We had modest goals when we first took on the “ideas competition” to design the office building of the future. All we wanted was to use the tight deadline–the discipline and structure that comes with a competition–to organize our ideas about the future of office buildings. In the beginning we saw this as a way to engage in an internal debate about a myriad of related topics. We began as we always do, asking many questions. This time, though, we went beyond our usual inquiry: Will there even be office buildings in the future? How will people want and need to work in an office 15 or 20 years from now? What impact will technology have on design and engineering? But we never once asked, “What will it look like?”
As principals, we calculate the risk against the rewards for our architecture practice. Naively, we guessed that this project would involve a few weeks of work for those staff members who weren’t fully employed on other projects. Our economic risk would be minimal. Our reward would be a 10-minute presentation to show our developer clients, inspiring their thinking about office buildings. With no clear vision of what could happen, we nevertheless pushed our team to reach for something beyond what they already knew. If we were going to enter this competition, then we were in it to win. Go big or go home.
The effect on the office was profound. We took the opportunity to look over the horizon, unfettered by the normal project restrictions and, in the process, energized everyone. Suddenly they all wanted to get involved. We engaged the best engineers to contribute their ideas. We decided to do a video (which we’d never done before). Most importantly, we would allow ourselves to dream. Suddenly the risk expanded far beyond a monetary risk. Now we were taking an emotional risk as well, pouring our hearts and minds into a collaborative effort and then, perhaps, ending up being disappointed with the outcome. When we announced to the office, over champagne, that we had been named one of four winners nationally, everyone cheered!
Photo by Architecture for Humanity
Watching torrents of brown water cascade down the hill, filled with garbage and visibly eroding the rocky landscape, we were dramatically reminded of the importance of modern storm sewers. This humble piece of infrastructure, generally hidden from view, goes unnoticed during the course of our everyday lives in the United States, but on a hillside slum in urban Haiti during the rainy reason, there is nothing more important. From the perspective of public health, this regular deluge in the informal settlement of Villa Rosa is devastating, spreading disease, soaking possessions, and sometimes sweeping away entire buildings.
Photo by Architecture for Humanity
On March 22, 2012, in celebration of the United Nations’ World Water Day, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s (SOM) City Design Practice launched the Great Lakes Century Vision video. The goal of the video, produced in collaboration with the award-winning design firm Thirst, was to broadcast and garner international support for a bold 100-year vision for the environmental and economic renewal of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region.
Economic and industrial models are crumbling. Economists everywhere seem incapable of predicting or solving problems facing Western countries. The reality is that universities of economics, recently recognized by the Shanghai ranking for the quality of their research, have not turned out the “finders”, who alongside researchers, are expected to provide solutions to calm the stormy seas that lie ahead.
Moreover, the exact and objective science that is technology, which once put its trust in humanity-based progress, has gone so far in its quest for the “knowledge of things” that it has managed to spread panic by objectifying progress and the end of the world. GMOs, genetic decoding, atoms, etc. so many topics on which the all-knowing powers-that-be astound and threaten us with the best and worst of scenarios.
Globalization, internationalization, the intermingling of populations and cultures challenge our cultural references of value and meaning. Morals take a backseat to the law as our notions of right and wrong, freedom, justice, respect of nature, others and oursleves, manners, etc. are thrown out of whack as a result of different cultural approaches. These shifting contexts are particularly favorable to design.