Five years ago, Google — one of the most public proselytizers of how studying workers can transform productivity — became focused on building the perfect team. In the last decade, the tech giant has spent untold millions of dollars measuring nearly every aspect of its employees’ lives. Google’s People Operations department has scrutinized everything from how frequently particular people eat together (the most productive employees tend to build larger networks by rotating dining companions) to which traits the best managers share (unsurprisingly, good communication and avoiding micromanaging is critical; more shocking, this was news to many Google managers).
The company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. They embraced other bits of conventional wisdom as well, like ‘‘It’s better to put introverts together,’’ said Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division, or ‘‘Teams are more effective when everyone is friends away from work.’’ But, Dubey went on, ‘‘it turned out no one had really studied which of those were true.’’
In 2012, the company embarked on an initiative — code-named Project Aristotle — to study hundreds of Google’s teams and figure out why some stumbled while others soared. Dubey, a leader of the project, gathered some of the company’s best statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists and engineers. He also needed researchers. Rozovsky, by then, had decided that what she wanted to do with her life was study people’s habits and tendencies. After graduating from Yale, she was hired by Google and was soon assigned to Project Aristotle.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began by reviewing a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked. Were the best teams made up of people with similar interests? Or did it matter more whether everyone was motivated by the same kinds of rewards? Based on those studies, the researchers scrutinized the composition of groups inside Google: How often did teammates socialize outside the office? Did they have the same hobbies? Were their educational backgrounds similar? Was it better for all teammates to be outgoing or for all of them to be shy? They drew diagrams showing which teams had overlapping memberships and which groups had exceeded their departments’ goals. They studied how long teams stuck together and if gender balance seemed to have an impact on a team’s success.
No matter how researchers arranged the data, though, it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference. ‘‘We looked at 180 teams from all over the company,’’ Dubey said. ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’
As they struggled to figure out what made a team successful, Rozovsky and her colleagues kept coming across research by psychologists and sociologists that focused on what are known as ‘‘group norms.’’ Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.
Project Aristotle’s researchers began searching through the data they had collected, looking for norms. They looked for instances when team members described a particular behavior as an ‘‘unwritten rule’’ or when they explained certain things as part of the ‘‘team’s culture.’’ Some groups said that teammates interrupted one another constantly and that team leaders reinforced that behavior by interrupting others themselves. On other teams, leaders enforced conversational order, and when someone cut off a teammate, group members would politely ask everyone to wait his or her turn. Some teams celebrated birthdays and began each meeting with informal chitchat about weekend plans. Other groups got right to business and discouraged gossip. There were teams that contained outsize personalities who hewed to their group’s sedate norms, and others in which introverts came out of their shells as soon as meetings began.
After looking at over a hundred groups for more than a year, Project Aristotle researchers concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to improving Google’s teams. But Rozovsky, now a lead researcher, needed to figure out which norms mattered most. Google’s research had identified dozens of behaviors that seemed important, except that sometimes the norms of one effective team contrasted sharply with those of another equally successful group. Was it better to let everyone speak as much as they wanted, or should strong leaders end meandering debates? Was it more effective for people to openly disagree with one another, or should conflicts be played down? The data didn’t offer clear verdicts. In fact, the data sometimes pointed in opposite directions. The only thing worse than not finding a pattern is finding too many of them. Which norms, Rozovsky and her colleagues wondered, were the ones that successful teams shared?
Imagine you have been invited to join one of two groups.
Team A is composed of people who are all exceptionally smart and successful. When you watch a video of this group working, you see professionals who wait until a topic arises in which they are expert, and then they speak at length, explaining what the group ought to do. When someone makes a side comment, the speaker stops, reminds everyone of the agenda and pushes the meeting back on track. This team is efficient. There is no idle chitchat or long debates. The meeting ends as scheduled and disbands so everyone can get back to their desks.
Team B is different. It’s evenly divided between successful executives and middle managers with few professional accomplishments. Teammates jump in and out of discussions. People interject and complete one another’s thoughts. When a team member abruptly changes the topic, the rest of the group follows him off the agenda. At the end of the meeting, the meeting doesn’t actually end: Everyone sits around to gossip and talk about their lives.
Which group would you rather join?
In 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon and M.I.T. began to try to answer a question very much like this one. ‘‘Over the past century, psychologists made considerable progress in defining and systematically measuring intelligence in individuals,’’ the researchers wrote in the journal Science in 2010. ‘‘We have used the statistical approach they developed for individual intelligence to systematically measure the intelligence of groups.’’ Put differently, the researchers wanted to know if there is a collective I. Q. that emerges within a team that is distinct from the smarts of any single member.
To accomplish this, the researchers recruited 699 people, divided them into small groups and gave each a series of assignments that required different kinds of cooperation. One assignment, for instance, asked participants to brainstorm possible uses for a brick. Some teams came up with dozens of clever uses; others kept describing the same ideas in different words. Another had the groups plan a shopping trip and gave each teammate a different list of groceries. The only way to maximize the group’s score was for each person to sacrifice an item they really wanted for something the team needed. Some groups easily divvied up the buying; others couldn’t fill their shopping carts because no one was willing to compromise.
What interested the researchers most, however, was that teams that did well on one assignment usually did well on all the others. Conversely, teams that failed at one thing seemed to fail at everything. The researchers eventually concluded that what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another. The right norms, in other words, could raise a group’s collective intelligence, whereas the wrong norms could hobble a team, even if, individually, all the members were exceptionally bright.
But what was confusing was that not all the good teams appeared to behave in the same ways. ‘‘Some teams had a bunch of smart people who figured out how to break up work evenly,’’ said Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author. ‘‘Other groups had pretty average members, but they came up with ways to take advantage of everyone’s relative strengths. Some groups had one strong leader. Others were more fluid, and everyone took a leadership role.’’
As the researchers studied the groups, however, they noticed two behaviors that all the good teams generally shared. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. But in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. ‘‘As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,’’ Woolley said. ‘‘But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.’’
Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.
In other words, if you are given a choice between the serious-minded Team A or the free-flowing Team B, you should probably opt for Team B. Team A may be filled with smart people, all optimized for peak individual efficiency. But the group’s norms discourage equal speaking; there are few exchanges of the kind of personal information that lets teammates pick up on what people are feeling or leaving unsaid. There’s a good chance the members of Team A will continue to act like individuals once they come together, and there’s little to suggest that, as a group, they will become more collectively intelligent.
In contrast, on Team B, people may speak over one another, go on tangents and socialize instead of remaining focused on the agenda. The team may seem inefficient to a casual observer. But all the team members speak as much as they need to. They are sensitive to one another’s moods and share personal stories and emotions. While Team B might not contain as many individual stars, the sum will be greater than its parts.
Within psychology, researchers sometimes colloquially refer to traits like ‘‘conversational turn-taking’’ and ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ as aspects of what’s known as psychological safety — a group culture that the Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’
When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘‘team leader has poor emotional control.’’ He added: ‘‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well.
Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’’ Rozovsky said. ‘‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms — the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique — put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team — enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun — allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized.
For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.
‘‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘‘People here are really busy,’’ she said. ‘‘We needed clear guidelines.’’
However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.
Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.
In late 2014, Rozovsky and her fellow Project Aristotle number-crunchers began sharing their findings with select groups of Google’s 51,000 employees. By then, they had been collecting surveys, conducting interviews and analyzing statistics for almost three years. They hadn’t yet figured out how to make psychological safety easy, but they hoped that publicizing their research within Google would prompt employees to come up with some ideas of their own.
Sakaguchi was particularly interested in Project Aristotle because the team he previously oversaw at Google hadn’t jelled particularly well. ‘‘There was one senior engineer who would just talk and talk, and everyone was scared to disagree with him,’’ Sakaguchi said. ‘‘The hardest part was that everyone liked this guy outside the group setting, but whenever they got together as a team, something happened that made the culture go wrong.’’
When asked to rate whether the role of the team was clearly understood and whether their work had impact, members of the team gave middling to poor scores. These responses troubled Sakaguchi, because he hadn’t picked up on this discontent. He wanted everyone to feel fulfilled by their work. He asked the team to gather, off site, to discuss the survey’s results. He began by asking everyone to share something personal about themselves. He went first.
‘‘I think one of the things most people don’t know about me,’’ he told the group, ‘‘is that I have Stage 4 cancer.’’ In 2001, he said, a doctor discovered a tumor in his kidney. By the time the cancer was detected, it had spread to his spine. For nearly half a decade, it had grown slowly as he underwent treatment while working at Google. Recently, however, doctors had found a new, worrisome spot on a scan of his liver. That was far more serious, he explained.
After Sakaguchi spoke, another teammate stood and described some health issues of her own. Then another discussed a difficult breakup. Eventually, the team shifted its focus to the survey. They found it easier to speak honestly about the things that had been bothering them, their small frictions and everyday annoyances. They agreed to adopt some new norms: From now on, Sakaguchi would make an extra effort to let the team members know how their work fit into Google’s larger mission; they agreed to try harder to notice when someone on the team was feeling excluded or down.
There was nothing in the survey that instructed Sakaguchi to share his illness with the group. There was nothing in Project Aristotle’s research that said that getting people to open up about their struggles was critical to discussing a group’s norms. But to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.
‘‘I think, until the off-site, I had separated things in my head into work life and life life,’’ Laurent told me. ‘‘But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’
What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.
The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.
‘‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention,’’ Rozovsky told me. ‘‘Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’
I had graduated only six months earlier and in many ways my first job came as a complete shock. It was not so much the quality of the buildings I worked on that shocked me, or the gratuitous nature of decisions such as the above, but rather the fact that practicing as an architect appeared to have nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with studying architecture. The first emotional state I recall as a practicing architect is that feeling of utter uselessness. My technical knowledge fell way short of what it needed to be, making me largely inadequate, and nobody was interested in the elevated philosophical considerations I had developed during my studies. For this job I was at the same time over- and under-qualified. It was an experience that I shared with other recent graduates. We kept our spirits up and tried to feel good about ourselves. Admittedly, we worked on garbage, but this was straightforward garbage.
Pay was good and working days were neatly confined 9 to 5’s. Still, in the face of a never-ending stream of seemingly pointless tasks, every day seemed to last a lifetime.
I was confident things would change with time. As soon as I would no longer have to execute the questionable design decisions made by others – in architecture they are that by definition – things would get better. Ultimately there would be room to put into practice some of the idealism I had developed in school. However, once I began working for myself, everything that had bothered me as an employee only presented itself in an exacerbated manner. This time there were mouths to feed. I quickly found that, in the face of economic needs, the architect is a largely powerless figure. Saying no, or questioning a client’s directives, is at best a matter of gentle persuasion, but never a battle of equals.
Many of my contemporaries resorted to teaching. Some did so fresh out of university. To me that seemed a strange career decision: a kind of pre-emptive and premature capitulation at the first sign of trouble. I also wondered what somebody barely having had a taste of the real world could possibly have to teach apart from what they themselves had been taught just a few years prior. The recycling of experience obtained from university in the context of a university seemed a strangely self-referential, somewhat incestuous process, which might help people to make it to graduation, but certainly not prepare them for a life beyond.
The creation of an educational bubble, even when invoked in the name of protecting academic integrity, seems a self-defeating purpose. In forever postponing and never confronting the shock of practice – god forbid we ever realize our own insignificance – it induces a strange state of schizophrenia. On the one hand the aspiring architect is encouraged to entertain almost megalomaniac ambitions, on the other he is left largely unprepared for the world upon which he projects this megalomania. I am not talking about a lack of technical or professional competence here, but rather about the ability to come to terms with a society wholly indifferent to his ideals. Once unleashed into the real world, the architect is perplexed by an utter lack of authority, stuck in a large gap between what he thinks should happen and what he ends up doing.
The more hermetic our schools, the more distant the realities of practice become. When practice is not engaged, it tends to become romanticized. In the context of architectural education, star architects have developed into virtual deity. (Sometimes the mere knowledge that you exist in the vicinity of one is enough for people to ask your autograph…) Still, star architects only account for a negligible portion of all that gets built. It is a weird delusion that, by having every architect aspire to that status, we can achieve even the tiniest improvement of the built environment as a whole. In the 1980s conservative policies in the US introduced the notion of trickle-down economics, in which catering to the super rich was ultimately thought to create a better situation for everybody. By cultivating a limited number of venerated architects as role models for an entire profession, we have created our own form of ‘trickle-down architecture’.
As a profession, architecture embodies a strange paradox. In economic terms it is a largely reactive discipline, a response to pre-formulated needs. In intellectual terms it is the opposite: a visionary domain that claims the future. In this capacity architecture aspires to set the agenda andprecede needs. The unfortunate thing for architects is that both conditions are equally true, making architecture a curious form of omniscience practiced in a context of utter dependency. This also explains the often Rasputin-like nature of architect-client relationships. A former employer (shortly before firing me) once said: “the most important thing for an architect is to possess charisma!” It is only now, when writing this piece, that I understand the full significance of his statement. Charisma – probably best defined as the appearance to know something others don’t without ever revealing what – is critical because, like a state of hypnosis, it has the capacity to obscure established relations of power. It is precisely the incongruence between architecture’s intellectual claims and its economic reality that causes something as vague as charisma to be of such importance. It allows the architect to temporarily suspend the disbelief of his patrons and get the upper hand in the absence of a real mandate. Charisma is pure psychology – that which mediates between the scale of one’s ambitions and the limits of one’s power.
Do I wish my education had been different? Not really. What I do wish however, is for my education to have been candid about the status of what I was being taught, that some notion of context would have been provided… a side note to explain that what I was learning was actually a relatively marginal form of idealism entertained only by a small minority; that the considerations that went into the built environment were of an altogether different nature than the ones we were being taught. It is not that I would have made another choice, nor do I dislike my profession. However, with a little more information I would have at least known what I was in for. In hindsight I would have used the six years of relative intellectual freedom considerably differently from the way I did. I would have spent less time on studying the profession’s intricacies and more time on studying its context, would have embraced the vulgarity of the real world as the only way to ultimately overcome it, would have developed more entrepreneurial and fewer artistic interests and would not have wasted the better half of my time in awe of role models which in the present world do not allow for emulation. I would have recognised Le Corbusier and Mies for what they actually are: history.
The education of architects is a precarious phenomenon. To disclose too early the realities of practice would probably discourage even the staunchest optimist. It would kill the productive idealism that you inevitably need as an architect. On the other hand architecture needs a real knowledge of practice if it is to produce any meaningful critique of that same practice. Architecture learns from what it applies and applies what it learns. The education of an architect is a permanent chicken and egg situation, where theory and praxis, idealism and pragmatism, resistance and surrender become entangled in an inextricable web in which it is forever unclear what prevails. In the context of architecture and its education, there is a permanent and inescapable interference between the object of critique (praxis) and the critic (the architect), who is formed by and complicit in that which he critiques. The contemporary architect – the human typology produced by this education – is generally doomed to be a mistrusted idealist even before he has properly started practicing.
How can teaching architecture prepare for practice without itself degenerating into a form of practice? Architecture exists by virtue of a conceptual distance from the arena in which it ultimately operates, as a hard earned space to think before doing (not something any of us would be keen to give up). Education is the perfect period to cultivate and explore such a space. Yet, for that very reason it also becomes hard to leave education, because it invariably means leaving this contemplative space. One learns to think only to find out that outside there is no real time to think, that one is condemned to an infernal rat race to keep up with seemingly incoherent demands. Such precisely was the formative experience of my first acquaintance with practice in London’s Docklands: a confrontation between carefully cultivated convictions and an absolute lack of demand for them.
Can architecture education be reinvented? Can it stop being a way to suspend practice in the name of thinking, and instead become a way to turn practice itself into the object of thinking? Here again, I am not advocating any form of radical pragmatism or some sort of surrender, but simply an enlarged curiosity: an eagerness to obtain a form of general knowledge of the context and conditions in which architecture is produced and with which it somehow has to come to terms. Architecture is a pinball in a maze of considerations and interests of which architects are often the ones least aware. Subject to ulterior (largely financial) motives, architecture is a fundamentally different phenomenon than for which architects hold it. More than a means to provide space, buildings are vehicles for investment, an indispensable pillar of the current economic system and, as we have seen with the financial crisis of 2008, also a potential source of its instability. Ignorance of this mechanism coupled with a misplaced hubris creates a lethal cocktail, in which the architect inevitably becomes complicit in causes antithetical to the ones he claims to profess.
Only when architecture confronts its true status can it be properly taught as a discipline. Clearly that will come at a price, as it will require honesty about all the things architecture should not claim, or at least not claim exclusively. One of the most important things to acknowledge is that nobody needs an architect to build a building. When it comes to architecture’s supposed core business, architects have become largely unnecessary. Architecture creates through design what happens otherwise by default. Buildings will get built, with or without architects. Building is a largely self-perpetuating phenomenon: the assemblage of a limited number of standardized industrial products, subject to an in-house expertise of contractors themselves. System building as a methodical science was supposed to have died along with the former GDR. Still, that is exactly what has become the dominant mode of building worldwide. In terms of technical expertise, architects are typically outwitted by contractors and even by some of their more professional client teams. The continued insistence that the work of an architect is the only way to arrive at a building, with abundant evidence to the contrary, forces architecture into a humiliating routine of self-legitimization. The vast majority of the built environment is of an unspeakable ugliness and the profession of architecture has done little to change that. Architecture’s own track record should discourage its claims to exclusivity; in insisting on it, architecture only contributes to its own demise.
What then is the ‘added value’ of architecture? What becomes different once an architect is involved?
In my view, the real merit of architecture does not lie in that it creates any less ugliness, but that it is aware when it does. That there is some internal system of critique that always offers hope for improvement. Economic pressure notwithstanding, architects are still a community of peers. They still combine a healthy mix of competitiveness with a sincere appreciation for each other’s work. There is a shared sense of quality among architects even in the absence of an overall consensus about style. Whenever one of them rises to an exceptional level, his or her colleagues are generally able to recognize it. Furthermore, a healthy dose of peer pressure mostly discourages architects from engaging in causes beyond their conviction. When they do, they know their colleagues are watching over their shoulder.
The other big difference is that architecture cultivates a motive beyond money. That makes it an exception in the current economic framework. I would not go as far as to say that architecture is not motivated by money, but that there is another goal that ultimately overrides money. Architects do not trade their labor for money. In fact, it is often difficult to find any correlation between their efforts and the financial reward. There is hardly a discipline that has made (unpaid) overtime the standard procedure in the way architecture has. This doesn’t even so much happen at the request of clients, but rather through an almost religious belief on the part of the architects in the importance of their labor.
In the long run however, any such motivation (work over money) will only be sustainable once the logic of money is properly mastered. In general, the exposure of architects to money is limited to dealing with budget constraints. The other side of the building economy, that of financial returns, for most part remains obscured from the architect’s view. Yet, it is these sums that make any financial expenditure on construction, including architects’ fees (defined as a percentage of construction cost) pale into insignificance. Buildings are invariably built too cheaply and sold too expensively. If architects would be aware, it would not only radically alter the nature of their work, but it could also mark a fundamental shift in the economy of architecture firms themselves. With architects’ indemnity insurance premiums going through the roof, ignorance of money is rapidly becoming unaffordable.
Even if, in an extreme case, architecture’s motives were to be exclusively idealistic, it is important to realize that also idealism needs financing. (The early communists funded their revolutionary activities by robbing banks.) To overcome the banalities of the real world you need to know all about the real world. Architecture has long thought it could defeat the real world by cultivating a form of splendid isolation. Ultimately, that will not work. In order to beat the system, we first need to play the system. Only when we know how to play the system, can we play the system against itself. Currently, the system plays us.
When it comes to the education of architects, what I would propose is a reverse play between architecture and its context, a temporary state of emergency in our educational institutions, in which for a particular duration studying the context of architecture takes priority over studying architecture itself.
With context I mean anything from high-level political considerations to the mundane financial logic that goes into buildings – an understanding of any ulterior motive that, for better or for worse, affects our work. Exposed to almost every facet of this context, architecture is in a unique position to extract from it a type of knowledge that no other party can. In a landscape dominated by specialists, the architect offers a rare perspective: that of the generalist, the narrator who can translate even the most banal combination of subjects into a form of discourse. In the context of complex construction efforts, he or she is the mediator who synthesizes various and diverging interests into an integrated whole. It is generally the architect who ends up acting as the spokesperson, even if the technical and financial complexity of these efforts far exceeds his or her professional competence.
Despite the general absence of evidence to support its arguments, architecture manages to exert a strange authority. In fact, the more it is seen to abandon the whole notion of evidence, the stronger its position. Somehow it is able to mobilize a leap of faith against the perpetual inconclusiveness of numbers. It is this ability that may well be architecture’s prime asset (and perhaps therefore also what should be conveyed in an educational context). Architecture is an ancient discipline that appears to be in possession of a wisdom no one else has. Even at his most helpless moments, the architect’s autonomy is hardly in question. (Charisma helps.) Architecture is a unique combination of both sovereignty from- and surrender to those disciplines. It doesn’t need to be territorial, as its territory is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
How should architecture use this power? When it comes to building, architecture is different from any other guest at the table. It is not one of the building disciplines, but rather a meta-discipline. It describes, theorizes and conceptualizes the very process in which it participates. It offers a possibility for a critique from within. It is informed by practice, yet in a position to turn its acquired insights against practice itself. Architecture offers space for contradiction. (Even in the context of this piece, I realize that I have contradicted myself at least five times.) As a consequence, architecture has the unique potential to become a disruptive force in the context of the self-perpetuating system that the production of the built environment has become. Architecture becomes a way of beating the system: bypassing supply and demand, cost and benefit, investment and return, LEED and BREEAM and all the other performance indicators which have come to dominate building practice. Almost by default architecture becomes political, a questioning of the ubiquitous, seemingly inescapable logic of the market economy. In a last instance, it is the mere possibility of an alternative that constitutes a political agenda, even when the specifics remain sketchy at best.
If architecture is to reclaim lost ground, it needs to accept its true nature. It should stop pretending to offer the same specialized expertise as the engineers, quantity surveyors, sustainability consultants and all the other supposed ‘experts’ that congregate around ever larger meeting tables (generally with a large hole in the middle) from which buildings now magically emerge. It should not engage in the tough talk. Only when we stop viewing architecture as a professional expertise on par with other building disciplines, can architecture be free to realize its full potential.
Arena, Blueprint, Platform, Framework, Theatre, Stage, Sphere, Structure, Façade, Base, Foundation, Model… The metaphors used to describe anything from organizational structures to corporate strategies and political agendas are proof of the ever-present conceptual force of architecture. Precisely at the moment when architecture seems wholly at the mercy of powers that be, its language is being used to articulate the constructs of those very powers. Even in the context of massive innovations in business and technology, architecture maintains a surprising degree of relevance. The thinking it has developed over centuries has enabled it to infiltrate other domains. In a final instance, that should also enable it to transcend its most important professional limitation: the obligation to produce buildings.
In the late nineties, the rediscovery of architecture as a primarily conceptual medium led to the formation of AMO. It was later applied in an educational context at Strelka. Our mission was to redefine architecture purely as a form of thinking, which could be applied to an array of subjects. Informed by the broadest possible context, it could in turn inform the broadest possible context. Apart from generating a number of interesting projects – projects which one might not immediately expect from architects – it has perhaps first and foremost allowed a progression of our own knowledge. We have become the students. With the formation of AMO, ten years after my first encounter with practicing architecture, working on- and learning from projects finally struck a balance: a catering to curiosities not felt since university, generating both a sense of engagement and personal progress.
‘I will learn you architecture’, Herman Hertzberger used to tell us as students at the Berlage Institute. In hindsight his bad English carries great profundity, a deep knowledge of the secret how knowledge of architecture is ultimately conveyed: a reciprocal process in which the question of who teaches whom is best forever deferred.
BC: In one of the pre-essays to the Biennale you wrote that architects don’t work for the state anymore. But you seem to be an example of the opposite.
RK: Yes, yes, I am a very untypical architect. And that is not for nothing. My sympathy is with that old-fashioned kind of architecture.
BC: Don’t you think other architects have these kinds of projects?
RK: Well, they do, I don’t think I’m an exception. But my discourse has been about the influence of the market economy on architecture, but on the other hand, I’ve kind of rigidly tried to adhere to the public project.
SVESMI, an unassuming studio based in central Rotterdam, is at the center of a dauntingly complex project that may eventually see the renovation of 448 dilapidated and disused branch libraries in Moscow. Architects Anastassia Smirnova and Alexander Sverdlov balance their time between Rotterdam, which acts as their design studio, and Moscow from which, alongside architects Maria Kataryan and Pavel Rueda, they oversee the project at large. Faced by the potential challenge of reimagining over 450 public ‘living rooms’ spread across the Russian capital and demanding unusually high levels of spatial articulation and social understanding, the project is also unwinding the hidden narrative of Moscow’s local libraries.
“induction meeting went tits up”
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment
Living Office concept by Herman Miller
In Billy Wilder’s 1960 comedy The Apartment, an anatomization of sex and power in the white-collar workplace that anticipated Mad Men by half a century, the great director offered a brutally funny, spot-on portrait of the postwar office, depicting the fictitious Consolidated Life of New York as a cornfield-size, perfectly rectilinear grid of anonymous, identical desks. How long ago and far away that seems. Though in places the old model still prevails, today’s ideal office paradigm could not be more different: fluid rather than fixed, less hierarchical and more egalitarian, and encouraging (mostly) of individuality, creativity, and choice.
A new story requires a new stage, and into this brave new world comes Herman Miller’s Living Office, the initial components of which the Zeeland, Michigan, furniture company is introducing at this year’s edition of NeoCon. The first wave of an anticipated two-year rollout, the Living Office’s first three product portfolios—called PUBLIC Office Landscape, Metaform Portfolio, and Locale, and designed, respectively, by fuseproject, Studio 7.5, and Industrial Facility—represent the company’s carefully considered response, not only to the ways in which a changed business culture has transformed workplace design, but to where our personal aspirations may be headed, and how the office can support them.
It’s a resolutely forward-looking vision. Yet this emphasis on what the company calls “human-centered problem-solving” has been the hallmark of Herman Miller since 1930, when Gilbert Rohde, its first design director, famously declared, “The most important thing in the room is not the furniture—it’s the people.”
In fact, the past is prologue to the Living Office in a central way—specifically, a slender, significant book, published in 1968, called The Office: A Facility Based on Change, by Robert Propst, at the time the company’s head of research. Under George Nelson, the second design director, Herman Miller had produced many of postwar America’s most iconic objects, by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi, and others, including Nelson himself. But by the late 1950s, the residential and commercial businesses had plateaued, and the company’s out-of-the-box-thinking president D.J. DePree began casting about for untapped revenue streams. DePree discovered Propst at the 1958 Aspen Design Conference, and was immediately taken with the artist/teacher/inventor. “Propst was truly brilliant, an innovative thinker,” explains Mark Schurman, Herman Miller’s corporate communications director. “D.J. figured, ‘We’ll set him up with a research division, and he’ll find new opportunities.’ One of his first directives was, ‘Anything but furniture.’”
Despite the company’s mandate, Propst became increasingly absorbed by the idea of reinventing the office, an interest that dovetailed with Nelson’s, who as early as 1948 had talked about the ideal working environment being a “daytime living room” that would be welcoming and humane. Propst, too, concerned himself with the human factor—specifically how flexible floor plans and porous, intercommunicating spaces might empower both the individual and the organization.
Action Office II’s 12 “principles of operation,” encouraged a workplace in which “the individual can participate in goal setting and thus behave like a manager at any level.” Propst’s environment remained “responsive to the goals of the user,” changed gracefully and with minimal disruption, and enabled rapid replanning. It also thrived on contrast: between neatness and chaos, sitting and standing, solitude and collaboration, privacy and community, and, critically, “geometry versus humanism”—that is, a traditional, grid-based floor plan versus a more organic layout.
Alas—and despite Propst’s injunction against the “four-sided enclosure”—by the late 1970s, the dominant application of the Action Office (and its multiple imitations) had become that most despised of office conditions: the cubicle. Propst, who died in 2000, had sought to liberate humankind from the grid, but his invention wound up locking the worker even more tightly into it.
Yet good ideas die hard, and the Living Office—which expresses Propst’s vision in a new-century way—suggests that, 45 years on, it’s an idea whose time has come. For one, when the Action Office appeared, the world depicted in Wilder’s film had its roots in the blue-collar assembly line, an essentially Victorian model. “There was a small group of people who made decisions, and a whole lot of people lined up executing,” says Greg Parsons, Herman Miller’s vice president of New Work Landscape. Today, Parsons points out, “the office is a facility based on creativity, and we need an organizational structure that reflects that.” As well, the anchoring effects of technology, which worsened in the 1980s and 1990s as ever more devices appeared, have been swept away in our wireless world. Both philosophically and physically, the office is far more flexibility-friendly than it was a half-century ago.
No less important is what might be called the Marissa Mayer Effect. Though the Yahoo! CEO’s ban on work-from-home may have been poorly handled, according to Gary Smith, director of design facilitation and exploration at Herman Miller, her point was powerful. “We’re talking about a shift of emphasis, away from housing and technology, capabilities that could exist only in the office,” Smith explains. “Now there’s a different thing that can exist only in the office, and that’s my access to you. I want to tap your potential, because what humans do best is connect and communicate”—something the Living Office is meant to encourage, by creating a multiplicity of differently scaled settings and making the connections between them more logical, adjustable, and fluid.
In keeping with its people-first philosophy, the company focused its predesign research on gathering insight, not information. “Research will expose the manifest behavior of a population, but it won’t reveal innovation,” observes Smith. Instead, Parsons says, “We asked, ‘What’s going on in the world? What’s fundamental about all human beings, and what do they really want to do?’” Toward this end, Herman Miller engaged in a process that Maryln Walton, of the insight and exploration group, describes as “informed dreaming.” Since 2001, the company has completed three rounds of scenarios, in which it looks five years ahead at potential futures; these enable the company to think about how the world might change, and adjust its product development and business strategies accordingly. The brainstorming process begins with a dozen people from different parts of the organization, followed by a two-day “expert workshop” with six individuals representing multiple disciplines—the most recent, which looked ahead to 2018, included two cultural anthropologists, a specialist in Asian HR policies, and a political science professor—to challenge the in-house assumptions.
The team then takes what it’s learned and imagines (and reimagines) the future until it arrives at three possible scenarios. For 2018, these include Datasphere, which looks at how the digital information generated by individuals worldwide can be innovatively repurposed; New Normal, a consideration of potential push-back against organizations, institutions, and governments; and Polarized World, in which the U.S. and China emerge as the two great economic powers. “We ran workshops with groups of people thinking about each scenario,” Walton says. “Then we spent a lot of time synthesizing the results, and developed what we believe are likely workplace realities in 2018.”
These realities— called propositions—are the gold nuggets sieved from the sand of the scenarios. “We don’t think any one of the three stories will come true,” says Walton. “But the eight propositions are things that we really believe.”
PUBLIC Office Landscape
Yves Behar & fuseproject
We found this statistic: 70 percent of collaboration happens at the workstation. This hit me like lightning, and I wrote on the project wall: “THE MAJORITY OF COLLABORATION HAPPENS AT THE DESK, YET DESKS HAVE NEVER BEEN DESIGNED FOR INTERACTION.” Our approach became to think of every place in the office, including one’s individual desk, as a place for collaboration. We came up with the notion of Social Desking.
We believe collaboration doesn’t just happen in conference rooms—it happens everywhere. PUBLIC Office Landscape supports fluid interactions and spontaneous conversations. The seating elements flow into desk surfaces, the fabric elements flow cleanly into hard surfaces. The result is a visual connection that encourages new functionality and casual postures.
“We’re trying to create Living Office products that function in group and community as well as individual zones,” Katie Lane, Herman Miller’s director of product development, tells me as we tour the cheerfully cluttered, bustling obeya space, the company’s fancy name (obeya is Japanese for “big room”) for the R&D skunkworks in its Design Yard, one of several facilities scattered around Zeeland. PUBLIC Office Landscape, the first system Lane showed me, supports areas in which two to six people typically cluster, and is designed specifically “for knowledge transfer and cocreation to occur,” she says. The heart of PUBLIC is the Social Chair, which supports the casual nature of the contemporary workplace by elevating the ergonomic levels of what looks at a glance like hip lawn furniture. Equally suited to perching, slouching, or sitting on the arm rests, the Social Chair, which can be easily pulled up to a desk or arranged in clusters, invites the quick chat or collaborative bull session, and supports what fuseproject principal Yves Behar (noting that “70 percent of short meetings happen at a person’s desk”) calls “collaborative density.” PUBLIC Office Landscape also speaks to one of the most compelling of the 2018 propositions: Swarm-Focused Work, in which—like bees—groups of individuals quickly zoom together to one spot to accomplish tasks.
Our approach was based on our observations in American offices: We saw a shift from individual to collaborative work patterns, we saw the walls being lowered to 42 inches to introduce natural light to the floor plan. We observed a huge amount of content and the transactions associated with work moved to the digital realm, leaving drawers and cabinets empty. We were looking for an environment to support the creative class.
Metaform Portfolio addresses a proposition called Hackable and Kinetic Nodes, a vision of the workplace as a campsite that can be arranged opportunistically and moved when necessary. The design challenge, according to Studio 7.5’s Carola Zwick, involved achieving “an architectural quality that can still be transformed by the inhabitants, since traditional planning cycles miss the needs and dynamics of today’s knowledge workers.” Accordingly, Metaform’s core element is a tiered block of polypropylene, weighing about 18 pounds, which can be combined with identical units to create a semi-enclosed space. The arrangement Lane shows me is formed into a half-circle, with squiggly shelves called Centipedes cantilevered off the tiers, and magazines and work displays tucked into the narrow spaces between them. An adjustable-height table, large enough for small-group collaboration, bisects the half-circle. Vertical versions of the shelving—called Vertipedes—are connected to the top tier and provide light visual screening.
In our office, we all travel from our own neighborhoods to a place where we can collaborate in person, so we thought: Why not design an office landscape that behaves like a good neighborhood? In our first thoughts we talked a lot about how social networks behave. Locale is a physical version of how social networks function; the most relevant participants are kept close so that communication is easy, fast, and frequent.
Locale works like a small high street where everything you need is clustered together. The architect or specifier can build small clusters out of different functional modules to form what we call a Workbase, so that the disparate functions of the office reside comfortably together. The library, social setting, working desk, and meeting table are al formed into an architectonic line.
In Sam Hecht and Kim Colin’s Locale, “individual work areas mix with group and collaborative elements to give a high-performance team everything it needs within a neighborhood on the floorplate,” Lane explains, leading me into a zone shaped by standing-height screens, storage/shelving units incorporating sliding easels, and with a low circular coffee table, stand-alone refreshment center, and a row of curved adjustable-height desks. Locale grew out of what Hecht calls an “autobiographical approach” to design, wherein he and Colin thought about how unnatural it felt to have an impromptu get-together in their own office. “You’re sitting, they’re standing, it’s not very productive,” he explains. “We wanted to create a system in which people would collaborate very naturally—every table can be a meeting table.”
Greg Parsons recalls, “We came up with ten modes of work that are repeated in virtually every organization”—including “administer,” “contemplate,” “create,” “quick chat,” “converse,” “warm up/cool down,” and “gather and build”—“and tied them to the kinds of settings we can create,” he says.
Once an organization’s programmatic needs are understood, and what the mix of work modes might be, Gee’s group develops study plans that suggest how an office’s square footage can be best apportioned. The ones she showed me resemble urban site plans, which seems appropriate: A well-functioning business environment, after all, is akin to a neighborhood, different parts of which cater to varying needs and interactions. “Our team uses a lot of urban planning metaphors when we talk about this,” Gee says. “Because getting the settings right is just part of the equation. That would be like getting one building right in a whole city.”