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.
I think that's right. Often in governments and large foundations like this, people want to make a change and they want to see things get better, but a lot of times there are too many cooks in the kitchen. You're fracturing dollars, fracturing efforts, but if you could get people to convene and talk, they could be much more effective and coordinate giving and impact.
School administrators don't know the mayor. School superintendents don't know people at local universities or vocational programs. These connections don't exist, and there is so much distrust between entities, that our objective is basically to just show objectively: this is what needs to happen, here's how we think it can happen.
I see myself more interested, today, in learning the business aspects of it, and how to implement it in the private sector in some capacity, whether it's directly through plastics or food waste reduction. All roads lead to policy, maybe not as a politician, but someone who influences policy in some direct way.
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.
You represent somebody that has goals and ambition and you try to effectuate that to the best of your ability. When you are representing clients that are under-resourced, or are volunteers, the waters get muddied.
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.
Future Practice was very much about architects. It was about saying, “there are so many other ways to do what you do, and other people to learn from that we seem to exclude.” Compared to many other design disciplines, architecture has this amazingly robust and consolidated academic and intellectual landscape, which is very self-contained. It was trying to crack that shell a little bit and expose what we do to other ways of working.
I felt like architecture wasn’t able to address any of the major challenges of our times—the financial crisis, social integration, religious tolerance, climate change, migration, housing crisis, or economic inequality—and what we needed to do was to redefine the practice and the tools that we can apply to those sorts of questions. It started out pulling me away from design, and actually, I think that it has brought me back to it in a much more fundamental way.
The next book, How to Make the Next City, is very much an outward-facing book in terms of its audience and its argument. It’s for a broader spectrum of built environment people. Yes, architects, but also hopefully planners, mayors, even clients. Rather than a critique of the discipline of architecture, it’s saying, “Let’s look at the big picture, how these things fit together, and see how we can use design to respond to social challenges.”
To me, alternative, diverse forms of practice are the ways we can address questions like this one. Today, the architect puts up a sign and waits for the phone to ring, or enters a competition, or take a tender. That model is only successful within a certain bandwidth. It is much more successful within urban centers, at the upper end of the economic spectrum.
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.
When I first came across Ole Bouman’s idea of unsolicited architecture in Volume magazine, it was presented as an activist form of architecture, a kind of aggressive recapturing of ideas–being subversive and on the fringes, all of those cool things. Now, I see it much more in a conventional sense: that actually, it’s the kind of thing that your city council should be supporting, and that it can create opportunities for all kinds of practices.
In a way, it is a public interest practice. They are not making money from winning projects. As a private organization, you might operate in an unsolicited manner, but there is a sort of broader role for those projects to be revealed and then thrown into the private sector, and maybe they end up going to competition, or being tendered for, or that kind of thing.
There is a sense that when a client wants something authored or finished, that is when they call an architect, after the brief has already been defined. We are not known for our strength in spatial research, even though, arguably, that's ninety percent of the job. We speak very little about it and we don't broadcast it at all. What you see on our websites and in our magazines is the finished photos!
That is what is really great about the Mayor's Design Advocacy program I am a part of. There's fifty of us, mostly architects, and it's interesting to look around the room. They are asking us to do research, to go out and speak to people, and to devise new mechanisms that the city government can implement. These might be policy changes or specific projects which can be set in motion.
As you said, these are spatial problems. But, the other way to turn it around is to say, all problems are spatial, and therefore, shouldn't architects or urbanists be involved in all kinds of things?
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.
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.
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 what about people outside that neighborhood who will also be affected? Why are they not part of the community? Where does the community begin and end? And who are these people? And what gives them the ability to represent the people in their neighborhood, let alone people outside of it? One thing that communities try to do is to keep everyone else out of the decision making process.
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.
At the time, there were no assignments, developers weren’t doing anything, and investors kept their hands out of their pockets. Out of that vacuum we had to come up with our own thinking. We were reflecting on what the role of the architect had been prior to the crisis, and in what way we may have been complicit in its cause. Excel sheets had been optimized to fit stereotypical user demands to eventually translate into architecture, which was just a means to make more money. It was not about the people.
And that is where we started framing the mission that we want to make architecture relevant for our end-users. If there is no end-user, there is no project. We started thinking from the individual towards the collective.
We looked at the abundant users on the internet and behaving on social media. This is not virtual reality as some might refer to, it is a part of reality that makes reality more real. We were trying to tap into that and actually find and trace online data in order to communicate to large groups of people that would enable us to configure communities and trigger individuals to start thinking as collectives.
When we exposed the potential end result—if they fell in love and wanted to know more— they grabbed us, and said, “Help me with this, let’s build up a project.” From that, we continued to build projects, and built the tools that built up the projects. That is how we emerged in part-time tech development and part-time architecture. And, the other part-time—process building—thinking out loud about sociological structures and behaviors.
We believe it is very logical to have people in an organized social structure that you actively care for, invest in, and gain from. At the same time, it is very logical to harness the internet and our behavior on the internet. It was an easy find, it was at our doorstep, and it is presently full of potential. We are riding that wave and exploiting the potential that is there. We have only just started.
Architecture is still a niche product. I think we have more to offer, but how do we get it to the people that actually need it? We started thinking about flipping the system. Instead of the developer at the top of the food-chain, it should be the end-user, describing his demands, his budget, and the outcome that would be an optimum fit. With www.WeBuildHomes.nl, we took this idea and inverted the development chain.
If we accept the fact that we are independent of context, independent of client, but actually do provide the project that our client desires, then we have a project and a client that would otherwise not have access to architecture.
In analogy to the App Store—WeBuildHomes is the App Store, Space & Matter is Apple, and the architects build the apps (or homes) that we sell. They upload their designs and we update them with user feedback. The library improves, quality improves, and costs are slowly reduced. The more successful WeBuildHomes, the higher the quality, the lower the costs.
This reverse thinking is a method to disrupt the classical way of development; our process allows architects to get a reward at the beginning of the trip rather than at the end, and allows end-users to determine what will be built, even though they were not the influencer of the design, but with their neighbors they build their own street.
Affordable housing is mass production. They made the outcome—the house—the repetitive element to make it affordable. We believe it is the process that needs to be standardized, so that the outcome can be unique.
The neighbors build their street of rowhouses and we let go. We don’t comment on the architecture. Some of them are nice; some of them are OK, but in the end, the system works, and people are happy.
For two years, designing the rules within which other architects now design was my biggest job. We started writing the API and made it open-source with other architects. WeBuildHomes was our first attempt to make architecture scalable.
They had to think about what they believed in. Is it fancy sliding doors that you want the client to pay for, or could you add another half-floor and skip the sliding doors? What is more important to the end-user? That shook their minds, and some failed.
We are governing the process, building up the platform. Other architects do the architecture. Sometimes, we even believe that there are other architects that could do it better than we can. If we could have these architects on our platforms, in on our operations, then we would get the best of both worlds.
After working through this multiple times, and actually losing money on the first project, we have improved the process. Crowd Building has now become a similar business model to WeBuildHomes: Space & Matter executes the architecture, Crowd Building executes the process of community building. We provide two services through two independent companies.
We have to make a teaser, a design sketch. In that sense, we actually start with the initial visualization to tap into that group's interest. That starts the dialogue. We can’t wait until the end.
We use design as an instrument and not an end result. Our visualization skills and architectural translations are a means of beginning and acquiring projects. The project is much more than that aesthetic performance. It is backed up by the group, the economics, the business model, and a willingness to cooperate. It is a high dose of information and intense coordination of these trajectories, but, we are still here, and we are actually getting stuff built.
If I reflect on the last nine years of Space & Matter, we are actually walking the path of becoming a fairly stereotypical office organization-wise. Content-wise, totally not.
I don't find an ethical focus in any way being at odds with great design. I'm just as focused on form, light, material, and construction detail as any other architect I know. I’m 51 years old; our generation witnessed firsthand the transformation of modernism from social movement (through arguably the mid-to-late 1970s) to the neoliberal world of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.
there was an emergence of architect as arbiter of luxury commodity, which really was a blip born in my generation. Some people my age missed the boat because they are still trying to impress their immediate predecessors. But by the time you reach the 2000s, you have 9/11, Katrina, the Great Recession—these series of enormous shocks to the system that create a new generational shift in the field. If you are still playing by the rules of 1996, you are on a completely different chessboard. The world has changed.
But we're actually very judicious about whom we work for. The developers we are doing work with right now share our agenda, at least to a significant degree. Going back to the whole "what we do/what we don't do" thing—what I've found very clarifying about that process is it has attracted both clients and design team members who specifically want to be a part of that agenda.
I cringe when I hear architects say, "I only want to do the luxury condos because that is where the good budgets are." That just means they are not doing their job well.
There's nothing wrong with a big museum. I'm just saying, aren't we a strong enough profession that we can strive towards more than just this one very narrow bandwidth from the 1990s that defines success for architects?
We basically decided we are not doing open competitions: open competitions are incredibly exploitative of architects, and it just doesn't make a great deal of sense to us. But, obviously, competitions have been the main process by which young firms get themselves known in the world. So, we are trying to think of an alternative paradigm to that.
The New York Times editorial board called us about it and we imagined that we would do a week's worth of work, or something like that [for that feature]. We ended up doing seven months of work, and got a Ford Foundation grant to do it. That really set the stage for us
All of this started before recent conversations surrounding confederate monuments. Now we are entering this world where we are understanding that these sites of conflict and consciousness are extremely important to the general public. This is a debate that people want to have, and we can help be vehicles for this kind of thing. And, because we can draw things, because we can visualize things, that makes the debate much richer if it is done the right way.
Sometimes I'll do a sketch that sets the parti for a project, sometimes I'll write a two-page essay, and that sets the parti for the project. That's a more open process, because it's not just about slavishly following the sketch, but more saying, this is a frame for thinking about this issue. I want to bring back the power of clear, concise, powerful English into use for architects.
I don't think everything is about provoking society, [but rather lies in] proving that there is a quality, a sensibility, and a role for architects in these places that have long been ignored by a lot of architects for a long time. I think that is more of a provocation to the field, not to society outside of it.
you've got to be this person who can operate really well in the vertical—in terms of beauty and form, material, construction—and in the horizontal—the politics, including the social, economic, and racial concerns. These things cut across society in all sorts of ways. You've got to operate on both axes all the time.
This is a little bit rare when practicing architecture—I find that a lot of architects are comfortable making stuff up.
Facts are important: we live in a time when the very nature of facts is under assault from the highest powers of the land. I really believe that we are living in a moment where the Enlightenment itself is under question. The last thing architects should be doing, in that environment, is rejecting the importance of facts.
You can be getting money from the city, low-interest loans from banks, federal programs, state programs, and so on. It's not like getting a mortgage for a house. It's like getting seven mortgages for all different pieces of the house.
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?
It's happening at a level higher than architects.
We need to be a part of that because we can narrate the process in a way that's tangible for people in places like the DOB.
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.
Clients build buildings in order to sell purposes larger than space-making.
Then they say, “I guess we need a building to do that—how big should that building be, and how much is that building going to cost?” Then they make all of those decisions, and they go to the Board of Directors where they get money and permission to hire an architect. The architect is handed a brief, where the first three or four giant conceptual steps have already been taken, without the architect even being present.
Architects have to build the muscle of being able to connect to projects earlier, so they know when their inputs are more valued. There’s another dimension that has to do with taking risk: the risk of a project being set up wrong means the returns should be higher.
Think about the hottest topic in business school is these days...it’s all Design Thinking, right? I mean those guys have drunk some of the Design Kool-Aid.
Buildings, as manifestations of a client’s strategy, and the systems in which the buildings are delivered, are both subject to improvement by design methodologies or design approaches. I think architects are uniquely qualified to work in those realms. But we have to redefine what the scope of the design problem actually comprises.
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.
Architects have tremendous value in setting projects up. Pitching, not just catching.
I realized that it wasn't software that I was in love with, and it wasn't architecture that I was in love with, but the relationship between humans and the institutions they create to organize themselves, and how those institutions relate to the tools they build, and architecture is one of those tools. Maybe from the software perspective, which I would say has a much deeper concern for human interaction than architecture does these days.
When we talk about money, we can talk about the source of that money and how you get tied up in the ethics or values of those sources, how much freedom you have or don't have based on the source of the income. On the other hand, we could talk about the pragmatics of running a small studio and what money means in that context.
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.
We work for foundations on behalf of cities.
From a pitch perspective, what we say is that we understand institutions and the built environment. Our good projects are about either rethinking the built environment or rethinking an institution, and our best projects are an opportunity to rethink an institution and its relationship to the built environment at the same time.
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.
We found that if you can hop back and forth between strategy and delivery, you're able to find some really interesting opportunities to deliver more than you expected.
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.
More recently, there is a trend towards participatory design, which is the inverse: there's one studio organizing the work, but there are a lot of different “clients” who you are trying to balance the interests of.
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.
On the strategy side, people ask constantly, "Why are you here? Why is there a designer here? Why does design matter to this project?" You can't use any kind of theoretical explanation to explain that to the mayor. You have to tell the mayor what value you can contribute to the project, and why they should listen to you and not somebody else.
If we as a group of people really care about the built environment and improving it, we can't just do it as enlightened architects, we also need enlightened clients. People who sit on the other side of the table are incredibly important.