Off the Top: Architecture Entries


February 22, 2011

The Genius of Design - BBC Series Overview

This past Summer (2010) the BBC (BBC 2) showed a five part documentary series on design, called The Genius of Design (TGoD). This series is similar to Gary Hustwit's Objectified, but TGoD goes much broader and deeper offering a better reflection of the reality of design only seen through that depth. Think of Objectified as a taste sampler of TGoD. There are some people in common between the two whom are interviewed and focussed upon, but life is breathed into architecture, process, visual, industrial, and many more slices of the design world that bring design to life in TGoD. It is a wonderful look at the real nature of design.

The Five Episodes of The Genius of Design

The five episodes are: 1) Ghosts in the Machine; 2) Designs for Living; 3) Blueprints for War; 4) Better Living Through Chemistry; 5) Objects of Desire. The core focus is on the deep consideration and understanding that goes into design. It is this rigor of understanding and working through to final product all based on a core objective. Throughout the five series the focus on a deep understanding the materials deeply, use, impact on the people interacting with what has been designed, and development processes (as well as optimizing them).

Standout Themes

The obsession to understand the materials used and objects being design with depth and breadth is not the only standout theme. Many other themes and take away ideas stood out not only when watching, but also now many months later.

Focus on End Use and People Using Product of Design

One major reoccurring theme throughout is the focus on end use. The the products not only should be pleasing nearly (possibly to the point of being emotive), but they must also be usable, and do what it is intended to do very well. A continual focus on the person using what is designed is one of the central tenets of design and with out this it is something other than design.

Breadth of Design Disciplines and Roles

To the point of design having a focus on the person using what is designed, the breath of roles within design was brought up. Wonderfully, Peter Boersma's T-Model was directly mentioned in when discussing the breadth of expertise with required depth and roles in design that are required to all come together to optimally create a final product that is please and usable for the person who engages with the final product. While watching the whole series the focus on various disciplines and roles is very evident and when listening to the designers talk about their own focus and discipline (all largely falling under the moniker of design) as it relates to final crafting of the final object) it is they all have depth in their own discipline, but understand the materials deeply and the class and required needs for the final product very well.

Every Designer Has A Chair In Them

Another reoccurring thread, that gets depth of focus a few times, is the idea that every designer has a chair in them (this has become a meme in the broad design community from the near instant this was uttered mid-Summer). The chair is emblematic of the need for utility (purpose, comfort, durability, etc.) as well as providing style. A chair that collapses is not well designed. The chair also often has requirements beyond basic sitting, which can include long term comfort, ability to stack and store it, be environmentally friendly, and many more possible variations. This intersection of use, style, material, and production around the chair leads to a lot of the depth of understanding required to get to a final product prototyped, tested, and into production. This depth and breadth that designers put in is often not considered by people outside the design community, but also the depth and rigor involved in design is missed in some disciplines that are tangential to design, but do not consider themselves purely in the design profession.

Process Design and Optimization

Within the Blueprints for War episode the focus of designing the process was often repeated. The episode focussed on Britain in World War II and the need to have mass production of goods needed for the war that worked for their purposes, but there were limitations of materials and time needed to get mass amounts of goods in military personnelís hands. Streamlining production and simplifying the goods became essential, but as well thinking of solutions seemed like their was expansive production (dummy planes, etc.) and alternate facilities (fake factories) were included in the design mix.

Wishing for More

In all this was a fantastic series for those in and around the design profession, those who intersect with design, and just fans of design.



May 22, 2007

Getting to the Ultimate City Guide

This past week I was in Mexico City for work. My approach to the trip was filled with apprehension as I had never been there and much of the word of mouth and news of Mexico City was on the side of "express kidnappings and other non-cheery events. I pinged my Twitter friends and a couple people responded that they had been to Mexico City in the past year and offered great insights and advice (mostly not to hail taxis on the street and the usual advice for large cities (stay in busy areas, etc.)).

I did not have a lot of time to explore, but I really did enjoy my trip there. But, I was really not well prepared for the trip (mostly because it was rather last minute in a rather busy stretch of other non-related work).

The second day of my trip I felt far more comfortable as I had walked around my busy neighbohood getting a feel for it as I searched for food (there were many options, but I wanted local food not Korean or Argentinian). Walking around there were many offers for taxi rides, table dances, and flat-out prostitution offers. I had a fairly good shield of ignoring the individuals, but some were quite persistent. I found the early morning helped ground me a little better and found the buildings and architecture similar in a way to Bastia, Corsica. This tiny bit of grounding helped connect me to some understanding and provided a connection.

Most travel guide work better for me after I have been some place and preparing me for things I want to discover the next trip, than for preparing me for the first trip.

Trip Preparation and Pre-mapping

The trip was not the only trip I was not well prepared for, my trip to Berlin in Fall 2005 was much the same. But, with the Berlin trip I read and had many travel guide and nothing was really sticking (it too was in a busy travel and work schedule).

The travel guides really do not work well for me as I have nothing for the information to stick to. I have no reference point of familiarity for the information to adhere. Once I gain a foothold of perspective and foundation the information about a place starts making sense. All it takes is a drop of knowledge and the ripples of understanding and familiarity start taking hold.

What I really seem to need is that core grounding point. I have tried Google Earth and other satellite enhanced mapping systems (I am increasingly a fan of Microsofts Live Maps for this as its 3D models are quite helpful), but they still need some level of reference for the info to stick. Information combined with some 3D and 360 views of areas would help. Once I have a point I can hold onto I can then easily expand the knowledge.

The small bit of understanding makes unrolling surrounding areas and deeper understanding easier. For me the thin connection to Corsica helped put the architecture in context. This bit of context is like a Google Map showing an area then pre-loading other near and related information to unpack and apply quickly.

Personally, I like to have cultural understandings of things that are fixed and malleable. Fixed are things like phone systems (GSM) and ease of getting wifi or solid internet access, along with usual cost. Malleable are things that have options like places to eat, things to see and do, etc. Cultural components, like taking many photos in a neighborhood is something I like to understand, do people think a white guy (I was one of a handful I saw in my couple days) taking pictures of buildings and building details is a threat to them? Does this make me a sure target? Is it culturally improper?

Finding Guides that Fit Context

One of my issues is I am often traveling from a business context and need the fixed information. I find the Economist City Guides really good for the basic worklife understanding. I also have cultural (often sub-cultural) interest along the lines of use of technology, food, street art, local information design, social interaction patterns, etc., which seems to come from shared personal experience rather than printed resources.

Ultimate Guide

I think my optimal wish it to have an immersion guide experience prior to traveling, based on the location I will be staying. Then once I am in a location have information rolled out based on context, such as time to eat the food options based on my interest and level of adventure with which I am comfortable. Unrolling understanding and background based on surroundings for where I am and what is around the corner (literally and figuratively) would be fantastic.

This is a familiarity I now have with Amsterdam and parts of London. Some of this familiarity came from having a personal guide take me through those cities nearly 20 years ago. This provided me with an understanding of layout, core elements (transportation systems, cultural understanding, food, etc.), and comfort with a feel for the cities.

Most of the time I am ready for my first trip after going to a city once or have a fellow traveler guide me through their understanding of the city along with a local resident.



September 26, 2006

Personal Disconnectedness of Travel and Gerneric Architecture

Um, what does one do at 2am in the morning (after sleeping four hours and waking at 1am)? Blog.

Unfocussed Curor Bliking

I am finding that this long distance traveling has been really increasing my personal disconnectedness time this year, where the mind, body, and soul are not joined. Some call it jetlag, but it seems deeper. There were times yesterday where my motor skills just were shot (as they normally are with long travel on the first day). Other times my mind would just freeze mid-thought or sentence. It is not a bad thing, but more of a just "is" thing. It feels like the unfocussed blinking cursor syndrome, where a window on the desktop has a blinking cursor and you believe that if you type your text will show up there (the password box on a web form), but in reality it is some completely different window (like chat session) that has focus and displays the text as you hit enter to submit.

The SimCity Model for Urban Redevelopment

At a meal yesterday (brunch at Darling Harbor or dinner at Bondi Beach) I began to think that many cities are just replications of SimCity with similar architecture, where the cities are rather modern and/or developed in the mid-1800s. You can plop down a new structure that is similar to one from another city. Much like the new buildings in Darling Harbor look strikingly like the new Baltimore, Maryland Inner Harbor. Much of Sydney yesterday felt like something on the North America West Coast, as they were built and grew up about the same times in the mid-1800s and had similar cycles of growth over time. On Pitt street in Sydney, where it is a pedestrian mall, it really felt like there were some Commonwealth flourishes, like shopping arcades, put in San Francisco's Financial District.

Architecture as Cultural and Location Grounding

This quasi-generic western culture Pacific Rim architecture washing tended to compound the personal disconnectedness I was experiencing. Not only was my being disconnected, but the physical markers of my surroundings were off kilter as well. I somewhat experienced that in Berlin last Fall with the new modern architecture around Potsdam Platz. I felt far more grounded and connected in Friedrichshain as it was not modern and had native architectural elements that were not pan-global.

When I travel to Europe I like doing my time correction to resolve the personal disconnectedness is Amsterdam as it is distinctly Amsterdam. I know internally that I am in a different city, different country, and different culture. But, in Amsterdam they speak English very well and are technically adept (often leading to better understanding of mobile usage and other technosocial interactions that are missing in America as it lags Europe with technical adoption on many many fronts.

Similarly, I found Innsbruck to be similar to Amsterdam in its distinctive architectural elements, but even its modern architecture was very germanic. Growing-up I was a model railroad fan, but many of the buildings were not similar to the architecture I knew growing up on the West Coast of the United States as the larger makers of pre-built buildings and models for model railroads was from Germany, the Netherlands, or Belgium (I really do not remember the name of the company), but when taking a train from Schiphol to Amsterdam many of the post-war-modern (World War II) buildings looked straight out of the scene set catalogs for modern railroads. But, there were many buildings in Innsbruck that had the same architecture mixed in to the Tyrolean architecture.



June 26, 2006

Prefab and the Blog Template

I have been fascinated by prefabricated (prefab) homes for the past few years. It first started with "why"? Why would somebody want to live in a prefab home. But, that turned into, "Hmmm, there is something to this prefab stuff". Part was the Dwell magazine interest in prefab, which played out into a prefab competition and prefab competition winners.

Prefab Blogs

I had the same feelings toward the standard blog styles, templates, and themes. Quickly, the standard designs became the norm. Where we had personally designed pages that had their own distinct flavor and style we had beautiful generic designs adopted by growing masses. The level to entry to beauty was lowered. In doing so I began to have many friends with the same blog design (this personally caused me cognitive difficulty as I remember blogs by color and distinct design and the wonderful design of the generics made my methods of distinguishing one blog from the other null and void). This sameness may say something about my friends and their similar taste and my apparent lack of diversity in choice in those whose company I enjoy all through the lens of visual design.

Prefab as an Old Cultural Trend

The more I thought, and still think, about prefab homes the more I realize our modern post-industrial lives are prefab. The suburbs (even urban settings) are all based on a limited selection of "floorplans" and exterior designs. I have spent a fair amount of time traveling the past year or two in the northern and western hemisphere in urban settings. There is a sameness to the city center architecture in Amsterdam, Oxford (England), San Francisco, Berlin, London, etc. The homes, commercial, and public buildings have their set patterns that distinguish time, use, and taste.

I think about my home, which was built in 1951 and was part of a small sub-division, which had a limited number of options that included our "cape cod" floor plan and style. Our neighborhood is changing like many others around the country that have homes more than 20 years old the older homes are being vastly modified and expanded or are being torn down and new larger homes are taking their place. These newer homes are too quite similar in style and floor plan to each other.

Is Prefab Bad?

As my initial dislike of prefab has faded, I still keep wondering about good or decent design being mass marketed and becoming too familiar and creating a backlash. One purveyor or good design for everybody is IKEA, which everybody I know owns at least one or two pieces of furniture from, no matter their financial or social status. Prefab homes are not quite in the same category, but they are heading in a similar direction. In our post-industrial life familiarity and similarity breeds comfort for many. We see similar patterns of similarity even in those cultures of differentiation (punk, MySpace, alternative, etc.) where the rebellion against the "beautiful" and commonly accepted "good design" is subverted. Tattoos, piercing, mohawks (again, which is comforting and ironic to me), illegible text in designs, low contrast design of bold color choices, etc. all are part of the counter culture, but are all a blending and a culture of familiarity and comfort.

There are set patterns in our cultures. When personal websites started (this one is a variant of one I started more than 10 years ago) there was a handful of them, a few hundred or a few thousand handfuls. Personal sites were personal reflections. They were our playgrounds and our means to be different, as much a part of being divergent as they were emergent. In MySpace we see much of the same attempt to separate one's self from the crowd. But, at the same time with 51 million (give or take 10 or 20 million more) differentiation is only part of a much larger pattern.

Finding a Home

Prefab is not bad, but just a means to inexpensively and easily get a home. It is not the exterior, but the interior space that is the place for personalization. Just as templates in blogs are a means to get a good design as a starting point to personalize, but the personalization is minor edits to the design as one component. The real personalization is the content that fills the once blank spaces. It is what is put in the blank text box. It is the voice and the expression of our views and ideas that make the space its ours and theirs. Much like what activities, what we make of the places we occupy, and who we interact with that shape our physical prefab spaces it is much the same same in the digital prefab spaces.

We are all out to find and build our home. It is something that is ours. It is something that is a reflection of who we are, who we want others to believe we are, and/or who we want to be.



June 1, 2005

Tall Stories of Architecture

Those of you interested in architecture the BBC's In Business has a MP3 (podcast if you want) for down load of its program, "Tall Stories". The download will be replaced on Thursday June 2nd so go grab it now.

The half hour radio segment looks at the current state of architecture, architects, and public design in general (largely in Britain, but it includes world examples and is relevant to just about anywhere. There are some good analogies and frameworks for anybody in the design professions.



May 23, 2004

Bethesda Design Within Reach

While getting coffee this morning I saw that Design within Reach is opening in Bethesda near the Woodmont Triangle (North of Old Georgetown Road). They have gone into the old Johnny Rocket diner. The site is a good match. The Woodmont Triangle is turning into a furniture and interior design section with small wonderful restaurants mixed in. This section of Bethesda is not as hectic as the area around the Bethesda Row Cinema (Landmark Theater) and the larger best of DC restaurants.



November 17, 2003

More on Urban Tapestries

More on Urban Tapestries:

Urban Tapestries is a framework for understanding the social, cultural, economic and political implications of pervasive location-based mobile and wireless systems. To investigate these issues, we are building an experimental location-based wireless platform to allow users to access and author location-specific content (text, audio, pictures and movies). It is a forum for exploring and sharing experience and knowledge, for leaving and annotating ephemeral traces of peoplesí presence in the geography of the city.


April 26, 2003

Jeff Veen on urban design

Also in Jeffrey Veen's recent postings are insights on Urban Design. I was reminded of the experience urban design can have on the users of the city on my trip to Portland, Oregon. Portland is extremely walkable and has much character downtown, even on weekends. The downtown space of Portland is created to enhance public transportation and on a weekend day it does not have the vacant echoing canyon feeling of other cities' downtown areas.



November 29, 2002

Understanding the environment at work

Reimagining work provides insight from workplace designers on how the work environment influences work. It is a good read with a lot of wonderful insights. [hat tip Challis]


April 11, 2002


January 27, 2002

Also stumbled across... Walking Info, a site for pedestrian's and cyclists. There is good information related to safety and trends. (I found this in a Google search for France, crosswalk, signs, which I still have not found what I am looking for, a man's figure with briefcase and 40's type felt hat crosswalk signal sign found in Lyon in the late 80s).


Studio360 examines emergence with Steven Johnson (having Real Player will help with your enjoyment of the show). Steven Johnson is the author of EMERGENCE: The Connected Lives Of Ants, Brains, Cities, And Software, which has me quite intrigued (and Amazon seems to think the same for me as it is my top recommended book).

Previous Month

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.