Value vs. Commodity

( January 6th, 2008 )


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.

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Brutalism’s Benevolent Father

( 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.

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Ettore Sottsass

Last evening, December 31, 2007 on New Year’s Eve, Ettore Sottsass passed away at his home in Milan. He was 90 years old. Remembered as one of the founders and the father of the postmodern design movement (of which I am definitely not a fan, but can respect from a distance), he was also the designer of many, many products that endure to this day. An architect by training, when Sottsass was able to break from Memphis he returned to his collaborative architecture practice in Milan where he practiced up to his death, enjoying a renaissance of his work in recent years with retrospectives in New York, Los Angeles and London.

A memorable Sottsass quote:

“Every color has a history. Red is the color of the Communist flag, the color that makes a surgeon move faster and the color of passion.”

Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)

More .

Just came across this video of the . Very cool.

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Of Work, Not Place

( December 31st, 2007 )

Cover of TC Tenant

Bear with the shameless self-promotion for a moment while I make a point.

Yes, that is me on the cover of a local commercial real estate publication. It came out last month and something about the interview with me inspired them to put me on the cover. Good times. The point of the interview was a conversation about how the modern workplace has changed, and will continue to change, and how my firm is beginning to experiment on itself to navigate this change and determine those workplace innovations that work, and those that do not. This is as much about organizational dynamics and ergonomics as it is about technology and communications, and it is part of a much larger exercise we are undertaking to develop a comprehensive program and master plan for our office and studio environments. By 2010 my firm will be in a new environment, and ideally one that we own, and this programmatical exercise will inform the type of space we ultimately need to occupy. It is also the inception of a longer term plan to treat our entire office environment as a laboratory, to experiment on ourselves, and be able to model different workplace innovations for our clients by using our own environments as proof of concept. Currently, we have an experimental area of our office, featured in the magazine, that is a studio dedicated to one comprehensive project, and we have used this studio to co-locate the central project team of 8-10 individuals. The space is flexible, surrounded by collaborative tools, and emphasizes the immediacy of communication. It is not private, it is not perfect, but it is a valuable experiment and the quality of work from this team has greatly benefited as a result.

The point that I want to make is that without having experienced and experimented with workplace innovations and organizational concepts it is impossible to appropriately represent them to our clients. For lack of a better expression, this would be “walking the talk.” A significant focus on this blog has been the concept of “the workplace of the future”, but what does that really mean? It means an environment that is about the work to be done and not about place. It means that substantial thought goes into the way an organization works, into its culture and business strategy, and how a work environment can manifest in support of these key aspects. It means that the conservative notion of office organization and layout is not only increasingly irrelevant, but actually counterproductive to the longer term success of a company. At its core, this is the physical embodiment within the environments that we create of superior occupant quality, of environments that are supportive of work and task while also enhancing health, well-being, and ultimately productivity. We know that an environment that we create today may be challenged anywhere from one to five years from now, that is how fast organizations and the markets within which they operate can change. The challenge to us is how we build in flexibility and anticipate this change so that we create value on behalf of our clients that allows their work environments to grow and change in advance of the demands of their markets and their people, without sacrificing the occupant quality of the environment. This is workplace innovation, and at its core involves a thorough understanding of organizational dynamics, occupant quality, product design, communications, materials technology, cultural analysis, and of an organization’s long term business strategy. These are the catalysts to the creation of successful work environments, and it mandates a rethinking of legacy notions of office and a focus on innovations that begin with an individual person’s needs and experiences as they relate to the physical environment.

Posted in workplace of the future, architecture, design, innovation ~ 2 Comments

White Space

( December 19th, 2007 )

Google’s offices

“White space” is a term describing areas within flexible work environments that represent the diversity of work styles and the supporting environments sought by people who demand alternative ways to work. White space is the focus of an in the New York Times, and follows an employee at an advertising firm as he spends his time being productive everywhere but at his desk. I think that is a terrific name for a flexible work environments, one that is more about our work and less about place. At its core, white space challenges the traditional notions and expectations of how we work, and the environments that we work in, and represents the growing movement in office design to provide employees with flexible space that can adapt to their tasks and their work styles.

Realize that this is not a generational thing. Most people, regardless of age, would prefer flexibility in their work environment and the freedom to tailor that environment to what is optimal for them. That might mean working at a stand-up desk, or while sitting in a common area. Also, the tasks that we need to perform, the work that we need to do, over the course of a day can change dramatically and are better supported by environments that can flex with these changing needs. What do I mean? Think about the productivity savings if meetings did not have to be in conference rooms and always scheduled for an hour. What if, in lieu of a fixed desk, an office was actually made up of a diverse series of work areas with each supporting specific types of work… from intense concentration and focus that might require quiet privacy, to a raucous and energetic brainstorm, to an open and ongoing collaborative environment that fosters easy communication and connectedness. The net result is a radically different approach to the way we work, and one that defies the 1950’s notion of an open plan work environment. Finally. Beyond this, though, it yields very different space demands for companies that ultimately result in smaller, more efficient office environments which changes the real estate equations and potentially saves tremendous investment in space.

A good example of an office environment that successfully blends white space is pictured above and is one of the environments in Google’s headquarters. Much thought and research went into their environment with the ultimate goal being real support of their people in their work. Google realized that tying people to desks is limiting, and in a fast moving and innovative company the people that make it up need to be fast moving and innovative. The environment of their offices is a manifestation of this need. People are rarely at their desks as they are busy engaging in work that is collaborative, impromptu, and occurring over a large campus. A desk would take them out of the flow.

While Google might be an extreme version of this, suffice it to say that more and more companies are seeing the value of white space in their environments. We know that the office as we know it has been under siege for over a decade. Our work has intensified to a point that the traditional office environment can no longer keep up. The value is in adaptive, flexible and customizable environment that empower and support people and allow them to tailor the environment to the immediate task at hand.

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Toward Intelligent Workplace Design

( November 3rd, 2007 )


I was interviewed last week by a reporter investigating the limitations in open plan workplace design. It was a good discussion, and he was pursuing what I felt to be a very appropriate theme… that most open plan offices are a result of economic decisions and fail to provide workers with a supportive workplace. Despite the fact that we all experience and acknowledge the challenges of being productive in most open plan environments, they persist. There is an abundance of research to challenge the open plan, but the reality is that workplace environments are first a product of the economics of the space lease or purchase, and second the result of the powerful drive to keep the investment in that space as low as possible and to expedite the process. The result is that decision makers continue to miss an enormously valuable opportunity.

People. The people that make up their organization. The people that do the work.

What company today wouldn’t rush to tell you that the people who work there are their most valuable asset? Nearly everyone says this, and it is reflective of the way the economy in the United States has dramatically changed over the last fifty years. And yet, these same people will also make workplace design decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with their acknowledged most valuable asset. But what if they did?

If they did they would find they have created environments for their people that are infinitely more supportive of activity and tasks, reflective of their culture, and supportive of employee health and welfare. They would have done this with minimal additional cost to the project and would yield tremendous gain with a work environment that supports their people. We would be remiss to not think that all of this together might have a positive impact on worker and workplace productivity.

I am incredibly optimistic. There is tremendous opportunity to think differently about the workplace, and bring research supported assertions to the decision making process that are supportive of human factors and the user experience. Through the effective use of we have the opportunity to effectively challenge assumptions, to challenge the status quo, and create environments that inspire and stimulate people, environments that are more enjoyable and healthful. This is really very practical stuff and at its simplest is being smart about how we think about sound attenuation, lighting and daylighting, thermal comfort, and empowering the individual to self-create micro-environments that are ideal to their happiness, efficiency, and productivity.

It should be noted that much of this is not new. We have understood that open plan environments are problematic for some time, and research has existed to support dating back to the 1970’s. We have entered a time, though, where companies depend on every advantage possible to be successful in the marketplace and as a result are increasingly accepting and demanding that there is a better way to do things, and that doing it better is in fact supportive of their business strategy and a competitive advantage. Now, the challenge is in convincing the design firms to change their approach, to invest in the research and understanding to redirect design efforts in support of the individual and to provide organizations with environments that are a positive influence and that enhance the success of the companies for whom they are designed. This is thinking beyond the aesthetic of environments, beyond the beauty of edifice, and understanding that the design is on behalf of interaction and in support of the people who will ultimately inhabit the space.

Posted in workplace of the future, architecture, design, innovation ~ 2 Comments

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