The first is called Collective Impact: if you want to effect social change, the most effective and sustainable way to do so is through an aggregation and [alignment] of all social entities in a given area. For example, if you have a lower than average high school graduation rate, you should engage not only the school, but athletics, arts, churches, youth groups, parents, [and] PTAs to align them on overarching goals, share data, convene and foster collaboration, and collect those resources to push in the desired direction.
We see two possibilities: one, develop the city so that people would be more attracted to live there, or two, train local residents and young people in the necessary trades to obviate the need to import labor. In this way, we look at the social issue first, and then try to figure out how to solve it through economic incentive.
It’s instances like this where we get to think at a more macro-scale, asking: what role does an affordable housing project play in revitalization, and what role should planning play alongside the development? A 100% low-income housing project is not likely to have an effect on its own, in the absence of new parks, jobs, transportation, et cetera.
If I see optimism, it is in these budding YIMBY movements, and a generation of people [who] are willing to talk about race. I find more and more people [who] are willing to say, "diversity isn't just something that I'd like my kids to have in college." I don't know why magically, when they turn 18, diversity becomes important.
I think the affordable housing fight is really important. But, I do think there is a cultural shift that is going to happen in addition to these policy decisions that may be more important.
You have to ask yourself: what resources can we bring to bear, without exceeding our true capacity, what are the things that we routinely do and know we can do well? That is a big struggle and certainly a limitation.
I do think it is so important to be willing to strip down to how things should be, and try to learn something about the world we live in from a better understanding of the world that we should live in.
It's been spoken about for decades that the internet would have a decentralizing effect on labor, and we are now seeing that with new kinds of businesses like Uber or task aggregation services. Are there opportunities in those things, for design and the way that cities are structured? It's about starting with real challenges and opportunities and asking what are the spatial possibilities here in order to address them.
“What are the key things for livable cities?” I gave them the Copenhagen-style, good urban practice checklist: density, bike lanes, walk-ability, etc. After I started doing the work and putting the talk together, I realized, all these things are predicated on commuting! On the fact that your workplace is going to be distinct from your home, and that the city is divided up along these lines of commercial center and suburban perimeter.
Still, the mainstream thinking around architecture and planning is that sprawl is bad and it is going to drag us all under, and that density is good, and all the rest. But, actually, paradoxically, are the suburbs the future? Is the future really about density, or is that just what architects want? How do we respect what the public wants—their own free-standing home, their own land—and reconcile that with issues of sustainability and public service?
If we can decouple where we work from where are, do we end up with a whole new typology where actually suburbia becomes the model? It's a place with a bit more room for experimentation, with ambiguous, baggy space in-between buildings for testing new ideas; the future might lie in retrofitting suburbia to have some more of the characteristics that allow us to live, work, learn, look after each other, and develop new businesses.
To learn from other models, it might be that the architect that can work in that context is more like a general practitioner—like a local doctor. Instead of seeing ten clients a year, you might see ten clients a day. You might be dishing out very small spatial prescriptions to adapt that context into being more efficient economically or socially. So, inside of a shared work-space at the scale of these neighborhoods, I imagine a “general practitioner architect” who is charging one hour at a time, sitting down with a thick black pen and providing advice to ten people a day.
What they are absolutely not asking us to do is design anything. It is exciting and refreshing for a change to be called upon as a researcher, as someone who has a civic responsibility to the city as a whole, not just as somebody who is an author or a shape-maker.
Instead of having a huge staff of professional architects, which is a really deep and narrow set of expertise, you might create a lightweight organization. It might be two, three, four, five people, but it will gear up for particular projects to answer particular questions through collaborating with people on a temporary basis. Tools like Task Rabbit and the gig economy more broadly have only been used at the bottom end of the spectrum to squeeze the most value out of people's precarity, but what happens when you apply it to the upper-end?
They work in a legal architecture, not just a physical architecture. There is a legal world that they operate in, and it's not just zoning. It's the organization of governance, the organization of cities, the way cities relate to each other and to the state, where policies come from, etc. Thinking about the design of not just a city, but a group of cities, any metropolitan area, one has to think about who is deciding what about the future of the city. A lot of that decision making is done by the legal system.
What is public now? And how can architecture, law, and governance revive an idea of a public? Many people have a strong idea about what private is, but a vague idea of what public is. But much of government is thought about in private terms. Take the fee-for-service notion that you pay taxes to go to good schools—it's just like a market transaction. If we believe education is good for the country, then one should pay for it whether they have kids that go to school or not. Everyone should support education for the country. This leads to questions about school financing, government structure, and so on.
Once you have this ideas—to create a sense of the public in the built environment, the question becomes: who can do that? How can you organize it? Much of it can be done by the city, but the rest of it can be done by the state government. The state government is much more important to the organization of American cities than people realize. They set the powers: they establish what they can and cannot do.
Opening this up was an opportunity to imagine the legislative authority necessary to create that kind of environment.
It seems as though our public infrastructure is built out of ideas that are defined by states, which then give possibilities to cities, which then in turn give possibilities to individual buildings.
The focus has to be on the organization of the state legislature and the governor, because they set the stage for what the city can do, which sets the stage for what types of buildings can be made, and the types of transportation systems we can have.
But that's just some legal rule that could be changed tomorrow! It's not built in the world, right? Someone came up with that idea and put it in the local ordinance, and it's a local ordinance only because the state allows it, and the state could change the authorization of local zoning tonight! There's no reason to accept the current legal structure as being normal life, any more than the current architectural structures. We're at the end of history and that's what they're all going to look like.
Everyone thinks they're in a box, and therefore they draw within that box. I'm interested in the box, where the box comes from, and why we're in that box, and what's a better box, and who could change it. That's where we come to government: government has the power to change it. They did it in the first place, and they can change it. That's why I don't like the idea of abandoning government in the name of something else vague, warming and reassuring as it may seem.
A lot of architects say to me, "you know, architecture can't do everything." No one ever said it could! I mean, everything? You gotta be kidding. What they can do is a lot. But it can't be just that. It can't be just lawyers, or just sociologists, or just political scientists. You need to have all these people. This is the ultimate interdisciplinary topic.
We became more aware of our position, and asked: what do we want to to do? What is the reason for all architecture firms going bankrupt? What kind of architecture firm do we want to be?
When you look for a house, you start thinking, “I need 80 m2, I need a roof garden,” instead of thinking “I would like to live with a group of people that would have a roof terrace where we can share cars and grow our own vegetables.” We wanted to make people aware that collective thinking is more valuable than just adding individuals in a building.
As apartment prices go up and sizes go down, the need for collectivity and sharing increases. We asked, what if we designed the collective desire in addition to the individual desire, and used an online platform to identify the scope of these group intentions?
Who wants to invest in a collective energy system to make ourselves energy independent? Have a shared music studio? Have shared guest rooms for when friends and family visit? The Crowd Building platform allows people to ask these questions of their city.
We are aware, though, that it would be more interesting to look for uncommon and logical relationships…. What if the elderly, families, and students lived together? The student could hang a painting on the wall for the old guy. The old guy could take care of the children on a Sunday afternoon so that the parents can enjoy the theater. And, once again, the difference of people starts to make a small community. It is this diversity that allows the community to perform well and remain open to others.
There's a bit of programming that the architect can assist with so that the developer can afford to build the project. But as far as designing a financing structure—that is pretty far away from the architect's responsibility. But, being more cognizant of how these things are put together financially means that the architect has more credibility. If we know these things, we have a stronger voice at the table.
Building costs in the city are incredibly restrictive, which results in two things (and it's way more complicated than I'm describing). If buildings are more expensive, they need to be built in probably the most common or cheapest way possible. This is particularly true for affordable housing, which prioritizes getting as many units possible in a unit mix stipulated by the city.
In the city, it's "block and plank": a concrete and steel base with concrete block and precast concrete planks above. This type of construction has its own limitations for formal expression—that's why you see all these brick boxes around the city, and why two of the three projects we're doing right now are brick boxes. So then the question is, “Where is the formal opportunity within the technical system?”
It becomes about the clothing on that body: how do you wrap it, how do you compose a facade, how do you find something interesting in that relatively bracketed set of opportunities?
And then architects, who tend to like to conduct processes, try to take on the role of not just designing the building, but [designing] a policy or a process that not only empowers us but makes things better for others. Do we become the politicians? The policy makers? We're professionally trained to design and make buildings. It's a question of "scope-creep." Is the architect the best person to do that?
If we can build out of more systems, then we have more possibilities for formal expression, still at the right budget. If you told a really talented architect to do a building out of block and plank for this price per square foot, I don't know that they would come up with something that is fundamentally different. It might be better composed or nicer looking, because they're better designers, but it's not going to be a fundamental change in the way that we use that material to make the building. But if there were three or four systems by which you could build it, and they would all be on budget, you would get a much more diverse formal language of housing, even knowing that the units are relatively prescriptive (largely because of stringent accessibility code).
I think the structural problem here is that architects tend to accept the formulation of a project as presented by a client whether or not it’s complete or even understandable. A lot of times, some of the fundamentals at the very beginning of the process are either skipped by the client, or not articulated, or improperly translated into parameters which then become the architect’s problem to reconcile.
Because if the alternative generation or the design approach isn’t applied from the inception of the project (and not only is there an issue of lost design value), it often means that the architect is given a project that hasn’t been set up correctly, and then asked to resolve it under a fixed fee and a fixed schedule.
All because somebody is going to give them a pile of money that’s also in a clearly defined box. Fees and scope are strongly correlated to one another. A lot of value is lost, in my opinion, when you don’t bring a design sensibility to the earliest part of the process.
At some fundamental level, what you guys are talking about here is extending the realm of design to the left of the project’s schedule that we’re initially interacting with. Form and shape and texture and building expression are hyper-privileged, but it’s a very stunted definition of what the design problem is. Unless you want to be a sculptor.
But building code can start becoming performative instead. The reason we don't want tall buildings made out of wood is because we think they're going to burn. What we actually figured out is they don't burn, because their burning performance is x, which, properly constructed, is better than steel. So if the building code said, "Don't let the building burn, so people die, and the way you have to prove that is x, y and z," that's a lot more interesting, and provides a lot more opportunities for innovation than forcing everyone to build with steel. The whole attitude that you must make a building out of steel comes out of 1) it's a lot more difficult to write a performative specification that everybody can agree to, and 2) the building industry is known for relentlessly cutting corners.
The building industry largely doesn't make changes unless those changes occur from the greatest sources of influence, and clients are the greatest sources of influence in the building industry supply chain. They are the ones who makes the changes. Someone has to be willing to stick their neck out and say I'm willing to take a chance on this thing.
The government invests almost nothing in building-related research funding. Billions and billions of dollars are spent on tech, health, military stuff, but the government spends 1/10 of 1% of its entire research budget on things related to the built environment. So there's no money there. And as we talked about, the building industry itself is completely calibrated around lowest first cost. There are zero incentives. I'm going to spend extra money, on a project that's highly speculative, for which at least for a lot of things like safety or building systems, there's a higher likelihood of failure – so why am I doing this?
If we're still moving to the left of the continuum here, as far left of the continuum has to do with policy, it's social policy. Whether you're a politician or whatever, these are the priorities that our society has established for whatever reason around issues related to the built environment. There's no NIH of the built environment.
And the definition of interested in it is "I need a house, I need a performing arts center, etc." I mean it's definitely a question of the neoliberal economy.
But, at some level, the case has to be made – and it will not be made by architects alone, because we are a relatively small part of the overall system of the making of the built environment – that the built environment is of sufficient importance that society needs to invest in improvement and change. That's where we are at the far left of the problem, and all these ideas kind of branch off that fundamental proposition. Nobody really espouses that.
I hang out a lot with contractors, I'm a member of the AGC, I go to a lot of contractor meetings, and you've never seen a bunch of Republicans – and they're all Republicans – turn into socialists faster than when they hear about the Brits and their Secretary of Construction. Now we're at the edge of the flat earth, guys.
Forget about the architect's role in all this, if we really want to create these opportunities for the systemic improvement of the built environment, then the problem needs to rise to the level of social policy. Maybe there should be a Secretary of the Built Environment. There's a secretary of transportation because people decided that moving around was important. There's a secretary of the Interior because people decided that natural resources were important. Everybody in the whole goddamned country lives in a building.
It's very rare as a designer that you get invited into a position of power, or into the orbit of power, and that was an opportunity that was too big to pass up. Not from a craven power-hungry perspective, but from the position of, optimistically or maybe even naively, being able to have some impact on the way that government works.
If we had an interested collaborator inside government, we could say more than just "hey, let's try something new," we could say "let's try something new, and by the way, we're going to also contribute some funds, to de-risk it." I think that's the fundamental issue. If you're in the business of helping people to do things they're not used to doing, they get really concerned about risk, and it's your job to think about how to eliminate or mitigate the risks they perceive.
I think what this gets at is that in 2018, the relationship of client to designer to ultimate recipient of the work is more plural than it has been in the past. That's the case for traditional architecture as much as for the strategy work.
If you're an architect, some of the people who will encounter or use your work haven't even been born yet. So we have to develop a different way to produce the same kind of basis of evidence or source of competence to make design decisions, and I think there's a lot of room for architects to evolve some of the methodologies that have come out of the human-centered design world to be more appropriate towards urban scale questions. That’s the theoretical territory we're trying to operate in with our strategy work.
The Branch Libraries work and some subsequent work we've done for Civic Commons is really intended to create space for considering unknown alternatives. Those projects are meant to be delivered in a way that is just a little bit beyond the status quo, and it's a tricky balance to strike where we want stuff to feel different enough that the viewer or the reader perks up and says "Hey, I don't recognize this," but not so distant so that they can discount it and say that it's science fiction. So that's why with the library project and the civic commons film, you see a concern with more than just, "Hey it would be great if libraries could hover off the ground and create space for a market below and have an interesting green roof!" It's also about the way that collaborations between institutions snowball up to allowing those kinds of new things to happen. It’s not just the what, it's also the how.
So the way that I think about the work is that we're trying to create a media experience, some artifacts, some tools in the most basic sense, to give people the confidence to do something different tomorrow than what they did yesterday. And from that perspective, I don't think you have to build any of the buildings that we have in the proposal or even make the t-shirts that are in there. I think those are more indications of a direction, closer to a master plan than an architectural plan.
In a normal project, this would be a stopping point. However, because HDL occupied the fulcrum point between strategy and the delivery, my colleagues were able to say, “Great, let's find a way to change the laws,” and then spun up a parallel initiative to work with the Ministry of the Environment to rewrite some of the fire codes that were inhibiting the possibility of using large scale timber. In the end, they were successful in that, so today, you can build a tall building out of timber in Finland.
Our bent at Dash Marshall has been that we don't publish renderings or conceptual products, and we don't care if we make a great Powerpoint deck if it doesn't actually change anything. We are invested, optimistically and perhaps naively, in trying to improve the world in the way that we know how, and the modus operandi is to make the least bad, most flexible choices that we can make.