Interview with Rory Hyde
September 21, 2017
Rory Hyde is a designer, curator and writer based in London. His most recent book, Future Practice: Conversations on the Edge of Architecture is a comprehensive and provocative look at alternative modes of architectural practice. He is Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Design Advocate for the Mayor of London. In his upcoming book, How to Make the Next City, he responds to present challenges to architecture’s public relevance. Rory was kind enough to give us a sneak peak.
P: Where has working on Future Practice left you? Assured about new modes of practice in the profession? Unsettled? Optimistic?
RH: It’s left me kind of confused! I always thought I was a designer, and having that role presented to you at school in a very clear and unquestionable way is somehow very beneficial. There is no room for an existential crisis about the value of what you do and why you do it.
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 thought Future Practice was a side project, but it became the project. I wrote it because 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.
That’s what my next book is trying to consolidate: to bridge the gap between ways of working and what you are making. What particular design strategies or ways of making things can help to answer those bigger questions? 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.”
P: Can you share some specific examples of what you are proposing in the upcoming book, How to Make the Next City?
RH: One of the rabbit holes that I’ve been diving into lately is the history of feminist urban design, of feminist architecture, which I wasn’t familiar with. There’s a great book by Dolores Hayden called Redesigning the American Dream, do you know this one?
P: She was a teacher here!
RH: Oh, wow, amazing! She looks at how homes have been designed to assert gender roles, tracing the lineage as far back as into the Victorian era. One of the things I am exploring in my book is how can we rethink the effects of changing labor practices, from the architectural scale, to the design of neighborhoods, and then to crash that into the reality of new family types, ways of living, and emerging technologies.
All of us have our emails in our pockets and are expected to answer our phones in the evening and on the weekends, and that has happened in the last five years really, with the rise of the iPhone and wireless networks. But, we’re still expected to be at our desks from 9:00 am until 5:00 pm. We’ve taken on this extra load, but it hasn’t had any corresponding flexibility in the other direction. Then, the question is where do these lifestyle shifts meet architecture? 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.
P: How do you imagine increasingly-decentralized labor practices affecting the landscape of spaces in the city?
RH: What set me off in this direction was that I was giving a lecture at a conference about livable cities. I was doing an interview, and somebody asked me, “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? It’s trying to tackle some of the sacred cows, I guess, and ask why we think they’re the answer. 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.
P: Using this premise of “retrofitting suburbia” as an example, what ways forward do you see for architects to make these ideas actionable?
RH: That’s why I am so interested in practice. 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. So, we’ve got one tool which will address a particular range of problems. To address the suburbs, we need a different kind of tool.
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.
P: That’s a provocative analogy. In our last issue, we heard some of those same ideas from Tom Angotti, a planner and activist in New York City. He talks about the historic paradigm that architecture is consistently restricted to the creation of new things. But, especially in Europe and the US, the world is built already! He was suggesting that we should be training ourselves in the curation of existing places as an effort to assist in problems that are already in front of us, rather than focusing on new construction.
RH: Right, that is spot on. 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.
P: One thing that plays into this is pedagogy. Either we come in to architecture with an ego or we are conditioned to have it. We all want to be the brain surgeon. There seems to be a difficulty embracing the role of “Architect as General Practitioner” from the perspective of architecture school.
RH: Right. There is a difference in the way that medicine is taught, which is that you at some point specialize. In architecture, there is no granularity there. You don’t get to a certain point and say, “OK, I’m going to be the neighborhood architect,” or, “I’m going to be Frank Gehry.” We train everybody to be Frank Gehry, but there is only one Frank Gehry. So, maybe we need to filter it upstream a bit further and again, start with the world and work backwards. What is the demand for starchitects out there?
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. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, always, but there is a much bigger demand out there that is not being aspired to.
P: We did some digging and found a 2009 blog post of yours on How to Make Unsolicited Architecture. You make a simple distinction between unsolicited (self-conceived as a complete, financially actionable package) and speculative (provocative and unrealized) architecture. Where do you see the efficacy of an unsolicited practice, and does this conflict at all with your notion of the Architect as General Practitioner?
RH: Good question. I haven’t thought about where those two things intersect—the unsolicited architect and the general practitioner. Hopefully, all of these new models are complementary with each other and the existing system that we have. For me, the role of the unsolicited architect is to create the possibility for projects which might not have otherwise been created. The mechanism we have at the moment is the market. It’s developers, people looking for opportunities within the built fabric that they can take advantage of. I mean that in a neutral way. Yet, what that means is that there is a huge incentive to produce things which will make money. There is less incentive to produce things which might have second order effects, like improved health or education, or reduce overheads for a local authority who might be spending an awful lot on social care or education. The unsolicited architect can work before the idea of a project is suggested, to create the possibility of that project. They are getting three things in line: they’re identifying a site, a brief, and a potential client. As Bryan Boyer says, “Who owns that problem?”
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. 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.
P: We spoke to John Pontillo, who works at a management consulting firm working in social impact. His firm has been asked by the city of Buffalo, through a community foundation, to solve their urban problems of segregation and insufficient transportation infrastructure—basically, all of these spatial problems. In what ways can architecture change its value proposition to capture this line of work?
RH: That’s a good example of a common problem! It’s really about the way we are perceived more broadly. Or, more importantly, the way we perceive ourselves and what we do as architects. 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! So, it’s no surprise that is what people call us to do—to make something unique and beautiful. The reality of the job is about understanding clients’ needs, understanding the site, researching, making a business proposition.
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. 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.
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? That’s where you really start to go down the rabbit hole.
P: Right. And I told John, it’s not that I wish they had called me instead of you, it’s that I wish they had called me and you. Ultimately, we offer different sides of what should create a whole solution.
RH: That is the promise and the hope of the networked practice. 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? That’s already happening in the consultancy world, and I see a future for it in architecture. Specific teams will be bolted together for particular projects; they don’t need to be in the same room, they are all collaborating remotely. As you say, that is where you and your friend will be asked to work together and you will end up with a better result.