Revising Libeskind

“So, for starters–what is architecture?”

Garrett Jacobs wastes no time getting to the big Q’s. A circle of 20 teens have (willingly) gathered in the belly of a 21st Century museum to learn about the profession.

In the middle of the Contemporary Jewish Museum lies a multipurpose youth room with an orange floor (“the only warmth in the museum,” one of the kids would later crack). The audience is comprised of members of a year-long internship learning and joining in the operations of the museum, including guiding tours and assisting events, and discovering dozens of related careers – architecture being one of them.

Garrett and I were invited to add some nonprofit perspective to the practice. We feared the interns may have had disproportionate exposure to architecture and design. What we would suggest, or demonstrate, then is how the practice is bound to whom it benefits: not simply one group, but several groups of stakeholders (or beneficiaries, cold terms) negotiating asymmetrical visions into built form.

We thought this aspect so critical to the design process, in fact, that we composed a workshop around it.

  1. The CJM. Just how DO interns enjoy their deconstructivist digs?
  2. R(chitect)PG. The devil’s in the dealings
  3. Observations.

The CJM

To be clear – there’s nothing wrong with starchitecture per se, but some of its implications (egregious climate oversights, general urbanist lamentation) suggest that a basic set of evaluations do not correlate with design goals, and their absence perpetuates irresponsibility in the practice. One could argue.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum has been lauded, by some, as a masterstroke of optimism and restraint on the part of radical architect Daniel Libeskind–effecting a more community-friendly deconstructivism, if you will. Within a 1908 neoclassical power station, colliding prisms bear design themes in giant, orthogonal Hebrew, exhibit numerologically significant features (chai’s value of 18 was doubled for the number of windows in the audio room), and carve out the obligatory deconstructivist (read: trapezoidal) coat check room.

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The kids hate that room.

“You have to fight for the good seat.” There’s room for two attendants at coat check, but there’s only enough head space for one. The architect inadvertently established a “chair-archical” imbalance between unassuming helpers at the museum.

The design decisions of the building are a subject of some fluency between the participants – comments poured out, and were readily seconded. What else?

“It could be cozier.”

Meaning? “Some soft surfaces maybe? Some plants!” Yeah, nods. Plants, at least.

“Actually we can’t have plants,” Leah, the youth program adviser informs us. The museum is a controlled environment; to preserve the exhibitions. Ahh. Well the chairs are screechy. And the colors are all cold, aside from the aforementioned floor and the Story Corps booth.

“We could use our own space.”

There was no dedicated room for the interns. It just so happened, Leah noted, that Story Corps was completing their tenure at the museum, on the verge of liberating an office. At a break we joined a visit to this adjacent space–a short corridor first, followed by 20 square feet and an end wall slanting away out of the floor.

While Garrett and I had prepared a hypothetical project for the sake of our workshop, this became an opportunity to get a ball rolling within an actual community on an actual project…and how could you resist that?

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R(chitect)PG

“We’re going to go through a process to arrive at some design solutions for your new space.”

It’s somewhat harder to articulate the complexity we’re about to make manifest. This exercise is not simply a design charrette, it’s a stakeholder charrette. The rules of the exercise identify three teams: a COMMUNITY to receive the project discussed; a DESIGN team directing needs into solvent form; and a broader context-defining team that we’ve called the REGULATORS.

Through a series of meetings between the teams (where the only time all three assemble is for a final presentation), interspersed with idea development sessions, each group works to assert their custom priorities into the project.

What each team won’t know starting out are the priorities of the others, that, given the nature of each team’s filters, may prove contradictory.

So this workshop was a bit of an experiment – of understanding and sympathy, of compromise and restraint. Here’s how it rolled out:

General team objectives are elaborated as part of the rules. Each team is handed a role overview including a sense of the other teams’ roles through their lens. Suffice it to say, for the sake of the game the teams are equally balanced in authority, and provided a slight bias to their own way of working. Following the overview is a space to list five unique priorities that will play into the project.

  • The COMMUNITY will ultimately receive the project, and have the most at stake in the project’s lifespan (20+ years in the case of an entire building). Their input matters most regarding 1) what the needs of the community are; and 2) the vision of a stronger and healthier neighborhood that an improved built environment can support.The team would then list Five Wild Dreams that define the ambitions of the community–where it wants to be tomorrow, in five years and 20 years.
  • The DESIGN TEAM directs the ambitions of the community and responds to Universal Rules (see below) to come up with a suitable, inspiring solution. To make solutions suitable and inspiring it is often necessary to introduce ideas that the community hadn’t considered, and challenge the rules of the universe. The team then lists Five Design Themes that represent a menu of options suitable for the project, to be considered jumping-off points. Only one will be adopted as the chosen design (and won’t necessarily be listed).
  • The REGULATORS establish and enforce constraints in the built environment…ostensibly for the public safety, but the justification lies on the regulators. Regulators define the Universe in which a project and communities exist, and will ensure projects somehow meet established rules.This team selects Five Universal Rules which cannot be broken through the course of the workshop. The regulators are kind of an X factor (and are encouraged to know it), but could represent a city, a neighborhood, or other larger contextual force.

At which point the facilitators had prepared a round robin conversation schedule. Mercifully, perhaps, we faced some time constraints – an hour for the exercise download, the exercise, and the all-inclusive presentation meeting. We had to axe the team-to-teams.

A further complication became our limited resources. Had we provided giant Post-It boards, the teams could more easily galvanize around agreed priorities; we observed instead that many members took their own notes and priorities, and that these notes did not 100% correspond.

An even further complication was the closeness of the design challenge to the participants. Priority lists from different groups echoed one another–which suggested that the interns knew had previously discussed their preferences, and were jumping ahead to solutions. Dispassion isn’t necessarily the proper mindset for this kind of workshop, but there’s something to be said for “distance from the work.” The facilitators need to take care in establishing the game, the buy-in and value in each of the team roles.

Despite daunting shortcomings, the game yielded some successes. The groups were able to rank their strongest needs, given a minimal budget, envision a modified space with some plans, and were given a forum for achieving a consensus on those needs. We saw lofty dreams like aquariums ruled out in favor of locker space, yet themes found manifestation through other means, ie ‘relaxing elements’ emerged from ‘aquariums.’

Observations

Certainly the exercise needs some work. I’m confident though that it can become an enjoyably competitive insight into the “other side” of design development. Contrary to the notion of “starchitects” that may be responsible for charismatic museums, design work can be presented in a way showing its flexibility according to the needs of its beneficiaries–patrons, funders, designers, and others.

Perhaps we got this point across–we certainly provided a way for a community group to overcome abrasive aspects in their built environment by assuming some design authority and improving those environments.

As with languages, buildings can scarcely avoid grassroots pressures from its users to meet their evolving needs–and so should be considered living social elements, instead of frozen masterpieces.

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