Friday, September 13, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

"Good companies fail because they do everything right." 
Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovators Dilemma

In a recent article for Metropolis Magazine, Susan S. Szenasy wrote about the sense of "malaise" that many "mature" architecture firms are experiencing today. She notes that these firms tend to write-off their lack of creativity and perceived passion for design to the likes of the economy, unwilling clients, a shift to fast-track design, and any number of other excuses we're all too familiar with. She implies that these explanations are really just excuses, and firms use them to point the finger at everyone but themselves. She's right. 

But it is time to point that finger at ourselves. The industry is changing and any architecture firm that doesn't adapt to those changes won't survive. We all know about the difference between design and the business of design. It's ok to admit it - RTKL is set up to be a business. It has to be. RTKL is a publicly-traded company that employs over 900 people across the globe in a complex field right smack in the midst of an historically crappy economy. That's business, and it's time we stop using it as an excuse. The core of our business is design. It's what we get paid to do and design is, at its most basic, about innovation. Architectural design that is not innovative is not design - it's just documentation. To be “the best design firm in the world" - as CEO Lance Josal challenged us - innovation must be completely integral to who we are and what we do.

So, how do we do it?  The "malaise" that Szenasy spoke of is real and it’s affecting all parts of the firm - from our product to our public perception to our employee satisfaction. RTKL already has in place an existing process, structure, and culture that have evolved over the course of the firm’s 67 year history. If we want to disrupt that "malaise" that has developed, it's time to reevaluate how we're organized, the way we work, and the message we promote. Opposing the inertia of a large, diverse company is never easy, but it's absolutely necessary in order to evolve and compete. Some of today's most innovative design firms are doing unprecedented things, and RTKL can too if we're willing to disrupt the status quo and make some changes to how we operate.


The success of our firm is a direct result of the process we implement to design.

Practice Groups are a Compromise
Practice Group studios are set up for efficiency - not innovation. If the same team does the same project over and over again, they get really good at it. It's efficient, but it gets repetitive. This tends to stifle innovation. Add to that the fact that projects are not as simple as “one-building-one-use” anymore. Design today is about systems, not objects. A hospital is not just a hospital - it’s a mixture of healthcare, commercial, hospitality, education, technology, and probably also part of a larger campus. Healthcare expertise, albeit the most critical in this example, is really only one part of that design equation. What if RTKL restructured its Practice Group-based hierarchy (Health, Workplace, Commercial, etc.) to be less rigid, and thus imposing, by de-emphasizing the idea of a singular overarching expertise driving design? Traditional Practice Group expertise could still be a part of the organizational structure, but RTKL could identify and strengthen other critical areas of innovation to integrate into the design process.

For example, UNStudio – a critical darling in the design world (and for good reason) - recently reorganized and "relaunched" their firm as an "open-source, web-based knowledge hub" to promote a more "fluid, flexible, and agile knowledge-based approach to work and engaging the world." Sound like a lot of buzz-words? Yeah, probably - but there is substance to the syntax. In order to disrupt the traditional approach to design, UNStudio reorganized their structure and staff expertise into four "knowledge platforms" - Sustainability, Materials, Organization, and Parametrics. In other words, every project is approached and executed not through the lens of traditional project typology – i.e. hospital, school, bank, etc., but through a new set of parameters promoting "co-creation" and “happy accidents” reflecting the design and technological trends of today rather than of the past. 

Self-organizing groups, or 'knowledge platforms' as identified by UNStudio

Could RTKL instigate new ways of design by implementing a different or broader range of integral expertise outside of traditional practice groups?

The "Cooperative Advantage"
Transcendent ideas come from a collision of diverse experience and viewpoints. The architect is no longer the "master builder" building cathedrals in medieval Europe. Everyone has an opinion and there are specialists for everything - use them. Input from consultants, outside expertise, and even the general public can allow for more detailed, responsive, and intelligent projects. In the book Where Good Ideas Come From - The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson defines open-source or, the “cooperative advantage”, as a way to reduce the cost of creation:
"The burden of coming up with good ideas is no longer shouldered exclusively by the company itself. Good ideas can come from anywhere."
He goes on to cite an experimental competition hosted by the District of Columbia in 2008 called Hack the District (later renamed Apps for Democracy in very typical DC fashion…) in which residents were asked to submit software applications that utilized open-source data provided by the DC Government to make the city better and more accessible. In less than two weeks, over 47 apps were submitted. The ideas were so insightful and designed from the ground up that the Obama administration eventually appropriated the idea and created Apps for America which is currently hosting similar competitions in dozens of states. Johnson calculates that the original competition flushed out 47 novel ideas in two weeks for approximately $50,000 worth of prize money compared to the traditional method of in-house or sourced development that would have taken over a year to produce and cost more than $2,000,000 for a single idea.

In short, design is ultimately about the user-experience, but all too often, we take a myopic view of “the user”. Today, the user is more than just the paying client. We are the user, the public is the user, and there is something to learn and teach with every project. Good design engages the entire world as the user and the more diverse expertise we bring to the table as designers, the more complex and critical we are able to make our projects.

The power of the crowd.

Could RTKL implement a collaborative mechanism to incorporate more diverse and specialized expertise and foster public engagement in the design process? 


The character of the firm is based on the culture of it's employees and the message they promote.

Be Your Own Client
The excuse that client's don't want or aren't willing to pay for cutting edge ideas isn't really a valid one. "Bread-and-butter" projects exist for all firms, but internal exploration of out-of-market projects and knowledge-based research let the firm and it's employees test ideas, form new relationships, and promote their brand through action and experience. If an idea is uncovered at RTKL that furthers our mission to better the world through design, the ability to research and develop it should be present and encouraged. The firm should be a platform for action by actively providing support in the form of time, resources, and professional network to enable the exploration of ideas.

The firm KieranTimberlake is known throughout the industry as a leader in innovative sustainable design and it's position as such is backed up by the list of clients who consistently seek them out for it. However, a lot of firms advertise themselves as sustainable design experts - what makes KieranTimberlake different? A recent project highlights why. Through their client-driven work, the firm realized that the measurement and analysis of existing buildings both new and old would be critical in evaluating performance and making future projects more efficient. The problem was, existing real data was difficult to come by and there were too many technological limitations with little ability to re-integrate that information back into the design process. So, KieranTimberlake tapped themselves to fix that.

KieranTimberlake Wireless Sensor Network, Architect Magazine 2013 R+D Awards Winner

To do so, they used their "internal research group" - a committed team of twelve people from diverse technical, design, engineering, and programming backgrounds - to study and develop a "flexible kit of inexpensive thermal and moisture sensors plus the ability to monitor them and improve experiments remotely, and finally the capacity to export the data into a BIM program." Although this project cost them time and money, it did several critical things for them. For starters, it allowed them to collect and analyze the data they found missing from the field and integrate it into their design process. This put them at the forefront of the design-led data collection movement and positioned them as industry leaders. In addition, not only were they able to use the sensors and collected data for themselves, but they were also able to market the technology to other firms and clients. They essentially created a market through in-house research and development. Finally, the project has won numerous awards and garnered much industry buzz which served as marketable proof to their commitment to innovative sustainable design and backed up the conceptual message the firm promotes as it's mission.  

Could RTKL introduce a dedicated platform for research and development to explore innovation in design outside of the boundaries of client-driven work?

A Firm is Known for It's Ideas
Projects are the most public of self-commentary on a design firm’s aspirations. The projects that RTKL does should carry a message and back up the firms design mission. If RTKL is a firm that wants to change the world through design, then we have to do projects that change the world through design. In reality, we know that not every mall, hospital, or desert masterplan we design is going to change the world - but, some of them should and every effort should be made to do so whenever possible. A system of evaluation should be put in place to not only measure the physical impact of our buildings, but also the social impact and message we send.   

Personally, I realized that I fell in love with design when I figured out that I could change the world with it. Part of it was the megalomaniac in me – wait, you mean I can have control over the way things work through design? Yes, please. But, part of it was also the understanding that what we do can make other people's lives better. RTKL is a big company, and it has many resources on hand – specialized skills, financial backing, a global network, an international marketing platform, and most importantly, people that care. Everything RTKL needs to make a difference through design is present. We need to make every effort to support and promote that.

A Place To Go is a volunteer-led effort at RTKL to raise money to design and build a sustainable toilet for a school in Machakos, Kenya. At its core, A Place to Go is an attempt to make the world a better place through design. It’s also an experiment to prove the power of design. Can design build a toilet and improve the sanitary conditions of 150 students? Can design test new ideas about sustainability and resilience by using waste to create energy? Can it cross-pollinate employees, ideas, and skillsets across the office to generate new ways of doing and funding projects? Does it make a statement about what RTKL stands for? I think it does. And although this post is part of a research project, I won’t miss an opportunity to make a shameless plug – go to the website, get involved, and help RTKL prove that it can make the world better through design.

A Place To Go is an employee-funded effort to build a biogas toilet in Machakos, Kenya.

Could RTKL increase its social impact and innovative design by actively pursuing out-of-market projects?       


Employees drive a firm's production mechanism - let them make some of the decisions on what the firms does.

Infiltrate Junior Stakeholders Up
Organizational charts tell us who we are - and who we aren't. The typical organizational chart is shaped like a pyramid. At the top, and smallest cross-section of the pyramid, are the 'decision-makers.' They are usually senior-level employees with more project and leadership experience and have a share of interest in the company – call them 'stakeholders.' Below the decision-makers are various levels of ‘do-ers’. In terms of running a company, this makes sense. Important decisions are relegated to a small group of stakeholders who have a better understanding of managing a business. However, when it comes to fostering innovation, consolidating decisions to senior-level employees may actually hinder the process. While most senior-level employees would never oppose innovative design, the reality is, and rightly so, most are too busy running a company, attempting to secure a profit, or simply have too much to lose to really push for disruptive innovative design.

But we don't want to flatten these pyramids...
When you look at the 'Leadership Council' – essentially RTKL's in-house board of ideas and process – 50 of the 67 members are Principals or above. This means that approximately 75% of the stakeholders responsible for making firmwide design, technology, and process-related decisions are also responsible for managing studios, personnel, projects, and finances. These decisions are difficult, time-consuming, and far-reaching. Perversely, younger employees may have the strangely complimentary advantage of inexperience and lack of responsibility. In short, younger employees have no reason not to shoot for the moon. At the risk of generalizing, the new generation of designers are typically more socially-minded, technologically savvy, and willing to take risks. They have nothing to lose and are hungry to get involved and make a difference. If RTKL wants to foster innovation, it would make sense that employees who are willing to push the boundaries and disrupt the current trends of design are made into stakeholders.

Could RTKL balance the current structure of business-minded stakeholders and decision-makers with a more disruptive-minded and enabled crop of junior employees?

I’m glad Szenasy chose the word ‘malaise’ to describe the feeling in some ‘mature’ design firms. It’s an incredibly apt term. According to Wikipedia – the holder of all knowledge – malaise is defined as “a feeling of general discomfort or uneasiness, of being ‘out of sorts’, often the first indication of an infection or other disease…” In the end, RTKL will continue to design. It’s our job. But how we do that is up to us. Will we continue to accommodate that sense of uneasiness and risk letting it fully develop into a malady that further affects our product, mission, and culture? Or are we willing to take a chance and disrupt that trend by making innovative design the driving force of the firm? 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

I spend a lot of time on the internet. It's a dirty little habit I picked up in college. Or, maybe it's something I picked up because I get bored at work. Regardless, I spend a lot of time there, and when I do, I inevitably end up on some design blog and I find myself looking at something "innovative". A giant robot that eats suburbs and poops out green space? Cool. A high-rise covered in synthetic hair that generates energy in the breeze? Sweet. A pro-bono community improvement project that turns a bus stop into an after-hours nightclub and cinema? Yep. I like that. So, I download as many images as I can in hopes of copying, emailing, blogging, or tweeting about it later.

But then, after the initial excitement dies down, I find myself questioning what I do at work. We can do that - why aren't we doing that? Are we doing that? If we're not, we should be, right? It’s always been a frustrating line of questioning for me. I can fill up my free time with ideas competitions and volunteer work to get some of that creative enthusiasm out, but what I really want is for that level of innovation and gusto to be a part of what I do sitting behind my desk every day.  And I know I’m not alone.

The Strawscraper by Belatchew Arkitekter

I get it. Maybe those ideas aren't “real” and would cost ridiculous amounts of money and take crazy special effects to pull off. Or there's not enough time in the schedule and money in the budget to research and develop a solution better than the status quo. And maybe frankly, there are way better things for us to improve upon before we start trying to grow hair on our buildings. But there's value in all of that. There’s value in brain exercises and pro-bono work and buildings made of meat just like there's value in efficiently designing and delivering a real project that brings a profit through the door. The real question is can we make a business out of it?

Sure. Why not? Some of my favorite design firms seem to be making quite a successful practice out of a steadfast commitment to innovation and pushing boundaries. BIG, UNStudio, OMA, and MVDRV – to name a few we’re all familiar with – continuously pop up on my innovation radar (think spidey-sense but with design rather than catching criminals). But it’s not just boutique firms either. Some of the big “corporate” firms are starting to invest serious time and money into fostering innovation and culture as a way to set themselves apart as industry thought-leaders. So what is it that allows for these practices to be considered the best design firms in the world and to succeed all while pushing “dangerous” and “edgy” ideas?

Well, in my opinion, they don’t act like architecture firms anymore. The traditional architecture firm is dead – it just doesn’t know it yet. In the past, architecture was about making objects, and as a result, the architecture firm was set up to reflect this model - hierarchal organizations structured around formal specialists. But the world we live and build in is way more complex now. The days of slow, methodical, and partitioned design firms is over. Architecture today needs to be a discipline of systems, not objects.

Let’s be honest, RTKL doesn’t lack creativity and there is no dearth of innovative thinkers. Not by a long-shot. They’re all around us. I sit next to some of the most passionate, bright, and talented people I’ve ever met, and I bet you do too. It’s not a lack of talent and creativity that holds us back from being the best design firm in the world – we’ve just been too hesitant as an organization to change and embrace a new way of thinking to truly become thought leaders. Innovation doesn’t happen through incremental changes to existing techniques. Instead, it happens when you step back from everything you know, and challenge yourself to look at the problem in another way.

I submitted this Kagan because I believe that RTKL can – as CEO Lance Josal challenged us – be one of the best design firms in the world. But if that’s what we really want and are truly committed to, we need to radically change the way we think, how we’re structured, and allow our culture to be a driving force in the design process.

Next Episode:

How do we disrupt the status quo at RTKL and become the innovative design force we want to be? Five ideas:

1. Kill the studio
2. Give it away for free
3. Embrace friction
4. Let technology do the talking
5. Flatten the pyramid

Friday, January 4, 2013

Designed Impermanence

Crunch. Crunch. Boom.

Holy shit, that’s cool.

And by “cool”, I mean mesmerizing. I’m standing on the corner of 16th and L Street in Washington, DC, watching what is essentially a mechanical dinosaur eating its way through an empty building. The building being demolished is now nothing more than a crumbling ruin of concrete chunks and rebar curly-cues – a heavy, slow, animal that real-estate evolution has chosen to leave behind. The new building that grows up in its place will be lighter, smarter, and better adapted to its surroundings. It will hopefully carry forth lessons learned in all its previous iterations. The mechanical carnivore I’m watching sate it’s appetite on the doomed structure is doing so not out of malice, but in the name of progress – the way nature intended. Sort of.

In his Futurist Manifesto, AntonioSant’Elia commented that “every generation should build their own city”, and I believe he was right. Our buildings should reflect our contemporary ideals and stand as indicators of the progress we’ve made and the future we intend to create.  However, as I stand watching the machine crunch through concrete and steel producing tangled piles of rubble, I can’t help but wonder if our buildings are too permanent and if this permanence is holding us back from true innovation and progress. Culture, technology, and fashion are constantly shifting trends that change with the daily push and pull of society, but our buildings often stand idle for 60 years or more with little more than periodic facelifts along the way. Why aren't our buildings designed to more fluidly adapt to the changing needs of society?

Demolishing buildings in the traditional manner is both expensive and wasteful. As efficient as that badass mechanized dinosaur was at its job, it wasn’t actually “eating” any of its meal – it was merely destroying it. Somewhere in the distance, I hear Mother Nature weeping at the waste. At its feet lay a massive pile of concrete, rebar, sheet metal, and other detritus that is now nothing more than landfill and scrap recyclables. It was looking like a major effort to demolish this building, and the only benefit is the empty space it will leave behind. It seemed to me that the cost and associated hassle of demolition and disposal were often deterrents to a healthy turnover of buildings and infrastructure. How many buildings are left in place and given only minor adjustments over time because the cost of demolition and redesign and construction is prohibitive? 

Buildings, and the cities they make up, are indeed complex machines that involve countless hours of investment, planning, design, and construction, so it’s no wonder that permanence is seen as a virtue. But designed impermanence could also be a virtue worth implementing. After tearing myself away from the scene of the building being methodically destroyed in such awesome hungry-mechanized-dinosaur fashion, I attended a photography exhibit on the city of Detroit (Detroit Is No Dry Bones at the NationalBuilding Museum) and its vast area of now derelict real estate. Huge swaths of development that previously housed one of America’s most successful and innovative cites now stand empty and crumbling. The photographs of vacant skyscrapers, abandoned theatres, and neighborhoods of uninhabited homes were proof that cities can easily grow, but cannot necessarily shrink to adapt. What if the city were built to be dismantled?

Del Ray Building - Photo from Detroit Is No Dry Bones by Camilo Jose Vagara

Imagine a dense urban core where skyscrapers still grace the horizon but with an ever-adjustable skirt of development surrounding it. Houses and small commercial buildings sit lightly on the land and are all built to be erected and dismantled as needed – their parts and pieces easily reassembled somewhere else or even combined with others to make new buildings. Voltron would be proud. There is no waste to be landfilled, and the cost of dismantling – not demolition – is more than made up for by the new stock of building components left in its wake. As Detroit grows, so can its boundaries. As Detroit shrinks, buildings can be easily removed to reveal open plots of land for agriculture or public spaces. Density can quickly and easily be managed to adapt to a city’s needs. Constantly shifting buildings will allow for and encourage continuous innovation and improved functionality as we reinvent the city.

Suburb Eating Robot by Andrew Maynard

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Love Letter toWindmills

Don Quixote and the Windmills, Salvador Dali, 1969
...As he was saying this, they caught sight of thirty or forty windmills standing on the plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire:

"Fortune is directing our affairs even better than we could have wished: for you can see over there, good friend Sancho Panza, a place where stand thirty or more monstrous giants with whom I intend to fight a battle and whose lives I intend to take; and with the booty we shall begin to prosper.  For this is a just war, and it is of great service to God to wipe such a wicked breed from the face of the earth."

An excerpt from The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote De La Mancha by Miguel Cervantes

People hate windmills. Not since the valiant Don Quixote first couched his lance, set spurs to his trusty steed Rocinante, and charged with the bravado only he could muster, have windmills been more feared and loathed. There is, as our hero noted, a war being waged against this ingenious machine.

Vertical Axis Windmill in Nishtafun, Iran. Photo by Caroline Mawer.

In use since antiquity, all windmills function under one simple principle - they are a device used to translate the raw power of the wind into rotational energy. The earliest windmills in widespread use were first observed in Persia in the 9th century, and were actually oriented horizontally. These machines had sails that rotated around a vertical axis and were used to either grind grain or pump water. Only later did they take on the iconic tower form that so tormented our poor heroic hidalgo from La Mancha.

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, steam power replaced the brute force of wind and water as the primary source of generating energy.  Then, to add insult to injury, the rise of the petrochemical age - namely our old friends coal and oil - effectively pushed the traditional windmill to the fringe of the energy-generating landscape, rendering them little more than nostalgic contraptions and refurbished tourist attractions.  It was in this transition however, that the key benefit of the windmill was lost.  Like it's also-besieged cousin, solar energy, the main attraction of using wind to derive energy, was that the input was free, provided at no additional charge by mother nature. Expensive, non-renewable, extracted resources hate windmills.

Wind Farm at Altamont Pass, via World Watch Institute

But the windmill evolved.  The modern iteration of the windmill is the wind turbine, and like it's predecessor, it harnesses the naturally occurring force of the wind to generate power.  Only now, the wind turbine transcends traditional mechanical advantage of yore, and produces electricity.  Whereas the monstrous giants of Senior Quixote's vexation could only leverage their output locally, the electricity generated by the leviathans of today can be used immediately on site, stored in batteries, or fed back into a larger power grid system. A valuable step forward. Such gracious monsters.

Unfortunately, a wind turbine is still just a glorified windmill. And people hate windmills. Even Donald Trump hates windmills.  In early 2012, Trump was the main attraction in a 500 person protest against a planned wind farm in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.  Said Trump in his rousing statement: "Tragically the Scottish taxpayer no longer has a voice in this destructive process because the First Minister and his government are ramming these proposals through the planning system at lightning speed, even though the rest of the world already knows that they produce a totally unreliable and very expensive form of power."  It should also be noted that the wind farm, once complete, would be visible from his newly constructed coastal golf course.

But these protests are not just confined to the elite. It is a common occurrence now for citizen groups to band together to stop wind farms from being constructed in their communities.  They do so under the auspices of wind turbines being a visual and auditory nuisance.  Jane Jacobs and her NIMBY followers would be proud. But it is here where we must disagree with a very disagreeable Mrs. Jacobs - if not in my backyard, then where? 

Protesters in West Cork County Ireland.

To be fair, wind turbines are not a magic bullet. They will not single-handedly solve the energy crisis.  They will not ween a state off of foreign energy dependence.  In fact, there is ample evidence on either side to both prove and disprove the ejaculations of Mr. Trump and his band of merry protesters. Some people may find them ugly.  They may make noise.  They may even kill a few birds (although nowhere near as many as large expanses of glass on tall buildings do…).  But all of these studies are missing the point.  Windmills (and wind turbines and wind pumps and wind chargers) are a proven link to our past technological triumphs and directly tied to our continued success in the future.  The benefits of generating energy from naturally-occurring, renewable sources cannot be understated if we have any desire to sustain our rapidly growing population and simultaneously protect the planet we live on.  If we halt the evolution of windmills because they are ugly, because they are loud, because they are imperfect, then they will fall as monsters, ugly, loud, and imperfect.

"…For God's sake!" said Sancho Panza. "Didn't I tell you to be careful what you were doing, didn't I tell you they were only windmills?  And only someone with windmills on the brain could have failed to see that!"


Monday, February 6, 2012

The Colorful and Interactive World of Energy Consumption

New York City Building Energy Map

Let's face it, we are a graphic-loving species. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is an interactive graphic map of annual building energy consumption for New York City worth? Visualization is an important asset when trying to explain complex ideas or figures. It becomes even more important when attempting to identify and quantify comparative data as critical as energy usage in urban areas.

The Energy, Infrastructure, and Development Lab at Columbia University has released a graphically interactive map of New York City that displays estimated building energy consumption per block. According to the report:
The map represents the total annual building energy consumption at the block level (zoom levels 11-15) and at the taxlot level (zoom levels 16-18) for New York City, and is expressed in kilowatt hours (k Wh) per square meter of land area. The data comes from a mathematical model based on statistics, not private information from utilities, to estimate the annual energy consumption values of buildings throughout the five boroughs.
The overall map is keyed to provide a color-coded comparison of energy consumption at the macro-city level, however, as you hover over each block, more exact data is displayed for each block including lot land area, average floor area, and fuel and electricity use. The map provides a playful and graphically interesting tool to compare and contrast energy statistics in New York City.

Seen first on Gizmodo.
Images via Columbia University

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Splendor of Excess

Metalmorphosis by David Černý. Photographs by Flickr user Rick_28105.

What a splendid waste! Metalmorphosis is a 7.6m tall animated sculpture by Czech artist David
Černý. The fountain, which is 14 tons of rotating stainless steel plates, adorns the courtyard of a corporate center in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. As a sculpture, it is a work of artistic and mechanical wonder. The head of the any-man slowly rotates in and out of existence - a thousand pieces in all directions - a confused mind in pure blinged-out ignorant bliss. It's powered by internal motors which are controlled by the artist via internet link. You can watch a live webcam of the fountain here. Metalmorphosis is an artistic statement in engineering that kinetic buildings and other large-scale public objects could become commonplace. The many potential applications limited only by doubt.

As a symbol, it excels even that of it's engineering. The shear size and materiality of the sculpture renders it visually and physically grand. It's familiar form and incorporation of water make it feel playful and whimsical. A grand statement for any successful corporation, indeed. However, rotating in it's Sisyphean glory, the continuous rotation and flow of water belies it's own inherent imagery of excess. What could possibly be a better symbol of waste than one spitting out water in perpetuity? It is, at once, a grand gesture of accomplishment and the spoils that come along with it.

Seen on
DesignBoom and Colossal.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mediated Matter - Neri Oxman at Greenbuild Toronto

Neri Oxman, who directs the Mediated Matter research group at the MIT Media Lab, recently spoke at Greenbuild 2011 in Toronto. The group studies the naturally occurring relationship between structure and function within the natural environment, and how digital fabrication technologies can shape the way synthetic materials are developed. What is the natural material logic? Once we understand the natural logic of a material and how it relates to the function and response of the macro-structure, how can we translate this material logic to built form?

In her presentation, Oxman discussed a fundamental difference between the way natural materials are generated and the way in which we "build".
When we construct objects today, we use a component-based design logic. Each element within the object is a distinct layer with a separate function. A typical wall section might include vertical and horizontal structural elements for support, layers of sheathing and barriers for containment, insulation for temperature mitigation, and glazing for visibility and aesthetics. In this approach, various layers are assembled to produce a "functioning" element. This is where Oxman sees a fundamental flaw in the design process.

In nature, form is dictated by a combination of structure and environmental performance. Rather than "separation and distribution", natural materials are derived from "continuity and distribution". Plants are composed of one type of material, but utilize different genetic variations to respond to different needs. Bone is also a naturally occurring material that develops with different densities depending on where they are located and what function they accommodate. Bone is able to directly respond to changes in it's environment. The bone structure in pregnant women is known to grow more dense to accommodate the additional weight, whereas bone that spends time in the gravity-free environment of space tends to grow less dense.

It is this distinction in assembly and response that Oxman sees as the future of material technology. She envisions a future where materials are designed to modify themselves in response to external factors. Building skins are able to modulate themselves in response to the micro-climate. In the next 100 years, she sees the rise of bio-fabrication and construction in which material distribution and density are controlled by use at a micro-scale. Structure is fluid - strong and stiff where necessary, flexible and light where not. In the next 1000 years, Oxman is even more progressive, extolling the possibility of genetic construction where materials and structures are "grown".

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Of Buildings and Time

Image via SciFiReality.

The earth is big. But amazingly, it's scale is still small enough for us to visibly measure its impact on our practice and understanding of events. From the beginning of our existence, most of our actions have revolved around the rising and setting of the sun. Tall buildings may introduce a strange new paradox to our experience of time and routine.

Time is a very tricky thing in theory, but it also gives us a simple, equitable way to mark out the actions of our lives. Routines are developed around regular time periods - breakfast in the morning, work during the day, sleep at night. Routines tied to time occur over all intervals. Many religions promote regular acts of faith that occur periodically over longer lengths of time.

Ramadan, for instance, is an Islamic holy month, in which practicing Muslims spen
d that time fasting and promoting spiritual betterment. Many Muslims fast during the day and do not eat or drink from dawn until after sunset. After sunset, families traditionally break fast in a meal called the Iftar.

A cleric from Dubai suggests that people living in the upper floors of the Burj Khalifa - the worlds tallest building at 828 meters tall - should fast longer owing to the fact that the sun sets later according to the vantage of the upper floors.

Burj Khalifa. Image: Hadrian Hernandez/Gulf News

Per the BBC,
"...Dubai cleric, Mohammed al-Qubaisi, has been quoted as saying that people living above the 80th floor should fast for an extra two minutes, while those on the 150th floor and higher should wait for three more minutes before eating or drinking."
Therefor, a person fasting at the ground level of the Burj Khalifa will be able to break fast three minutes prior to one fasting at the top floor - say 8:57pm as compared to 9:00pm. Given that the two individuals at fast exist in the same moment of time, the building's immense geometry has allowed it to physically span our combined perception of time by allowing a routine to exist simultaneously in two states, daytime at one end of the structure, and nighttime at the other. There is precedent, however. The earth's rotation causes day and night to exist simultaneously in time, as well as localized differences in day and night at mountains, but those are natural occurrences. The Burj Khalifa may be the first example of a human-made structure impacting our time-based routines at the scale of the earth itself.

Time Dilation.

Is a tall building a form of time travel? Not really - it's more of a time-bender. But at certain heights it can alter our perception of it. The experience of day and night, as interrupted by our built environment. As the scale and complexity of our creations grow, the implications of their physical nature will continue to generate and inspire unforeseen consequences.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Of Bridges, Counterfiet Money, and International Relations

The Ponte Vecchio. Photo by Flickr user Stevehdc.

bridge has long been both a physical and symbolic construction of positive connectivity. The theory goes that a bridge connects two distinct areas by spanning some obstacle, be it physical or metaphysical. The bridge as structure stands particularly noble when connecting nations. It's materiality promoting development, commerce, and, at it's most basic, trust.

1000 AFRO Note by BIG.

1000 Euro Note by BIG.

BIG, The Bjarke Ingles Group, has designed a series of monetary notes consisting of a 1000 Euro Note and a new corresponding 1000 AFRO Note, in an effort to promote a "United African Currency". Both banknotes graphically portray a proposed bridge that would span from Africa to Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar. The bridge, massive in scale, would provide commercial development, residential property, and other public functions as well as the typical modes of transport.
According to BIG:
The bridge is conceived as an inhabited overpass uniting Euro-African typologies—such as Firenze’s Ponte Vecchio and Le Corbusier's Obus Plan for Algiers—into an intercontinental hybrid of city and infrastructure. The investment in concrete and steel doubles as load-bearing structure for living and working spaces for the many immigrants anticipated over the next decades, and will help establish the bridge itself as a bicontinental city in its own right.
The Strait of Gibraltar as seen from space. Photo via NASA.

The bridge is materialized space that attempts to connect two landmasses with physical infrastructure but also to stimulate economy and relations.
Because of this, it is ironic and somehow just, that real money would be the perfect medium to convey and promote such a project. The structure represents a real connection between Europe and Africa, which in turn, promises increased movement, commerce, and their effects. Both sides are guaranteed a double-edged sword, experiencing both the benefits and headaches of this improved connection. But in the end, new and ever-evolving economies and relationships could be forged by the bridge - an ambitious, yet honest physical structure.

Seen first on BLDG BLOG.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wear Your Grass on Your Sleeve

Grass Skin Rug by earthwormstudio.

It's like a bear skin rug - without the bear. Hopefully the bear left behind is out there somewhere, being a bear. Instead, curl up and watch your favorite movies on a nice piece of the countryside. The right patch of grass can be downright comfortable and even adds a great splash of green to any naturally day-lit room.
And why stop there? Strike a pose in your best Grass Yeti suit.

Yeti, by Misstika at Figment Festival in New York. Seen on Wooster Collective.

The grass family is one of the most abundant plant forms on earth. It is important in every ecosystem it inhabits - providing a vital energy source to the food chain around it. It also helps to filter rainwater into the soil below and even holds the top layer of earth in place. And it's entirely renewable for the cultavatively curious. Why wouldn't you want some grass walls, floors or clothes?

"Calm down. Stroke the furry wall."

Get Him to the Greek

Sunday, June 19, 2011

How Tall is Too Tall

Photograph by Declan McCullagh Photography.

We often say that we should follow the biological examples set forth by nature when we design. But what happens when our ambitions are greater than the limits of natural design? Take the height of a tree for example - in many cases, the taller the tree, the more energy it can harvest. Since trees naturally grow close to one another, they need to grow vertically to reach the sun amidst it's neighbors. The taller the tree grows, the more access to life-giving sunlight it has. However, any successful quest for the sun would surely be folly - and nature knows it. At the upper limits of a trees structural and functional capacity there is a point where the need for more height becomes obsolete. Growing taller would mean too much energy is invested in moving water from the roots to the upper branches and leaves. The quest for height is counteracted by the physical limits of the trees natural capabilities and thus, an upper limit is reached.

Coastal Redwoods via Coastal Care.

The tallest tree now generally accepted as the tallest living is a 379.1 ft (115.56 m) Coast Redwood in Redwood National Park, California. The height of the Coast Redwood Tree is within the upper limits of a trees natural boundary. Any taller, and the energy required to function would be too great to validate it's successful existence. What are the upper limits of buildings?

The Burj Khalifa.

The tallest building in the world is the
Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE. It measures 2,717 ft (828 m) tall. The building, designed by Skidmore Owings Merrill, is undeniably a marvel of modern design and construction. The sheer enormity of the structural, mechanical, and planning needs of a building this tall alone warrant it's status as one of humankinds greatest achievements. The structural system of the building was an elegant solution to excessive height. According to Gulf News:
"To support the unprecedented height of the building, the engineers developed a new structural system called the ‘buttressed core', which consists of a hexagonal core reinforced by three buttresses that form the ‘Y' shape. This structural system enables the building to support itself laterally and keeps it from twisting."
The strength of this revolutionary system allowed the engineers to add more floors than building was originally designed for. The building will apparently also use solar power to heat 140,000 litres of water a day for use in residential and commercial use in the tower. However, the building still consumes a massive amount of resources to operate. Consider the comparison by The Red White and Green:
  • Water: Around 250,000 gallons of water a day
  • Electricity: At peak times, roughly 40,000 kilowatts — the equivalent of 500,000 100-watt light bulbs burning at the same time
  • Raw materials: Nearly 40,000 tons of steel — enough to stretch a quarter of the way around the earth if laid end to end
  • Wasted space: The upper 30+ floors are so tiny, they can only be used for storage.
The building is an enormous achievement of excess. Beautiful and terrifying.

But can they become bigger without some type of radical new technology? Can a building of that size exist without consuming more than it takes to operate? Give back even?

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

A building twice the size of the Burj Khalifa boasts of the idea of reaching for the gods - a true Tower of Babel. A feat that surely will be attempted, and probably even achieved some day. But like the tree before it, will it do something for humanity, the earth, or for something else altogether - our ego and physically awe-inspiring proof of our dominion over this planet. Will the world be better with it, than without it? That's what nature knows. and is trying to tell us. It only allows for something to exist when that something is a both a benefit to itself and everything else around it.

Inspired by What is a Tree's Maximum Possible Height as seen on i09.