Jonathan Ward

Jonathan Ward

Design Partner, NBBJ
Jonathan has been travelling, living and working around the world designing architecture that enables powerful human networks. With the goal of facilitating engagement, communication and community — all necessary to drive innovation in the 21st century — he has reinvigorated a variety of building typologies to newly focus on human connection. To achieve these design goals he has developed a collaborative improvisational design process steeped in his background as a jazz bassist.

As Many Storefronts Sit Empty, Three Opportunities to Rethink the Ground Floor of Buildings

May 20, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Andrea Vanecko.

 

The pandemic shows us what cities without vibrant and engaging commercial streets look like – when some of our favorite spaces are shuttered and instead of spending a day popping into shops, we are met with stores displaying ‘For Lease’ signs.

The decline of in-person retail and the question of what to do with ground level retail space has been on the minds of developers, architects, and urban planners for years. However, the pandemic accelerates this crisis, with retail vacancies expected to reach a seven year high this year.

The vitality of ground level commercial space is about much more than the future of retail. These spaces are where neighborhood identity is formed, it’s where we live our day-to-day lives, where we play and meet up with friends. And how these places are curated makes the difference between streetscapes that are livable and human, and those that lack a sense of coherence and place.
This moment – between the devastation of the pandemic and full reopening – presents an opportunity to be bold in reimagining what we want our cities to look like and in rethinking how ground level retail space is zoned, used and configured.

A New Opportunity
As a team of architects, designers and strategists obsessed with the future of cities, we believe the street level of buildings should intermingle retail with social and community services, bring craft and making to the forefront and create an environment that better reflects the tastes and lifestyle of millennials and Gen Z. Here are a few examples:

  • One of the most compelling opportunities is to create more porous environments. Typically, retail spaces are small, hermetically sealed boxes solely reserved to the first floor of buildings that lack a sense of continuity and circulation in and between environments. If we look at some of the most successful and iconic spaces in cities – the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle and Grand Central Market in Downtown LA – they all buck this trend. They feel organic, mixing indoors and outdoors, and are imbued with a sense of texture, discovery and exploration. These are all qualities we can translate into the street if we’re willing to think both creatively and strategically, designing for an interesting and engaging tenant mix and for different kinds of programming that move away from siloed retail.
  • What if in the same street you lived, you could also find pop-up galleries, community spaces, work zones and outdoor fitness classes? What if after work, all you had to do was go downstairs and a block away to walk into a cooking, pottery or foreign language class? By designing our commercial retail environments in a way that seamlessly integrates indoors and outdoors, we can connect tenants with an ongoing slate of physical and experiential programming and activations, from satellite art spaces connected to larger institutions to educational sessions to outdoor libraries and play spaces for children.
  • We can also challenge the idea of the ground floor as the only space available to us and explore what more vertical uses and programming could look like. We’ve seen this with green roofs and rooftop bars and restaurants, but could it also be that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 10th level gets programmed? Traveling beyond the first floor, we could see tenants higher up in the building that offer extended hours so there’s a vertical adventure like we see more commonly in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Roadblocks to Change
If we want to move toward this new vision for the commercial programming of cities, we must work closely with developers, city planners and city officials to overcome persistent roadblocks. Because without reform, these ideas will remain concepts instead of reality. We, both as a firm and as an industry, have an opportunity to advocate for new ways of doing work across:

  • City zoning unintentionally discourages ingenuity in this area, often operating within limited criteria for what traditional retail tenants can be. Zoning generally likes to organize cities in tidy boxes, but if we want to encourage the revitalization of these neighborhoods after the pandemic, allowing for a mix of uses at different times of day and night is one of the most effective strategies to get there. This approach will also create new opportunities for the slate of businesses across sectors that have been forced to exit their leases due to the pandemic and will be looking for a home after. Zoning can be a catalyst or a roadblock as we explore new configurations for both ground floors and vertical programming. If we want to adopt zoning modifications that allow us to create districts that better reflect the way we work, learn and play today, we should promote policy that allows for a greater diversity of uses in existing retail space and to reimagine vertical zoning within other kinds of commercial buildings. One of the biggest challenges in moving toward zoning reform is the limited way many cities interpret what retail and what vibrancy are. If we can widen that definition beyond point of sale for physical products and goods to include experiences and events, we can allow for a greater variety of tenants.
  • Especially in retail-intensive districts, there is an understandable tendency to capture immediate financial incentives by having spaces filled as quickly as possible by the highest paying tenants. But there’s also a growing movement with forward-thinking developers and property owners to reconceptualize the role of first floor space can play, away from immediate financial benefits and revenue generation as the determining factor toward spaces that will also establish the social identity of the area and bring in more people – an attribute that tenants crave. This approach is an investment in the medium and long-term longevity of these developments by prioritizing the quality of the place and experience offered therein. There’s already really promising movement in the commercial real estate sector to explore the benefits of this approach – a ULI survey finds that 60% of CRE professionals are moving towards nonfinancial measures like social value and community impact to assess the value of projects.
  • Many retail lease structures favor large, established tenants with long-term real estate needs. This approach has the important benefit of stability, but it can sometimes stifle innovation in how these spaces are occupied and programmed. For example, meanwhile uses and pop-up programming can bring in new audiences, drive foot traffic and reframe how people view a given street or district. More fluid lease lines that look beyond a major anchor tenant toward a series of smaller leases can open these districts to more engaging and innovative uses, and by having a constant churn of activity, create opportunities for people to come back again and again.

Architects, urban and town planners, designers, and the real estate sector have a unique opportunity to steward a new way of thinking about what our cities look like. And we have a significant role to play in designing spaces that supports a tenant mix that better reflects how we live today. The vision is here. It’s up to us to work together to dismantle the roadblocks to making it happen.

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Nature as the City

Why It’s Time for a New Greenspace Framework to Guide Future Development

March 4, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Margaret Montgomery.

 

As a firm tasked with designing the buildings and cities that shape our future, we are challenging ourselves to imagine a new way of developing places. One where nature is the city, and the city is treated as a natural system.

For much of the past 100 years, designers and planners have worked around automobiles as the main organizing mechanism for cities. And in order to accommodate cars – both how they move and how they’re parked  – 20th century planners had to develop an elaborate system of roadways that became largely divorced from greenspace.

Whether it happens in the next decade or beyond,  the North Star of nature as the city now guides our practice. And this approach helps to move toward the world we want to see – where our cities are greener and more habitable, for all people who live and work in them.

The reasons to use nature as the guiding principle are myriad. At an individual level, we know that access to greenspace makes us healthier, less depressed and anxious, more connected and more creative (and we also know that for too many in our cities, there is little to no greenspace access). In her book The Nature Fix, writer Florence Williams outlines the ‘nature pyramid,’ a concept that says we need ‘differing frequency, duration and intensity of immersion’ in nature in order to be well. While big, awe-inducing experiences in nature – like those found at national parks – are something to visit on occasion, it’s our daily experiences in cities that make up the bulk of our exposure.

At a systems level, green infrastructure – in the form of public parks, wetlands and grasslands, urban forests, green roofs and siding, and rainwater gardens – is our most affordable and most effective technology in protecting cities from the impacts of climate change. This green infrastructure makes our cities more beautiful and more livable and serves a critical function in stormwater management, reducing pollution, and decreasing the urban heat island effect.

By treating the city as a natural environment, we have the opportunity to soften its hardness, both literally and figuratively. Here are five ideas we’re both inspired by and actively integrating into our projects to ensure more healthy, natural cities:

1. City and district-wide ‘Sponge City’ solutions.

Across Asia, most notably in Hong Kong and Southern China, cities are now five years into an experiment in investing in landscape and green infrastructure to counteract the region’s hyper-urbanization. The ‘Sponge City’ model looks to simultaneously address issues of flooding, water shortages and water pollution, turning entire districts and cities into landscape sponges to capture and retain stormwater and preserve it for future use. For Tencent’s 22-million square foot Net City masterplan in Shenzhen, a series of green pathways and corridors, open public greenspace, mangrove plantings along the district’s waterfront, and wetlands are integrated throughout the multi-acre project.

2. The growth of landscape infrastructure in North America.

In the US, ambitious rails to trails projects like the Nickel Plate Trail outside Indianapolis, Rail Park in Philadelphia and infrastructure endeavors like the LA River initiative are a ubiquitous approach to multipurpose infrastructure creating adapted greenspace, restoring habit, climate control measures and introducing new opportunities for transport and recreation.

3. Street level greenscape interventions.

Innovative approaches to leveraging the power of natural interventions can also be found at the individual street level.

In Seattle, the city is implementing a series of bioswale streets, using native plantings to create natural drainage systems while also turning sidewalks and roadway medians from places you’d never notice into beautiful settings. For example, a cascading rain garden under a major bridge in the city’s Fremont neighborhood now gathers and filters 200,000 gallons of stormwater annually.

In Boston, we’re working with the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton to preserve and expand the local tree canopy in the midst of a wave of new development. A key approach is to  strategically identify sidewalk greening opportunities pair them with a planting guide.

These seemingly simple interventions can be some of the most valuable and effective microscale solutions, yet also can be the most challenging to retrofit into neighborhoods that most need it.

4. The introduction of new habitat and wildlife corridors.

Cities including Portland and Oslo are exploring butterfly and bee highways and urban wildlife corridors to create safe habitat for birds, animals and other wildlife. These habitat interventions need to be connected across scale to be successful. This is why even smaller projects have an important role to play. For example, at the Gahanna branch location of Columbus Metropolitan Library in Columbus, OH, a butterfly garden at the perimeter of the building is being designed.

5. Commercial buildings, campuses and utilities greening our cities.

While a host of forward-thinking companies including Samsung and Vivo understood the benefits of indoor-outdoor work prior to the pandemic, the integration of green roofs, patios and balconies with plantings and multipurpose outdoor settings are now critical to the future of the office. In fact, companies increasingly view it as their responsibility to create these kind of environments, both for the health and well-being of their employees and for their communities. We’re also starting to see what it can look like to integrate greenspace with public utilities, as Seattle City Light does with the Denny Substation. The project  brings together greenspace and a dog park on the same site as the city’s newest electrical substation.

And at a campus level, bringing in new natural design elements can support citywide green infrastructure goals. For Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, the transformation of Nash Walkway with the introduction of new plantings and an outdoor study garden creates a more nurturing environment for students and staff and supports local habitat restoration.

Moving toward a more coherent approach to Nature as the City

These individual efforts are remarkable – but if we want the city to become an interconnected, natural ecosystem, we need to find more overarching ways to stitch them together. And we need to continuously explore ways to look for lessons from the biomes themselves. The architecture of nature itself has a lot to teach us about energy production and water reuse and percolation.

We already see some cities take the lead on more comprehensive commitments to green master planning. London is making moves to become the world’s first ‘National Park City,’ with a vision led by Mayor Sadiq Khan to plan from the premise ‘what if our cities were all natural landscapes?’ And Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Atlanta, New York City, Detroit and Vancouver are all implanting forms of green infrastructure plans. These plans explore new sources of investment and outline incentives to encourage the adoption of green initiatives towards increasing the tree canopy, ensuring residents have easier access to greenspace and increasing the acres of park per resident.

Conclusion

By operating from a framework of the city as nature, we have the opportunity to nurture a healthier and more equitable future for all – not just some — citizens of the city

It’s going to take a different way of thinking about and advocating for green space with architects, urban planners, urban designers, landscape architects and engineers all working in tandem. Moving toward this greener future will also require cross-disciplinary partnerships and alliances across city departments (bringing together public health, parks and recreation, utilities, sustainability and resilience), levels of local and federal government, in partnership with the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, and private development. And – most importantly – in getting community buy-in for both the vision and stewardship of these spaces.

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Cities Should Be Planned for People Before Cars. Here’s How It Can Be Done.

Five Lessons From Asia and Europe to Create More Human-Centric American Cities

January 21, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Phu Duong.

 

Throughout the world and especially in America, modern cities are operating from a mentality organized primarily around automobiles – not people. Since the introduction of Henry Ford’s automobile, the percentage of America’s population living in urban areas has jumped from 46% to upwards of 80%, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased tenfold and income inequality has ballooned to an all-time high.

Therefore, it’s worth asking if there’s a better way to imagine our districts, neighborhoods and cities to reflect what we want the world of tomorrow to look like. If 20th century planning + design was defined by how we plan around the car, 21st century planning and design can be defined by how we plan around people and healthy communities. Here are five ideas as to how that could happen:

1. First, Look Beyond Our Shores
While we’re at the beginning of this journey in America, cities across Asia and Europe already demonstrate what re-envisioning cities and districts looks like. Forward-thinking mayors like Ann Hidalgo of Paris and Ada Colau of Barcelona shape their cities’ long-term thinking through movements like the 15-minute city (where all necessary day-to-day amenities and services are concentrated in walkable neighborhoods requiring fewer car trips) and superblocks (where concentrations of blocks become pedestrianized except for essential and emergency vehicles).

In Asia, ambitious commitments by cities and companies push the boundaries of car-free, human-centric planning. For example, we’re currently working with Chinese technology company Tencent on its new districtwide Net City project in Shenzhen as an urban lab for testing ideas that put people ahead of the car. The project is a tabula rasa site with one main public space and connected nodes, all centered around a pedestrian-friendly framework. While coming from a considerably different cultural, political and geographic context, there’s a lot to learn from these projects that can be applied here.

2. Make It Slightly Inconvenient (and Safer) To Drive
Convenience is a motivating factor for day-to-day choices. So if we want to pivot away from a car-dominant mentality, we need to encourage cities to make it at least slightly inconvenient to drive. And while it’s unrealistic to expect a wholesale shift away from automobiles in cities, there are a host of solutions we can explore to make it easier for people to opt for alternative modes of transportation.

For Tencent’s Net City, traffic engineers are exploring interventions such as streets with acute corners so cars can only turn certain directions, ensuring traffic routing and pacing in a way that privileges pedestrian mobility over car movement. By changing street and traffic patterns and reorganizing blocks and functions, it’s possible to repatch the city to force drivers to slow down – something that is safer for both pedestrians and those in the car. It also makes the city quieter, an added benefit.

And in Oslo, making walking, biking and public transit the more convenient transportation option has meant removing over 700 parking spots from the city’s Downtown.

Note that while we want to shift the mindset of private automobile use in metropolitan areas, we need to double down on inclusive design and ADA accessibility which offers a new opportunity when traffic congestion is reduced and the competition for the curbside seeks new activity patterns.

3. Consider the Benefits of Wide Roadways
In the U.S. we tend to veer away from wide street and road patterns that are more commonly found throughout Asia. But there’s actually a way that we can adapt this model for US cities to plan dynamic people-centered environments. For example, the Tencent Net City requires a wide roadway right-of-way to meet the current planning regulations. But micro mobility strategies are also layered side-by-side: pedestrian walkways, protected bike lanes, bus lanes and space for scooters, e-bikes and green infrastructure buffers. Designers must envision intermittent uses that flex over time to support community creation for city dwellers and small businesses.

In addition, right-of-way width of roadways preserves daylight exposure onto the streets and sidewalks and it allows the urban fabric to ventilate. These fundamental provisions date back to the public health performance of streets in history that remain paramount during the pandemic. A hot steamy summer in New York with piles of garbage bags sharing the sidewalks with people is a picture that convinces many to want to redesign street spaces. As cities densify, daylight exposure becomes a right as well. Wider streets means more ample sunshine for everyone and even the urban forest that survives all year long inhabiting the street. Even an accommodation of three more feet to expand tree and plant beds offers a more humane streetscape to offset carbon emissions in our cities.

We already see this happening in an informal way during the pandemic in both big and small cities throughout America, which have introduced outdoor seating on sidewalks, moved walkways into the street and turned medians into hangout areas. The wider roads can provide space for both temporary and tactical urbanism interventions and programming as well as more permanent adjustments. This also allows for spaces where greater intergenerational and social mixing can occur.

4. Transform Roadways to Pedestrian Ways Across Scales
Wherever possible, we should look for opportunities to transform roadways for cars into pedestrian ways that can accommodate recreation and active transportation. We’ve already seen the popularization of car-free streets, where multi-street corridors are turned into walking and biking zones.

But there is also an opportunity to look across scales – whether it’s at an individual block level or across entire districts and neighborhoods. With the Denny Substation in Seattle – a project that turns a public utility into a community park and amenity – walkability is improved with the inclusion of community space including a quarter-mile walkway lined with public artworks, a dog park and gallery space and areas for food trucks. We also see this at the district level with Dallas’ Arts District which seeks to turn one of the most notoriously car-centric cities in America into a walkable central hub for culture and recreation.

5. Expand the Pool of Stakeholders Committed to This Work
The process of reshaping cities away from 100 years of car-dominant planning and design will take a wide and committed group of stakeholders. While this work has often been led by local government, a widening group of private and corporate firms – including a number of forward-thinking companies – are taking on this work, especially at a neighborhood and district level. These initiatives are even more impactful when new industry and local government work together in tandem to imagine, fund and maintain this work. And with city budgets constricted by the ongoing pandemic, it’s going to take additional vision and commitment by the private sector to move toward this vision.

In Summary
The reprioritization of city planning to focus first on humans and later on cars is central to the values we want to see – cities with a smaller carbon footprint and lesser climate change impact, healthy cities with cleaner air, less noise pollution, more opportunities for active transportation and more inclusive and equitable cities with quality transportation access for all. The challenge and task at hand is immense but it is achievable if the collective wisdom and commitment to bring together city planners, developers, corporations and the wider design community is realized.

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How Tech Companies are Rethinking the High-Rise Workplace

Eight New Ideas for the High-Rise of the Future

April 24, 2017

Design Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post, adapted from a talk delivered at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) 2016 China Conference on October 18, 2016, in Shenzhen, was originally published by NAIOP.

Seventy percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. This is a dramatic change over one and a half generations, and it will require us to rethink how we build our cities.

At the same time, many tech companies — Amazon, Tencent, Google, Samsung and others — are infusing digital technology into how cities are built and operated. They’re introducing different thinking about what defines a high-rise and a city.

The traditional high-rise building paradigm is simplistic: stacked floor plates, disconnected from each other, with little integration of technology and disconnected from the life of the city, except as an urban icon or a passive lens from which to look out. Most tech companies, however, as well as companies in other industries, are looking for a more social workplace, more interaction between employees and a work experience that reflects their brand. Cities are also changing, as they toss off the “inner city” stigmas of the previous generation and become places to live, work and play. As a result, the high-rise building paradigm needs to change into something more porous and highly networked.

Here are just a few possibilities:

  1. The high-rise building typology is highly ossified, but if we can deconstruct it, we can create seams in which people actually talk to each other, interact and generate new ideas. One way to accomplish this objective is by moving the core from the center of the building to the edge and creating common space at the center. The more we promote visual and physical communication in buildings, the more we can move towards community, innovation and happier places to work.
  2. The vertical, linear nature of elevators also reinforces the disconnection of people and the ossification of the high-rise. If we can look at movement systems from a more multivalent or “grid” perspective — with “skip-stop” elevators that force people to interact on higher floors, with more stairs and escalators between floors, and with multistory atriums for visual connections — we can open up a lot of possibilities.
  3. If the high-rise building is a city-planning problem, maybe public spaces, legislated vertically, can change the way we interact with buildings. Through planning and zoning we can create vertical urbanization purposefully. Just as traditional planning and zoning regulations for setbacks and heights are purposeful, we can open new possibilities for purposeful public space, green spaces and street volumes.
  4. Green facades are a simplistic way of incorporating nature into a high-rise. The more interesting possibility is to think of the building as a true ecosystem — which, again, is human- or life-based. If we can include plants and fresh air in the workplace and make our buildings more organic, it will change the way we interact and perform in buildings. Perhaps we could even grow food for a building’s inhabitants within the frame of the building itself.
  5. A lot of companies are broken into teams. If we think about those teams as “neighborhoods,” we can create connective tissue — almost like a plaza, a park or a square in a small city — between them to bring people together in a type of “village-ification” of the high-rise.
  6. Another priority: daylight for all. If towers are covering the city in shadows, what can we do about it? If we start thinking about geometry, technology and materials to bring daylight down to the street, we can start using buildings to solve problems that everyone experiences — even those who never set foot inside a building we design.
  7. At the same time, super-light towers are becoming possible. What can we learn about new materials — carbon fiber, for instance — from companies like Boeing? Studies suggest we can reduce steel and concrete in supertall towers by 35 to 40 percent. In an era of sustainability and scarce resources, those are things we should be thinking about.
  8. Finally, can the high-rise building become a technology platform? The internet giant Tencent, the most valuable company in Asia according to Fortune, is using its new headquarters tower as a lab for their own product portfolio, integrating elevators, lighting, conferencing, parking and security with their own WeChat-based products. By testing their products on themselves, they are not only making their workplace more efficient, but also learning how to create better products for their customers.

The basic, underlying principle for tall buildings and workplaces in the future will be to connect people and make life in our cities more sustainable. How can we, in ways we never could have imagined in the past, create a better, more human experience in the city and in the high-rise building? Therein lies the challenge. Solving it will spur us to greater innovation, synergy and new ways of thinking.

Banner image of Tencent headquarters © Terrence Zhang, courtesy NBBJ.

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What the West Can Learn from China

Despite an Economic Slowdown and the “No Weird Buildings” Mandate, Workplace Design in China Continues to Show the Way Forward

October 24, 2016

Design Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by JLL Real Views.

In recent years, Chinese companies have mastered the art of being bold and taking risks in their workplace design.

By applying creative thinking to ambitious projects, they’ve built a plethora of noteworthy spaces which have attracted attention from around the world.

Now, the economic slowdown and a more mature market are changing the way architects and developers approach new designs but beyond simply thinking big, there are still valuable lessons to be learnt for Western companies.

Value
While Chinese companies are still willing to think differently, now, instead of trying something because it’s outrageous or never been done before, they expect architects to prove their value. There’s more focus on well-built, long-lasting buildings, and the tech industry is leading the charge. They still see the benefit of thinking differently, but now that thinking has to be proven out with value metrics, whether in cost, time, construction quality or creating a better place to work.

Façade Innovation
Tech companies are also looking at building façades as opportunities for innovation, to make them more intelligent, better built and more expressive than many in the West. In the wake of the mandate for “no more weird architecture,” the façade is one place where a company can stand out and express an innovative brand: a well put-together, innovative façade says “we’re an innovative company.” Whether that façade is sustainable, highly detailed or simply expresses a program in a different way, their brand comes through in the architecture. Alibaba’s new building by Kengo Kuma, with its dynamic screening systems, is a great example; so are NBBJ’s self-shading towers for Tencent.

Landscape
Many Chinese firms have commissioned excellent landscape design, including the Vanke Center designed by Steven Holl, or the Morphosis-designed headquarters for Giant Interactive Group. In many of the clients I’ve worked with, there’s very much a cultural connection to the landscape — from the species of plants, to the spaces created, to the ability to be outside in nature. And with research showing that access to nature makes employees healthier, happier and more creative, there’s a proven value to creating high-quality landscapes.

Family
Many of the younger tech companies in China value their employees and go out of the way to create an environment that is comfortable, productive, fun and almost family-like. That stems from a larger cultural emphasis on the family or group, but it’s also good for innovation and productivity. We’re more individualistic in the West, but workplace design can help stimulate that sense of community. Easy access to amenities, whether for socializing, learning or health, can be a critical part of stitching that “family” together.

Transportation
Many large Chinese companies like Alibaba take care of transportation as a perk for their employees. Tencent, for instance, is building 15 bus stops at the base of their new headquarters to help shuttle people all over Shenzhen. Thanks to dedicated bus lanes, buses get to the office faster, and they also contribute to the sense of family, when employees travel to the office together as a team. While transportation in China is very different from the United States, and while Google has come under fire for its buses in San Francisco, in places like the sprawling, auto-dependent cities of the American West and Midwest, they might be worth another look.

A greater sophistication is coming to corporate workplaces in China, which is good, but companies need to be careful not to become so conservative that it hurts their ability to pursue innovation. Despite economic challenges and “no more weird architecture,” however, companies in China still exhibit a willingness to be bold that the West can emulate.

Banner image copyright Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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The Second Machine Age

A New Relationship with Technology Is Transforming Our Cities, Our Buildings and Ourselves

January 5, 2015

Design Partner, NBBJ

Our 20th-century, head-over-heels love affair with the machine has provided us with amazing progress. It delivered legions of people from poverty into cities with shelter, clean water and modern health services.

But at what price? Obesity, diabetes, cancers, heart disease and a host of other ailments are a direct result of an urban design and planning policy which is car-centered, not people-centered. The disconnection between people in the suburban developments has removed an enriching sense of community. Almost nothing built in this era will last the ages; we are beginning to see the economic impacts of massive rebuilds, un-insulated glass towers and shoddy tract housing.

If the numbers of people on our planet were not so large (and growing) we could change course through a return to simpler ways. But I believe it will require enlightened assistance from new technologies and machines to help us return to healthy living and a sustainable built environment. Ironically, it could be an enlightened and refreshed affair with the machine that could save us from ourselves.

We are currently at the threshold of an amazing paradox: a “new machine age” is unleashing the potential for a human-centered city, not a machine-centered city. Design technology is revolutionizing the way we make things and the way we measure the outcomes of our choices. These changes have the potential to reverse negative trends in health, community, long-term economics and people’s spirits.

Urban Design and Big Data
The new machine age will allow us, first of all, to measure the negative impacts of the cities of the first machine age. Data crunching and analysis can humanize existing cities by reversing and debunking decades-long traffic policies, inserting successful pedestrian recolonizing strategies, proving the economics of pedestrian-centered design, crowdsourcing design strategies and building political leverage. (See Copenhagen, New York’s Times Square and Jan Gehl’s work with enlightened city leaders in Melbourne.) Big data organizations like Google are also focusing their vast search and analysis network on transforming the city and how we move through it.

Building Performance
The new machine age will help us to recalibrate the performance of our buildings through data analysis and parametric design prototyping; to create buildings that are lighter in weight; to move past the elusive net-zero energy goal; to scale for optimal human interactions. Advanced digital optics will allow for seamless virtual reality pre-experience testing. These digital tools will also allow and compel us to reexamine the basic rules of proportion and beauty that centuries of research have proven and 100 years of machine-driven design have forgotten.

Material Revolution
The new machine age has untapped the ability to effectively research and create advanced materials that are super-lightweight, made of cradle-to-cradle renewable materials and locally sourced and fabricated. The past era was built on crude industrial prefabrication and the economics of cheap fossil fuels for transport. The future will not sustain these practices.

Fabrication Shifts
Advanced prefabrication technologies and techniques will use dramatically less construction waste and create buildings for sustained longevity, not short-term financial gains. In the future we will be able not only to customize and fabricate all components of a lightweight and advanced building, but also to humanize the buildings we build, where ornament, scale and beauty are achievable, leaving the industrial coldness found in the modernist cities of the first machine age in the past.

Millennials’ Vision
The up-and-coming generation of designers and architects engaged in making our cities is extremely comfortable with this new digital technology and acutely aware of the destruction wrought by the first machine age. They are motivated to make big changes to lead us towards true sustainable cities and life on earth.

In short, this new machine age will allow us to build to the extent of our imaginations — not to the constraints of the machine.

Image courtesy of karlnorling/Flickr.

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Moving on Up

Why the Future Belongs Not to Tall Towers, but to Vertical Cities

March 31, 2014

Design Partner, NBBJ

As our nations urbanize and our cities become denser, and as great pressure is put on the boundaries and the green space around our cities, now is the time to rethink the tall tower and its role in making a great city. If we ignore this imperative change, the city will sprawl in one direction, thereby devouring natural resources and habitat, and grow vertically in the other direction, further alienating the people of the city.

By tackling the issue of verticality in the city, both of these challenges can be addressed in transformative ways. Traditional verticality in cities is primarily driven by economics; the typology of the skyscraper is indeed a real estate exercise focused on space efficiency. The “icon” is a result of pure height, and some whimsy, applied to the real estate formula. However, this typology is disconnected from the life of the city: floors upon floors, connected only tenuously by elevators, rise up, creating wall after wall between the inhabitants of the tower and the community of the city. These walls also isolate the people inhabiting the tower, leaving only the framed view of the city beyond to abstractly stare out at, but no real connection to life — the life of people in the community.

It is time to move beyond past-due formulas of mere density and to consider real people and the sense of community that makes a great city. The city remade will evolve a new typology for verticality that is the opposite of today’s off-the-shelf glassy box. The Vertical City is about pulling and folding the life of the city up into the air. It is about porosity in these structures, infinitely expandable systems for growth of a vertical urban environment, the bridging and re-colonizing of freeway corridors with people-friendly structures, vertical boulevards and shopping promenades reconnecting isolated floors in the tall tower, neighborhoods and parks in the sky, vertical farming and self-sustaining energy grids.

These changes in typology and urban topography are beginning to appear as we speak. More structures are being created that are in turn creating internal communities, reaching out and inviting the city in and encouraging maximum interaction. Most of these are isolated incidents, like Morphosis’ Emerson College in Los Angeles or the Tencent Tower that NBBJ designed, or they are theoretical studies like Archigram’s Walking City. In film, the Vertical City is often portrayed as distinctly dystopian; whether Metropolis, Blade Runner or Minority Report, it is always a gloomy, rainy November evening where scheming cyborgs control human affairs, but it does not have to be so dark if we approach the problem through a humanist lens.

This seems perhaps fanciful and hard to imagine given the current tall-tower typology, but a new understanding will emerge by utilizing good urban design principles, limiting our city boundaries and keeping a clear focus on people as drivers for creating the Vertical City. This exploration should look carefully at low-scale, but dense, models of cities that people thrive in, like Barcelona or Paris, and imagine how they could be brought vertically into the sky. Consider how these new structures can be, much more than efficient stacks of office cubicles, organisms that are self-sustaining and renewing.

It is time to realize that the tall tower is obsolete. It will not be able to cope with the massive change that is brewing. It will not breathe life into our growing cities. It will not inspire and improve the lives of all people. The future belongs to the Vertical City!

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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