Archive for January, 2008

The Last Year In Robotics Was THE Year

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

The field of robotics…

2007 was a terrifically important year in the field of robotics. It was a year of new accomplishments in mobility, application, and the continuation of exponential increases in functional robotic populations. Take note, we are riding a technological wave that will dramatically impact our collective futures for the better, and in some ways for the worse, I surmise. The forces behind the continuous improvement and innovation within robotics are gaining tremendous momentum, and the associated tremendous budgets. This is not just about the military, either. Advances in robotics are happening globally and are sponsored by both public and private enterprise. It will be interesting to see what 2008 brings.

There was an excellent article late last month at that summarizes well some of the incredible accomplishments and developments in robotics from the past year.

Another Step Closer to Science Fiction: Shape-shifting Robots

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

She’s an android

Granted, that image above is from a certain 1970’s science fiction moment burned in the minds of those of us old enough to remember, and actually has nothing to do with this post. But this does. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon are working to eventually create microscopic robots that can swarm together allowing them to change shape into almost any form by clinging together. They are testing these strategies on groups of larger, pocket-sized robots that allow rapid prototyping of the simulations and control approach enabling the researchers to quickly refine and evolve the swarming abilities of the robots. One set of robots uses electromagnetic forces to move and connect themselves in patterns, to communicate, and to share power. Check out this video of the test robots in action:

Fascinating, and given our propensity for making science fiction become reality I imagine that this is a robotics technology we will see at some time in the next couple of decades.

This story, via , immediately made me think of this:

Terminator T-1000

Dell Embraces Change. And Design.

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Dell Crystal Monitor

Those that know me well will be shocked by this post. Yes, I have been a Dell hater. My personal experiences with their products over the years have left me both very frustrated and disappointed. Then I went to in San Francisco in February of 2007, just about a year ago. It was a dense, terrific conference loosely themed around managing for the user experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing all of the speakers. One in particular, though, really caught my attention. It was , the manager of the then recently launched Experience Design Group at Dell. I would be nice saying that he had his work cut out for him in front of this obviously predominantly Apple loving crowd. I think he did a great job presenting. He owned Dell’s past mistakes regarding the user, and made a point to own why those mistakes had happened (despite these realities being inherited challenges). That alone was refreshing. He then outlined how Dell’s approach to product design and the user experience was in the process of being radically transformed. He was incredibly honest and open, and provided us a window into the course he and his team were setting for Dell.

The results of that direction are now evident. Though I have yet to interact with any of these products, it includes a range of , laptops and the above monitor (a refreshingly complete, if somewhat overwrought, departure from Dell’s design language) the photos for which made it to all the various gadget blogs late last fall. This is certainly a step in the right direction for design and user experience over at Dell, and these changes are beginning to surface not just within Dell’s product line, but with Dell’s entire customer engagement strategy and is evidence that Protzmann delivered on his promise to improve experience and interaction design for Dell customers. This is an exciting transformation to see, and it has been enough of a change for me, and many others, to take notice. What is even more impressive, and demands attention and acknowledgment, is how quickly Protzmann and his team were able to redirect Dell’s approach to interaction and product design, and ultimately redirect Dell’s culture and approach to their customers. It’s been less than a year since MX. That’s impressive. The big question, though, if it will be enough to truly transform Dell and market perception in the long term.

Update: Just saw another new product design leaked over at , a laptop, that definitely looks nice.

The Man Who Fell To Earth. Three Times.

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

This is insane.

In November of 1959 US Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, fitted with a pressurized suit and a parachute, rode a high-altitude helium balloon to a height of 76,400 feet above the Earth’s surface. He then proceeded to jump. This had never been done before, and why would it have been? Kittinger entered a free-fall during which he lost consciousness after entering a 120rpm spin the g-forces of which were calculated to be 22 times the force of gravity at his extremities. Fortunately, his parachute was set to automatically open, which it did, saving his life. Three weeks later he rode another balloon high into the atmosphere and jumped from 76,700 feet. This was Project Excelsior. It was research.

That was nothing, though. On August 16, 1960 Captain Kittinger took a balloon up to 102,800 feet. He could see the curvature of the Earth. He could see entire continents. He was effectively the first human being in space. Again, he jumped. He fell for 4 minutes 36 seconds reaching a speed of 614mph. He thought he had broken the sound barrier. At 18,000 feet he opened his parachute and calmly returned to Earth. He set records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, and fastest speed by a man through the atmosphere. He also earned a whole series of medals and would eventually be promoted to Colonel. Recognition and rank aside, why would anybody do this?

Because they wanted to understand, to learn, and the only way to do this effectively was to do it yourself. As we entered an age after the conclusion of World War II defined by new and incredible breakthroughs in technology we needed to understand limits, capacities, and thresholds. In the days before super computers and sophisticated software modeling, this was how it was done. There was a need to understand the affects of high altitude bailout on the pilots and astronauts who would be flying at those altitudes. There was a need to test the effectiveness of the equipment we were designing. That meant someone needed to ride a balloon up that high and jump out. Captain Kittinger volunteered for the opportunity. He showed scientists that astronauts could survive the harshness of space with just a pressure suit and that man could eject from aircraft at extreme altitudes and survive.

More about Joe Kittinger and Project Excelsior , and .

There is also this incredible footage of his jump in 1960 with some narrative from Joe Kittinger:

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

White Knight with SpaceShip Two

I have been following this story like the wide-eyed ten year old that I am when it comes to anything related to even the remote possibility that I might someday be able to experience the weightlessness of space. Earlier this week Sir Richard Branson unveiled the design of new orbital space launch system, the carrier vehicle WhiteKnightTwo and the suborbital craft SpaceShipTwo (pictured above). This would be phase two of Virgin Galactic’s plan to “improve” humanity’s access to space. At $200,000 per seat that would be wealthy humanity, at least initially until the operation scales and ticket prices come down dramatically. Back in 2005 Branson’s Virgin Group and Burt Rutan’s announced an to form a new aerospace production company to build a fleet of commercial sub-orbital spaceships and launch aircraft. The new company, owns the designs of the SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two launch systems. See my previous post on Burt Rutan.

SpaceShipTwo will hold six passengers and two pilots and will fly higher than SpaceShipOne, the craft created by Scaled Composites that became the first private venture to enter Earth’s orbit, winning the Ansari X-prize in the process. Virgin Galactic hopes to launch its first public flight before 2009 and is now taking seat reservations. 200 people have already purchased tickets.

The commercial flights will be about 2.5 hours in duration with only a few minutes of that actually being spent in orbit experiencing weightlessness. At $200,000 per flight, that is $1,333 per minute.

Richard Branson is clearly ready for launch.

Sir Richard Branson ready for blast off

Dieter Rams

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Dieter Rams radio design

We live in a world of technology fetishism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of consumer electronics, and few have had as significant an impact on design in this category as Dieter Rams. Renowned for his work at and for creating the “Braun style”, his work in interaction and interface design not only shaped an entire generation of consumer electronics, and industrial designers, but set a standard for clean, excellent design that we see manifested today in seminal products like those from Apple. Back in 2004 did a feature on him in which he provided his design philosophy in ten points, which I recently came across again and thought important to highlight:

“These points cannot be set in stone because just as technology and culture are constantly developing, so are ideas about good design.”

- Dieter Rams

1. Good design is innovative.
Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology and can never be an end in itself.

2. Good design makes a product useful.
A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of the product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3. Good design is aesthetic.
The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4. Good design makes a product understandable.
It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5. Good design is honest.
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

6. Good design is unobtrusive.
Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are
neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

7. Good design is long-lasting.
It avoids being fashionable, and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years–even in today’s throwaway society.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
Nothing must be arbitrary. Care and accuracy in the design process shows respect toward the consumer.

9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product.

10. Good design is as little design as possible.
Less but better–because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with inessentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity!

More on Rams and an interview with him at .

10 Worst Innovation Mistakes in A Recession

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Which way do we go?

While everyone worriedly contemplates (did you see the state of international stock markets today?) whether or not the United States has entered a recessionary period, takes a stand at Business Week and offers up a smart list of the you can make in a recession that will hurt and inhibit innovation. Sometimes knowing what not to do is a bit easier then knowing what to do, and this list is definitely worth reviewing as you and your company plan for navigating our changing economy. Here’s what NOT TO DO from Nussbaum’s article:

1 – Fire talent. Because of America’s accounting laws, investments in talent are expensed, not capitalized, so cutting back on people, especially really smart, high-priced people, is a quick way to cut costs. The accounting rules only hurt companies who follow them. Talent is the single most important variable in innovation.

2 – Cut back on technology. Xerox and others report that companies are already curbing investments in technology to save money. Banks especially. The rise of social networking and consumer power means that companies have to be part of a larger conversation with their customers. This means big money spent on IT.

3 – Reduce Risk. Innovation requires taking chances and dealing with failure. Recessions push managers to be more conservative. They need to fight this instinct.

4 – Stop New Product Development. Saving money often means cutting back on new products and services during an economic downturn. This hurts companies when growth returns and they have fewer offerings in the marketplace to attract consumers.

5 – Boards Replace Growth-Oriented CEOs with Cost-Cutting CEOs. Sudden declines in revenues and profits often leads boards of directors to search for managers with experience in pinching pennies. That’s what appeared to happen recently at Bang & Olufsen. Boards forget that most recessions last only two or three quarters and, these days, are relatively shallow. Penny-pinching CEOs don’t have the skills to grow, when growth returns.

6 – Companies Retreat From Globalization. It’s expensive to expand globally and managers often save money by cutting back on emerging markets. It’s a big mistake. Emerging markets are sources of new revenue, business models, and talent.

7 – CEOs Replace Innovation As Key Strategy. By turning defensive, top managers take innovation off the top of the official agenda and replace it with systems management and squeezing costs. The entire organization follows. It is extremely hard to reverse this when growth returns.

8 – Performance Metrics Are Changed. To Save money and cut costs, managers shift employee evaluations away from rewarding riskier new projects toward sustaining safer older goals. Risk-averse behavior follows. Again, this is hard to change.

9 – Hierarchy Is Reinforced Over Collaboration. Sudden drops in revenue and profit often lead companies to panic and mobilize to stem the decline. The need for fast decision-making often leads to a return to command-and-control management. This alienates creative-class employees, young Gen Y and Xers and stops the evolution of corporation organization toward a flat, collaborative, open source model.

10 – Retreat Into Walled Castles. Cutting back on outside consultancies is seen as a quick way to save money. Yet one of the key ways of introducing change into business culture is to bring in outside innovation and design consultants. They know what companies across a broad range of industries around the world are doing to promote change. Not receiving this information can hurt a company’s global competitive position.

There are many indicators that this recessionary period will be relatively short lived, with the United States emerging sometime at the end of 2010/early 2011 or so (look for my imminent post on economist Brian Beaulieu of , who I had the pleasure of hearing present on the state of the economy last week). An optimist’s take on recession is that it is an opportunity to refine your business, diversify your offerings, enter new markets and prepare for the relative deals in the economy as the markets hit rock bottom. Time to find your inner optimist.

Five Important Reasons Carroll Shelby is Cool

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Carroll Shelby w/ Ford Mark IV 1. He just turned 85 and still has a firm and influential grip on high performance car design.

2. He not only built fast, winning racing cars… he raced too and won in his own right.

3. He usually wears a black cowboy hat.

4. In addition to a multitude of fast cars that have his name, there is also his .

5. Summing up his consistently successful approach to creating winning racecars, he said:

“It’s a massive motor in a tiny, lightweight car.

As cool as he is, I’m going to have to pass on the chili. That’s Carroll Shelby up in the photo above posing next to one of his winning Ford GT40 Mark IV’s from the 1960’s. I posted a little bit about that a few months ago. I wasn’t born yet, but the Ford team’s victories with Shelby’s direction and leadership are legendary. They were also instrumental in burning in me a passion for fast sports cars, racing, and winning against the odds.

More about Carroll Shelby , , and (ignore the goofy soundtrack…)

Mazda Furai Concept, An Overdue Design Departure

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Mazda Furai concept roof profile

I don’t love this car. I love what this car represents, which is a significant departure from the mainstream in racing car design. Motorsports, and automobile design as a whole, seem dominated by incremental, and sometimes imperceptible, changes. This concept, the from Mazda that debuted at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, is going its own way. It furthers the Mazda design team’s expression of its , or “flow,” design language that was unveiled earlier at the L.A. autoshow. The body of the car applies Mazda’s design language to achieve incredibly complex geometries that in some areas appear grotesque, while in others refined and beautiful. I especially enjoy the roof as presented in the image above. I want more building architecture that can achieve this elegantly complex folding and crossing.

The overall feel of the car is very organic… or alien. Your choice. After following automobile design and motorsports for just about my entire life it is exciting to see a manufacturer make a bold, radical move. It has been a while.

Here is the Furai looking tough in the pits:

Mazda Furai concept at the track

Design Direction at The Design Council

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Sir Michael Bichard

has emerged from a period of serious introspection and reinvention. The results? New leadership and direction in the form of Chairman (pictured above with sleeves rolled up and ready to dig in and get to work), and sharper focus replete with a new tagline:

“Helping businesses become more successful, public services more efficient and designers more effective.”

Not so much catchy as vitally important in describing its direction, I suppose. The Design Council has long been a resource for the design industry, but has suffered mounting criticism in the last few years due to a predominance of product, industrial and graphic design focus in its efforts and events. This despite the reality that the Design Council has done much to show businesses all over the world the real value of design when applied to a diversity of industries.

Sir Michael Bichard’s recent appointment as chairman is in support of the refined Council mission of being the strategic body for design in the UK. The operative word now being “strategic.” Bichard has a long record as a successful public servant, leader in arts and education, and vocal supporter of the value of design. He received attention recently for his :

1. Great design can change the world and move people

2. If you think good design is expensive you should look at the real cost of bad design

3. Design, creativity and innovation are essential if we are to meet the global challenges of sustainable development

4. Design is not just about products and communications, it’s also increasingly in the services we receive or buy

5. To consume design is a creative act – and everyone can be creative!

I chuckle each time I read rule number two, as it is so, so true. These rules are important as the Council still finds itself embroiled in debate about exactly how design fits into the British, or global, economy. Despite their best efforts, the design community in the UK still finds itself somewhat adrift from the core of British industry and business. This is partly due to overconfidence, and partly due to the increasing irrelevancy of design education in the face of the realities of real world practice. These challenges are no different than those faced here in the United States, and amount to a massing of missed opportunities for design. Changing this begins, perhaps, with the importance of combining a deep understanding of business and business processes, of business thinking, with the methodologies and practices of design thinking, a concept getting much airplay in a diversity of business magazines as of late. It would seem that the British Design Council is going down this road, and most probably in a smart way, and as they are known for their quality publications and case studies I look forward to learning more about their new focus in the coming months.

via

Sciencedebate 2008

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Sciencedebate 2008 header

It has taken me too long to write about this. I say that because this is an effort that should be an absolute top priority for all of us, at least those of us who value rational, reasonable thought and the support of science as an issue demanding attention from the presidential candidates.

has been underway for several weeks, and it is an effort to get the candidates to engage in a substantive debate on science and technology. This is effectively an effort to inject intelligence back into the election process as a barometer of how a presidential prospect will move our society forward. I encourage you to check this out by clicking on the link and if you are so inclined, sign the petition. You’ll be in good company as some of the more notable supporters of this effort are 23 Nobel and Crafoord laureates, 21 government leaders of both parties, 25 University and college presidents, and several thousand concerned citizens, including yours truly.

Japanese Sun Ark

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

Sanyo’s Solar Ark
Solar power generation offers amazing potential, but is hampered by the impracticality of being used effectively in urban settings. This is because the scale of solar power generation required for urban areas requires appropriately large solar power generators, and these require huge amounts of open and unfettered access to the sun. In many urban areas there just is no empty space left, and acquiring contiguous space to create large-scale urban solar power generation is cost prohibitive.

Not to be hampered by this, , has offered up an innovative and beautiful solution that allows a large, effective solar power facility to coexist with the Japanese need for esthetic harmony, and fit into many urban and sub-urban situations. They call it the , for visually obvious reasons, and it is located in the in central Japan. It can be appreciated from the as it jets past at 300 km/hr on an adjacent railway track. It is visually unique, impressive and memorable, and beyond being a highly effective solar photovoltaic power generation facility (collecting over 630 kW from over 5,000 solar panels generating upwards of 500,000 kWh of energy per year) it also serves as an ambassador to increasing awareness around the value of solar energy serving as a center for activities related to solar energy, ecology and science. Interestingly, the majority of the monocrystalline modules used were production rejects headed to the scrap pile. More images:

Sanyo’s Solar Ark II

Sanyo’s Solar Ark III

Sanyo’s Solar Ark IV

I orginanally came across the Solar Ark at .

Steve Jobs’ Macworld Keynote 2008 After Action

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Lego Steve Jobs at the Lego Macworld 2008

Another at Macworld passes and the consumer electronics world breaths a collective sigh of relief. This close to CES, I think everyone is just about exhausted. Though Steve announced a range of smart, cool new gear… those following his keynote presentation seemed a little let down. I believe that this mood was also reflected in Apple’s stock price, which oddly closed lower for the day by 5.45%. Is this the dreaded “iPhone affect”? Was the anticipation and hype around the release of the iPhone too much for Apple to match? Who cares. The fact is that what Apple presented to us today represents the future direction of both personal computing and media.

In the event that you live under a rock, the star of the day was the elegant and minimalist , Apple’s appropriately reductionist take on the laptop computer, stripped down to the important essentials and built for speed. It presents a much more transportable (and beautiful) form factor and clearly shows the influence of the successful experiments with multi-touch from the iPod Touch and iPhone. Apple also offers the opportunity to upgrade to solid state memory, further eliminating moving parts. Interestingly, and not surprisingly given the speculation, the MacBook Air is also a definitive statement by Apple that optical drives are not long for this world, as it does not have one. To my mind, all very cool and a welcomed departure from the now classic Powerbook/MacBook ubiquity. Yeah, I want one. But my MacBook Pro is doing just fine and the reality is that I don’t NEED the MacBook Air. At least, not yet. Though I definitely appreciate what it represents for portable computing, which is to actually be portable.

Back to the pervasive post keynote mood, people are let down today because just about everything released was anticipated by the speculative technology press in detail, relentlessly, over the last few weeks. That, and Apple has set the product launch bar very high – and consumers and market analysts have, perhaps, unreasonable expectations which apparently Steve Jobs did not meet today, given the drop in stock price. Give it a week, the stock market is a terrible indicator of Apple’s Macworld performance.

Incidentally, Steve Jobs also announced today that Apple has moved since the launch 200 days ago (do the math). This has garnered Apple a 19% stake in the smartphone market. In 200 days.
See also my post on the iPhone launch from last September.

Messenger Beams Back First Image From Mercury

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Mercury as seen from Messenger

I have posted previously about the planet Mercury, so I was excited to learn that the robotic Mercury research spacecraft had sent back it’s first image of the planet, the first since Mariner 10 visited Mercury 30 years ago. Messenger stands for the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemsitry, and Ranging mission. The image above was was taken on January 11 as Messenger approached Mercury (at just over 1 million miles from the planet). Scheduled for Monday is a pass at about 125 miles over Mercury’s surface. The plan is for Messenger to make two more close passes (in October 2008 and September 2009) before settling into orbit in March of 2011 and initiating its mission of mapping the surface of Mercury in detail. And in color.

Mercury is the fastest planet in our solar system, and the maneuvering that Messenger will have to do (see graphic below from the Messenger website) to comfortably settle into an observational orbit is complex. It involves the three flybys mentioned to help the craft build up enough speed to match Mercury as it settles into orbit, called “Mercury Orbit Insertion,” or MOI. Messenger will also use a series of trajectory corrections and deep space maneuvers achieved by the controlled firing of its thrusters.

Messenger trajectory map

Idea+Talent+Hard Effort+Execution=Awesome

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

Quick post, but I absolutely had to share this (via ), and you have absolutely got to . Very impressive to see this scene come together, and how they did it. The video is the making of the D-Day attack at Omaha Beach is for the BBC television show .

The British Take An Economic Win

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

British Pound Sterling

And it’s probably a good thing, given the perceived arrogance of our nation internationally these days. Either way, for the first time since the 19th century the United Kingdom is going to surpass the United States in the standard of living. Much of this is due to the value of the British pound with respect to the American dollar. As of January 10, 2008:

1 British pound = 1.9655 U.S. dollars

It is also do to the reality that in the United States average incomes have remained largely stagnant since the 1970’s. That is approaching 40 years of income stagnation. Remarkable that we have enjoyed the prosperity we have given this reality.

The Canadian dollar has also been competing very well with the American dollar as of late:

1 Canadian dollar = 0.994332 U.S. dollars

As has the Canadian standard of living. Which is probably why you are beginning to see a reversal of business investment with Canadian businesses taking advantage of bargains south of the border.

Then, of course, there’s the Euro (which is actually lower vs. the dollar than it has been in a while):

1 Euro = 1.4697 U.S. dollars

Euro vs. Dollar

Original story from the

Apple And The Art of War

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

Apple unveils the tip of the iceberg (via Gizmodo)

The speculation around next week’s MacWorld 2008 was kicked into overdrive over the last 24 hours. Funny, the feelings I get before MacWorld are like the feelings I USED to get before xmas when I was a child. Giddy with anticipation. I guess that makes me a fanboy.

Anyway, the Apple store went down yesterday morning which is what happens when Cupertino adds new and enhanced products. When it came back online, Apple announces new Xserve and computers capable of supporting eight 30 inch flat panel monitors. That’s cool. But why do that now? See the image above, or at least that is the speculation of the respected gadget and tech blogs around the internet. This could be a great start to 2008, if that’s how you roll.

And to add incredible fuel to the speculative fire, suddenly was being passed around. Watch it, just for fun.

I feel eight years old again.

Update2 – Now the video is back. Enjoy. What do you think?

Update1 – Adding to the excitement, the video has been taken down. Trust me, it was very, very cool.

Image above from

Video via

The Survival Value of Intelligence

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008

Stephen Hawking

Over the course of his life, has made a number of sharp and pointed comments with regards to humanity. One of the most memorable for me would be:

It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival value.”

Stephen Hawking

Today he celebrates his 66th birthday. The man is beyond remarkable, and ranks up there with Carl Sagan as an inspiring astrophysicist who has made his life’s work making cosmology understandable and of value to the rest of us. From his limited physical state, the man has tirelessly worked to broaden our understanding of the universe we live in, and the physics of that reality, in ways that are beautiful and poetic while eschewing complex technical descriptions. He also has a terrificly dry sense of humor which he wields at every opportunity. His approach to life is probably as simple as stated in this statement, one we could take the time to consider:

“When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have”

Stephen Hawking

More about my favorite living cosmologist , , and from YouTube, Stephen Hawking lectures on the .

Value vs. Commodity

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

Boom!

We’re going through some very important exercises at work. The goal is a real and unflinching assessment of the state of our industry, architecture and design, and the role we play in that industry. The goal is to seriously challenge notions of status quo, and to question accepted practices. Hard questions are being asked. Tough answers are being put up on the white board. None of us disagree. But, what are we to do with this information, with these confirmations?

We are to change.

Actually, we have already been changing. We know that architecture has become a largely commoditized business, that the value provided by many architecture design firms has been slowly and consistently eroded in the United States over the last 20 to 30 years. Architects have allowed this to happen, and it has happened as issues of liability and responsibility have come to dominate project realities. But instead of embracing this and accepting the challenges, architecture has retreated behind drawings and plans and allowed others to step in and manage the process of building, of making. A long list of other trades were only too happy to step in and take on the historically traditional role of the architect, that of a master builder. Allowing this has effectively removed architecture from the value stream of building. Many, many firms now exist to produce drawings. They are production houses.

What we are finding is priority is the importance of reinserting ourselves into the making and effectively taking back the control of the value stream. We know that we must do what it takes to become the most relevant and influential force in building culture, this much is clear. What is unclear is exactly how we will get there, and I suspect we will continue to challenge and explode traditional notions of design and building. Embodied in this is the reinvention of our firm around core goals of design excellence, as we define it, and the reconnection of our design to implementation, to execution. Architecture is a strategic move, and that move will not be successful if architecture does not protect the value and integrity of the idea, the idea power, from inception through implementation.

While I have framed this discussion around my immediate industry, the reality is that it is powerfully meaningful for a diversity of creative professions who face very similar challenges.

Brutalism’s Benevolent Father

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Mendes da Rocha

After posting about Oscar Niemeyer and his 100th birthday I felt compelled to discuss another great Brazilian modernist architect, . He was awarded the in 2006, the second Brazilian architect to win the Pritzker after Oscar Niemeyer in 1988. In 2000 he was awarded the for Latin American Architecture, also a tremendous honor. At 79 years old, Mendes da Rocha’s career now spans six decades since beginning his own practice in 1957. Considered one of the father’s of “Brazilian Brutalism” and part of Brazil’s avant-garde design movement, his work is signified by a simplicity of materials and forms. Brutalism for Mendes da Rocha was not about adherence to a style, though, and is instead about being guided by resolute design principles:

“Architecture is a human endeavor inspired by the nature all around us. We must transform nature; fuse science, art and technology into a sublime statement of human dignity.”

Paulo Mendes da Rocha

He is widely considered the most outstanding architect of Brazil and has steadfastly devoted his career to the creation of buildings and spaces guided by a sense of responsibility to those who inhabit then. His work also shows a responsibility to society, and a focus on honoring the context in which his architecture exists. Some of Mendes da Rocha’s :

Rocha House

His residence in Sao Paulo. Mendes da Rocha has lived here since its completion in 1960.

Chapel of St. Peter, Campos de Jordao, Brazil

The Chapel of St. Peter, Campos de Jordao, Brazil completed in 1987.

Brazilian museum of sculpture

The Brazilian Museum of sculpture, noted for its unification of the museum with the landscape.

daRocha lounging in a Paulistano chair

The architect reclining in a chair of his design, the “Paulistano”, created for the Paulistano Athletic Club in Sao Paulo, Brazil.