project””but one that is actually engaging with emerging conditions or emerging technologies, we’re able to engage with it much more immediately than we could if we waited for those technologies to filter down into the market to the point where we’re actually building objects. I think it means we can operate with much more dexterity if we open up the gamut of what an architectural practice is, and not constantly see things as being solely about the means towards an endpoint that relies on a physical object produced.
RH: I guess just to wrap up with one final thought on this ‘expanded discipline’ or expanded range of sources for the discipline, is that what’s always surprised me working in practice is that clients don’t bring with them the baggage of architectural training or architectural history, so to work outside of that is nothing shocking to them, and actually to work inside of that canon, to bring that baggage of references””of the seemingly arcane history lectures that are fed to us at school””is unusual in the real world. So to me the agenda you are both promoting through events like Thrilling Wonder Stories feels both at once like a challenge to the architectural tradition, but more like a correction.
LY: Architects are amazing self-censors. We put the parameters around our profession much more than anybody else does. Part of my teaching practice, when I get students in their final year of study, is very often about unlearning all the things they expect from their architecture degree, and opening up the possibilities of what it could be. And that’s part of the game, to try and subvert the idea of what they think they’re supposed to be doing, which is a culturally constructed form of what the architect is, and actually thinking on a project by project basis or thinking completely within a set of interests that the student might have to determine where they want to take their practice as an outcome of their own world view.
RH: Well I think it’s an exciting time for redefining what the architect and what the profession is, so congratulations on a successful day and on pulling together such a great range of speakers, and I’ll let you get back to your dinner!
Thrilling Wonder Stories 2 was held at the Architecture Association on Friday the 26th of November, 2010. If you missed it, a video archive of the presentations is available in four parts (1, 2, 3, 4) on the AA website. A big thanks to Geoff and Liam for their time.
Posted: December 1st, 2010
Comments: 4 »
If we think beyond our lifetimes, buildings start to seem like good investments. The late 19th and early 20th century building schemes of Amsterdam have given us and this city such a generous inheritance. The people who built these buildings (Berlage, Kramer, de Klerck) are long gone, even those that took up their mantle in the 60s and 70s are either gone (Van Eyck) or on their last legs (Herzberger, Bosch).
Now, we have the pragmatic cynicism of MVRDV, the ironic forms of OMA, and the digital fetishism of UN Studio. Even architects who claim to be about the physicality of ‘building’””Claus en Kaan, Neutelings Riedijk””suffer from a fussy obsessiveness that sucks all the humanism out of it anyway.
What is driving this? When did quality or liveability or social connectivity cease to be enough? Our contemporary ‘cleverness’ seems to be directed at peer acceptance and media exposure, not to healthy cities. The only group bold enough to acknowledge this agenda are the New Urbanists, who seem to be universally mocked by the profession (although very popular with city mayors).
This may be tending toward the clichÃ©d nostalgia of Jane Jacobs””that ‘new ideas need old buildings’””but I don’t think this issue is about new versus old at all, however it does have to do with time. We may live in a far more complex age than 100 years ago, and our cultural artefacts such as architecture should reflect this. But if we build for timescales that are seemingly inconceivable””beyond our lifetimes for instance””then the urge to ‘express our age’ should fully recede, and we can get back to providing quality neighbourhoods of which the requirements have barely changed at all in centuries.
All photos taken in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid, masterplanned by H.P Berlage between 1904 and 1925.
Posted: November 17th, 2010
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Needless to say, its been a bit quiet around here lately. The longer I left this thing laying fallow, the more frightening the thought of updating had become. There’s no excuse, I’ve just been spending an unjustifiable amount of time on twitter. In an attempt to catch and move on, here follows a roundup of what I’ve been up to since the tumbleweeds rolled in:
Al Manakh 2 is out
The really big book on the architecture, urbanism, economy, society and culture of the Gulf region of the Middle East, that has consumed my life for most of my time here in Amsterdam, is out now.
I formed part of the production team at Archis/Volume, contributing research, a handful of blog posts and a number of articles and illustrations, particularly focused on the role of foreign consultants. A full list of my contributions is over here.
It was an incredibly rewarding experience to work on such an ambitious undertaking. With four editorial partners (Archis, AMO, NAi and Pink Tank) more than 120 contributors, plus the designer Irma Boom, the barrage of emails was unrelenting. I had never worked on a project which held such high ambitions for quality and depth. Every idea, text and illustration was interrogated and reworked seemingly countless times; and at least one big name critic had their piece rejected outright.
Although the book is focused on the Gulf, more than anything it explores the role architecture and urbanism plays in larger systems of global finance, politics, sociology and heritage; concepts which are important today the world over. If you haven’t flicked it or seen it, I urge you to pick one up.
Related to this, editor of Al Manakh Todd Reisz and myself have recently begun a weekly column for the US news website Huffington Post. We’re still finding our feet, but so far it seems to be a great way to expose some of this research buried deep within the 500+ page tome to a broader audience. All our articles so far and an rss feed are collected on our bio page.
There is also a robust and critical discussion of our piece on Dubai-bashing – which has attracted the most attention (and heat) so far – over on the excellent blog Mammoth. Big thanks to Stephen and Rob.
Finally, fellow Volume-er Timothy Moore and I have written an opinion piece for Architecture Review Australia on lessons to be learned from Qatar. Titled ‘Give Us Vision‘, it tackles the shortfalls of democracy today in delivering large-scale public projects, and treads into some unsolicited territory toward the end.
Office for Unsolicited Architecture
The previous post from almost a year ago was written just as I was coming to terms with the concept of ‘unsolicited architecture’. Since then, I took on a part time position with the Netherlands Architecture Institute to set up and manage a small studio in Amsterdam that would try to turn the largely untested concept of unsolicited architecture into a legitimate practice model. To create the Office for Unsolicited Architecture for real.
Well, at least that’s what I thought the brief was when I got into it. Unfortunately this never eventuated, and despite months of work and countless meetings, it became clear (to me at least) that something as inherently independent and potentially critical as unsolicited architecture will always run into conflicts with a large publicly-funded institution such as the NAi.
Having said that, it had some great moments. Working with Anneke Abhelakh was an absolute pleasure, and together with the brilliant DUS Architects we produced two related projects which I’m particularly proud of.
In the short film Unsolicited Proposals for the City of Rotterdam, we dash around town pasting over municipal project announcement boards, revising them to express our own suggestions of how to make them more sustainable, more social and more exciting. A plan to fix up the lake in the park becomes a wellness resort for the homeless; a plan to fix up the docks becomes an algae farm and power plant; maintenance on a green-banked canal becomes an urban golf course. Thanks to filmmaker extraordinaire Emile Zile, all of our embarrassing appeals to the camera and cheesy stunts are captured in high fidelity.
To back up our unsolicited proposals, and to prove that we were not messing around, we came back to Rotterdam the following night and assembled the Bucky Bar. This geodesic umbrella dome is the brainchild of Hans, Hedwig and Martine of DUS, who’s interest in temporary, spontaneous architecture as an armature for social activity can be traced through much of their work, most notably their Gecekondu pavilion which popped up all over Amsterdam last summer.
With a short spell of rain, enough to prove the concept but not dampen enthusiasm, our party inside the glowing red dome was excellent. Without the proper permits for the structure and the licence to serve alcohol (they proved prohibitively expensive and slow to obtain for a project of this type), we fully expected to be shut down within minutes. But the generous local constabulary turned a blind eye until well after midnight when the noise complaints started to roll in. As was the point of the project – beyond a good party of course – we showed that events like this need not be perceived as threatening, and regulated as such, but that spontaneity can contribute positively to the urban experience.
Finally, the Office for Unsolicited Architecture was invited to produce an ‘action’ for the Australian Institute of Architects national conference in Sydney. The concept was to host interviews or further unpacking of ideas off the main stages. With Timothy Moore, we developed a set of chairs with very high backs that could be arranged to form small interiors, giving enough privacy to add focus to a conversation. They also acted as an exhibition in their own right, with slogans for unsolicited architecture printed on the backs. Photos of the project are here.
We also put together a ‘bootleg’ issue of Volume, which featured new texts on unsolicited, and some articles from the archive dealing with this idea. Only a small handful were printed and tied to the chairs. A pdf is available online to view here.
While it has been a bit quiet on this front lately, there are plenty of ideas for more projects and stunts in the pipeline, as is often the case, it’s just a matter of finding the time to actually do them. But most importantly, I see ‘unsolicited’ as simply an attitude or approach shouldn’t belong to any one particular office, but is a strategy to be deployed by anyone.
With all this research, writing and unsolicit-ing, it may look like I’ve abandoned the main game: building. To an extent that’s true. After a number of setbacks the last few years – one project was denied a planning project outright, another 2 were cancelled due to the economy, all were very far along – I’ve started to feel a little disillusioned by all that work amounting to nothing. Of course, for any architect, this is just business as usual; with every built project there are dozens that will never see the light of day. Perhaps I just have to come to terms with that.
At any rate, I’ve been working for the best part of the last year on the design of an advertising agency here in Amsterdam. The construction documents are done, the tenders are coming in (within the ballpark) and the final disputes with the municipality over planning are slowly coming to a resolution. It’s all very exciting. We should be on site in the next few months if all goes well.
Despite this lack of physicality of late, it was very gratifying to be included in Wallpaper magazine’s Architects Directory. (I’m interpreting it as a sign of faith in what may come, so the pressure is on.) For the feature, each of the architects were invited to design a compact and sustainable infill terrace house. I proposed the ‘Many Happy Returns’ house, which gives back to the owners and their surrounds socially, economically and environmentally, by introducing new uses into the standard envelope. A kind of ‘house as public building’.
Also, on the built front, when I went back to Australia for the conference, I finally got to visit Susie’s Pavilion, which was completed a month or so after I headed over here to Europe. It sits really well on the site, the timber is weathering back nicely, the slide is steep enough to be a bit scary, and most importantly the kids love it.
And finally for this section on ‘real’ architecture, I put together a competition bid for an Arctic Research Base with friends Toby Natrass-Pond and MB-Studio. We found some great old drawings of Mawson’s hut, which relied on snow as an insulator, and designed an inflated bubble which gets covered in snow. Maximum space, minimal cost, I thought it was a nice idea, but needless to say we didn’t win.
A quick list of some other random projects and writing from the past year:
One reason for getting this blog ship-shape and up-to-date is that I hope to post some reports from a couple of exciting events coming up in the next few months. I’m heading to Berlin to crit a studio for Michael Roper and James Staughton at AEDES. Amy and I have our press passes for the Venice Architecture Biennale vernissage where I’ll be grabbing the big hitters by the elbow and sticking a mic in their faces for The Architects. Finally, I’m very pleased to have been invited to report from Helsinki Design Lab 2010, a conference/workshop examining the confluence of design and governance put together by Bryan Boyer and his colleagues at Sitra.
If you’ve made it this far, I apologise, this has been an exercise in satisfying my own peace of mind more than sharing anything of general interest or worth. Thanks for sticking with it nonetheless.
Posted: August 7th, 2010
Comments: 2 »
Why wait for the phone to ring? Architects, society needs your help! Act now! (And hope to get paid later.)
One of the more enduring themes running through Volume magazine is that of unsolicited architecture. This mildly aggressive term describes an alternative model of practice that is directed to social need, and not the whims of a client. The economic crisis has spurred a great deal of reflection upon the viability of a profession that is dependent upon commissions; not only are we financially exposed to the instability of the market economy, we perhaps feel a deeper crisis of relevance in only being able to react to a clients wishes. Despite our skill and experience in manipulating space and material, we are impotently incapable of addressing the needs of society unless we have first been explicitly asked to do so.
As Arjen Oosterman explains in the editorial of the issue devoted to this subject, architects need to “redefine their role, transform themselves from extremely competent executors of assignments into entrepreneurs and producers.” Of course, he outlines, architects used to be far more socially motivated, particularly in the post-war boom of social housing and reconstruction across Europe. However by the end of the 20th century, the discipline had become increasingly marginalised, “[t]he architect as social engineer, as organiser of social relationships, as the one who inspires political decisions, as a professional power player in the game of spatial distribution appears to be a remarkable intermediate phase in architecture’s century-long development.”
Volume 14 also contains a description of a potential ‘Office for Unsolicited Architecture’, produced as part of a studio at MIT led by Ole Bouman in 2007 and edited by Andrea Brennen, John Snavely and Ryan Murphy. In my mind, the most potent explanation of this office is the chart ‘How to Make Unsolicited Architecture.’
Image: How to Make Unsolicited Architecture, Volume 14, 2007, p.33. Click for large.
Establishing the 4 pillars of a traditional architectural commission – client, site, budget and program – the chart declares that unsolicited architecture operates in the absence of at least one of these. Thereby making the project undesirable or even impossible to tackle using the standard tools of the commercial practice. The chart also reinforces the role of reality in the production of an unsolicited project. And here comes my favourite bit: “If you design the object without the financing, you’re an academic; if you design the marketing without the object you’re a politician; if you design the financing without the object, you’re a capitalist.”
This is arguably what separates unsolicited architecture from so-called speculative or paper architecture. While Archigram’s visions of a walking city may have addressed a social need – for free and undetermined public event space – without financing or marketing, it comes across as entertainment. Which is of course, what it was intended to be, to the extent that it was even presented in comic book form. Which is also not to say that entertainment cannot inspire a real project, but that the strength of the unsolicited rests in its very tangible potential to be pursued through to realisation with the right political, financial and public support in place.
Here follows a brief selection of projects that I see as operating in an unsolicited manner, although they may be produced by practices with a traditional organisational and financial structure. Indeed, unsolicited architecture need not be a threat to standard practice, but can operate alongside, and even be produced by practices that otherwise fund their activities through commissions.
No client, budget or political will – PLOT (BIG & JDS) Clover Block, 2007
PLOT (now BIG & JDS) produced this scheme in response to a housing shortage in Copenhagen that was forcing out the lower wage earners crucial to the city’s function. In typical fashion, they introduced 3000 new apartments in a perimeter block wrapping the KlÃ¸vermarken park, thereby inject[ing] public life to the area ”¦ without sacrificing a single football field.”
Their next step was to generate some public discussion by promoting it in the media. This broadcasting and marketing stage is central to the unsolicited process – when you don’t have a client or the political power to execute it alone, getting the public behind your cause can generate the necessary momentum.
However in this case, the tactic seems to have backfired. After much attention and public support, instead of the handing PLOT the commission, the government invited 7 other teams to make proposals for the site. Despite their advanced scheme, PLOT were awarded second place, losing out to another scheme that seems to have just shuffled the new housing blocks into the corners.
Winning KlÃ¸vermarken redevelopment proposal by KLAR arkitekter and others.
The PLOT project demonstrates that although unsolicited architecture is directed to the social need, it is not necessarily a purely altruistic undertaking. Despite offering to provide much-needed new housing, their motives were clearly also driven by the desire to generate a new (very large and potentially lucrative) project for the office. If the outcome is the same, this is fine by me.
No budget, no client – NL Architects ‘Paid Parking’, 1994
(Cheers to Michael at NL for sending through this one from the archive.)
Although probably categorised as ‘speculative’, NL Architects ‘Paid Parking’ project is interesting as it proposes an alternative means of financing. Instead of paying to use a carpark, you are paid by a company (in this case Mazda) for your contribution to the formation of their logo, which is located under the aerial gaze of the Schipol airport flight path. While building yet another carpark hardly addresses what would typically be considered ‘social need’ (although it might), more importantly it represents a potential model for unsolicited projects that lack a traditional client and budget.
No client, no political will – Harmen de Hoop and Recetas Urbanas
Image: Harmen de Hoop, Basketball Court #6, Amsterdam, 1992
Not surprisingly, unsolicited projects flourish at the very small and very ‘community’ end of the spectrum as urban interventions, largely because they can be constructed affordably by the designers themselves.
Rotterdam-based activist/artist Harmen de Hoop (also featured in Volume 14) has amassed an archive of micro-interventions in the city, of which none have been solicited. His series of basketball courts (9 in total) comprise of painting the lines of a court on the ground in a public square without obtaining permission from the council in a subtle comment on the highly regulated nature of public space. If the square is too small, the court is simply cut off. In one instance, his guerrilla intervention was legitimised to an extent by the installation of a basketball hoop, albeit in the wrong place in relation to the court.
Image: Recetas Urbanas ‘Skips. Dumpsters’, 1997
The work of Spanish architecture studio Recetas Urbanas similarly flouts the regulations of public space by exploring bureaucratic loopholes as a starting point for design. The project ‘Skips. Dumpsters’, comprises of specific instructions for negotiating around complex planning and safely requirements in order to install a public see saw, by instead applying to locate a dumpster. The dumpster of course, is not used for rubbish at all, but has a see saw built on top of it.
This list is focussed on decidedly ‘urban’ and ‘developed’ conditions, intentionally overlooking the efforts of aid organisations in reconstruction and disaster relief as in a sense to be unsolicited is standard practice in these circumstances. Instead this lists intends to suggest opportunities for new forms of proceeding with a project that are not dependent on a client, a brief, financing or political will. Far from being an ambulance chaser, practicing unsolicited architecture enables a critical and autonomous view of the city and its issues. The tools of architecture and architectural thinking are only powerful if they can be unshackled from the increasingly marginalised opportunities to react to a given brief. In times like this, the chance of not getting paid for your efforts is perhaps one worth taking, and who knows, you might land the jackpot.
Posted: August 21st, 2009
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Architecture has to do something, to change something; it has to be an active participant. It has to encourage a heightened social engagement.
By aligning itself as an aesthetic discipline – of appearance not space; of image not use; of icon over agenda; and of authority over community – architecture has become an abstract mute backdrop. There are plenty of moments in real life where social interaction explicitly relates to physical space: moving large pieces of furniture, riding a see-saw, getting on a boat, going up a tall ladder (when someone has to hold the bottom), helping someone put on their coat, playing team sports, asking someone to take your photo, carrying the shopping with someone, etc. Could these be the source for a kind of socially engaged design?
Some recent projects seem to be drawing on these kinds of basic interactions as the basis for an architecture, creating opportunities for social transformation. Here are three I think really capture this idea:
Slides by Carsten HÃ¶ller
Photo by Phil Gyford on Flickr.
Belgian artist Carsten HÃ¶ller has been building slides in galleries since 1998, and were most famously installed in the turbine hall at the Tate Modern in 2007. Their location in the gallery clearly asserts them as sculptures, but more importantly, they beautifully produce this moment of social transformation. As described by the artist at a talk, “going down a slide is not so special in a sense, but it can make you feel like you are participating in something.”
Despite this simple and optimistic description, these pieces are produced out of frustration with an increasingly utilitarian society, where “other forms of seeing and acting have become almost impossible.” (Art Forum, 1999) In the face of this, the slides offer an opportunity to ‘let go’, a sense of ‘relief or even freedom’.
‘Merry-go-round’ coat rack by Weiki Somers
The ‘Merry-go-round coat rack’ designed by Weiki Somers perfectly captures the social opportunities of something that is usually so pragmatic.
Instead of handing your coat to an attendant (and usually along with some money), you unlock a rope from the circular pulley system, lower a coat hanger down from the ceiling, hoik it up, and lock your rope in place. Although this sounds altogether anti-social — as the attendant you once had to deal with has been replaced by a system of pulleys — the trick is that the empty coathangers have a habit of running away by themselves, requiring you to get someone to hold one for you while you approach with your coat. I sat and watched it for a while, and this arguably functional ‘problem’ seemed to illicit a certain childlike joy and exploration amongst the visitors. Some of these encounters are captured in this film.
Unstable Obstacle by Ludens
The Mexican practice Ludens led by Ivan Hernandez Quintela explicitly explores this social territory as a design inspiration, claiming that “all [his] projects are about the same thing: how we share space and how the objects that surround us affect the way we share it.”
One of the clearest and simplest expressions of this is the ‘Unstable Obstacle’, a roughly circular bench with a rounded base that requires the coordination of a number of people in order for it to become stable. While probably slightly confronting at first, the bench itself necessitates social exchange in order for it to function. Brilliant.
So, in hindsight,
you’d be hard pressed to call these projects ‘architecture’, sure they all deal with space, but probably lean more toward design and art. The question is then, how possible is it to create an ‘architecture for heightened social engagement’? I expect it would be pretty straightforward to use these kinds of moments as the basis for a house, but you might run into more difficulty designing an office tower. I think it’s different to Koolhaas’ ‘social condensers’ described in Delirious New York and deployed in Park de la Villette and the void at Lille, which are more about overlaying and intersecting of different programs to create spontaneous events. Anyway, it’s something I was thinking about while designing Susie’s Pavilion – which operates as a little social hub for kids – with a slide, a staircase forming a bandstand and interior. It would be great to hear of other projects that might fit this mold.
Posted: July 20th, 2009
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Barely days after the major stock market crash of October 2008, Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times’ architecture critic, had already declared it the exact time of death of the ‘icon era’. In his review of Zaha Hadid’s temporary Chanel pavilion installed in Central Park, he states that “if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional.” Everything seemed to run against Zaha: a high fashion house as client, themselves epitomizing the previous reign of wealth; the excessive formal language, constructed at enourmous cost; the temporary function of the project, reinforcing its own absurd disposability; and the pavilions placement in a public park, imposing it’s private commercial motives in the most civic of locations. Ouroussoff couldn’t have dreamed of a more ideal scapegoat for the preceding boom. The post icon era was well and truly upon us.
Zaha Hadid’s Chanel Pavilion in Central Park, October 2008
St Albans Pavilion Musuem by MUF, 1999-2004
Seven months on, it seems it has now become irresponsible, indulgent and egotistical to discuss what something looks like, let alone propose an icon. The Guardian reports the UK’s ‘next generation’ are “deliberately eschew[ing] what might be called the wow factor”, they’re “less interested in being stars”, and one architect is (peculiarly) rather proud of making the “project space and office furniture [all out of] the same plywood.” Claiming the same source of material as a design feature is surely the height of banality.
Which got me worried that the boom-bust pendulum might have swung too far already. We’ve gone from the idolism of the ‘starchitects’ – with talk of new forms, new software and new construction methods – to an almost blanket dismissal of these ideas in lieu of ‘sustainability’ and ‘modesty’. Which are of course, very good things – and about time architecture underwent its own ‘market correction’. But what concerns me is the underlying morality of the green and modest position, I just don’t think architects are very sincere when they’re trying to be ethical – it’s more about getting on a bandwagon in order to attract more commissions, which may not necessarily be the answer, especailly if we’re talking about modesty.
I also don’t think that architects are interested in doing ‘background’ buildings that don’t make a statement – I found it next to impossible to find a suitably un-iconic project by any of the firms listed in the Guardian piece to sit as counterpoint to Zaha’s swirling fantasy. Perhaps this is explained in part by the inherent sluggishness of architecture – in the timescale of a typical project (normally measured in years) the recent market crash has yet to register on the output. And of course, the ‘iconic’ position and the ‘modest’ position always coexisted (indeed the MUF project above predates Zaha’s), perhaps only now every new project is just prefaced with the label ‘sustainable’ or ‘modest’, when in reality there has been no fundamental change to the approach.
Besides, what’s wrong with being a star anyway? Students need people to look up to (so do I) and their (mostly) impressive ‘iconic’ projects bring attention to our work from beyond the discipline – which I would argue is good thing.
This piece was partly formed out of a discussion on The Architects’ 200th show spectacular, with Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott, Karen Burns, Paul Coffey and Christine Phillips. Link to podcast to come.
Posted: June 25th, 2009
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