Evolution of Place

Calling All Disciplines of Architecture

When I call myself an architect, most people understand what I do, but lately I’ve had to clarify by putting the word building in front of the word architect. Otherwise I might be confused with IT architects, enterprise architects, solution architects, project architects, data architects, application architects, SOA architects….I could go on.  Some of my colleagues are quite bothered by the tech industry’s lighthearted appropriation of the state-governed title.  I suppose I could be a stickler given my 7 years of school, the two-year internship, and the six grueling exams.

On the contrary, I am just honored that a field so full of possibility and potential to create change thinks the title architect best describes some of its big thinkers. In truth, there are some genuine similarities between building architects and solution architects. Both fields are challenged to create order out of complex relationships between space, function and user interaction and we are both tasked to ensure that the functional program is inspirationally designed and fully executed.

Most importantly, both industries serve to enhance the human experience.

The problem is that the two aren’t sitting at the table together.  Building architects are feverishly catching up, laying out thick sets of drawings, stacking brick and mortar, and backwards solving for the social and environmental ramifications of tech’s forward thinking.  By the time we’ve looped back around to respond, the digital idea is on its third or fourth generation without a significant pause to consider it’s implication on neighborhoods, cities and the planet.

As IT environments and systems became more complex, so do the unforeseen results on our built environment. This isn’t to say that tech companies are ill-intentioned, but eventually all good ideas meet their partner “profit” and then often (not always) those good intentions are left at the “start-up.”

I am not suggesting that building architects hold the high moral ground. I do know, however, that neither industry can afford to wait for government regulations to define what is right and wrong. So, if we agree that we are all architects, what if we were to pool our design research rather than operating in parallel universes?

It doesn’t take a Pritzker prize winner to figure out that when you sell a book online for cheaper and include home delivery, that the environment for a shopkeeper will never be the same. “Real” bookstores were nice. And I wonder if the guys in the garage considered for even a minute that their magical, simple, hippie idea of sharing a couch would eventually hollow out the soul of countless city blocks. With some shared design research could we have guessed that by meeting employees every need including fuze ball, dry-cleaning, exercise, and a world-class cuisine that the  surrounding restaurants and service vendors might disappear?  And please, can you design thinkers help us, building designers reconsider how to build?  We can’t seem to change habits like specifying traditional concrete for 90% of our public sector projects even with the knowledge that concrete is the source of 8% of the worlds CO2 emissions and the third largest emitter in the world.

So many problems; so many opportunities.  Ultimately, I am an optimist and I believe we can solve for the fall out of even our best solutions and then, of course we will need to do it again and again and so on…  Now is the time to reconsider what we value in our built environment and to pre-imagine the physical footprints of our innovation or lack thereof.

The only way I can imagine this is with a better, stronger collaboration between cyberspace  architects and building space architects.  At the intersection of those two worlds is something called PLACE and both groups have a vested interested in the humanity that exists there.  It is the location on the real planet where real-life human connection occurs. It is composed of physical form but also meets economic and social-emotional human needs. It is resistant to change (buildings take time) yet it is also fragile.  Place is where people, arts and culture, commerce, dwelling and play intermingle and get messy.  That human connection I would argue is what makes life not only exquisite at its highest calling but also bearable.  It is worth considering in every design decision we make.

I am part of a rich and storied tradition of building architecture.  I make spaces and environments that affect the human condition, community welfare and the planet.  Too seldom does my design research and practice intersect and meaningfully engage with the tech industry’s vision for a better world.

It’s time to shed the titles and start brainstorming together toward a more empathetic evolution of place.


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