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.
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.
We have an advocacy component. For example, we did a project with Fair Share Housing Center, and also with Poverty and Race Research Action Council, where we did some federal legislative advocacy around the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. Our students did some work in response to a guidance issued by the treasury department regarding LIHTC, and then also some legislative advocacy, drafting portions of a bi-partisan bill.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
We were trying to not only bring nature together with the built environment, but to get the public together with the private.
Once you have this idea—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 retreat from government is a very bad idea, for everybody. From the right, the retreat is spoken about using the work "market." From the left, it's spoken about with the word "community." And for the left, the word “community” is a warm and fuzzy idea.
One great thing about Central Park in New York is how many kinds of people are there thinking "this is my space, no more and no less than it's anyone else's space." It was created by the government. It's very hard to make public space because many people will still feel excluded.
That is the privatization of the government sector, in several different ways.
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.
How can we inhabit a city with people stored in anonymous apartment buildings, not even realizing if their neighbor is dead for two months?! That is fucked up! If the city is the promise of everything, this can’t be the right way. We are social beings; we behave in swarms, and we like to be in social relationships with others and offer some help here or there in order to make a pleasant environment. The architecture is less crucial—it is more about the social tissue, the social structure, and how architecture facilitates and strengthens those relationships. How do we build that up?
Developers, investors, and architects forgot about asking the people what they actually need, and subsequently have generated supply that is ignorant of actual demand. We started thinking about tools to fix this disconnect.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Birds of a feather flock together.” That sentiment has been strengthened by the internet. Facebook give you social tunnels and what you believe in feeds what news you get. The risk of social media is that it narrows your perspective of reality.
I'm always hoping that it doesn't come across as judgemental or holier than thou. Like you say, on the left side it says "what we do" and on the right side it says "what we don’t do," and I'm not saying that other architects shouldn't do those things, or that it's immoral for other architects to do those things.
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.
Look at Houston: I can’t remember a time when I've heard the words “Urban Planning” spoken so much by the national media, other than after Hurricane Katrina. People understand that there are huge architectural, physical, and structural implications to what happened there. Our field, I would argue, has traditionally been about taking on challenges like that. I don't think of my firm, or firms like ours, as outliers. I think of us as the continuation of this lineage of the human modernist model.
I've had very good friends—Pritzker Prize winning architects—say to me they like working in these places far off in the desert somewhere; they know the buildings are being built by slaves, but it is the only place where they get to experiment! To which I respond, "What kind of colonialist bullshit is that? What do you mean, experiment?"
Our firm is really an effort to move back towards a kind of relevance.
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?
It is about being a public intellectual, but it also about being able to use the power of architecture in a very different way. Through drawings, diagrams, models, we can talk to the public about pressing public issues. With Penn Station, our work was able to make clear that there is still much more work to do beyond the [government’s] current proposal.
The project is a provocation. It is a provocation not only to India, but to the United Kingdom, and all other past-colonial powers. We think it is the power of architecture to talk about these kind of tough social issues.
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.
The last thing I have to say about that, is that in addition to having really powerful design work, you have to have an articulate voice that speaks to it all.
For some reason, from the late 1980s into 2000, it became very fashionable for architects to speak in terms that were purposely obfuscating, or have websites that are purposely obfuscating. That obfuscation is all about playing an inside game. It's all about architects talking to architects saying, "Look, we know the code, we know the secret sauce." I'm less interested in that, and more interested in what clients and communities think about what we are doing. To do that, we have to have a clarity of voice.
Unlike what we were told in the Reagan Thatcher era, there are actually a lot of good people in government, and they work incredibly hard. If that person is incredibly busy and works incredibly hard, why do they make time to listen to what an architect has to say? One of the most fundamental framings for us to do, if you are going to try and raise that level of conversation, is trying to understand relevance.
If you are a congressman trying to fund Head Start, and there is craziness going on in Washington, the fact that a station is ugly or embarrassing is going to be really low on that list. And, arguably, it should be.
You can think about it by trying to translate how we think about beauty and form to how doctors think about their work: two surgeons, alone having a drink, may talk about things that are highly specific to their field. But, if they are talking to a politician about healthcare reform, they are not talking about how to make an incision, right? It doesn't mean that the surgery isn’t important. It's just that there are different topics at different layers that you need for different audiences.
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.
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.
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.
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.