Interview with Phil Bernstein
Phil Bernstein is an architect, technologist, and thinker. Formerly a vice president at Autodesk, Inc. and an associate principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Phil writes and teaches extensively on the mechanics and existential questions of architectural practice and its ever-approaching future. As a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and former chair of the AIA National Documents Committee, Phil knows what he’s talking about, and is good at communicating it. He teaches “Architectural Practice and Management” and “Exploring New Value in Design Practice” at YSoA, of which he is also a graduate.
As his students and eager interlocutors, we asked him about the possibilities for architects to redefine their own possibilities in search of a renewed efficacy in socially-minded practice.
P: As you might have figured, we are interested in speaking with you about different ways that architects/architecture can pose new types of value moving into the future. We’re particularly curious about the possibility, or proposition, that this value might come before the traditionally imagined process of making a building, perhaps intervening more closely with those processes that necessarily frame the possibilities of a given building.
PB: Yeah, I think that proposition makes a lot of sense, and is pretty consistent with at least my worldview. 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. I was helping mobilize a project doing some consulting last week up at Brown. Brown is a very forward-looking client. This is their sixth IPD—Integrated Project Delivery—project, and I was up there with a couple of colleagues helping the team get mobilized. Before we got into any of the particulars of the project, we got into a deep conversation about the project team understanding the strategic goals of the project, which have to do with building an arts community at Brown, emphasizing the importance of Arts in the curriculum, and creating a place where different multidisciplinary artists can convene.
They had already translated all of that into one building program and a budget, without the involvement of the architect. Now, they might have well done a very good job with that. It wasn’t my role to critique the translation—but often times, architects decide they’re not going to be involved in that part of the problem, that the client a priori decides the strategic priorities of the project and then goes, “ I want to make this thing, teach this curriculum, perform these kinds of shows, whatever X is, I want to reduce the number of people who die from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.” 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.
And we actually have to be pretty good at taking large amorphous collections of vague urges, desires, and constraints and generating theories of alternatives. 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.
P: Ultimately, even in a typical project lifecycle (MP → SD → DD → CD →BID →CA), the architect’s involvement typically starts at schematic design. In some ways, this is institutionalized in the structure of the Owner-Architect-Builder triangle. In some of our other conversations, architects have found ways to participate at the level of the owner, preceding the execution of the building itself. Does that imply a restructuring of the architectural office, or the architectural profession, or is it simply that we need to provide the value to be asked to help, even in our current structures of an architectural office? Or should it look entirely different?
PB: There’s a whole bunch of different stuff that probably has to be elaborated or modified in concert. 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. One of the reasons that there are all these kinds of economical constructs that architects default to—like the one we talked about in class yesterday which is called Basic Services, starting with schematic design, and going through construction administration—is that they want to draw a clear box around what work they’re going to do. 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.
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. Except business people decided that design methodologies are actually good ways of figuring out business problems. 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. That’s not easy to do because people are slow to change.
P: Redefining our value and asserting that we can deal with things outside of just building execution pushes us more towards the people that cities and states are hiring anyways. I’m thinking of management consultants, financial advisors, even, that are actively defining what buildings should be built and where.
PB: Right, exactly. One way to look at that is to say “look, I’m not a structural engineer but I know how to work with one, I’m not a mechanical engineer but I know how to integrate her work into my design process”—why is that any less true for all these other kinds of disciplines? 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.
P: So what’s the pitch? What is the architect’s value proposition to be involved in those conversations?
PB: I think probably this is one of those situations where we’re not going to be able to market or position our way into this sort of thing. Most projects, when they appear on the radar screen, don’t appear as an RFP (Request for Proposal). The better architects are connected enough to the network of clients to know when projects are coming. Let me contrast, for example, Theatre Consultants (TCs) with Architects. TCs are very good at convincing clients that they should be on board the minute the client is starting to think about a theater. What they say is, “we understand enough about theaters, and we can help you frame up the problem. We can help you decide what the important considerations are. We can help you pick an architect who knows what the hell they’re doing with a theater. And so on.” Now, you can agree/disagree with that argument on the merits, but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense for the architect to be making that argument? Architects have tremendous value in setting projects up. Pitching, not just catching.
P: At the scale of a building, there is this possibility of working with a client to frame the problem before the design even takes off, whether that’s picking a site, defining the program, or otherwise. But we’re also interested in one step further back from that. The architect, at the scale of cities, might act as an agent of proposition, speculating something that nobody ever asked them about. Obviously, this is more difficult to make financially viable, but I wonder if you consider at all the architect in this way, be it at the scale of a renewed Penn Station or a new public housing prototype.
PB: Well, that’s a multidimensional problem. One dimension of that is one might say that that sort of speculative work is academic, rather than commercial—it’s speculative for the purpose of being speculative and provocative. The good news about that Penn Station proposal is that The New York Times paid those guys to do that. So there’s one question about how it actually happens. There’s a whole second dimension about how you calibrate ideas about projects like that without the involvement of clients. There are two ways to look at it: one is that these are interesting academic provocations that keep things interesting and architects relevant; the other is that it’s a kind of bastardized version of competition work, where architects, without the involvement of clients who are absolutely necessary to make projects come together, are dispensing free work for the public good. I personally am very averse philosophically to unrestrained participation in competitions. I think it’s a bad to use an architect—it devalues our work.
P: When we spoke with Dash Marshall, a small firm that does both strategic design and traditional architecture, we learned about an interesting niche they discovered, and maybe MASS Design fits into this as well: they do speculative and policy level work for foundations and nonprofit institutions, maybe in a somewhat more formal and sustained way than the New York Times model.
PB: That is a whole different animal there. That is a hybridized model that has for-profit work, not-for-profit work, and grant work. Those guys have been extremely clever and not interested in adhering to the orthodoxy of how normal firms work, which I think has worked tremendously to their advantage. In a way it’s analogous to firms that do research, in addition to commercial work, and these kinds of extramural provocations are useful, as long as they’re not exploitative. It’s like Elon Musk and the Hyperloop—he threw that out there, and got a tremendous amount of conversation going. Of course he followed it up with millions of dollars of research, but at the beginning it was just a giant provocation. That’s really okay, unless he can’t put food on the table for his children because he’s spending time provoking.
P: That came up for us with Vishaan Chakrabarti as well, that provocation is much easier when you’re an established business that has flexibility. You are basically investing in something that you anticipate a return, whereas when you’re a young professional you don’t have any money.
PB: One of the sub-theorems would be that provocations are fine as long they’re not exploitative—which they often are. Wide open competitions can be quite exploitative.
P: Thinking along these lines, everything we do is defined by very specific parameters that limit what the owner and architect can even conceive of, whether that’s zoning, code, or policy. We learned about a project that the Helsinki Design Lab had done in Finland that, through the process of conceiving of a building, led to the successful change of zoning code to allow large-scale timber buildings. MASS does work similar to this: they’ve proven ideas through buildings and now are trying to rewrite health code for those built after them.
PB: The parameters of the building process come from lots of different places, including building standards, building codes, and zoning regulations. Most of those things are prescriptive—they say “You cannot do this; you must do that. A tall building must be made out of steel. This building in this neighborhood can’t be more than twenty-two feet away from this building.” They’re all prescriptive. 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. That’s why department stores collapse in [South] Korea, and hotel bridges in the Kansas City Hyatt collapsed in the 80s—because people cut corners all the time. To reduce ambiguity, you want to have these prescriptive codes. But designing performative parameters is a class of the same kind of problem that we’re talking about, that design is actually useful as a methodology for setting up problems, not just knocking them down.
P: Timber is one of the ones that’s very active in conversation right now, the health code that MASS was working on is another. I wonder where the possibilities are to interface with these problems, because they are a newfound expense for cities that they probably don’t want to pay for. Is that the only avenue to address these things? Or are there other ways to interface with that as an issue?
PB: I think there are three dimensions to it. The first one is academic, meaning you would have to have the underlying research available so there’s the basis of knowledge from which you can begin to provoke these things. The second one is that the industry at large has to be interested in this problem such that the resources can be applied to it. So in the case of these timber buildings, you have this convergence of the timber industry that thinks this is a really good idea (because people are going to buy a lot of timber), and the government thinks this is a really good idea because timber is a renewable sustainable building resource. Architects and engineers are interested in this problem because it fits their innovation and sustainability agenda. So there’s a commercial convergence to the marketplace that makes people want to do this stuff. The third piece is you need somebody who’s willing to give it a shot. 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.
P: The Helsinki Design Lab, through the Finnish Innovation Fund, was able to basically de-risk some of the projects they proposed and worked on by taking a financial stake in them. They could help someone take that chance. We don’t have anything like this in America. Again, we’re running into the same problem, where there’s an unavoidable dependence on capital. We need someone with money to think that this is a good idea, and to trust us.
PB: How much pure building research is going on at Yale right now? 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?
P: This is where our line of speculation always ends up. Is one of the answers that more of us should be politicians? How do we even interface with a problem like that?
PB: 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. By virtue of contrast, look at the research and funding infrastructure of the medical school versus the architecture school. The places where it is happening are engineering schools and state schools where the construction management department is trying to figure out the best way to pump concrete.
P: It’s true both in building technology and public policy, that most research done into things like affordable housing and subjects much more of a social nature are funded by non-governmental institutions like Goldman Sachs. In large part, our current society depends on private financial institutions to finance this stuff. And now Facebook and Google are getting into affordable housing. There’s all this open space that’s getting filled by people that aren’t architects.
PB: But it’s also diletante-ish, right? I was just at Google in San Francisco a couple months ago, and they have this whole sustainable products research group that’s building this giant worldwide index of the sustainable characteristics of building products. That started because Larry Page wanted his office renovated and he said somebody brought him a carpet sample and he asked someone, “Why does this carpet smell so bad? What are all these chemicals I’m smelling?” I admire the fact that he spent his money, got interested, pursued this question, and is benefitting the greater good – but is that really a systematic way to do this? Some rich guy is interested in it?
P: It seems like architecture, in many ways, depends on rich guys that are interested in it.
PB: [laughter] Right. 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.
P: Now I feel this wall that we hit is sort of a chicken-or-egg situation, because if we were to set up something like the NIH in architecture, we would first need to prove our value in the way that medicine has proved its value. Which seems unlikely in the near term.
PB: You’re right, it is unlikely in the near term, I agree.
P: If we want to reason our way out of this, this is the wall we hit.
PB: Alright, now we’re at the far left of the continuum.
P: We’re nearly politicians.
PB: We’re about to fall off the edge of the flat earth. 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’ll give you what I consider to be the most interesting opposite example. During the Cameron government UK, before he committed political suicide with Brexit, the Cameron administration believed that one of the most important aspects of the British economy was construction. So, because the Brits pride themselves on being great builders, they’re going to try to compete in the global marketplace by being looked at as the world’s best builders. So they had a high-level, Prime Minister-driven, government initiative called the Government Construction Strategy, and until the change of regime, there was the equivalent of the Secretary of the Built Environment who sat on Cameron’s staff. Building was a very high priority for the UK government – it still is. Though the chief construction advisor to the government seat is empty and Cameron is raising sheep somewhere, the strategy is in place and it’s running. There’s a lot of infrastructure on it, and they spend about £50-60M ($100M)/year doing things to upscale and improve the British construction industry. Imagine if that were true in the United States for an industry that’s ten times the size.
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.
P: Looking over the edge.
PB: 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.
P: It’s an interesting void, definitely.
PB: This is the wrong moment politically to even consider a change. The good news is that the President is a developer. If he weren’t such a moron, you could have this conversation with him, because at least he understands what building is about. Now we’re off into Facebook rants, so.
JM: It’s an unfortunate moment. We’ve got some time to review the flat earth before the next opportunity.