For “future-use architecture,” the time is now
A recent design exhibition in Los Angeles stressed the need for buildings that can accommodate change over time.
At the entrance to the PERSISTENT exhibition in Los Angeles, a wall of text spells out its curators’ intended takeaway: “Crucial to persistent architecture is the design of buildings that last for generations while continuously adapting to shifting needs.” Though that sentiment isn’t controversial, it does shine a light on how the profession needs to adjust in the face of an ever-changing society beset by environmental and cultural challenges.
The team behind PERSISTENT—Peter Wiederspahn, AIA; Michelle Laboy; and David Fannon, AIA; all professors at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture—came up with the exhibition concept through conversations with leaders at the Council on Open Building. In tandem with the council’s 2018 conference in LA, the groups decided to “align their ideas,” as Fannon put it, and highlight buildings designed to accommodate change over time.
The final product, which closes this week after two months at the A+D Museum, hammers home the need for what Fannon, Laboy, and Wiederspahn call “future-use architecture.” In keeping with the research that won them the 2017 AIA College of Fellows Latrobe Prize, the team interviewed architects in and coded the responses to determine similarities and, ultimately, tangible theories.
“We’re using what’s called grounded theory,” Fannon says, “which is a qualitative research method that we’re adapting on an iterative basis. We are talking to architects, asking them the same questions in the same order, and including new people and projects as they come up.”
“You then start to analyze the responses,” he adds, “and tag them and find connections. From grounded experience and practice, theories start to emerge. It’s quite different than a scientific method, where you come up with a hypothesis and test it accordingly. Here, we’re building the hypothesis out of these responses.”
“We want to make sure we’re not working entirely from our own biased view of things,” Laboy says. “Our goal is to generate new knowledge that is already embedded in many different firms, projects, and histories but hasn’t been disseminated or pulled out of all these sources and reconsidered as a broader theory.”
“If we’re going to build buildings that last a long time, it requires a certain degree of humility.” - David Fannon, AIA
When it comes to PERSISTENT’s visuals, the most striking element isn’t the featured projects but the quotes from designers and architects involved. Insightful thoughts from Billie Tsien, AIA, and Todd Williams, FAIA, along with Ann Beha, FAIA, and other leaders in the profession, have been lifted from their interviews and emphasized for all to see.
“To have the text flat and the buildings as 3D models would’ve been totally normal,” Fannon says. “We wanted to give the quotes a prominence that is typically reserved for structures; to make those the 3D objects, the lovingly crafted physical manifestations. Otherwise, they’re just words that are said and lost.”
This presentation style works in tandem with the choices the team made as to which architects and projects to feature. Rather than promote famous buildings or starchitects, the words themselves are the first things you see, followed by the name of the quoted designer and then drawings of the projects underneath as the literal foundation. What stands out are the ideas, not the people who said them or the buildings they designed.
“Something that happens with architecture exhibits is they become focused on an individual person or personality,” Fannon says. “Yes, the architects in our exhibit are credited for the words, and there are important names, but we purposely made it less about the person. All the theories have value, and all are treated equally.”
Sustainable solutions, by every definition
PERSISTENT marks roughly the halfway point in the team’s two-year Latrobe research project, and Fannon and Laboy both feel the exhibition came at the perfect time. There are clear parallels to sustainability, an idea that has been on the tip of architects’ tongues for decades now, but to them the issue goes beyond questions about energy or materials.
“I think sustainability is both a technological and cultural problem,” Laboy says. “We’ve become accustomed to things having a short lifespan and being designed to be replaced. Our systems, our policies, our politics, and our financial incentives work in such a way that buildings have become a bit more disposable. But the amount of effort that goes into them is enormous. We need to be able to think of them as longer-term investments that reflect our values.”
“Buildings require a tremendous amount of not just physical materials and resources but labor and attention and intellectual activity,” Fannon adds. “It strikes me as incredibly wasteful to go through all the work to make a building and not make the very best one we know how. One that pays back, not just material or energy debt, but cosmic or karmic debt. It ought to be able to pay that back by offering something valuable to society for a long time.”
Taking that message to the architectural community—let alone to those investing in buildings or hiring architects—will be complex, but the team feels PERSISTENT is a step in the right direction.
“If we’re going to build buildings that last a long time, it requires a certain degree of humility,” Fannon says. “We can’t predict the future; we can’t know what the exact use of a building will be; we can’t know what the environment will be like. We need to design buildings now that are able to change, and worthy of lasting long enough to be changed.”
Steve Cimino is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with a focus on architecture and design.