The Letting Go: Loose Planning for Urban Spaces

As urban designers, we commonly adhere to a formalism of practice that involves guiding built form, assigning uses and structuring the public realm. However, successful urban design is not always the result of studied forethought; it is, at times, spontaneous, informal, and unplanned. While my own professional practice involves designing “planned” urban regeneration, my ulterior interest in cities concerns the appropriation of space for uses never intended. In my estimation, a city is most engaging when its layered physical history reveals how public space can be repositioned in an opportunistic fashion, over time, by many different populations, to many different ends.

Our cities are in constant flux, but for some (one thinks of Rome) the historic center remains relatively “fixed” in form. In such cases, urban design practice that focuses on wholesale transformation and the principles of “master planning” is marginalized in historic city centers, given the spatial constraints on the built environment. Rather than large-scale, design-driven change, some city centers depend on informal operations in the public realm to evolve their urban form. These are driven by opportunity, need, and cultural expression, resulting in the social production of space—what Edward Soja calls the “socio-spatial dialectic,” where space alone is an abstraction, requiring human dynamics to give it identity.

Appropriation of flexible public spaces allows for logistics, celebrations, and quotidian routines to find their way into fixed city form. Everyday spaces used in this manner have written a narrative of temporal and technological change, from hosting civic dialogues and religious celebrations to accommodating markets and transportation logistics. Such evolution—the result of democratic instincts and needs—brings a sense of collective ownership to public spaces that formalized planning and design tends to lack. In this sense, the intentions of a designer or the afterthought of spatial planning, becomes defined by new populations. This intuitive operation within the public realm and its potential applicability to design practice, is at the core of my interest. It raises the question: can everyday informality and creative appropriation of public space serve as an alternative to deliberate planning and design?

Piazza della Pilotta.jpg

Urban space that accommodates the unforeseen – parking in a piazza

While the Tactical Urbanism approach begins to lend itself to this idea, it still does so by consciously permitting or planning for what might be uses that are initially not intended for some spaces, for example an astroturf putting green in a parking lot, but this is not done by natural evolution. Granted, Tactical Urbanism brings to light that spaces have the potential for different uses and new modes of activation, but flea markets and sidewalk sales have been telling us the same for decades, and never required a title to give it planning legitimacy. Tactical Urbanism is to be applauded in its approach to short term interventions for long term change (when successful), but its greatest challenge at this point is to resist the inevitable march toward becoming codified and regulated out of memorable experience.

pacoima rendering final2-01

Over-planning interventions can leave little room for improvisation

The tactics that generate unforeseen patterns and trajectories in the city—the “urban unconscious,” as Michel deCerteau calls it—can inform urban design practice by demonstrating the efficacy of intuition and inventiveness within the public realm. It is my belief that the observations of cultural theorists, sociologists and human geographers such as deCerteau and Edward Soja should be directly applied to urban design practice—working from the inside out, identifying the manners by which our cities are experienced rather than planned.


Intuition and chaos in the urban scene at Haymarket

I suggest a provocation to the traditions of urban design practice, presenting an alternative model where cultural theory and human geography—rather than design ideology—inform new modes of thinking on how we design and plan for our cities. Although the approach outlined here is at the scale of the public realm, it elicits thinking about the implications to multiple scales of urban design and planning. How can we as urban designers and urban planners consciously allow for and integrate future interventions of the unplanned in professional practice, acquiescing to an inevitable and collective will for change?

A flexible method that embraces informality and appropriation within a fixed city could be of great value to cities with changing demographics and constrained resources. To allow for and integrate the future interventions of the unplanned in professional practice; to explore a more passive and flexible approach; for designers and planners, this is the letting go.


The Vertical Integration of the Design Industry

vertical integration

Diagram comparing vertical and horizontal integration. Forward integration typically involves the purchase or control of distributors while backwards integration refers to the purchase or control of suppliers.


The recent consolidation of the design industry into a dozen multi-national A/E firms such as AECOM, Stantec, and WSP/Parsons Brinkerhoff is partly based on the strategy of vertically integrating all of the engineering and design disciplines necessary to do large scale master plans that include transportation infrastructure investment. These city-building projects, typically sponsored by public/private development entities in Asia and the Middle East, are the big prizes of A/E consulting because of their large fee budgets, length of duration, and range of complex issues. A new crop of super-sized assignments has incentivized super-sized firms that can provide the full bandwidth of consulting services.

These firms are less adept at providing integrated services for smaller scale projects. Internal communication and accounting protocols produce a drag on efficiency that is directly translated to higher fees per deliverables provided. Other issues include minimum consulting fee requirements, relatively high billable rates, and the internal bureaucracies necessitated by including a wide range of business units under one roof.

Despite the bureaucratic pratfalls, vertical integration can also have advantages for smaller and more nimble firms. At Utile, disciplines are aligned across two axes that intersect at the architectural scale. The first includes strategic planning, master planning, urban design, and a commissioned work of architecture, typically funded by a public entity. The second scales down from a commissioned work of architecture, to interior design, environmental design, and wayfinding. Occasionally, projects bridge both chains. For example the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion included strategic and site planning (to select a site for the structure and determine its program), architecture, environmental graphic design, and wayfinding. Our recent work for the Portland Housing Authority exhibits an even wider range of scales and steps. An initial assessment of the authority’s full assets resulted in the master plan for repositioning of one of its properties, and now the design of a specific building. It is anticipated that interior design, environmental design and wayfinding will follow.

But what distinguishes the vertical integration strategy of a smaller design firm from the large A/E enterprises besides their size and resulting bureaucracy? Most importantly, the engineering disciplines are not components of Utile for strategic cultural reasons. Most engineers have been trained to use data-driven and linear methodologies that thwart the ability to prioritize conceptual narratives, rather than “problem-solving” as the prime driver of projects. By not including in-house engineers, Utile also has the freedom to customize its teams based on the specific skills required for a specific project. Paul Kassabian, a talented structural engineer with SGH, was Utile’s primary design collaborator for the Boston Harbor Park Pavilion, while on other public realm projects, the role of the structural engineer has been perfunctory.

Utile’s second strategy is to develop a network of like-minded designers that parallel the expertise within the firm. This is done to expand capacity, enrich the design discourse, and increase business development opportunities. Utile works with over,under, another Boston-based design firm, on urban design work in the Middle East and large-scale environmental design projects that require a bigger bandwidth of personal and creative ideas. Likewise, Utile teams with Reed Hilderbrand, a nationally-recognized landscape architecture firm, on campus planning projects even where landscape architecture is not the prime driver of the process. Beyond these firms, Utile has established a broad range of collaborative relationships – Utile’s posse – thus creating the disciplinary capacity of a much larger firm, but with a more conceptually-focused approach to projects.

These strategies allow us to focus on the creation of a narrative-rich conceptual framework rather than a purely technical response to a given problem. The firm is also distinguished by its focus on physical and spatial opportunities early in the planning process, cascading from the general planning decisions to the built detail. It is precisely at the boundaries of disciplinary expertise where the firm finds its most fertile and productive design opportunities. Examples include the ways that decisions about the sub-parcelization of large tracts of land can be tied to strategies for encouraging specific urban building types or the way that environmental graphic design can influence the overall composition of a plan by helping to create visual hierarchies with an overall spatial sequence.

Utile’s design management approach is partly influenced by the years the firm principals spent at Machado and Silvetti Associates. Founding partners Jorge Silvetti and Rodolfo Machado believed that projects should be a Gesamtkunstwerk [1] of custom-designed buildings, landscapes, and components from the scale of an urban district to the design of a bench. The Getty Villa, led by Utile principals Tim and Mimi Love, is the most extreme built example. The $270 million project included the complete reconfiguration of the site and existing museum into a fully integrated design. From new buildings, to site walls, terraces, trellises, railings, terrazzo floors, light fixtures, and display cases, everything was custom-designed, partly in response to a narrative tied to an orchestrated spatial sequence. The craft opportunities suggested by a wide range of materials provided the other framework for design elaboration.

Utile principals Tim Love and Matthew Littell executed a public project with similar goals at Dewey Square in Boston. A framework that was partly driven by the goal of including both public agencies and private property owners in the plan’s execution resulted in the construction of a plaza that extended from public property to the Federal Reserve Bank parcel and five subway kiosks that provide access to the South Station stop on the MBTA’s Red Line. Like the Getty Villa, the paving and kiosks were designed as a cohesive ensemble from the scale of the overall plan composition to the construction details. Unfortunately, the full plan has not been implemented.

Utile’s approach and pedigree suggest that broader experiential and social goals need to supersede specific chains of design decisions. This requires design leadership that is adept at moving between discussions with clients and stakeholders, typically where master narratives emerge and are refined, along with project design teams to execute complex projects. This is precisely where the lateral bureaucracies of large firms fail. At firms like AECOM and Stantec, projects are typically headed by a senior specialist in a single engineering discipline incapable of conjuring master narratives to drive a project, or a “design director” who promotes the core mission of the firm in relation of broader design culture rather than drill into the opportunistic specificity of a project. One type of leader is focused exclusively on problem-solving while the other on the broader value of “design excellence.” Neither can lead a project to a better-than-mediocre outcome.


[1] Or “Total Work of Art,” a term first used in 19th Century German aesthetic theory and is most closely associated with Richard Wagner’s opera productions at Bayreuth. In early 20th century Vienna, the term was used to contrast the integrated architecture and interior design of the Secessionists, such as Joseph Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffman, with the more open ended and flexible design approach of Adolf Loos and Josef Frank.

Lessons from a 1924 Town Plan

weston_swamp mapWhile Weston is a suburb of Boston, it still retains the character of a New England village because of the historical houses, landscapes, and stone walls that line its roads. In 1912, Arthur Shurtleff, who was also the designer of the Paul Revere Mall in the North End (then “The Prado”), reconfigured the town center by draining a swamp behind the old town hall in order to create the majestic Town Common, across which a new Georgian-style town hall was built.[1] In 1924, Shurtleff followed up with a comprehensive town plan. Since the 1920s, the town’s restrictive land use regulations, a by-pass to Route 20 built in the 1930s, and consistently high property values have all contributed to the town’s on-going preservation.

Fast-forward to 2016. Utile is working with landscape architect Skip Burck and his team on the redesign of Weston’s town center. Reading Shurtleff’s concise nine-page town plan, buried within the Reports of the Town Officers of Weston, Massachusetts for the Year Ending December 31, 1924, provides us one of the clearest and non-ideological rationales we have read for why cities and towns should occasionally do a comprehensive plan. The first chapter, entitled “How Town Planning Saves Costs,” is both a politically adept justification for Shurtleff’s consulting services and a list that is still relevant. In addition to our Weston work, we have also applied Shurtleff’s lessons to our on-going citywide planning initiatives in Boston and Cambridge.

The impetus for a comprehensive plan in 1924 was the same as today. Disruptive technology was causing rapid growth.  Automobile ownership was increasing rapidly and the resulting traffic was wreaking havoc on small towns that fell along the historic highways that led into Boston, including Route 20 as it made its way through Weston.

Shurtleff’s recommendations were presented as a fourteen point list. They included the widening of roads where necessary, while not making new roads wider than they needed to be. They also established the need for new roads to meet at four-way intersections rather than the ad hoc way that the road network had evolved to date. Aesthetic concerns fell after more pragmatic considerations. Number thirteen aimed at “the prevention of scattered arrangements or confused groupings of public and semi-public buildings,”[2] while number fourteen sought to avoid “monotonous arrangements of streets which would repeat the same block patterns, the same street alignments, (and) cross sections and street junctions over large areas at the cost of unnecessary dreariness and lack of variety.”[3]

Influenced partly by the role that swamp drainage played in creating the Town Common, Shurtleff’s 1924 plan focused on the “problem” of swamps, which covered 800 acres in the 1920s. Shurtleff’s map of Weston’s swamps (pictured above) was one of only three maps that were included in his final report. Shurtleff was adamant that “steps should be taken in the near future to prevent slum conditions in the center of town along the margins of the great swamp” and “that a relief of the present traffic congestion of the town”[4] could be solved by draining part of the swamp. Shurtleff’s plan set in motion the Route 20 bypass road that helped preserve the town center’s character. Other cities and towns along the road, like neighboring Wayland and Waltham, were not so lucky. They have suffered from the ever-increasing encroachment of traffic and the corresponding super-sizing of roads and intersections.

In the 1924 plan, Shurtleff mentions that his 1912 project to drain the swamp and create the Common had an impact on the actions of other towns. “Dedham has recently acquired fifteen or twenty acres of swamp in the heart of town to prevent unsanitary and undesirable development of this ground for cheap houses and public garages.”[5] Shurtleff was especially worried about the encroachment of garages near Weston’s historic cemetery that backed up to the swamp.  Unfortunately, one of these garages still survives as an anomaly at an important location in the town center.

Shurtleff concludes his discussion about swamp management by asking the reader to remember “that a large portion of the park system of Boston and part of the stream border reservations of the Metropolitan Park System were made primarily to solve sanitary problems.”[6]  Shurtleff emphasizes that the recreational and aesthetic rationales for these parks “resulted from rather than preceded the effort to abate nuisances existing or imminent.”[7] In all of his recommendations, Shurtleff leverages specific pragmatic considerations and translates them into a comprehensive design approach. Shurtleff’s ability to conceive and communicate the productive interrelationship between design, engineering, economic development and politics makes his work and writing highly relevant to Utile today.


[1] In 1928, Shurtleff was lured to Williamsburg, Virginia by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to be the Chief Landscape Architect.

[2] Reports of the Town Officers of Weston, Massachusetts for the Year Ending December 31, 1924, p. 63

[3] Op. Cit., pp. 63-64

[4] Op. Cit. pp. 66

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Aesthetic agendas and the pragmatics of urban development

Hannover (2)

Camillo Sitte’s seminal book, The Birth of Modern City Planning (Vienna, 1889), is focused primarily on compositional recommendations for urban squares, but his preoccupations were partly triggered by his reaction to the master plans for new residential districts in the rapidly expanding cities of late 19th Century Europe. Since Sitte’s intended audience included an emerging class of planning officials, as much as architects, he goes out of his way to critique the status quo and then uses arguments grounded in the pragmatics of speculative real estate development and transportation engineering to make his case.

Modern Systems

His primary goal is to encourage the creation of new urban spaces that have the variety and richness of linked streets and plazas that had evolved over centuries. After articulating the virtues of spatial definition and perspectival space by citing dozens of urban squares in Italy and Germany, he uses two pragmatic arguments to make his case. The first is grounded in transportation planning principles before automobiles and automated traffic lights. Sitte makes a case that three-way intersections, rather than the four-way intersections created by the conventional gridiron street grids that were being used to expand Europen cities, result in fewer traffic conflicts. The theoretical benefits of T-intersections post-justified Sitte’s preference for complex neighborhood district plans. Likewise, Sitte justifies his preference for idiosyncratic street layouts and parcels by extoling plans that acknowledged pre-existing parcel boundaries and natural features. In addition to the aesthetic benefits of a plan more closely knitted into the contingencies of the existing site, site acquisition and phasing would be simplified.

2015-05-11 Illustrative Plan Context D_Boyton Extended

Boynton Yards Scenario C, Utile, 2015

We have used the same arguments when developing alternative master plans for Boynton Yards in Somerville as part of our work on the Union Square Neighborhood Plan. A combination of remnant industrial uses, small scale urban renewal interventions to improve truck access, and a blurry line between industrial and residential uses has resulted in a crazy-quilt of parcel boundaries that provided a rational basis for creating a richly textured plan.


The Posse

The best team for a specific job at a specific time

The best team for a specific job at a specific time

The term derives from the Latin posse comitatūs, “power of the community,” in English use from the late 16th century, shortened to posse from the mid 17th century. The original meaning refers to a group of citizens assembled by the authorities to deal with an emergency (such as suppressing a riot or pursuing felons).

A posse is an American twist on the uber-example of a management structure in Western culture: Jesus and his disciples, a decidedly top-down organization. Instead of a team that offers support and “bears witness”, a posse is comprised of entrepreneurial specialists who can just barely be coordinated into a cohesive group. In fact, it is precisely this tension between an organizational plan and sometimes-risky individual initiative that makes a posse a popular genre in Westerns and crime dramas.

For a posse to work, the leader who has assembled the group needs to convince the team that the goal is worth achieving, and he understands that a successful plan needs to be worked out collaboratively with equal input from all of the potential participants. Given the provisional nature of the posse, the relative balance of risk and reward needs to be made by each team member before they agree to participate. In most films of this genre, one person decides to drop out just before the action starts as a way to highlight the role of individual choice and initiative. It is precisely the fact that neither a pre-existing nor a future organizational structure exists that guarantees personal motivation and a focus on the task at hand.

For this reason, Utile has chosen to work as an independent architecture and planning practice rather than become part of a large A/E firm. Instead of having all disciplines under one roof, Utile customizes its teams by assembling individuals from other firms based on the necessary skill sets and the personal motivations of potential team members.

The other notable characteristic of a posse is that it is comprised in equal measure of people who have worked together in the past and of newcomers who possess specific skills or motivations. Utile gathers its posses for projects with a similar outlook. Gary Hilderbrand, Eric Kramer, Chris Moyles, and Kristin Frederickson, landscape architects at Reed Hilderbrand; Jason Schrieber, Ralph DeNisco, Lisa Jacobson, Liza Cohen, transportation planners at Nelson Nygaard; Kevin Hively, a job sector-focused economic development consultant; and Jamie Springer, Kate Coburn, Candace Damon, Connie Chung, Kyle Vangel, and Shuprotim Bhaumik, consultants at HR&A, a development strategy firm, are all veterans of Utile’s posse.

At the same time, we’re always on the lookout for new safe-crackers and sharp-shooters. Dan D’Oca, a planner with Interboro; Ona Ferguson, a consensus-building consultant at CBI; and Aya Maruyama, Kenneth Bailey, and Lori Lobenstine of DS4SI are key members of some of our newly formed teams. Given their extraordinary efforts to date, they will be called again when Utile needs to form a future posse.


Questions of Efficiency


President George W. Bush at Fort Bragg, Alabama

Barracks within the structure of the tower: a solution that is efficient in terms of land area – and because of its retroactive inevitability, provokes effective surprise. The unexpected overlap of two uses demands interpretation and generates a third meaning.

Rather than align the word “efficiency” with a style of architecture or a design methodology that favors empiricism over intuition, I would argue that the issue of efficiency is closely aligned with the role of judgment during the design process. Questions of efficiency pervade all scales and kinds of design decisions.  Evoking the relative efficiency of potential solutions is an important part of consensus-building and can drive a design process forward.


Hugo Häring: “Haus E”, 1935

Questions of efficiency also influence finer-grain design decisions. Hugo Häring designed two versions of Haus E to efficiently communicate a polemic. The seemingly-efficient rectilinear version requires compromises of program and functionality that are rectified in the second version. Through-room circulation in the main living space is moved to the side and rooms twist and turn to capture views and sunlight during specific times of the day. Häring’s point is that the ideologically imposed ordering system denies decisions that can improve the efficiency of the plan. We can read the “benefits” of the inflections from rectilinear plan, while at the same time, the original state of the plan is still present in the revised version.


The role of efficiency metrics during the design process, Utile, 2015

But beyond his judgment about what constituted a “better fit,” what metrics informed Häring’s second version? Are the areas of the two plans the same? Could metrics be conjured that would help qualify – and even quantify – the differences that were generated through a series of rational micro-judgments? At what stage in the design process should relative efficiencies be tested (if at all)? If we imagine an iterative design process like Häring’s where scenarios are tested and refined, there are points where efficiency can be measured – as a proof of concept, to help make a case for the design direction, and/or because it’s imposed by clients.


The potential influence of alternative efficiency metrics, Utile, 2015

Today, clients are most interested in cost/value metrics and the net/gross ratio is the most common during the generation of the plan. Net quantifies the potential review, and gross the total capital cost. The higher the ratio, the larger the profit. The percentage of window wall to floor area is the second most common metric. It defines the relative efficiency of plan shapes with the goal that buildings should have the minimum amount of relative expensive exterior cladding. As a result of these metrics, the plan layouts of market-driven building types have been fixed since the 1950s. The perpetuation of these fixed types has been further enabled by the globalization of the real estate market and systems furniture industry.

There are two ways that the metrics of efficiency can be deployed to invent defensible alternatives. The first is by using the metrics themselves to make a case for variations. The second is to use alternative or new metrics that prioritize, for example, passive environmental performance over development financing performance – yet can still lead to cost benefits. New parametric modeling tools can allow for multiple blended and weighted performance criteria, as a launching point for a project or a mid-process proof of concept.


Hugo Häring: House projects, 1941-46

Hugo Häring’s house project from 1941 displays multiple interrelated mico-efficiencies that create the rich domestic rituals of a pre-War villa in a shrink-wrapped package. In addition to the minimum room sizes and the geometric inflections, deployed in this case to accommodate only the necessary clearance around furniture and built-ins, there are efficiencies in the way that one use-area blends into the next. Of course, these are manifestations of efficiency that can only be intuited and not measured, proving that the best designers can weigh possibilities, make reciprocal decisions, and build a complex web of mutually reinforcing – and yes, beautifully efficient – architectural operations.


Tactical Urbanism and Its Discontents

Leave it to Neil Brenner to articulate this millennial planner’s long-time dissatisfaction with the tactical urbanism project. In his review for the current MoMA exhibition “Uneven Growth”, he asks “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberal Urbanism?”, with the latter’s increasingly clear tendency towards economic polarization, environmental degradation, and the decay of vital public resources. The answer is at best muddled, he argues, without tactical urbanism’s serious reckoning with its relationship to the practice of power. To begin with some of his choice quotes (and please forgive the academ-ese on such an informal platform as this):

“Especially in light of the stridently anti-planning rhetoric that pervades many tactical urban interventions and their tendency to privilege informal, incremental, and ad hoc mobilizations over larger-scale, longer-term, publicly financed reform programs, it seems reasonable to ask in what ways they do, in actuality, engender any serious friction against the neoliberal order, much less subvert it.”

The problem is not only a question of scale, although the “acupunctural” approach favored by tactical urbanists seriously begs the question of how to scale up. Brenner persuasively argues that tactical urbanism can not just subvert the existing growth-first neoliberal order, but also, by internalizing a diminished role for public institutions, ironically reinforce it as well. To parse this with a simplistic example, will a well-designed parklet, trophy child of tactical urbanism, be so cheaply replicable that it can be reproduced on a massive scale? Will it also then draw attention away from public institutions, whose diminished economic and political capital led to a lack of adequate public spaces in the first place?

My personal problem with tactical urbanism (and other popular “urbanisms” to a lesser extent) is its general evasiveness about these questions, its shirking from the issues of “institutional (re)design”, and a consequent lapse into decoratism. Again, Brenner says it better:

“A number of the proposals circumvent questions of implementation entirely… [T]hey put forward relatively decontextualized design “solutions” to the pressing problems of megacity development—for instance, regarding water scarcity, insufficient land for housing, transportation bottlenecks, or issues of energy supply. Indeed, several of the proposals may be more readily classified within the rather familiar genre of dystopian design fantasies and technological prophecies… Because they bracket the formidable constraints associated with implementation under a neoliberalized rule-regime, these design scenarios remain at a purely hypothetical level—visions of an alternative universe that are utopian in the literal sense of that word; they are located nowhere.”

This sounds familiar because we see it over and over again in recent, well-publicized visioning exercises for the future, starting with the artificial sandbars, oysters farms, and pod structures of Rebuild by Design and the more recent Boston Living with Water. To be fair, interrogating the questions of “who pays, who benefits, who loses and who decides” is not part of the competition brief, but such questions are no less urgent and necessary than the fact of rising sea levels. To the credit of my colleagues at Utile, we did wrestle with the calibration between new public infrastructure and private investments on a new above-water ground plane. While we didn’t solve everything, I think we at least deserve being acknowledged for the intellectual seriousness of trying. Meanwhile, the strange absence of a strong socio-economic-political (not to mention legal and technological) premise is pervasive; are we designers working in an ahistorical time, where the future is just like the past, only with higher water levels and more abundant oysters?

Finally on a less angry note, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are urbanists out there whose work meaningfully asks questions about “[the] city of the future—its economy; its property and labor relations; its spaces of circulation, social reproduction, and everyday life; its modes of governance; its articulations to worldwide capital flows; its interfaces with environmental/biophysical processes; and so forth”. There should be more of them.

Hopefully, proponents of the various urbanisms, at least initially within the freedom of competitions and exhibitions, will more fully explore and give formal shape to the terrain of future possibilities, while keeping in mind that this terrain is not just environmental and technological, but fundamentally political too.


Productive Competition

I found this image of Le Corbusier’s proposal for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) when discussing ways that Joe Pucci, a graduate student at Northeastern and a former intern at Utile, might represent his proposal for a mostly-temporary aquatics center for the 2024 Boston Olympics. Le Corbusier, a chroniclor of the evolving technology of airplanes, looks like he is preparing his the model for flight (to Moscow). Note the open window and the way that Corbusier and his assistant are doing a final systems check.

Corbusier was always looking over his shoulder at potential competition, and gossip has it that he saw Ivan Leonidov as a threat to his preeminence as the world’s most important avant garde architect. Corb set out to prove he could do Constructivism as well as the Soviets, but ironically after Stalin had embraced social realism as the officially-sanctioned style. The entry was was mocked by Pravda as a “congress hangar.” Frank Lloyd Wright was driven by the same competitive edge. The Johnson Wax Building, Falling Water, and Talisien West – all designed in the mid-to-late 1930s – sent a strong message that he was “back” and could do streamlining, Dutch de Stijl (that he initially influenced), and an earthwork with complex overlapping geometries better than anyone.

Maybe we should start strategically looking over our shoulders too!



Design Communication and Rhetoric

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

Architects are not builders, but we need to be knowledgeable enough that we can create written and graphic instructions for a building team. While this is an obvious statement, it points in an interesting and mostly unexplored direction. There is a value in thinking about an architecture firm as a communications business in order to clarify the role that different modes of communication play through the course of a project. Importantly, there is a target audience, a specific set of communication tools, and an appropriate rhetoric for each stage of the design process. A communication theory for practice has not been a significant focus of architectural theory since the late 1980s when Robin Evans, Massimo Scolari, and other scholar/practitioners were writing about the relationship between representational strategies and design production. In light of this void in critical thinking, I am going to take an initial stab at the potential issues and opportunities as they pertain to practice and architectural education.

In architecture and many other design fields, there are only five target audiences for what we write, say, and represent visually (draw):

Ourselves (the Designer/Author) – iterative writing, sketching, and drafting we do to work out a design problem

Our Design Collaborators – same as above, but with a rhetorical overlay because we change the mode of representation to persuade others, whether self-consciously or not

The rhetoric of persuasion necessarily changes depending on the stage of the design process.  We might do an evocative perspective sketch to convey an idea early in the process and an authoritative detail sketch during design development. At all stages, we also deploy authoritative analysis and data to justify, back-up, or qualify our design decisions.

Our Clients – same as above, but with a larger emphasis on the role of both persuasive and authoritive modes of communication

Evocative and persuasive depictions of potential solutions need to be combined with authoritative analysis and data to help drive decision-making.

Builders and Fabricators – legally codified instructions in written and graphic form

The authority of legal relationships is reinforced by the written and graphic convention of construction documents and submittals during the construction process

The Public – the most emphasis on persuasive communication strategies – and most akin to advertising

This audience falls outside of the design process but has an influence on decisions made by designers and their clients.

What’s most striking about this list is the range of communication skills that are required, including persuasive, authoritative, and instructional modes of speaking, writing, and visual representation. The relative role of these modes of communication change dramatically and abruptly during the design process, mostly as the result of the evolution of audiences. We start out sketching for ourselves, then communicate with our team, and finally present to our clients during conceptual design. If this work is going to build consensus around a single design direction, it will require a combination of persuasive and authoritative modes of communication. As decisions are made and the project scope is solidified, typically during late Schematic Design and early Design Development, there is a rapid decrease in persuasive modes of communication and a corresponding increase in instructional representations. The graphic above suggests this trajectory.

Given these observations, how can we adjust design practice models to more self-consciously apply their lessons? Certainly, there is an under-emphasis on speaking and writing skills at design schools. In general, a theory of communication, focused both on audiences and rhetorical modes, needs to be taught. Some schools, like the Yale School of Architecture, have devised innovative courses that are co-taught by graphic designers and business school professors. The D-School at Stanford is a program that working at these questions from the other direction, but with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving and not specifically the modes of communication that engender it. Likewise, in practice, very little thought is given to these issues. I’m hoping to apply some of this thinking at both Northeastern and Utile in the next year. Theory is always  best worked out in practice!


You Need to Become an Expert!

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

A two-day building envelope educational symposium and design challenge, hosted by Architectural Testing, Inc. (ATI) at its New England Regional Laboratory in Chelmsford, MA, received capacity attendance by 50 area architects, engineers and representatives of product manufacturers specializing in the design and construction of the all-important building envelope air barrier.

While there are many aspects of the typical university tenure process that are counter-productive (an issue that has been covered extensively in higher education publications), there are some aspects of the process that could have a positive influence on our firm and the individual career paths of the people who work here. Central to charting a successful path to tenure is the need to identify and foster an expertise that is recognized by others as unique and relevant. In fact, the need to articulate a unique focus-area and research plan (a priest would call it a “vocation”) is typically the first step of a five-year plan.

But how would a tenure-like process translate to Utile? It’s notable that young architects and planners with the first stage of significant experience under their belts are the same age as young academics who get their first tenure-track positions – typically they are in their early/mid-30s. For both cohorts, it makes strategic sense, even outside of the demands of the tenure process, to take stock of one’s career and decide where one’s unique expertise and interests fall after core competences have been mastered. Perhaps more than within a university department, practice is the arena where a more self-conscious career evaluation, incentivized by an institutionalized process, would benefit both the organization and the individual.

It’s important to emphasize that the implementation of a tenure-like process at Utile would benefit the individual first. The goal is to help each person define their area of expertise and research plan. This added-value expertise, beyond the fundamental skills that the disciplines of architecture, planning, and graphic design require, would be highly marketable outside of the Utile bubble. The benefits back to Utile are indirect (but considerable). A team of diverse nationally-recognized experts would increase the number of perspectives brought to each project, open up new territories of practice, and attract other smart and ambitious people to the firm.

So take a few minutes this weekend to self-reflect on what topics interest you and would inspire you to do ground-breaking research. Your newly-gained knowledge will open up creative new avenues on projects and in your career.