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. Jonathan lives and plays with his family in Venice Beach, in the California Poppy House designed and built with his wife and recently featured in the Los Angeles Times.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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