The Architect and Design Thinking; Navigating the business sector’s eager adoption of architecture’s iterative process and language, and architects’ potential role in its acquisition and deployment…

I recently edited an interview for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” magazine featuring a conversation at the 2016 AIA Convention between Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA and national President of the AIA in 2015 and Virginia E. Marquardt, AIA.

When asked what changes Richter would like to see 15 years from now in architectural professional practice, she replied, “ We [architecture professionals] have talked about expanding our services so that we don’t bracket ourselves within ‘just’ design. Architects need to find ways to apply our set of skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems creatively.  I think being able to find options is one of our main strengths as architects.  We are not formulaic and that’s what makes us so valuable when it comes to weighing options and helping our clients sort through whatever issue might need a solution.”   She proceeded to say that, “While architects shouldn’t bracket themselves, it’s very important to realize that architects build.  We build buildings, we build spaces.  We can’t forget the core of our profession.”

Richter’s comments regarding the architects’ ability to think iteratively and in an option-oriented manner highlighted one of my favorite aspects or our profession. When approaching a design problem, we already know that there is no one perfect solution, but rather, a multitude of options that must be studied and explored in order to build consensus regarding which option is most appropriate given a specific array of constraints and overarching project goals.

This past week I began to think through the potentials of diagramming a site for a new project. Wrapping my head around how I might create 4 distinctive options that solved a similar problem but in different ways was teased out in a quick sketch exercise, followed by study and some preliminary testing, conversation, and of course, more drawing.  The results felt exciting and latent with potentials that will continue to be tested against our client’s vision, needs, and long-term goals.  Already I am excited to see which scheme has the most promise, and do not feel married to a specific parti in favor of recognizing that the iterative process needs to once again be fed through a literal feedback loop that will garner new strategies and results.

Having returned this past May from C2, a conference in Montreal geared towards “Commerce and Creativity,” it seems that “big business” is also seeking this type of iterative thinking– and with great marketing gusto and enthusiasm.  During my time at C2 I attended a Master Class taught by a partner with Deloitte Digital, a self-described “digital consultancy” that “brings together all the creative and technology capabilities, business acumen, and industry insight needed to help transform our clients’ businesses.” The class was titled “Innovation in the Digital Era,” and focused on “exploring how leading innovators are able to disrupt their markets.”

Not sure what to expect, I was amazed to find myself in a class that was teaching principles and strategies of design thinking and prototyping paired with product development and outcomes. When I met someone in the class that worked for Deloitte Digital, they mentioned that some of their staff was comprised of architects, and that these individuals were achieving success in their new roles.

Much in the way that IDEO and other companies that aim to use design thinking as a lens with which to solve problems, architects’ process of working iteratively to generate quick solutions to evaluate and refine is being adopted and celebrated across industry sectors and various forms of media.

When I asked Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, a social impact design firm based in Boston, about the concept of “design thinking” being appropriated across a wide range of business sectors as a tool for re-thinking existing issues or initiatives by engaging users directly and prototyping potential solutions, I appreciated her initial response “they [the corporate sector] stole our words!” She then countered by adding, “The design process allows for uncertainty and creativity, which is deeply optimistic and imaginative.  To see examples of that being valued in the world outside of design is something I feel great about.  Design thinking as the marriage of ethnography and open-ended problem solving is a great process that can produce great things.”

As for my personal opinion, I second Richter that architects’ unique academic training instills a certain juxtaposition of rigor and “what if” that helps facilitate diverse, rich dialogues and thinking that hopefully result in, as Richter reminds us, amazing built work. What I also hope is that architects continue to sit at the table in multidisciplinary settings, where the rigor of the design process might add value to problem-solving even when built solutions aren’t required, not only as a means of generating unique solutions to various problems, but demonstrating a certain level of rigor and process that goes beyond the adoption of sometimes ambiguous or slippery words like “innovation.”

And I think it will: it seems like there has never been a better time and appetite to think iteratively not only in our work, but  in the diverse and applicable ways architecture professionals may want to utilize their varied skill sets.

Denver Design Week Recap (and still time to register for the closing event tomorrow night!)

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Photo courtesy of Modern in Denver’s facebook page.  Denver Design Week Moderator and Panelists (from left to right) Beth Mosenthal, Jeff Sheppard, Brad Buchanan, Jonathan Alpert, and Tobias Strohe participating in a discussion, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of our Built Environment”

If you haven’t checked your social media feeds this week or driven by a downtown streetscape where large foam letters spelling “DDW” sit boldly outside an event space, you might have missed one of Denver’s most trending topics regarding the city’s inaugural week-long series of events; Denver Design Week.

Denver’s first design week is described by the founder and organizer, Modern in Denver, as “a showcase for the region’s best architecture, interiors, art, brands, and technology. Eight days of education, home and studio tours, demonstrations, presentations, conversations, inspiration, collaboration, and a launch party that might be the highlight of your summer…Denver Design Week celebrates and elevates design because it shapes our lives. Good design has the power to change the world in real and meaningful ways, and better design leads to better living…Dozens of cities around the world host design weeks, bringing creative communities together, promoting a wide array of design industries and organizations and connecting the public to local design ecosystems.”

Throughout the week, I was able to attend and participate in several of the events offered. From a launch party in RiNo’s Glitterdome industrial-event space that combined social interaction with the artistic and experiential to discussions with various thought-leaders in the community regarding topics ranging from rapid urbanization to driverless cars to a dynamic discussion regarding on-going issues of equity in design, each event was thoughtfully-curated and well-attended by a diverse cross section of Denver residents.  Many events accommodating 100 or more people sold out, identifying a desire from Denver’s broader community to connect and learn more about various aspects of design and Denver’s design community.

At an event I participated in on Tuesday, “What’s Next for Denver: Harnessing the Power of Our Built Environment,” I found myself sitting next to a youthful and engaged husband and wife. After brief introductions, they explained to me that they were attending due to their 13 year old son’s burgeoning interest in architecture, engineering, and design.  They wanted to learn more about the design community, and were curious about different organizations and events in Denver that they might attend with their son to continue to facilitate his developing interest.  To me, this was an important moment in my design-week experience.  As a design professional, their presence and enthusiasm at the event felt very significant to me, and to the broader intent and positive implications of an initiative such as a city-specific Design Week.

Providing opportunities for connection and direct dialogue (almost all sessions involved an audience Q&A) between design professionals and members of the community helps demystify the inherent value of design in cities, while also creating greater access to residents’ concerns, priorities, and aspirations for the places in which they live, work, and play.

If you’ve missed the events thus far, there is still a chance to attend Friday night’s keynote with special guest-speaker Andrew Zolli, founder of Brooklyn Design Week and forward-thinker that “works at the intersection of global innovation, foresight, social change, and resilience.”

Much like Denver Start-Up Week, Modern in Denver’s first Denver Design Week has been a huge success, and will hopefully continue to grow and create more meaningful connections and opportunities between the city and the design community (and its outcomes) in the years to follow.

From Thesis to Icon; Visiting Moshe Safdie’s “Habitat 67”

A few weeks ago I attended the incredible C2 Conference in Montreal; a unique conference in the sense that the aim is to blend “commerce, culture, and creativity,” in several days of high-quality presentations, masterclasses, brain dates, and labs that provoke as well as inspire. Having arrived a bit early due to the lengthy flight time, I spent the night before the conference wandering the city.  After being charmed by the European feel of the friendly and sophisticated city, I found myself strolling along Montreal’s Historic District’s waterfront.

Across a slender body of water the long, modular composition of stacked boxes unfolded before me.  Scanning my mental index of architectural precedents and projects, I quickly identified the project as the iconic Habitat 67 by Moshe Safdie.

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View of Habitat 67 from Montreal’s Vieux Port, photo credit: Mosenthal

Conceived and presented as Safdie’s Master’s Thesis Project at McGill University in 1961 (coined “A Case for City Living,”) the project was selected to be built for the Canadian Pavilion at the World Exposition of  1967 in Montreal.  At that time, Safdie was interning in Louis Kahn’s studio and was only 23 years of age.

Given the green light to develop his thesis idea, as explained in ArchDaily, Safdie applied his original theories regarding a “three-dimensional modular building system” (a highly novel idea at the time, pre-3d-modeling software and proposed amidst the adoption of North American suburban sprawl.) The result was an ambitious masterplan/microcosm comprised of “shopping centers, a school, and 1000 housing units” (ArchDaily 2013.)

Ultimately Safdie’s visionary proposal was approved, albeit cut down in scope.  The final built project consisted of 158 residential units constructed from 340+ prefabricated modules.  The modules were arranged in varied combinations and connected by steel cables.  Units were designed to be accessible via pedestrian bridges and streets as well as three cores with elevators for the top floors.

As described by Gili Merin for ArchDaily, “the prefabrication process of the 90-ton boxes took place on-site. The basic modular shape was molded in a reinforced steel cage, which measured 38 x 17 feet. Once cured, the concrete box was transferred to an assembly line for the insertion of electrical and mechanical systems, as well as insulation and windows. To finalize the production, modular kitchens and bathrooms were installed, and finally a crane lifted each unit to its designated position.”

Several days later, my former architecture professor (currently a Professor at McGill) and I found ourselves quickly and quietly scuttling around the grounds of Habitat 67 at early dusk.

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View of the complex up-close at dusk, photo credit: Mosenthal 2016

A still-thriving residential community that values privacy and the almost utopian vision of a hybridized garden home in the sky (that is also, subsequently, on a narrow island surrounded by beautiful vistas of water, dense forest, and urbanity) we were discrete in our quick tour of the grounds.  Similar to Falling Water, some of the concrete had begun to crack and the stamp of time added a vintage patina that was admittedly pleasing in its acknowledgement of an idea distilled but also alive in a continuum of history and time.

Somewhat brutalist in its overall presentation, what won me over about the development was the lush greenery and individual gardens flanking the various sides and roofs of the extruded boxes.  Due to the unique stacking and configuration of the boxes, each unit is located a step back from its neighbor, creating an opportunity for “a roof garden, fresh air, and natural light” (Merin 2013.)

While today’s multi-family housing provides narrow balconies at a premium, Habitat 67’s simple juxtaposition of elemental form (the concrete box,) nature (an individual garden per unit,) and glass (a visual connection between the outside to the inside) creates a simple-but-elegant dialogue that remains desirable to any prospective housing tenant.

We stayed only a brief time, but my first impression and visit to Habitat 67 reminded me of why visiting historically significant architecture buildings is so worthwhile.  I left thinking about our current housing typologies, and was reminded how important it is to challenge existing assumptions in order to explore different models for living and building.

I’ve also thought a lot about what it means to be given a chance at the age of 23; Safdie was encouraged to submit his project for consideration by his thesis advisor, Sandy Van Ginkel.  Without a mentor or someone that believed in Safdie, his career may have taken a very different trajectory.  How do we inspire young architects to take risks, and for worthwhile ideas that rise to the surface, how do we facilitate these ideas and ambitions to be realized?  The Canadian Government ultimately took a huge chance on Safdie.  While the project wasn’t without high cost (in part due to its reduced scope,) ultimately many would consider the project a now integral part of Montreal’s built environment.

Remembering a True Artist; Celebrating the Life and Work of Zaha Hadid

Each day we experience what one might best be labeled “pragmatic architecture,” because it is exactly that.  From America’s beloved big box store with the gigantic (and changeable) sign to the prolific utilitarian gas stations that dot the corners of our residential fabric, utility is convention, and thoughtfully-designed architecture, sadly, is often the exception.

As children we are taught to draw a house in the form of a square with a triangle roof, windows where bedrooms might be, and a door for entry on the first floor.  Each element has a purpose and a lesson, but the drawing is symbolic rather than artful; explanatory rather than suggestive.

c1d8c5bafd9953f3d2a25e0ed8500fefIn late March the architecture community lost an architect that preferred architectural pyrotechnics to pragmatics; exploding onto the scene in the late 1970’s/early 80’s, Zaha Hadid is and will always be remembered equally weighted as an artist and architect that understood form as something fluid-but-faceted, expressive, and at its best moments, uninhibited.

After digesting the many articles that have been written in her memory, I was amazed to learn more about the person (and personality) behind the dramatic pictures (of Dame Hadid and of her work.)  Born in Baghdad, Iraq, Hadid studied mathematics at the University of Beirut prior to moving to London to attend the Architectural Association in 1972.  After working at OMA with rising Starchitect Rem Koolhaas, a friendship sustained throughout her lifetime, Zaha left to pursue her unique and individualistic architectural approach.

Starting her own practice in 1980, Hadid became prolific in the mediums of drawing and painting as tools to explore architectural investigations one might only think possible with a computer.  This type of representation led her to notoriety after winning the prestigious international competition for the Hong Kong Peak Club.  Although the Club was never realized, commissions followed including her seminal Vitra Fire Station (1993,) a buoyant ski jump in Innsbruck (2002,) the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio (2003,) and many more impactful projects that today, according to the Zaha Hadid Architects website, totals 950 projects across 44 countries/55 nations.

Growing up as an aspiring architect in the 1980’s and 90’s, as a child my architectural role models were pretty boiler plate.  There were Frank Lloyd Wright coloring books, history books touting the famed woman architect, Julia Morgan, and fancy spreads of New York penthouses and Aspen ranches in Architectural Digest issues that I admittedly devoured each month.

It wasn’t until my 20’s and immersion into architecture school that I fully understood the challenges, achievements, and artistry of contemporary architects like Hadid.  This understanding was fully reinforced when Hadid was recognized as the Laureate of the Pritzker Prize in 2004; the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Despite a smaller portfolio of built work at the time, architects such as Bill Lacy, speaking as the executive director of the Pritzker Prize in 2004 remarked, “Only rarely does an architect emerge with a philosophy and approach to the art form that influences the direction of the entire field. Such an architect is Zaha Hadid who has patiently created and refined a vocabulary that sets new boundaries for the art of architecture.”

Many people say Hadid was the most influential woman architect of our time.  I prefer to look to her as a role model, but to share a sentiment that has been expressed that she is simply one of THE most influential Architects of our time.

Firsthand Experience : Learning Through Design-Build

Ever wondered why the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, “Colorado Building Workshop,” is so popular amongst students, faculty, and Colorado residents?  Aspiring architect and graduate student Samantha Strang provides us with a guest post this week regarding her experience as an active participant in a project to design and build year-round cabins in Leadville for the Colorado Outward Bound School.  Read ahead to learn about what she aptly describes as a “layered design process.”   

Thanks Samantha!

-Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

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Photo credit: Rachel Koleski.   Description: Students presenting during the final design crits with the client, Colorado Outward Bound School

As a developing architect, I aim to approach all projects with a committed contemplation for detail, place, time, material, craft, and people. I hope to always represent those who will use the space through an informed design process based on sensorial and emotional understanding as well as environmental and regional components. These powerful elements invoke a timeless relevance and open direct lines of communication between people and the architecture that surrounds them.

 

My participation this semester with the University of Colorado Denver’s Design-Build Program, Colorado Building Workshop, has given me (as well as many collaborators) the opportunity to utilize this layered design process to achieve a built outcome. Working and learning from our clients, Colorado Outward Bound School, while helping to build their community is a unique opportunity to enhance and contribute to the school’s sense of place and identity. As opposed to generating a theoretical design problem, I’ve found that CU’s Design-Build program allows students to develop key skills to explore the integral relationship between architectural design, people, and building construction.

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Photo credit: Samantha Strang.  CU-Denver Design-Build students in Leadville conducting Post-Occupancy evaluations of the fourteen cabins from the 2015 build.

This semester, twenty-eight students are designing seven year-round accommodations. The housing, which includes three single occupancy units, three double occupancy lodgings, and the Executive Director’s cabin, will be built in Leadville during the CU-Denver Maymester. Expanding upon last year’s build of fourteen summer-use cabins, these seven units will be roughly 300 square feet, fully insulated, and will include electrical. Working in teams of four, my classmates and I have worked intensely throughout the design process to personalize our particular cabins to our sites and project concepts. Simultaneously, we have had the challenge of relating to the previous build while creating works which are individual to our class’s design sensibilities.

Working much like a professional studio, we have come to rely on one another’s strengths. Aside from our design teams, students work within other groups including areas such as Logistics, Structure, and Budgets which serve to keep the project focused as a whole. This ensures communication exists between the seven cabins while promoting a cohesive design approach relating to the architectural language and techniques employed in the fourteen cabins built last year.

Within the program, every student has the potential to bring unique insight to challenge and improve the architectural design. I have learned not only how to deal with structural issues and budgetary restrictions, but also the importance of efficiency, on-site problem solving, and adherence to deadlines. I’ve noted the clarity of communication necessary to maintain organization and the intricate detailing of construction assemblies required to fully understand how a project comes together. Needless to say, it has become exceptionally clear that one’s understanding of every detail matters.

As an aspiring architect, I want to experiment, pose questions, be questioned, and collaborate to create unique works. Learning and readjusting after each step through an iterative process is part of the Design-Build program. This is where I can bring all of my skills and put them into practice, learn from students with other backgrounds, and potentially teach others as well. This in-depth experience promotes the ability to comprehensively design, define career goals, and affords students the potential to be a more informed, valuable member of a professional studio in the future.