What I’m reading…Neuroscience Says Buildings Can Reshape Our Brain

FastCo.’s Neuroscience Says Buildings Can Reshape Our Brain points to Emily Badger’s Nov. 5, 2012 article: Corridors of the Mind: Could neuroscientists be the next great architects?

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Basketball, Bluegrass & BBQ: an Architect’s Observations from the Field

flyerAsked to do a lessons learned recently. Also asked to host a TEDTALK-like conversation about CULTURE, QUALITY and PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT within my organization. In the end what got served up was some NC BBQ with a side of architecture in one Prezi. I organized my observations in 2 parts:

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In Situ

Part 1: Maps & Legends offered “a slice” of NC, some of what I’ve learned about the place and a timeline of my connection to Architecture and NC for the last what…30 years: since those regular roadtrips in HS from VB to the Outer Banks; Architecture School in Charlotte; studying abroad and a handful of economy class (a la Eurail Pass and pre-Yelp paperback of Let’s Go Europe) Grand Tours in the Ecole de Beaux-Arts tradition; moving back to NC for work and family after grad school in Seattle; leaving NC for the Balto./DC region only to go back again to deliver a Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill; and now traveling back and forth more recently for a hospital project in Hillsborough.

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Part 2: Plans & Specs put specific examples of the work into context, and by this I mean to emphasize that: what we draw (and I think these days we call it “modelling” now?) matters, what we spec. matters, and how immersing ourselves into the place (which is Part 1), can enhance outcomes, even elevate the work and our personal experience.

Sociotechnical Competency

Since I think all the time about the way we work and ways to contribute to the success of a project in the CA phase, I presented the loose use of the idea of “Sociotechnical Competency” from Wiki’s Sociotechnical theory about joint optimization, with a shared emphasis on achievement of both excellence in technical performance and quality in people’s work lives, to ask whether our teams possess the right balance of socio- and -technical competencies: does the work we do enhance the good work of those who use the spaces we design? Are we having fun? Is it meaningful, do we see our work as translating to improving the lives of others?

Lastly, I presented the view that in CA, we are charged with the task of being the one party in the O-A-C relationship with the big picture on the design. Yet we are asked detail questions all day long.

I argued that CMs go to CM school to make a living in CA and that there was nothing in Architecture School that could’ve prepared me for CA in particular, how to finesse professional and personal human interaction in real-time in the field: knowing when to pull back, to say wait a minute, think twice about our response or knee jerk, to understand the detail question in a larger context, 3 dimensionally, not only aesthetic effect or the often times very convincing case for ‘ease of constructability’, but adjacencies, downstream impact on work by other trades, cost implications, and so on.

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I was studying for the AREs using those ArchiFlash cards years ago and there was this question that went something like: The Architect is the final arbiter of what aspect of a project? The answer was that we are the final arbiter of “aesthetic effect”. That’s it folks? We are both type-cast and hard-wired to take the designer’s position, when most of the time what’s best may often result in the ‘organic evolution’ of the original design idea. If we choose to choose our battles, we may arrive at a better product and reputation for service as a team player, seriously talented folks who are also fun and easy to work with, and who can relate to the needs of all the stakeholders.

The Prezi, which can be found here, offered some examples to illustrate what I mean when I say what we “model” matters, what we spec. matters, and how immersing ourselves into the context of the work – the programming and medical planning, the needs of the end-users, the patient experience and empathy: taking the caregiver, patient AND the visiting public’s point of view into consideration, how drawing from the collective experience of our organization and expertise of our consultants, and building on that experience – matters.

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I believe we enhance outcomes in CA

Because design does not stop at the end of CDs and I believe we enhance outcomes in CA, make connections and connect the dots, to find deeper meaning in the work as we see our ideas through to fruition. Which is also why I say the Architect should have a seat at the table through to closeout and beyond, and come back 6mos. post-occupancy. And ideally onsite, especially for projects of this scale, complexity and long, drawn out durations.

A CM said to me once that this is the phase (CA) when the CM wins a client and the Architect loses a client. Do you believe that? I say, design offense is the best defense. Design matters. And when design inspires, its not a struggle. We win the client, and we all win.

Ubiquity & Rootedness

The Cancer Hospital was designed in Seattle. And it was easy to juxtapose the big, now ubiquitous innovations coming out of Seattle – there’s 3,000 miles between SEA and RDU after all –  to make a case for rootedness. Which is why it was imperative to set up a field office in NC. The outcome? Top-shelf design, connected to the community. As for the CA phase, there is no better perspective on the work, the people and the place than on the ground, in the trenches and onsite in the field. In Situ.

The space between Airstream renos. & pop up developments

Between the delight brought by the Airstream restorations and renovations of hofarc.com and the wasteland-defibrillating pop up developments like the one planned for Tysons Corner, VA there is a space in my heart full of wanderlust on the one hand and hope on the other that within The Practice there is actually space between the monuments and class A spec. office space, the strip malls and big box retail, for all that we aspire toward for our built environment.

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In the case of pop up developments: they are the resuscitations and reparations for having ‘paved paradise and put up a up a parking lot’.

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Its a kind of M*A*S*H 4077 embodiment of transit-oriented development principles, architectural triage when more traditional brick-and-mortar lags behind our need for places with soul and solace, oh and a SBUX.

Just around the corner from their World HQ with props for adaptively reusing the Sears & Roebuck Building, is a must-see next time you are in SODO south of downtown Seattle, a contextual shipping container architecture for a SBUX drive-thru.

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As for the iconic Airstream trailer: there is a parallel American Dream to God’s little acre rooted in frontier mythos and a nostalgia for the open road. That it manifests itself in a mobile architecture – a vehicle with which to recreate, fossil fuel fun aside, the land yacht still fascinates like the real seaworthy yachts and liveaboards, all making getting there that much more than just half the fun.

That architects take part in patching and restoring the fabric of our lives or that architecture sets the stage for not only convenience but for the health and welfare of a civil society and civic engagement, or enriches and celebrates the vehicle from which all the comforts of domesticity and dwelling (and that’s everything INCLUDING the kitchen sink) are packed into a glorified chrome tortoise shell and hauled around as a form of recreation while also that lens for a scene-change down the road out Route 66, Blue Highways or the Coast Road, may seem a stretch, too high and mighty or far-reaching for any one profession, except architecture.

Future/Primitive

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A dear colleague shared correspondence with me which asks a group of people on a committee for an architectural exhibit to share their thoughts on the theme of the future/primitive in architecture:

“As we have progressed with our theme of Future/Primitive I have begun research into the ideas that are important to the planning committee for this year’s exhibit. As I have done some reading into contemporary thinking around the word “primitive” as used in the architectural field I have found that the use of the word is quite contentious – as it is in other fields of anthropology and cultural studies. I will provide a link to a book I was reading from and I think that the issues I am referring to are clear in the introduction, which is quite short. Would some of you be willing to read it as well and let me know your thoughts?”

Of course, don’t ask me what I think:

I like the passage in the introduction “…architects continue to use the word [primitive] to mythologize and reify the practice of simplicity.” Which also makes me think of authenticity, both the cultural/ephemeral and the material/tectonic…

Hailing from the South, where hushpuppies come free of charge (like chips and salsa do at their “Mexican” restaurant counterparts), I think of Tom Douglas’ foray into another brand of authenticity with his Brave Horse Tavern ca. 2011 in the middle of the new car smell of South Lake Union (see also Local 360, where the only thing local about the idea of grits as a side dish is paying $3.50 for it, which at that price should be called polenta)…

Brave Horse, invoking images like this:
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And serving familiar food like this:

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Fried chicken? Macaroni salad? Watermelon?

The design response to authenticity may be romance, even nostalgia for the future/primitive, machines we can look at and understand, the opposite of say the iPod ‘back in the day’, if you can recall your own first impression/fascination with the simplicity of it and its iterations, but also your frustration with how something as simple as changing its battery was no longer in your domain, among other things.

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At the architectural scale, Tom Kundig’s kinetic architecture may be a response/celebration of machines we can look at and understand and that somehow speak to an authenticity, a transparency about how things work, and beyond, how we live and interact and view the built environment and the world around us vs. say the iPod-class of buildings:

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This popular sentiment, to which Sweets Catalog can attest, see their recent product design feature, Practice Makes Products.
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Is this new/old aesthetic the primitivization of building products and buildings, the modern analogy to the English Arts & Crafts Movement’s response to the Industrial Revolution?
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Perhaps Douglas and Kundig’s is a response or some antidote to the present day revolution already upon us, the Information Age. The future already looks like this:
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In the statement accompanying the World Architecture Festival Building of the Year, 2011: “The Industrial Revolution and now the Digital Revolution. Today, in the information age, architecture is a technology platform that consists of computer system connections and new materials. This project has been commissioned by The Consortium of the Zona Franca CZFB and 22 @ of Barcelona. 22@ is an experimental district with a powerful, distributed and accessible, energy load. Part of the Districlima network, where new business values are intangible. We were extremely interested in this digital city model based on ICT (information and communication technology), with the idea of a city where what matters is knowledge, added value and patents, in short, where the objective is for your architecture to be in sync with your own values…”

How can/does the primitive persist in the Information Age? Into that “experimental district with a powerful, distributed and accessible, energy load” ie. eco districts? Or among the Amazonians of South Lake Union?

There must be something about the primitive which represents our longing for authenticity, simplicity, continuity, provenance if not permanence. A memory-grounded anti-Information Age statement via hand-cranked windows and fried chicken, where the currency of information, open-source, virtual social networks and concepts as ephemeral as The Cloud, are held at bay, or in contrast to the dominant paradigm of the day.

If not still fried chicken, what will be the future’s go-to ‘comfort food’? Will we define Kundig as someday charming, quaint, the Delta Shelter making the cover of American Bungalow?

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The character “Mater” from the Disney movie Cars, comes to mind. Popular, CORTEN after all, capitalizing on hushpuppies and grits, and a bit of the American nostalgia for a bygone era where people changed their own oil, their own flat, and tinkering on cars was a pastime. And so on…

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Is it not that the future/primitive for any generation is an attempt at authenticity when authenticity seems all but lost and some bygone era, a ‘Golden Age’ ala Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), gives us hope, respite and perspective, eventually re-grounding us so that we might yet make that next bold step more confidently in the direction of one’s dreams?

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