I was at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation conference for a three day summit on the circular economy in June, and the first keynote speaker was the CEO, Tom Szaky, of TerraCycle (a company that works with corporations to recycle everything they possibly can) and he gets on stage and says, "everything can be recycled, given enough time, energy, or money." This was a bit of a revelation for me about what waste is.
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.
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.”
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.
In architecture everything has to be new all the time, but of course, it's rarely new. We are building in brick as we have done for thousands of years. But, the ecology of value, promotion, and attention is only dedicated to the new, rather than towards things that are much less sexy, like maintenance, or adaptability, or heritage. In Europe, Australia, and North America, we've built it already, and now we need to learn to live with it again.
I'm always shocked in London that Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Michael Hopkins and Terry Farrell—these guys that are doing so many big buildings here—are the same people that were doing them in the sixties. They have had a monopoly on being British Starchitects for fifty years.
The result of unsolicited architecture is what you might call more conventional architecture. But, the creation of those problems, and the identification of those opportunities, is a job that nobody is really doing at the moment.
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!
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.
Why would you start with a single family home?
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.
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 architecture is the custom-made suit, which is full of expensive R+D and prototypes, how can we make architecture available to normal people? It should be a suit that fits, provided in many sizes.
We are taking high-cost, high-quality design, and selling it multiple times. We have Mecanoo and NL Architects providing designs, of which there more than a hundred. These are architects the average person would never be able to afford if the cost wasn’t spread out over multiple sales.
Of course, our architects are worried about becoming product designers—the thought gives them goosebumps.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 don’t have an aesthetic agenda, but we are always having discussions about what we think is ugly and beautiful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If the design of the project—its form, its tectonics—aren’t directly set by the larger agenda, then, it can be anything. And if it can be anything, then it becomes about self-expression, and only about self-expression. I'm not saying that self-expression is a bad thing; I'm saying if it's the only thing, then you get into this stylistic approach...
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?
Clients build buildings in order to sell purposes larger than space-making.
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.
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.
Just to clarify, you're asking if you have to build the building for the architecture to be done?
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.
That being said, would we like to build some of that stuff? Absolutely. And if we are given the opportunity, or somehow manifest the opportunity to do that, we would take the work that you see in the libraries project as the brief, the terminus of that project becomes the beginning of a new design project. The same way you would interrogate the brief for a studio project, we would take the assumptions and givens that came out of that film, and turn them on their head again and start over.
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.
We want to design spaces that are unusual and unexpected and present opportunities for the humans that occupy them that would not be available in a traditional space. That does not always have to have to come with an aesthetic that is overt.