January 25, 2011

Thesis : In Search of a Critical Methodology

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that a graduate thesis in architecture should not simply be an architectural investigation of a particular building type or cultural condition that one wishes to work on throughout their career, but it should also fundamentally be an investment in developing a highly self-conscious, critical and deliberate design methodology.

Let say you were presented with the design challenge I am approaching in my thesis: design Google's new campus.  How do you start? What steps follow? What does your methodology privilege, and what does it diminish?  A chosen methodology (whether deliberate or subconscious) necessarily conditions the types of outcomes that are possible in a design project.

From my experience, most design is carried out in a semi-subconscious way by drawing on design approaches accumulated from previous professors, employers, peers or notable architects in an unsystematic way.  Even for those who deploy a set methodology on each project, it is typically the product of an accumulation of experiences rather than being a carefully designed process. 

I typically take on a design challenge as a problem of site context and programmatic requirements, striving to produce an "insightful" combination of these ingredients in order to organize building form.  This reflects both my training in undergrad, and my experience in professional offices.  And while this is a totally legitimate (if not generic) approach to a design problem, it fails to engage my specific thesis in a significant or profound way.

Instead, I would like to develop a highly refined process that relates to the design challenge at hand, while reflect a fundamental personal set of convictions about architecture's role in the world.  

Conversely, the danger of developing a highly refined, yet static, methodology is that after time it loses its relevance in an ever-changing context (cultural, economic, technological, disciplinary).  The challenge would be to continually reevaluate one's methodology through application in order to adapt it to emergent contexts.

Parametric Methodology
Naturally, this discussion must confront the most pressing contemporary methodology-research-project (particularly at the GSD): the parametric.  The term has become a catch-all for any design that employs digital software to define geometric form and order.  As a general definition, a parametric project is one where a set of geometric relationships are defined by an ecology of interdependent parameters (numeric, logical) that can be adjusted manually, mathematically, or based on data inputs (environmental data, material data, etc).

In terms of methodological research, the parametric is exemplary for the breadth of research into its technical capacity.  From my perspective, while the ongoing research has produced many compelling Hows, it is still searching for a compelling Why.

One attempt at Why comes from Patrik Schumacher, of Zaha Hadid's office and the AADRL (who will be speaking at the GSD on March 9th as part of a symposium titled "The Eclipse of Beauty").  Schumacher has prosthelytized for the parametric in a number of essays, with titles ranging from The Parametricist Epoch: Let the Style Wars Begin, to Parametricism as Style - Parametricist Manifesto.  Schumacher believes that Parametricism is bound to become the dominant "style" in the same way that Modernism became hegemonic (concurrently, it is important to point out that on a meta level, he believes that the a dominant, unified style is a good thing - as opposed to a view that would embrace a pluralism in design approaches).  For Schumacher, Parametricism is fit for ascension due to two factors:

First, he sees a strong connection between the heterogeneous nature of contemporary society, and the capacity of Parametricism to represent and organize it:
Architecture finds itself at the mid-point of an ongoing cycle of innovative adaptation – retooling the discipline and adapting the architectural and urban environment to the socio-economic era of post-fordism. The mass society that was characterized by a single, nearly universal consumption standard has evolved into the heterogenous society of the multitude.
The key issues that avant-garde architecture and urbanism should be addressing can be summarized in the slogan: organising and articulating the increased complexity of post-fordist society. The task is to develop an architectural and urban repertoire that is geared up to create complex, polycentric urban and architectural fields which are densely layered and continuously differentiated.

Secondly, he believes that the ecological imperative that has been broadly embraced by architects and society-at-large represents a justification of the techniques:
The new style claims universal relevance for all architectural programs, on all scales from architecture and interior design to large-scale urban design. Parametricism is also uniquely geared to engage with the ecological challenges that architecture must address. Both in terms of techniques and in terms of sensibility, parametricist architecture is eager and able to elaborate adaptive responses to diverse environmental parameters. 

An interesting counterpoint (or at least alternative) to the parametric has been developed by Michael Meredith in his essay Never Enough (available here as pdf), and addressed in my Fall 2009 studio Mediums:
 Performance optimizaiton is not a fundamental architectural problem.  Architecture is primarily a cultural socio-political form, not technological determinism; it's super vague, it's inclusive, relational, it's parametric, but it's far more complex than any of us could singularly map out within the computer and totally understand because it's out of our grasp.  Not everything is easily quantifiable, not all relationships are geometric, and not all are to be coordinated into a smooth relationship.

I especially like the last point which questions the emphasis on smoothness or continuous differentiation.  While these formal tropes have been made possible thanks to advanced software tools, one must question the underlying socio-political subjectivity they constitute.  Furthermore, Schumacher's work with Zaha might still be considered to be operating at the level of an image.  The form and its image is produced (either with or without parametric tools, primarily focusing on geometry), and parametrics then comes in to rationalize it for construction in a way that is similar to Gehry's working method.

Instead, parametrics might be used to put a variety of geometric AND non-geometric relationships into order.  Therefore there is less of a reliance on a totalizing smooth form, and more emphasis on the parametric's capacity to produce emergent order (again, not simply geometric) that would otherwise be unmanageable due to shear permutations.

Of course, parametrics isnt the only methodology to react against in my drive to develop a coherent design method for my own thesis.  Recent architectural history has been filled with methodologies that privilege their own socio/cultural/political viewpoints, and sit within a particular historical context.

My hope is that I can develop small methodological experiments (operating on the context of the Google campus and the future of work) in order to achieve this coherent method (likely in a non-linear manner).

January 4, 2011

GSD Thesis

In the next four months I will be working on my design thesis, which will explore the relationship between architecture/ landscape/ urbanism and emerging regimes of employment in a knowledge-based economy. I will be using Google's planned campus expansion to the NASA Ames Research Center site in Mountain View, California as the context within which to design new spatial and organizational models of work and life. The industrial "company town" and its spiritual descendant, the corporate campus, will frame the agency of architecture and urbanism in producing these new lifestyles.

I am interested the evolving nature of work because employment plays a fundamental role in ordering our lives, buildings, and cities. From a systemic perspective, the organization of employment has structured the nature of education, government, urbanization and culture. At an even deeper level, some have suggested that work forms our basic identity as humans.

In his 1995 book The End of Work, economist Jeremy Rifkin argued that the West is facing a future of systemic unemployment due to technological advances. Just as manufacturing jobs were replaced by automation, jobs in all other sectors, including knowledge-based sectors, would be rendered obsolete by advances in information technology. Rifkin states that "the great issue at hand is how to redefine the role of the human being in a world where less human physical and mental labour will be required in the commercial arena."

While the spectre of a workerless future has been dismissed as fallacious at a macroeconomic level, it does offer an insight into the importance of work in the modern psyche. This attitude towards work is a product of a historical lineage of thought and philosophy of work:

Within a contemporary context, how is the nature of employment changing? In particular, what changes are occurring within agile, rapidly evolving companies within the IT, advanced manufacturing, finance and service sectors of the western economy? While deep structural changes are taking place across all sectors, the aforementioned industries are at the forefront of these changes.

_Paradigm of Organizational Stability
Richard Sennett approaches this question in The Culture of New Capitalism by tracing the history of organizational culture from the present moment back to the German Unification of the 1870s. Building on Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Sennett notes that in Otto von Bismarck's Germany, both civil society and private enterprise were increasingly modeled after the strictly ordered Prussian military. Bismarck saw this as a way to guarantee the survival of the new nation by eliminating the uncertainty that bred revolution. Within civic institutions the role of permanent civil servants increased, schools became increasingly standardized, professions were regulated, and schedules (including transportation and production) were systematized. Each member of society was promised their place, and as such required to buy into Germany's pioneering national social insurance system.

Within private enterprise, the unstable free market that characterized English capitalism during the early Industrial Revolution (described by Marx as "the violent destruction of capital not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation"1), were eschewed in favor of predictability and order through the rationalization of time and labor. Just as in the military, the individual functions of each employee was well defined in relationship to everyone else in the organization. This system offered a predictability that was attractive both for employees, and for long term investors - allowing those companies to weather fluctuations in market conditions.

By the 20th century, Sennett argues that this system characterized all large corporate organizations. Adam Smith's division of labor, and Frederick Taylor's Scientific Management guaranteed stability from the employers perspective, while labor unions fought for stability in the form of long-term job guarantees and benefit packages.

_The Paradigm of Instability and Fragmentation
By the late 20th century, the era of relative corporate stability was undone by three systemic factors:

  1. The rise of international investment in the 1970s (due to the abandonment of the Bretton Woods monetary exchange policies) resulted in instability at the management level of corporations, as foreign investors expected and exerted higher degrees of control.                                                                             .
  2. Global markets began to prefer short-term investment gains based on share prices, rather than the promise of a consistent dividend. Organizational stability was recast as stagnation or weakness by investors. Innovation was seen as the key to short term growth, and this often required dramatic reorganizations of labor and production.                                                                                                .
  3. New communication and production technologies have eliminated large numbers of human jobs, while simultaneously reordered organizational hierarchies. Outsourcing, temporary contract work, and project-oriented sequencing of work (as opposed to the task-isolated work of the assembly line) are all made possible through the speed and reliability of networked communications technology. Furthermore, mobile devices and ubiquitous communications infrastructures are allowing knowledge work to take place anywhere and at any time. The concept of work-life balance is obsolete, giving way to a work-life blend.

From the perspective of the corporation, this new paradigm of fluidity has necessitated complete organizational restructuring favoring operational agility. In a study title Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century, the MIT Sloan School of Management attempted to envision how these changes might produce new realities for both corporations and employees. The study suggested that we are moving away from the large organizations of the 20th century, towards smaller organizations that instead rely on a wider network of temporary workers and firms. The business model used by the entertainment industry (wherein small specialized groups assemble for the duration of a project) would become standard for all other industries. This process has been accelerated by the economic pressures imposed by the latest global recession.

From the perspective of the employee, the rise of a free-agent-based, entrepreneurial mode of employment will have dramatic consequences on the organization of society. Recent studies have indicated that up to 50% of new US hires in the post "Great Recession" era will be on a contingent or temporary basis. Consequently, these temporary workers will constitute approximately 25% of the total US workforce. The MIT study noted that since the Industrial Revolution, American workers have traditionally relied on their employers for benefits, training and as a primary social unit. The new regime of temporary work will mean that workers will instead come to rely on professional associations, local communities and independent groups for those needs (just as they had prior to the rise of large corporate organizations in the 19th century). In order to flourish in the face of increased fragmentation of work, workers will need to actively pursue new venues for social interaction and networking (both real and virtual).

_Architectural Potential
The focus of my design thesis will be to negotiate these challenges through the design of Google's new campus. Rather than reproducing the spatial models that accommodated the stable organizational models of the past, I am looking to produce models that anticipate future conditions. My intent is not to pursue the new or unconventional for the sake of difference, but rather the hope is to develop a design that acknowledges the new operational realities of business, while also creating supportive conditions for workers in the new, volatile economic reality.  These conditions require not only a reconsideration of the spatial requirements of an office, but also necessitate a redefinition of the relationship between life and work.

As previously mentioned at the top of the post, the company town and modern corporate campus provide an architectural context for the design of the new Google campus. Google's preliminary plans are unique in that they are planning not only for around 1 million square feet of office space, but also housing, schools, retail and leisure facilities. The connection (at least from a programmatic perspective) to the company town is strong. In the next post I will expand on that connection and describe a programmatic ambition for my project within that context.