How Social and Technological Changes Are Reshaping the Practice of Architecture

“What We Care About”: A Roundtable Conversation with A+U

March 14, 2019

Managing Partner, NBBJ

@SteveNBBJ

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It has been condensed and is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

NBBJ roundtable participants:

  • Steve McConnell, Managing Partner
  • Jonathan Ward, Design Partner
  • Alyson Erwin, Interior Designer
  • Nate Holland, Design Innovation Director
  • Vivian Ngo, Architect

 

A+U: How do you create “community” in design?

Jonathan: I’ve often talked about the idea of exploding or deconstructing typologies. The most obvious example is the high-rise tower, which is the most anti-community building, certainly in its symbolism but, more importantly, in its space and organization. That typology literally has to change in order to make a place that’s appropriate for people to interact naturally. The more we can think about peeling it apart and putting it back together in a different way, still having in mind the resources that go into building and maintaining high-rises, the better.

Tencent’s Seafront Tower is a great example. Tencent’s business connects people through the digital world, whether it’s WeChat, QQ or the Tencent Cloud. You quickly realize that the traditional building doesn’t match what they do in their business, it doesn’t align with where social connectivity is going, so we had to rewire the building to get closer to matching what they do in the world with their business, their product and the people who make the product. Our thinking was first to take the campus concept, with its spread-out, low-rise, multi-building approach, and apply it to a high-rise. Then we determined we needed to deconstruct the high-rise into two towers and bring social elements into connecting bridges. We also reprogrammed the elevator system to get more active participation and cross-collaboration.

Vivian: At the end of the day, we’re striving to find meaning. We want to help our clients find meaning in why they go to work every day, how they do the best work. You can imagine that meaning can be very diverse, so, in a building, you cannot have one solution. That’s one reason we always try for what’s next. Imagine the next generation of clients who started their careers working in buildings such as Tencent and Amazon. They’re changing too, so it’s cyclical: in the not-too-distant future, we and our clients can reciprocally drive each other’s creativity.

A+U: What role can new technology — like Rhino or augmented reality — play in defining community?

Steve: We have an obligation to our clients to mitigate risk while we push boundaries to unlock potential. We talk a lot about the realization of beauty and performance: we live in an era where computing is transforming our ability to demystify performance and quantify value, so we have the opportunity to leverage data analytics and computing to measure and anticipate performance in ways that go way beyond the intuition of the designer. Especially interesting is our ability to point our digital tools at elevating human performance and community-making at all scales.

Jonathan: We’re at a point right now where we have both traditional methods of design thinking and technology-driven methods of design thinking, which are working hand-in-hand, though sometimes one supersedes the other. I’m curious, if you looked out 5, 10, even 20 years, what do we see as the future of technology, and how will it affect the design process or design thinking?

Nate: I see the digital and physical blending a lot more. The distinction between the building and the building system is going to go away. When we design, the question of what is the “tool” versus what is the “model” and where is the “information” — all that is becoming obsolete. We’re heading to a place of rapidly going from a sketch on a piece of paper to a BIM model, and that will only continue to speed up. We have VR labs, but this is a temporary solution while the hardware catches up to where we’re practicing. We’re going to be seeing these things, if not fully embedded in our minds, at least on some sort of a screen that’s always with us, always mapped to the world. We’re going to be completely augmented in our design abilities.

And architecture will either have to become much longer-lasting or much shorter-lasting. Our needs are changing so rapidly that buildings will be either infinitely repositionable or  rapidly torn down and recycled — a new method of deconstructing that’s not wasteful. There’ll be 100-year projects or five-year projects, and fewer projects in between.

Alyson: We design to a finite program now, but in the future we’ll design buildings that are program-less, that will allow occupants to impose their own structure for what they need out of spaces. I see the beginnings of that in the Columbus Metropolitan Library. They had a set program for organizing their daily activities, and our job, of course, was to craft a space to facilitate those activities, but there’s a freedom within the building for users to occupy it in the ways that they see fit. There’s an overarching program in all the library’s branches, but the user determines what’s needed on a daily basis.

Jonathan: The best buildings, still, from 100-plus years ago are the ones that are program-less. They are these beautiful shells that can be fairly quickly transformed from one thing to the other.

Left to right: Alyson Erwin, Jonathan Ward, Steve McConnell, Vivian Ngo, Nate Holland

A+U: What is the role demanded of architects today?

Jonathan: It’s complicated, because on one end of the spectrum are people who say form and space is a decoration at the end of a functional process. At the other end of the spectrum are others who say form and space is a spatial experience — that it’s everything. Those are the two poles, and they have been fairly strong for centuries. Our challenge is to be in this interesting intersection, so that the functionality and the experiential thinking crosses over with the bold formalistic thinking, and they’re pushing each other.

Steve: The profession has to dramatically expand its definition of the possibilities that are inherent in architecture and urbanism, relative to the health of our planet and to the potential of society. What drives our practice is a central belief in the role that design has in solving really difficult problems and in protecting what is human. For us, it is about opening up possibilities and an exchange of ideas that resolve in a synthesis that’s beautiful, that’s provocative, and that advances the art and science of the built environment.

All images courtesy NBBJ.

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