I have always admired the work of great architects. The challenges they face when designing a new structure seem overwhelming at first glance. The architect must design a building that is sound from an engineering standpoint, functional for its occupants, integrated into the physical site (whether natural or within an urban area), cost-effective, able to be built in a reasonable amount of time, and properly laid out for internal and external utilities (such as HVAC, electrical, plumbing, elevators, fire escapes, fire suppression, energy efficient design, etc.). On top of all of this, the architect must also design something that is visually appealing and unique, while also fitting in with the aesthetics of the surrounding environs. Few owners who commission a new building want to receive a cookie-cutter design that looks just like other buildings around the world, especially when one is spending a large deal of money on a new corporate headquarters or retail space. Studying in detail the specific innovation techniques of architects through the centuries would be an enormously tall order, so rather than attempting a complete survey I have gathered a series of interesting recent developments in architecture that can serve as lessons for the modern innovation practitioner. By examining how architects solve the challenges of their very demanding profession, the innovator can glean ideas about how to solve problems in his or her daily work.
Turn Obstacles into Advantages
In 2014 in the town of Frattocchie, Italy, workers were excavating the foundations for a new McDonald’s restaurant. As is often the case when digging in Italy, construction teams in this small town south of Rome uncovered an important archaeological find. Sometimes the discovery of an archaeological site results in frustration for a property owner because of delays in the completion of their project due to the need to call in government officials and archaeologists to examine the site. In this case, however, the owner embraced the finding. As it turned out, the new restaurant was located on top of a 150-foot-long and 7-foot-wide stretch of ancient Roman Road that was thousands of years old. This stretch of road was remarkably well-preserved and even included the skeletons of three men. McDonald’s called in archaeologists and contributed 300,000 Euros to the effort to further uncover and analyze this section of road.
According to Alfonsina Russo, superintendent of Archaeology for Rome, this area was likely a side road that connected a wealthy person’s villa or imperial estate to the Appian Way, and was built in the 2nd century BC and fell into disuse in the 3rd century AD. This meant that this section of road had been hidden underground for over 1,700 years before its discovery in 2014. The innovation story here appeared in what McDonald’s decided to do with the site after it was fully documented by the archaeological teams. The architect decided to incorporate the preservation and viewing of the road into the structure of the restaurant itself. Visitors can park in the McDonald’s parking lot and walk through the site, and the company built a plexiglass floor above the road so that customers either inside or in front of the restaurant can look down and see the ancient road any time they want. Customers can also walk along the road itself underneath the restaurant. According to Mario Federico, head of McDonald’s Italia, the result was the creation of a “museum restaurant” in which the company was able “to return a stretch of Roman road to the local community and to the whole of Italy.” The lesson here for the innovator is to take what could be an obstacle and convert it into a feature to improve the overall solution. McDonald’s could have been impatient with the analysis of the archaeological site (since it certainly delayed their opening and thus cost them revenue) and could have insisted that the archaeologists remove the stones of the road to another location or, worse, cover it up completely once they completed their analysis of the site. After all, we hear a lot of stories about how archaeologists must race against the clock to complete their work on a site that, for instance, would be flooded by a new dam. The profit incentive would certainly have encouraged McDonald’s to get their restaurant up and running as quickly as possible. Yet in this case the architect (and others) clearly decided to embrace the obstacle and incorporate it into their overall design, resulting in one of the most unique restaurants in the world, preserving a cultural treasure that was irreplaceable and definitely priceless.
Take the Long View
Visitors to the great cities of the world often go to great lengths to find stunning views of the cityscape. The sensation of cresting a hill and seeing an entire city unfold before one’s eyes can be an amazing experience, and both city planners and architects work to make sure that future generations can continue to enjoy these scenes of urban beauty. In some cases, though, both the planners and the architects can run into problems if they take too narrow a view of their work. The recent case of the Manhattan Loft Gardens building in London provides a regretfully unfortunate example of just such a failure. For the past 300 years, people clambering up King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park, London, could gaze through a gap in some nearby trees and enjoy an uncluttered view of the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral, which was 10 miles away but nonetheless dominated the city’s skyline. The mound gets its name from the story that King Henry VIII stood on that location on May 19, 1536 to witness a rocket fired from the Tower of London that signaled that his wife, Anne Boleyn, had been executed. However, the view that princes and paupers alike have enjoyed for three centuries is now marred by the appearance of the 42-story Manhattan Loft Gardens building rising in the background behind the dome, a mere four miles on the other side of the church. City planners are supposed to take into account such sightlines, and any architect worthy of installing his or her creation in the world’s great cities should likewise have considered such an interference when planning a building. Other buildings in the area, such as the Leadenhall Building, were designed to lean away from St. Paul’s so as not to mar the sightlines.
The Manhattan Loft Gardens building, as the developer of the project put it, was at “so great” a distance that visual impacts on King Henry’s Mound were not even considered. City planners acknowledge that the new building should not have been permitted and have pledged to add three-dimensional modeling and other considerations to their planning process. Current rules call for the planning commission to consider a three-mile radius around St. Paul’s in terms of protecting the sightlines. According to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, “no one ever anticipated a building so far away from Richmond, more than 7 kilometers [4 miles] behind the dome of St. Paul’s, might be visible in this way.” For the innovation practitioner, the lesson here is that we often focus on a tight circle around our target area, but in doing so we run the risk of missing insights that might appear if we broaden our viewpoint. An innovator should step back from a project now and then and seek different perspectives on the topic at hand, including perspectives that he or she may not have considered even being relevant to the topic. In particular, ideas that one rejected early on in the process may be worth revisited at a later date to see if changes in the project warrant a reconsideration. Moreover, the innovator should force himself or herself to think about completely different perspectives and angles to approaching a project. This exercise may help avoid pitfalls in the work effort and may also yield new insights.
Use Design to Enhance a Common Product
Around the world, orchestras that play classical music are suffering declines in audience attendance as the aficionados of their product grow older and are not being replenished by younger patrons who are more interested in social media and smartphones than Mozart. In such a climate, one might wonder why a city would build a $179 million concert venue in the suburbs of Paris. The new site, known as Seine Musicale, is built on an island in the Seine River that once housed a Renault automobile factory. The architects, Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, created a stunning “futuristic dome whose glass panels are partly wrapped by a wave of solar panels that will follow the motion of the sun.” Their design recalls the superstructure of a cargo ship (an homage to their location on the Seine) as well as a factory (an homage to the Renault plant they replaced). The auditorium at the site is shaped to resemble a musical instrument, thus mirroring its overall purpose. Concerned about the financial viability of the project, the architects also included a separate concert space on the island that is large enough to host more lucrative pop concerts.
This new concert hall contains several lessons for the innovation practitioner. First, in terms of the site itself, the innovator should always be thinking about how to re-use an existing concept to transform it for a new purpose. Rather than always seeking out flat, open terrain, sometimes it is useful to go into an area that has already received a lot of development work and build on top of that structure. It would have been easier to build a new concert venue in an open field, but the use of the island with the former car plant makes for a stunning and innovative new building. Second, in addition to building on top of previous foundations, the innovator should take steps in his or her thinking to pay homage to the previous purposes of an area. Rather than coming up with a design out of the blue, the architects of Seine Musicale decided to design their new venue based on the characteristics of a cargo ship (river theme) and a factory (the Renault plant). In this case, what ended up being truly innovative in terms of their design resulted from a deep understanding of the history of the site. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones right in front of the innovator, and history can be a guide to point to these ideas. Finally, an innovator should always consider dual uses for his or her new projects, as was the case with Seine Musicale installing a venue for pop music the island. While the primary purpose of the new building is to provide a location for classical music concerts, the ability to host pop music concerts may prove equally important for its financial survival in the long run. As such, an innovator should always think about different purposes for a new idea, even if those purposes seemingly run counter to one’s original project.
Rejuvenate the Old
Theaster Gates from Chicago’s South Side is currently one of the world’s most sought-after artists, with exhibitions in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Washington, DC. In 2009, Gates started the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago to work with the city to “transform more than 30 vacant local buildings into aesthetic and affordable living and cultural spaces.” Gates hires and trains local workers to transform his buildings, both fulfilling the immediate needs like demolition and masonry while imparting to these local citizens key new skills for the construction trade. Perhaps his most famous work is the Stony Island Arts Bank, which opened to the public in 2015 and has received rave reviews for its originality and community-building ethos. The Stony Island Arts Bank originally was a vibrant community savings and loan bank built in the neoclassical style in 1923 by the architect William Gibbons Uffendell. The bank closed in the 1980s and remained vacant and deteriorating for decades and was slated to be demolished. Gates persuaded Mayor Rahm Emanuel to sell him the bank for $1 with the requirement that Gates renovate the structure and turn it into a site that benefits the community.
After a process of fundraising from donors and investment of his own money, Gates was able to save the bank and open it up as a home for several important collections that otherwise might not be prominently displayed, such as a “50,000-volume library on black culture collected by John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.” The books are impressively displayed in vast bookshelves that go from the floor to the ceiling of a grand atrium in the structure. The Stony Island Arts Bank also houses 60,000 slides of art and architectural history from the University of Chicago, 4,000 mass cultural objects and artifacts that feature stereotypical images of people of color from the Edward J. Williams Collection, as well as vinyl records from Frankie Knuckles, known as the “Godfather of House Music.” Gates left intact some of the key features of the original bank, such as the vault, to use as stunning display spaces. The bank also hosts exhibitions by up-and-coming contemporary artists, such as Glenn Ligon’s neon work. Ligon noted that Gates “made it clear that art can operate in a variety of different spaces on the same level […and i]n a bank that was abandoned for years, Theaster’s project is about saying there’s value in these things.” Over 60,000 people visited the bank in 2015, and it continues to thrive as a community arts center. The lesson here for the innovator is how one can create something truly stunning and innovative even on the most common and uninteresting foundation. The savings and loan bank that had been abandoned for 30 years was in such a state of decay and deterioration that the city prepared it for demolition. It took the vision of an innovator like Theaster Gates to see the potential for this space but he did something more than the typical approach of converting an old structure into apartments or retail. Gates found a way to make the space serve the community as a whole and give voice to artists and collectors whose ideas might not otherwise have seen the light of day.
Consider the Exact Opposite Solution
In a recent interview on the TED Radio Hour with National Public Radio, Amanda Burden, former planning commissioner for New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, relays the story of how Bryant Park became one of the most important public spaces in the city. In the 1980s, she observes, Bryant Park was a dangerous location. The park was designed originally with high hedges so that people walking by the park could not see into the area and, likewise, people inside the park could not see out to the street, in an attempt to provide a refuge from the noise and chaos of the city. As an unfortunate result, the park became infested with drug dealers and other criminal behavior to the point where people would avoid it altogether, even at the expense of the New York Public Library which sits at one end of the park. The park was a scary place, and New Yorkers were not getting benefits from this centrally-located public space.
Burden notes that the great urbanist William H. “Holly” Whyte was tasked to come up with a solution for the park and proposed something quite radical. At first glance, one would intuit that a city park should have lots of foliage and privacy to allow city dwellers to escape the concrete, steel, and asphalt environment that surrounds them. In fact, when one thinks of an ideal urban park, one would typically think of how to add greenery to a concrete area. Unfortunately, it was this foliage that was one of the root problems of the crime, so Whyte decided to open up the space and clear out the greenery so people inside could see out and people outside could see into the park. Whyte also decided not to use benches and tables that were anchored permanently to the ground. Again, common sense suggests that anything in a public space would need to be firmly attached to the ground to prevent theft. Instead, Whyte suggested loose chairs and tables that would allow park goers to arrange the space to fit their needs. Burden comments that she used to love going to the park and watching how people would always move the chairs an inch or two to personalize the space before sitting down, satisfied that they had put their own personal touch on the park. As a result of these and other changes, Bryant Park has become one of the most desirable addresses in the city, and the park is the host to concerts, films, a skating rink, and other events throughout the year.
The lesson here for the innovator is that the best solution can sometimes be the polar opposite of what one thinks should be the solution for a problem. After all, one would think that adding greenery to a city park would make it better, though in the case of Bryant Park in New York, the opposite was true. Amanda Burden’s experiences also offer the innovator another model for behavior. As she notes in her TED Talk, Amanda’s approach to being a planning commissioner shows the importance of being on the ground and developing an understanding of the problems one is trying to solve. In order to understand the communities in which she was working, and around whom she would make decisions of great impact, Burden’s strategy was to start walking, and she states that she couldn’t “tell you how many blocks I walked, in sweltering summers, in freezing winters, year after year, just so I could get to understand the DNA of each neighborhood and know what each street felt like.”
Let the Micro Drive the Macro
Nearly everyone who has worked in an office building has at one point or another complained about the temperature of a room or workspace. We all have memories of a conference room that we avoided because it was always too hot (or too cold), or of a co-worker who kept a sweater and gloves (or a fan) at a cubicle because of temperature challenges. In the past, building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) experts would focus on trying to make the overall HVAC plant more efficient to try to regulate temperature better across a large space, but that approach didn’t take into account all of the variables at play in a modern office environment, such as windows, workstations, and individual human beings who have different sensitivity to temperature variations. Some new approaches to building HVAC are taking this into account with potentially promising results.
The first is the “thermal bubble.” At the headquarters for the Agnelli Foundation in Turin, Italy, employees set their preferences via smartphone and thousands of sensors throughout the building set the temperature to match the preferences of each employee as they move through the building, creating thermal bubbles that sync with the employee rather than trying to set one temperature for an entire area. If two employees have different preferences in the same space, the system will average them out. When a person leaves a space, the system detects it and reduces energy usage. According to Carlo Ratti, the architect who designed the system, the “aim is to shift the focus from heating or cooling spaces, to heating or cooling people and the space they are occupying.” A second micro-level approach to cooling is offered by the company Comfy which offers a smartphone application that allows workers to order a 10-minute blast of hot or cold air precisely to their workspace. Rather than initiating thermostat wars in the office or over-heating or over-cooling an entire area, the Comfy system targets the hot or cold air exactly where it is needed. A final approach to workspace heating and cooling comes from the architecture firm NBBJ. This system, known as Goldilocks, uses sensors that create heat maps of the office workspace that employees can track on their phones, allowing each employee to move to other parts of the building based on their temperature, light, and sound preferences. The data captured from the system can also be used to create future innovative solutions to solve the office thermostat challenge. The innovation lesson here is when looking at a problem, sometimes the solution is to re-examine the macro-level problem as a micro-level problem, and to dedicate resources to solving the problem at the micro level, which in turn solves the macro problem.
Shatter Fundamental Assumptions
One of the most stunning new architectural works to open in 2017 is the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, built by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. The building itself is a beautiful glass structure built on top of an old cocoa warehouse on a promontory over the Elbe River. According to one observer, the “building is already a landmark, visible from far down the river […and w]ith its curved windows and white-tiled crested roof […it evokes] a ship in full sail.” The contrast between the modernist concert hall on top and the historic brick cocoa warehouse on the bottom is particularly appealing. Part of a $12 billion new waterfront development in Hamburg, the Elbphilharmonie is already a surprising success with numerous sold out concerts.
The concert hall’s amazing exterior is only a prelude to the innovation that one experiences inside the building. When one thinks of a traditional concert hall, the layout is typically a stage at one end and a series of seats on multiple tiers in front of the stage. In the Elbphilharmonie, this concept is turned on its head as the seats completely surround the stage so that spectators are beside and behind the orchestra, rather than simply being in front of them. This opens up the spectators to new and exciting views of the performance, and the layout of the tiers and seats ensures that no audience member is further than 100 feet from the conductor. One concern about this layout might be the acoustics, given the directional nature of some of the instruments in an orchestra such as woodwinds and horns. However, the acoustics expert Yasushisa Toyota took steps to both protect the audience from exterior noises (fog horns, ships, cars) while also ensuring the proper flow of sound inside the building. Indeed, in the first public performance by the symphony in the new space, the conductor placed different members of the orchestra and singers in various locations throughout the concert hall to demonstrate the amazing acoustics.
From an innovation standpoint, this is a great example of how one can deliver innovations by challenging fundamental assumptions. Thousands of concert halls around the world adhered to the basic design of a stage in front and the audience in back. Audiences have become accustomed to a view of the back of the conductor’s head and the difficulty of seeing in detail the members of the orchestra at the back of the stage, such as the percussion section. The Elbphilharmonie turns this notion on its head in a beautiful and effective interior design that puts the audience on multiple tiers surrounding the stage. The concert experience in this new venue will be something that few concertgoers will ever forget, which should help increase its popularity and longevity. All it took for the innovation was to challenge that basic assumption.
Interestingly, the Elbphilharmonie is also the site of another example of innovation that challenges fundamental assumptions. In addition to the concert hall, the building also includes 41 residences and three penthouses. One penthouse in particular was not completed prior to the opening of the concert hall, and the operators of the hall banned construction at the site out of fear of noise and dust invading their performance space. The solution for the completion of the interior of the penthouse was devised by interior architects Schotten & Hansen. The architects used laser scans of the interior and robotics to prefabricate a custom interior that was cut into over 1,000 individual modules that were precise to the millimeter level. Each module was small enough to fit into the building’s elevators and could be assembled quietly in the penthouse even during a concert. One the pieces are placed together in the penthouse, the architects will plaster over them to provide a smooth finish for the structure. The innovation lesson here is that one doesn’t always have to build things in the right order to be able to complete a project. By breaking the work into smaller and smaller pieces, one can get to the finish line in a new and innovative way.
Art Patnaude, “Altered View in London Sparks Outcry,” The Wall Street Journal (January 25, 2017), B10.
Inti Landauro, “A Concert Hall Rises on the Seine,” The Wall Street Journal (January 14, 2017), C14.
Hilarie M. Sheets, “Reborn as Art,” The New York Times (March 16, 2017), F6.
Rachel Emma Silverman, “At Last, a Possible Solution to Office Thermostat Wars,” The Wall Street Journal (March 13, 2017).
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, “Finally, a Debut for Hamburg’s Hall,” The New York Times (January 11, 2017), pp. C1, C7.
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, “The Time Comes for a German Space,” The New York Times (January 14, 2017), p. C6.
Friedrich Geiger, “Building a Concert-Hall Penthouse, Quietly,” The Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2017), p. M3.
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden
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