Architecture at the Intersection: A Recap
Extreme IDEAS: Runway
This is the recap of the final Extreme IDEAS event. For recaps of the other events, see below.
The very best part of the Extreme IDEAS series was how well it navigated L.A. The events were held not in a centralized location but dispersed throughout the city—scattered across the L.A. basin in a gloriously geographic-agnostic way that had something for everyone. With a true sense of discovery, guests gained access into semi-private structures, ducking into intimate exchanges with museum directors, filmmakers, urbanists, scientists, astronauts.
Runway, the night of fast-paced presentations which closed the Extreme IDEAS series, was no exception. As the early evening fog began to pool in the marshes of Playa Vista, hundreds of people streamed into a series of hulking aerospace structures. The thumping music, smoke machines and beams of blue light almost made it feel like a rave, and attendees were concordantly giddy. Their faces alighted with wonderment as they encountered a duo of slow-dancing robots at the entrance, their smiles illuminated by the glow of their iPhones that they raised in front of them to snap (and share) a photo.
Twelve design luminaries delivered fast-paced presentations that tied together the threads of the three previous conversations: from the seemingly self-aware robots that make us grin, to the self-driving cars that will soon swarm our streets, to the space shuttles that will transport us to other worlds. In the end, it seemed, even the most extreme ideas from designers have a simple, common goal: To design better lives for us all.
We're starting with building more livable environments for ourselves. The MAK Center's Kimberli Meyer talked about 3D-printed, open-source housing, where we can design and fabricate our own dwellings. Architect Tom Wiscombe talked about suburbia as a polymer—the ultimate engineered material. In that light, maybe nature is the best fabricator: UCLA AUD assistant professor Heather Roberge got perhaps the heaviest applause of the evening when talking about packing materials and insulation made from mushrooms.
But it's not just the buildings, it's the spaces between them that matter more than ever. The city is engaging us. Casey Reas envisions architecture as platforms, where programmers, not necessarily architects, will have the ability to transform the urban environment. Christian Moeller's project Mojo illustrated this to an entertaining effect, where a robotic urban sculpture equipped with a spotlight follows amused (and perplexed) pedestrians on the sidewalk.
The robots are indeed already among us. LACMA curator Bobbye Tigerman invoked pop culture's most famous robots-of-the-moment, Daft Punk, as a way to illustrate a new type of creative hybridity blending analog and digital techniques. Designer Elena Manferdini talked about our ability to scan and reproduce textures, essentially creating a "fake analog" that can produce a tactile experience just like the real thing. In a way, it was exactly what UCLA AUD program director Valerie Leblond described as she expounded on the magic of choreographing animatronics alongside humans at Cirque du Soleil shows: The body utterly in sync with the machine.
Technology can help us be better people, argued Paul Petrunia, who suggested that Google Glass—spotted on a member of the audience, in fact—might be used to help designers and engineers collaborate more efficiently. "Simplify and unify" came the cry from David Lai, who called for more streamlined gadgets that can help us to make smarter, more efficient decisions.
And designers are more important than ever when it comes to shaping culture. Andrew Zago found inspiration in the subversive, hilariously championing the body's "awkward position"—The Office, models tumbling on the runway—as a source for design ideas. And Benjamin Bratton delivered a passionate open letter to students that called for them to stand for something, anything—even if it's not popular. "We need more and better villains," he said. "Pursue evil designs in the hope that one day they will sour into something good."
As the presentations ended, the robots resumed their gyration, and the crowd swarmed the bar, spilling into the massive adjacent hangar where Howard Hughes designed and built the Spruce Goose. Soon, the same space will brim with IDEAS, a new cross-disciplinary research and collaboration platform, and an expanded SUPRASTUDIO, the school's legendary masters program. During the intermission, emcee Frances Anderton had asked SUPRASTUDIO professor Greg Lynn—who will share the space with Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry—about what their role would be in training tomorrow's designers. Lynn said it was their job to look at cultural issues, societal issues, urban issues, and ask: "What's the architectural response?" And then he referenced self-driving cars. (Of course.)
But architects will do more than that. Designers are uniquely positioned to not only envision the future but to make that future understandable, graspable and palatable to a larger audience. Instead of simply providing a response to what's around them, the Extreme IDEAS events proved that designers are indeed dictating the conversation about how we want to live. Designers will be the ones to show us what's possible.
At the close of Runway, the Museum of Modern Art's Paola Antonelli took the stage as a surprise guest speaker to recap the evening. She couldn't have said it better: "I don't believe in predicting the future—start doing it, and that creates the future."
Extreme Environments: Design for Unfamiliar Terrain
This is the recap of the third Extreme IDEAS event. For recaps of the first two events, see below in Extreme Intelligence: The Future of Thinking Environments and Extreme Culture: The Intermix of Real and Virtual Realities.
For the third and final Extreme IDEAS panel, "Extreme Environments: Design for Unfamiliar Terrain," attendees ventured high above Los Angeles to what might be the most extreme environment in the city: Griffith Observatory, precariously perched over the sparkling urban grid below. Not only does the observatory serve as a relay station for intergalactic ideas, the building itself is a marvel of design, noted moderator and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design professor Craig Hodgetts of Hodgetts + Fung. During the extensive renovation, the theater hosting the event was dug out from beneath the original 1933 structure by architect Brenda Levin.
In a manner befitting the location, Hodgetts framed the evening from a celestial perspective, positioning Earth as a cushy spaceship traversing the vast inhospitable void of space. As he showed slides ranging from barren ice fields to pools of toxic waste, Hodgetts said that while we excel at protecting ourselves from natural extreme environments, we're also engineering new (and quite dangerous) extreme environments due to our disrespect for the planet. Although we're supremely adaptable beings, "we're not very good at taking care of ourselves," he lamented, eliciting nods from the audience.
As we attempt to reconcile our relationship with Earth, as well as explore new worlds, we'll be looking to designers and technologists like the evening's panelists for leadership. Each introduced themselves in the context of the extreme environments they're exploring. As commander of Endeavour's final flight, NASA astronaut Christopher J. Ferguson wants to find more ways to bring Americans into space, and is working with Boeing to develop its Commercial Space Transportation-100, a kind of "space taxi." Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, who has taken over 700 weightless "parabolas" as a flight attendant on Zero Gravity Corp's 727 and also traveled on James Cameron's Deepsea Challenger submarine, is now working with Virgin Galactic on their space tourism experience. Former president of R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering Bran Ferren went on to co-found Applied Minds, LLC, a technology company which is building vehicles that can cross the Sahara.
Even when discussing the seemingly disparate locations of space, two miles below sea level, and the world's largest desert, a common theme quickly emerged: In these extreme environments resources are precious, so the conversation really centers around the importance of systems for survival.
Hodgetts introduced the concept of recycling, asking Ferguson to outline the remarkable recycling system on the International Space Station. While the act of filtering wastewater through a urine processor seems simple—"Yesterday's coffee becomes today's coffee," he quipped—the process is seeing some innovation, with scientists now able to produce extra oxygen and methane, which is essentially rocket fuel. And the entire process is powered by the sun. "If every house had one of these, we'd have clean water and clean air and use no power to make it," said Ferguson. It was an inspiring process which should serve as a model for every city. Although, Ferren had a different and quite humorous take on waste management, noting that when cities were first being engineered, television was so influential to restroom patterns that everyone "flushed" simultaneously during commercial breaks, meaning the infrastructure of buildings had to be adjusted for the demand on their pipes.
But all toilet humor aside, what happens to us when these systems begin to be controlled by technology? Ferren talked about the field of "geo-design," where planners can do modeling and run simulations at a city-scale, making decisions about where to locate things like subway lines to benefit the most citizens. And with the advent of new technologies, there's so much more human behavior being collected than ever before: There are 7.5 billion people on Earth, 6.5 billion cell phones and 10 to 12 percent of those are smartphones—a figure that will double within a year. All those phones are tracking our locations, creating a set of tools to look at urban design at a macro level. It takes the risk out of decisions, he said, but it also lets you as a designer sell your ideas to a skeptical bunch. Also poised to radically change cities within 5 to 10 years, thanks to this technology, will be widely available self-driving cars (a concept mentioned in all the Extreme IDEAS panels, by the way).
Going back into space, Hodgetts asks Ferguson and Whitesides about the trickle-down technology coming from spaceflight and working in zero gravity: What are we gaining as a society from working in this extreme environment? Ferguson points to chemical applications, combustion science, and the human body, of course, with scientists studying everything from osteoporosis to muscle atrophy. But space exploration, he thinks, will also drive another crucial innovation: When we travel to Mars, for example, we'll need to be able to manufacture parts en route, essentially creating hyper-lightweight zero gravity 3D printing, maybe with materials like carbon fiber. That customization will be the key, said Ferren, because we'll be able to print buildings out of concrete, for example, and that will radically change the design and construction industry. But it will take decades for it to actually be implemented in day-to-day engineering. In this case, the systems we've used for years need to be disrupted.
And that raises another salient point, noted Hodgetts. As a culture we are too stuck in our ways, and terribly adverse to risk. Especially in the area of space exploration, we see some applications migrate to the military, but we rarely reap the benefits at the consumer level, making it difficult to support these brazen new ideas. Ferguson thought by now that we'd see China providing the spark to nudge the space industry into its next era, which hasn't happened yet. Perhaps to remove some of the stigma surrounding the space program, Ferren thinks that we should close NASA tomorrow and relaunch it as another agency that combines art, design, engineering all together. Perhaps it would be named STEAM?
A parting thought from Whitesides seemed to put it all in perspective. Once we master commercial spaceflight, with spaceports all over the world, she said, we'll also be able to fly anywhere on the planet in less than 90 minutes. Her statement took what might seem like an expensive, whimsical pursuit, and grounded it as a very real effort towards making the world a smaller place. Perhaps more than any idea presented this evening, this revelation caused the audience to buzz as they exited the theater, imagining what it would be like to arrive in London by bedtime.
Extreme Culture: The Intermix of Real and Virtual Realities
This is the recap of the second Extreme IDEAS event. For a recap of the first event, see below in Extreme Intelligence: The Future of Thinking Environments.
A dramatic backdrop in a historic neighborhood was an ideal conversation starter for the second Extreme IDEAS event, "Extreme Culture: The Intermix of Real and Virtual Realities." Although the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, an ornate 1926 structure in the West Adams neighborhood, is well-known both for its Beaux-Arts architecture and for its holdings—including an extensive Oscar Wilde collection—many attendees admitted they had never known the place existed. It provided a memorable experience for attendees as they milled about the stacks before and after the panel, bringing a sense of wonder and discovery to the evening.
The crux of the discussion about designing such cultural experiences seemed, on the outset, to be a debate about high vs. low culture, with architect and UCLA Architecture and Urban Design professor Greg Lynn moderating a dialogue between Thomas Krens, former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and Scott Trowbridge, vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering. But as Lynn turned it over to the panelists to introduce themselves and speak about their current projects, it appeared that each of these global cultural institutions are undergoing drastic changes which may be bringing them closer together, ideologically. In the end, a museum and a theme park have more in common than one might think.
First up was Krens, who at one time operated five Guggenheim museums—New York, Venice, Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas—and who is currently overseeing the completion of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, a massive 450,000 square foot structure designed by Frank Gehry, who was in the audience. Then Trowbridge talked about Disney's process for designing new theme parks, like the forthcoming Shanghai Disney Resort, which includes the construction of two subway lines and 4,000 people working (and living) on-site. The scale of both new projects was immense—as Lynn commented, these men were responsible for spending millions of dollars (maybe billions?) to shape architecture globally. It was also interesting to examine the projects in terms of the parallel growth of the Guggenheim and Disney: Guggenheim opened New York in 1959 and will have six museums when Abu Dhabi opens; Disney opened Disneyland in 1955 and will have six parks when Shanghai opens.
Some of the most fascinating insights of the night were anecdotes from Krens about designing Bilbao (with additional quips from Gehry as he piped up in the audience). It turns out Bilbao was about more than just creating a cultural landmark in an industrial town: It was also a chance for the region to assert its Basque identity. When he enlisted Gehry, it was because Gehry's vision for the structure could help uplift the city. Krens was envisioning nothing less than the divine: He equates museums to churches. He wanted Chartres Cathedral, rising out of the countryside.
The idea that architecture can inspire and elevate a culture is also a goal of Disney parks, said Trowbridge. Especially in Shanghai, where a rapidly transforming traditional way of life allows the opportunity to celebrate Chinese heritage while also creating a sense of pride around the ideas and innovation of the park itself. Even though Disney in a sense creates "fake" worlds, he said, they are creating shared environments that bring people together for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In a way, they are creating virtual spaces that Trowbridge believes will inspire people to make their own impossible ideas become reality.
But in that sense, is there any difference between art and entertainment, asked Lynn? We used to go to museums to see the art "in real life" but now both the exhibitions and the art itself are messing with the idea of reality. Krens disagreed: "Jeff Koons is Jeff Koons." But Trowbridge countered: "I'll be able to download Jeff Koons soon and have it at home." The same might be argued for, say, the Space Mountain ride. But both Krens and Trowbridge agreed on the importance of having these public spaces for the exchange of ideas, if for different reasons: Krens for the curatorial element—if it's in a museum, you know it's good—and Trowbridge for the experiential part of sharing an ephemeral moment with strangers.
This point also seemed to strike a chord with attendees. As Alexa Roman wrote in a recap of the panel on her blog, she saw the conversation as a call for experience designers like herself to draw more inspiration from architecture. "We are constraining ourselves to these screens when there are so many more capabilities for digital interaction," she writes. "People are not isolated in rooms with their iPhones. They are out in the world trying to get things done."
The stunning venue once again took center stage as the conversation concluded with the idea that culture is, in itself, a design innovator. Look at the way Disneyland's fantastical optimism inspired real-life midcentury architecture and transportation; or how Bilbao served as model of urban revitalization, as other cities hoped to replicate its success. Krens encouraged attendees to look up at the ornately carved wooden ceiling, "This was high technology at the time," said Krens. Almost a century after the library had been constructed, it had not yet been replaced as a gathering place to exchange information and ideas. Especially in an age of screens and simulcasts, the work of the architect to shape real spaces and facilitate human interactions has never been more important. It was something all three panelists could agree upon.
Extreme IDEAS: The Future of Thinking Environments
There was perhaps no more fitting venue for the first Extreme IDEAS event, subtitled "Extreme Intelligence: The Future of Thinking Environments," than the plush Ray Kurtzman Theater at the Creative Artists Agency complex. Not only is CAA built upon the concept of generating and perpetuating artificial worlds—at least the kind we watch on screens—but the building itself holds a commanding footprint in Century City, a planned community which could be seen as a relative to "instant," manufactured cities like Brasilia, and more recently, Songdo, South Korea. The conversation began at the intersection of these two ideas: What is the role of designers in building the smart cities of the future, and how might they envision one that engenders a better way of life?
By way of provocation, architect and UCLA A.UD vice chair Neil Denari began by showing images of cities, some arguably smarter than others. Soon 80% of the world's population will live in cities, he said—a number that seems to get larger and more menacing at every urbanism event, observed @Withandagainst—and soon our smart cities will be able to organize and manage themselves. But it's not about the promise of driverless cars or augmented reality (which both feature notable contributions of one company, Google), said Denari, it's about how those gadgets relate to everyday life. As if to illustrate his point in a way that segued perfectly into his discussion with architect-turned-director Joseph Kosinski and design journalist Greg Lindsay, he showed the Fiction to Reality Timeline, which tracks when technologies proposed in films became reality. (Still waiting for that commercial space travel!)
To begin the conversation, Denari asked a revealing question to both panelists: "What does it mean to have intelligence today?" The answers were similar but nuanced: Koskinski described how his smartphone and a variety of apps helped him to work more efficiently throughout the day, allowing him to confidently power off his technology at night and focus on his family. Lindsay also agreed that the smartphone was key, but in his case intelligence was more about knowing what information he needed to keep in his head, and what details could be outsourced to the "hive mind in our pockets." An intelligent city, it would follow, would have those technological advantages, but still provide the face-to-face, serendipitous encounters that are the reason we live in densely populated communities and not in isolation.
Then why are the cities of the future—which should be the smartest cities of all—always portrayed as these dystopian visions? Both of Kosinski's films, TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, are about our future relationship with technology, he said, both how it can service us and get in the way of what's truly important. In his filmography, the future's generally always worse for some reason, full of problems that need to be solved. Part of that might come from Kosinski's training as an architect during the analog to digital revolution, he said, when he got to experiment with sci-fi-like nascent technologies to solve real-life problems. But some of his work was inspired by the seemingly sci-fi narratives of real places—he came up with the idea for Oblivion for example, while wandering an actual lost city (Petra, Jordan), and imagining what it would be like to be the last man on earth.
Even though Lindsay's book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next seemingly predicts the sprawling, globalized megacities of Kosinski's fantasy future-world, he thinks it won't be the Minority Report reality we might envision. American cities, for example, have proven to their citizens that their governments aren't going to make those massive top-down infrastructural investments in things like PreCrime anymore. More and more, cities are leaving the future to be largely shaped by private companies, a la Google's Glass and self-driving cars. Which means that urban intelligence, especially those day-to-day interactions with technology, will largely be engineered by the creative people who work for those companies—designers and architects.
While it seems like a great idea to let our world-creators and our fantasy-world-creators work together—Kosinski, for example, consults with The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences where scientists give the entertainment industry feedback on the feasibility of their storylines—the blog OkapiCrux astutely noticed that we still haven't quite decided where to put these sci-fi-influenced thinkers: "Is it a respectable preoccupation, or entertainment? We are uncomfortable straddling that gray margin. How can we answer the tide of moral implication that rides in on an imagined universe?"
Denari offered a disclaimer during the panel—it wasn't meant to be about our humanity being lost and the fact that we're all robots. But he did offer a hopeful and somewhat cinematic vision for the future. If anyone rode their bicycle to the panel, for example, instead of succumbing to the city's freeways like everyone else, then they made a personal choice to change the city's fate for the better. Cut to a scene of that cyclist looking for bike racks as she navigates a sea of BMW 7 Series in the CAA valet line. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn't have scripted it more dramatically if he tried.