This book was one of those pleasurable of reading experiences where my brain felt like it was being subtly rewired as I was reading it. I loved this book and what follows isn’t really a review but a summary with an awful lot of quotes. A set of notes for myself. I’ll try to make a faithful outline of what Strategic design is and what it might mean to the Architect without the examples that Dan gives. Also Strelka press should be congratulated on a nice series of e-books.
Dan immediately raises the stakes as far as they can go in his primer for Strategic design. Occupy Wall Street, the Euro crisis, the UK summer riots, Arab spring, protests on the streets of Moscow.
To these problems add global warming, threats to democracy, peak oil, challenges to the world economy and the apparent atrophy of the global money system.
Common to all of these stories — from violent, sometimes randomly directed explosions of civil unrest to carefully targeted peaceful protest — is this lack of faith in core systems
Really, really wicked problems
Every problem has a solution. To frame it simplistically design is a way of solving a problem. Problems are framed by the people and institutions that want a solution. Thus a family will go to an Architect to get a design for their home. But what about really difficult problems? How to address global climate change for example. No one solution can solve the problem and possible solutions are hard to achieve because people, and institutions are often all pulling in different opposing ways. The cultural, legal and social structures and their interrelations are essentially the pipes through which change is transmitted and if these pipes are blocked or lead us on a different path the design solution we put in at the top of the tube will follow the route of the tube, it won’t change the tubing. What we need is
the systemic redesign of cultures of decision-making at the individual and institutional levels, and particularly as applied to what we can think of as the primary problems of the 21st century
Thus strategic design is a way of stepping back from a design problem and ‘zooming scale’ as it were, to go one level up and change the system that surrounds your design problem. The change will be bigger and can engender systematic widespread change. Here then we have a way of approaching seemingly intractable problems, a designers philosophers stone.
Dan having given us a definition and vision of the possible continues to sketch out rather than a fixed template a tool bag of ways to make strategic design.
The tools Dan brings out of his bag as it were are
- The MacGuffin
- The Trojan Horse
- The Platform
- The Layer
In Spy films the MacGuffin are the secret papers the spies are after. Named so by Alfred Hitchcock it is the device around which the plot revolves but which the viewers don’t much care about. Thus Dan states
Each strategic design project might ask: what is the MacGuffin here? What is the plot device that will drive the picture? What is the artefact that will motivate the various actors to create a richly rewarding experience for the audience, and enable strategic outcomes by also addressing the context?
In pursuing a particular design goal a deeper change can take place, the institution or structure around the MacGuffin itself can be altered as a more profound, but indirect result. A kind of meta change brought about by a design solution.
The Trojan Horse
This aspect of the project also uses an artefact as the hook for a series of other activities, though its role is in suggesting that an artefact can contain multiple strategic elements.
Every building has the potential to be a Trojan Horse
The Building or some other designed thing which in turn enables other design strategies. Dan refers to Kwinter here
In fact, Kwinter sees 1977’s Pompidou as the last major building project that genuinely reflected and actively changed wider cultural patterns.
It’s not perhaps cool to say but also Bilbao Guggenheim could be an example. The original opened the way (again) for big box design urban regenerations, mostly of highly dubious quality.
Think of the computer platform, think of a web service, or in retail of Amazon. Increasingly the platform has become a strategy in the business world driven mostly by the internet. The platform is the idea of repeatability and interoperability.
As the built environment becomes ever more plugged in, queryable and responsive the platform will be an opportunity to build in a responsiveness to buildings never before seen. It suggests a way of identifying and being able to change buildings over time and their relevant services in response to changes requirements. We should be able to prototype new things and iterate them, improving them and expanding them progressively.
In a way the lines drawn between city infrastructure, businesses and buildings will start to disappear, this is the platform.
Strategic design can’t be just about prototyping new solutions, public systems have to be stable, predictable, change should be proactive but not made for its own sake.
The Layer, an idea drawn from Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn is essentially a way to different physical structures as different layers. I assume he means for instance thermal skin from structural layer, from electrical layer. These all have different technological paces and can slip across each other, some layers will change more rapidly than others.
These layers though can be applied culturally and within the context of strategic design. Physical envelope from governance for example. It’s a way of treating different design issues and different systems in the appropriate way separately when necessary.
Challenge For Architecture
One reason that I find Dan’s book so engaging and relevant to Architecture is the current state of the profession. We are often putting Lipstick on Pigs
Design has too often been deployed at the low value end of the product spectrum, putting the lipstick on the pig. In doing this, design has failed to make the case for its core value, which is addressing genuinely meaningful, genuinely knotty problems by convincingly articulating and delivering alternative ways of being. Rethinking the pig altogether, rather than worrying about the shade of lipstick it’s wearing.
Architects then have been boxed in, strategic decisions that they could and should be involved in are not in their remit. Solutions which are often partially architectural are often no longer within the power of the Architect to influence.
Even a Pritzker prize-winning architect such as Richard Rogers cannot, for example, challenge the basic premises of the Barangaroo urban development in Sydney. The combination of masterplan, financial model, political context, local history and local cultures created a tight frame within which the architectural design work must occur. Many of the architects and other designers within the project team knew that the way the question was being framed was fundamentally flawed, but from their relatively lowly position in the value chain of the built environment business, even the best in the world cannot interrogate the frame itself. They can only problem-solve within it. A middle-manager at the local property developer running the project probably has more agency, due to the positioning of design as problem-solving, as consultancy service, within an industry that is oriented towards the bottom-line, almost allergic to innovation, and seeing strictly limited value in the role of design. Under these conditions, a designer cannot address the question itself.
Architects must be more engaged with the layers of decision-making that both come before Architecture is made and with those that parallel Architecture in some way. After all Architects should be good at this, to synthesise solutions to difficult, interdisciplinary problems. I read this as a challenge and an opportunity to make Architecture more relevant again. How do we start to approach this problem?
One reason we are failing is that we are naive, not good at engaging with the dirty back room decisions and politicking required.
If you really want to change the city, or want a real struggle, a real fight, then it would require re-engaging with things like public planning for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with a large-scale institutionalised developers. I think that’s where the real struggles lie, that we re-engage with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex ‘dark matter’. That’s where it becomes really interesting.” (Wouter Vanstiphout, interview with Rory Hyde, 2010)
Dark matter gives a name to the stuff which constrains your design. The layers of regulations, relationships and constraints the join to define the limits of your design problem. Not mentioned in this book but probably what has changed for the Architect most over the last 50 years.
Dan refers to Renew Newcatle as a good example of a project that successfully grappled with the Dark Matter of lease arrangements to renew an inner city.
Traditionally, the management consultant delves into dark matter. Traditionally, the design consultant delivers observable matter. The strategic designer moves between both, deploying observable matter to ensure that dark matter is addressed, and addressing dark matter to better deploy observable matter
Design solutions aren’t our problem per say. Architects are a fount of design solutions, but as prototypes only, not repeatable, not transferable or systematic,
The Problems of Installations
A genuine and concerted engagement with dark matter is what would enable an intervention to become systemic, permanent, influential. It is not enough to produce the prototype of an entirely new paradigm for the motor car, say, without redesigning the organisation that might design and produce them, the supply chains that might enable their construction and maintenance, the various traffic and planning regulations that must absorb a new vehicle, the refuelling infrastructure, and so on.
As Architect we tend to reify the particular, we admire the idea that changes the project, but we ignore how limited in scope these solutions are.
I will be looking at some possible ideas and solutions to the Architects problems in the following book, Future Practice by Rory Hyde which looks at a selection of practices all of which have something to say about how Architecture is practised. I hope it can dovetail this book well and suggest some solutions for the Architect and for future design strategies.