Huge thanks to these folks for welcoming me into their office for the last two weeks…really honored to have been the Virginia Design Medalist and to have been part of discussions and project reviews at Hanbury Evans Wright + Vlattas here in Norfolk. (Where are we in that photo? Watch this space…) And particular thanks to John Den Boer and Rob Reis, two ISU alums who helped make this happen. I’m feeling both re-energized and optimistic about architecture in general after hanging out here. HEWV does a lot of things right, not just bringing in academics to brainstorm with them, but also running a Summer Scholar program that brings in students to really engage with the office–far beyond the usual internship duties–and taking an annual retreat that’s included Portugal and Japan in recent years. Their work, too, is centered on creating strong community spaces, mostly on college campuses, and the energy and engagement in the office seems to fuel much of their design work.
So, why bring in a mild-mannered construction historian for a couple of weeks? When we first started throwing out ideas we talked about disruptive technologies–inventions or developments that create huge shifts in practice, lifestyle, etc. The iPhone, for instance. A lot of my research really involves looking at disruptive moments throughout history in construction. What happens, e.g., when you move a good chunk of America’s plate glass industry to the outskirts of Chicago? We thought it might be interesting to take a few case studies and use them as ‘parables,’ showing how design and practice responded in the past, and to draw parallels to what influences are disrupting practice today. Good fun for me, and these have stirred up some good discussions with people in the office about what’s changing in architecture today, and how to surf these changes to engender three vital things in our offices and in the buildings and spaces we design–agility, resilience, and vitality.
Broadly speaking, we’ve looked at four realms where things are changing quickly: the tools we use to design, the materials and systems that go into our designs, the way we collaborate and organize our practices, and the ways we reach out and connect to our communities. The ‘parables,’ respectively, are the advent of descriptive geometry toward the end of the 18th century (sort of a proto-Revit), the coincidence of cheaper steel, plate glass, and terra cotta in Chicago around 1890 and the subsequent switch to electricity (comparing these to smart systems and materials today), Nervi’s integration of engineering design, fabrication, and construction (and the efforts by SHoP, bludesign, Gluck+, etc. to combine these in a tougher economic and legal environment), and–today’s talk–the tight connections between the architects who drew up Chicago’s great civic plans and the developers who benefited from them (echoed by today’s micro-scale collaborations between civic organizations, entrepreneurs, and designers to create public spaces like the High Line that ‘do well while doing good.’) And we’ve supplemented these by looking at projects that HEWV is doing ‘on the ground,’ often in the tight circumstances you’d expect from higher education work–especially public work. How do you leverage vitality out of budgets, sites, and expectations that are almost never up to the task?
It’s also been helpful to see the discussions that a thoughtful, progressive firm has on its own–a lunch’n’learn on Dynamo, the Grasshopper-like add-in for Revit, was particularly enlightening. Seeing how architects here have already discovered it on their own and are writing scripts at their desks to help manage information and changes has emphasized just how important scripting is going to be over the next few years. Studio this Fall is, for sure, going to push this. What’s been most interesting is the discussion about how tools like this are really starting to fall into the “cognitive assist” camp instead of the “artificial intelligence” camp. It’s not that architects are going to get replaced by digital tools, rather that the tools seem to be getting easier and easier to use. Being able to play around with sliders to find optimal solutions to the sorts of problems designers deal with every day seems likely to raise our game, and to help us make the sorts of decisions that optimize otherwise less-than-promising budgets and situations. Dynamo on the iPhone, helping to figure out a tough re-detailing in a jobsite trailer site meeting? I’ll bet it happens, and within a few years.
So, heading out tomorrow with lots to think about, and certainly hoping the folks here have been provoked a little by images of Nervi, Gaspard Monge, Burnham, and a few other heroes. I’ll miss the corner office (!) and the no-holds-barred enthusiasm and optimism here…as well as a few truly awe-inspiring works of engineering design across the river and some very not-Iowa type of scenery…