In Conversation with Juan Porral and Gregory Haley

We sat down with Juan Porral, Partner, and Gregory Haley, Associate Principal  and Senior Urban Designer, from Grimshaw to discuss what Design for the People means to them and how this theme has manifested in their projects. In addition to addressing the project brief, the guiding question has been to them, how to create a space and a sense of place? It’s about “connection and delight.” We touch upon several well-known Grimshaw projects, some based here in New York City, including the Queens Museum, the JFK Master Plan, Fulton Center, and MTA Flood Mitigation.

Juan Porral

Juan joined Grimshaw in 1996 in London, helped open the New York office in 2001 and became a Partner in 2012. Juan is passionate about humane design that is both practical and lifts the spirit of its users and the wider community. He believes that such architecture is a result of the purposeful collaboration of architects, engineers, specialists and clients. He has experience across a wide range of building sectors and has demonstrated leadership in realizing creative solutions that exceed client expectations.

Gregory Haley

Gregory has been with Grimshaw for more than 12 years, working on a range of project types in North America and the Middle East, including transit planning, mixed-use urban development and cultural mapping. He is an accomplished designer, project manager and dedicated urbanist. Gregory is co-chair of the urban design committees of both AIA and APA NY chapters, a board president of the Harvard Architectural and Urban Society, a Fellow of the Urban Design Forum and a Design Resource Professional for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Thanks so much for taking some time out to talk to us about the Future of Design Symposium theme Design for the People.

Juan Porral, Partner: Thank you for inviting us.

Kat: So, one of our first questions that we ask all of our interviewees is: what does the theme design for the people mean to you?

Juan: It’s about designing from first principles. So, you think about who are the users of the project and what do they want? Then, the question is can we deliver that and more? Can we deliver a project that works for the client that hired us, but also for the users and the wider community? Rather than only look at what we’ve done before, we’re really going back to first principles and finding opportunities to answer those questions differently, adding value by creating more exciting and unexpected experiences that maybe wouldn’t come to mind if you just jump straight in.

Gregory: I think for me, I would come at it with an urban design perspective. For me, what that brings to mind immediately is public interaction. It’s about convening, design that creates opportunities for people to interact. I think that’s what cities are about, but it has to have some flexibility and choice. You can’t force that — you just have to provide those opportunities and allow people to tune their environment, to interact when they want to and in different ways and at different scales. It needs to be accessible, flexible, and comfortable.

Kat: Both of you touched upon this idea of understanding who the end user is, while still also providing the flexibility for them to really take ownership of the experience with the design. In your opinion, how can we as engineers, designers or even built environment enthusiasts get the greater public engaged and talking about the built environment to really start honing down what we as users as well as designers really want from a space?

Juan: We have a bunch of projects where we’ve tried different ways of doing that to increase engagement. And, there are great stories of symbiotic benefit to the client and to the wider public. For example, the Queen’s Museum. The museum often felt that people were there in the park all around the museum, but they didn’t know the museum was open and maybe they weren’t the kind of people that might go to an art museum that frequently, if at all. The museum wanted to be clearly visible, as a bright and attractive space from the outside through their historic colonnade. But they decided that they would open up the museum more than just visually. You’re encouraged to step in and use the restroom facilities. And, lo and behold, you can also see some of the arts and you might decide to linger or have a coffee in the coffee shop. Making the building more accessible and attractive and multi-functional to different audiences might get them interested in the thing that you’re kind of trying to promote, which is art and local artists. So yeah, we’re thinking about engagement at a civic scale and a multifaceted scale.

Queens Museum
Queens Museum, Location: Queens NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Gregory: I think it also plays into our process, right? With a lot of our public projects, particularly our master planning projects, there’s always a public process to them. An example of engagement, getting people excited, and building consensus early on in projects would be our work at  Union Station in LA. We reached out and worked with an artist to create these day-in-a-life scenarios of different people that would use the station in different ways as a means of engaging with people to understand what the proposals might mean, and to encourage people to develop a sense of ownership through understanding it early on and so that it becomes in a way their project.

I think beyond our design work, there’s also a  lot of public advocacy that can play into this. For Parking Day, we took over a parking spot nearby in our neighborhood here. We set up a map of the neighborhood and invited people to come by, pick a different color string, depending on whether they were a neighborhood resident,a  tourist, from another borough, and whether they were working or at leisure. And, then they would map out their routine through the neighborhood and this got people on the sidewalk talking about their neighborhood, where they go, and how it relates to other people’s paths. It gets people thinking about their neighborhood in a different way. Likewise a group I’m involved with at the AIA, on Earth Day closed a block of Broadway and reconfigured it to get people to really rethink the relationship between the street and public realm. There was a decision made to make our streets the way they are and they could be different. I think challenging people’s perspectives in this way is an important means of engagement. Lastly, I think we need to engage more with education. In Chicago, after the creation of the Chicago Plan of 1909, they had the Wacker Manual, which was a condensed version of the Plan that every public school student in Chicago had. You know, I think that speaks volumes about the importance of encouraging civic pride in where one lives. I think we need to do more of that.

Kat: Both of you have thought of the idea: you get people engaged by engaging your design with them.

To go back to the Queens Museum since it was part of the intent to open up the museum and encourage more people to take the initiative and circulate themselves into the museum, has the museum themselves seen a difference affecting of visitorship?

Juan: The museum more than doubled the facilities, and they now have one of the largest galleries in New York. They’re also a neighborhood and community centered museum, and they very much cater to the local schools. And a lot of school kids come in and do workshops there. They like to highlight local artists, hyper local to the neighborhood. But, the new space, in bringing light into the center of the museum, which is unusual and then filtering the light with our glass chandelier, has created this beautiful event space for them. As an institution, having the space to rent out for banquets, events, weddings, has really transformed the museum’s finances and the attractiveness of the museum to the community.

Kat: That’s great to hear. I personally have not had the chance to go but I heard how the space has changed. So, I’m glad to hear that you guys on the design team were able to also get that positive feedback. How’s that affected your work process? For the JFK Masterplan in any way?

Juan: Well, at JFK, it’s not a dissimilar thing in the sense that you have a very old facility. And, how do you work with legacy structure, which include the reactive changes completed through its history as the need arose. But, maybe there was no big master plan or an idea for the future. And with JFK, the Port Authority and the Governor’s Office wanted to really take a step back and think about how they’re going to need to cater from the current number of 60 million passengers. It’s going to be 100 million by 2050, and I think it will keep on growing. So, how do you think about that in a much longer term and plan for it in a way that all the interventions you need to do now to grow capacity year on year are building towards a bigger vision?

JFK Airport
JFK Master Plan, Location: Queens NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Juan: So, it’s about taking the best of what’s there, such as the TWA that’s opening as a hotel this month. It’s looking at the existing assets and looking how they can be made better for the passengers and which ones are now obsolete. The obsolete are going to be replaced with brand new facilities. And, how do you tie in the brand new to the existing, to the historic in a way that’s holistic and is going to dramatically change the passenger experience at JFK? So, when you arrive there, you think, “Ah, I’m in New York, I’m in the US, this is a world city, the airport, it fits that condition.” Rather than the current situation, which is not quite like that!

Kat: Yes, I’m glad that improvements are underway indeed. Haha.

To go back to Gregory’s point about civic engagement — one topic that we talked about for a moment beforehand was with regards to this Flood Mitigation Project. I had seen these bike racks and benches that had popped up around the city above the subway grades, but I never made the connection between the raised edge of the grill on the sidewalk was helping mitigate the flood by preventing rainwater from going into the subway. Could you touch a little bit upon what successes and what challenges you guys faced when developing the scheme?

NYC Street Furniture 3
Flood Mitigation, Location: Various Locations in NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Juan: I mean I think it’s brilliant that you didn’t know what it was doing in terms of flood mitigation. That’s when you know it’s been successful. The idea was, oh we have to lift up the grates, you know, six inches or nine inches above the sidewalks, and now they are just a trip hazard. Right? So how do you sign something that will do that and be seen as urban furniture that’s successfully integrated into the streetscape? Adding the bike rack functionality and then the seating functionality, something that you might’ve ordered just as a bike rack and a seat rather than a flood mitigation piece. So, the fact that you didn’t notice it is good news!

Gregory: I think it’s also simply an attitude towards infrastructure, that infrastructural needs are satisfied in as way that is scaled and tuned to the human being and everyday life. I think it shows a certain level of respect for the general public.

Juan: Definitely, that it’s an opportunity — in a funny way, that project encapsulates much of the Grimshaw ethos because you take an infrastructure problem and you turned it into an opportunity where the infrastructure instead of being this ugly thing in the city is completely transformed into a humanistic piece that is about everyday life.

Gregory: Yeah.

Juan: And I think whether you look at that or the street furniture around New York, the bus stops, the 3000 bus stops and the kiosks, that whole part of the integrated furniture we designed or you look at Fulton Center, right? And you go from what used to be, you know, these dowdy shops with small entrances down to the subway as a sort of rabbit warren of a maze and of confusing passageways to now having the same amount of retail in the facility. But you have clear wayfinding, you have this amazing piece of art, using daylight and sunlight before you go through the turnstile. You can understand where the subway is when you’re on the street level on Broadway. Inside you’re seeing Broadway above and the subway below in a way that was never possible before!

Gregory: Absolutely, I mean you can meet someone at Fulton Center now. You would never meet anyone at Broadway Nassau! So I think it is civic at its heart  — in a way that locates it in one’s mental map of the city, which is I think one of the great successes of that project.

Fulton Center
Fulton Center, Location: Manhattan, NY, Architect: Grimshaw Architects

Kat: Yeah. I think it’s a really good example, and I’m really glad we came to that project because one thing is for certain: it’s an example of good design in its anticipation and study of the folks who move through the space, and addressing those needs by providing that space and sense of place. And I think that’s a really good project to end on because it touches upon all of the items that we’ve talked about to date in the scope of the symposium. Personally, I’m grateful for it. I go through it everyday. Haha.

Juan: Well, we both worked on it for many years.

Gregory: Yep.

Kat: That’s awesome. Well, I see that our time is winding down. To end, what word or phase come to your mind when you hear the phase “design for the people”?

Juan: What comes to mind is what are people doing? What do they want to do and what do they want to do at this place in this building? What can I provide that can uplift the soul? So one of the words I love is delight. You always get as engineers and as architects to solve the problem within the budget and all that — can we do all those things and give delight? So, designing for the people, ideally would mean somebody seeing or using the design would get delight, in my mind.

Gregory: Yeah. I think I would agree. It’s that sense of the everyday — improving everyday life. I think that means thinking about design and architecture and objects, and generally the way we form our environment as something that connects us with our surroundings, whether it’s Fulton and the connection through daylight to a sense of nature around us, or in how it connects us with other people. So, it’s designing the table that sits between and connects us with other people.

Juan: Connection and delight. Yeah.

Kat: Connection and delight. I like that a lot a lot. Great. Well, thanks so much again for taking your time!

Juan: Thanks! I look forward to your article.

Gregory: Thank you!



In Conversation with Anna Wendt

“Design for the people means looking at design in a multi-disciplinary fashion and not being afraid to look constructively to existing and past designs in order to quantify experience to design better buildings for tomorrow.”

Our next guest is Anna Wendt, who is currently a Director at BuroHappold Engineering responsible for leading both facade specific and multi-disciplinary projects. Anna has a particular interest in the broader application of an integrated engineering approach to building design addressing the complex demands of the built environment. Our discussion below touches upon how multiple engineering disciplines, including specialists such as façade engineering, lighting, and inclusive design, can come together for a common goal to design for the people, namely for well-being.

Anna Wendt.jpgFor more information about Anna and her work, please refer to the following link:

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Anna, first off, thank you for taking the time to discuss some questions about this year’s Future of Design Symposium theme.

Anna Wendt: Happy to discuss, and thanks for thinking of me!

Kat: Without further ado, first off, what does the theme Design for the People mean to you?

Anna: Design for the People to me means people-centric design, essentially designing buildings with the end user in mind. As a façade engineer, I’ve found myself in a multi-specialist role. It’s about identifying links between what we do to bring the most value to a project. Specialist disciplines like façade engineering, lighting, acoustics, and sustainability can sometimes be regarded as first world disciplines. They aren’t disciplines that you’d associate with a growing economy or a country that is dealing with a disparity for resources. However, studies have shown that lighting, daylighting, and the environment in the building itself can have a profound effect on people’s physical health, mental health and thereby their experience in the building. It’s about making the space better to live in, about engineering the experience.

Kat: What do you think has changed recently that allows us as engineers to engage in affecting the user experience?

Anna: I think we as engineers have talked about integrated and multidisciplinary design for a long time, and now finally, after all these years we’re finally doing it. We’re doing it because clients are driving to have more adaptive and higher quality design, which can manifest from a mental and physical perspective. Coming from facades, which is innately multidisciplinary, this sort of approach is easier to grasp since façade engineering already looks at all these difference disciplines. For example, it is quite usual for facades to investigate integrating lighting or accommodating acoustical requirements. So, the next step of identifying opportunities for adding quality in the design is quite tangible. It’s about expressing the value added from both a design perspective and an owner’s perspective. This can also be about looking forward to integrate sustainability and adaptability.

Kat: Speaking of adaptability, one of the main themes we’re tackling this year at the symposium is adaptability and resilience, could you touch upon that?

Anna: Sure – we talk about designing a building for say a 50 year lifetime, but really big projects need at least 3-7 years to be built in the first place. This requires a shift in mindset and approach with sustainability targets and how building will be used in say 20-30 years time. We need to think now about how buildings will operate in the future. We need to build flexibility into the design to allow re-purposing, upgrading and so on. It should be easily adaptable from the start so that in 50 years the building can be redefined and reused in a new capacity rather than becoming obsolete.

For renovations and re-purposing, and designing for that second lifetime, we have to ask what will the building become after its first 50 years?

Kat: How do you think we as engineers and designers can encourage this process?

Anna: It’s about looking at the brief and really seeing what opportunities there are. Engineers historically have answered project briefs with solutions by making something work quickly, but we can now challenge the brief. Rather than take the word of the developer, we can suggest where value and cost can be realigned. There is a time and place for it; and it’s about identifying that.

Kat: Has there been a specific project that speaks to this approach of seizing the opportunity to challenge the brief and integrating those suggestions successfully?

Anna: Yes, we’re currently working on The East Bank Stratford. The client is the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). On this waterfront development project, there will be a new branch of the Victoria and Albert, co-curated by the Smithsonian, a  dance theater by Sadlers Wells, recording Concert Hall for the BBC, and the London College of Fashion, which is part of University College London. The development is in east London, which has been undergoing quite a bit of development and growth after the Olympics.

Our inclusive design team have been heavily involved in defining the brief. The team focuses on making buildings and their use accessible to a variety of people of different abilities and backgrounds. This includes, for example, making way finding accessible for those with learning disabilities, limited sightedness, and linguistic proficiency.

For this project, the inclusive design team put together a design brief for the client that effectively acted as a manual defining minimum standards to be met. They really challenged the guidelines and codes to build solutions that think about how people now and in the future will use the buildings – making them inclusive and usable for all.

East Bank Stratford

(The image is Copyright of the architects Allies and Morrison / O’Donnell + Tuomey.)

Kat: In your opinion, how can we as engineers/designers/built environment enthusiasts get the greater public engaged and talking about the built environment?

Anna: As engineers, it’s about finding a way into the conversation. It’s about finding a way to speak to the client. It’s good PR and marketing for them to have an iconic, smart building design that embeds sustainability. But, beyond that, there are key areas that we can highlight for people outside the architectural and engineering industry. The people that use the building care about how the feel when they are in it – are they comfortable, do they get a wow factor. When you talk about carbon content, it isn’t as tangible as way finding or daylight or fresh air. People understand the tangible and by making them feel part of the story of a building design, showing them it is accessible to them, you’ve engaged them into the conversation.

Kat: For sure, bringing our engineering goals down to earth and making them accessible helps us come to the table. One thing that’s come up in conversations, especially with owners, is the question of effectivity of tweaking the design for improvement. They ask: Really? Does that really help? What do you think is the greatest hurdle we face regarding our design went according to plan?

Anna: We don’t do as well reviewing the success of our building. Post occupancy evaluations are often met with some reluctance from clients. It can be quite controversial to go back and look at those past decisions that were often ultimately driven back to cost and back to budget.

Kat: Sort of like passing judgement on those past decisions?

Anna: Yes, exactly – and, we don’t get all we aspire to. But, it’s about lessons to be learned from the past. As engineers, there is value to looking at those findings in a non-criticizing way. Well-being is on its way to becoming its own specialty – its about thinking how all experience the building. And, to quantify experience, whether than be physical health, mental health, productivity, etc.), we can only do that through data.

Kat: Data from existing and current buildings?

Anna: Yes, we’re moving toward using more technology and globalization to see how effective past designs have been and are in the current day. Back to the question about engagement, legislative change will be positively affected by this data-backed feedback.

Kat: Absolutely, industry engagement is very effective with legislation when there is data and a wealth of studies.

Anna: Exactly, and it’s important that we look at the data and the design collectively. Whilst engineers are becoming increasingly more specialized we need to ensure we don’t take a silo’d approach when determining legislation. Good design, safe design, high performance requires input from around the table.

Design for the people means looking at design in a multi-disciplinary fashion and not being afraid to look constructively to existing and past designs in order to quantify experience to design better buildings for tomorrow.

Kat: Awesome. Let’s end on that note that sums up the full picture. Thanks for taking the time today to discuss Anna!

Anna: Thank you!


In Conversation with Jan Brütting

“We might not be able to change the fact that buildings need to be taken down in certain frequency. But we should at least design them for a way to recover components without wasting energy, material, and resources.”

Our second guest is Jan Brütting, PhD. Candidate in the Structural Xploration Lab at EPFL – École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). Jan’s research focuses on reuse of structural components for multiple service lifes with minimal environmental impact, beyond that of the more labor and energy-intensive traditional recycling processes and explores new design methods for resource efficient structural design. Our discussion below talks about the challenges in designing for different service lives and functionality as well as design for disassembly.  

Brütting_portrait_squareYou can check out more about the Structural Xploration Lab and Jan’s research via the links below:

Structural Xploration Lab:

Design of Truss Structures through Reuse:

The reuse of load-bearing components:

Jan Brütting, PhD Linkedin for reference: 

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Jan, thank you so much for joining me today to talk about the future of design conference symposium theme this year of design for the people.

Jan Brütting, PhD: Hi Kat, thanks for having me here for this interview and for your very interesting conference. I think it features a very nice topic. I’m glad to be part of it.

Kat: Great. Thanks. In a couple of sentences, could you talk about what you do?

Jan: I’m a trained civil engineer with focus on structural engineering. I studied my bachelor in Germany in Nuremberg and did an internship in a structural engineering firm in Stuttgart. Right afterwards I started my master’s at the University of Stuttgart in Integrative Technologies and Architectural Design Research. In short, that’s called the ITECH program, which is for engineers and architects in particular. And which is focused on research, between the fields of architecture and engineering. Then, I graduated with my masters in 2016 and since the end of 2016, I’m doing my PhD in Switzerland at EPFL  (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) in the Structural Xploration Lab that is headed by Corentin Fivet. It is quite a young lab, also founded in 2016, and part of the faculty of architecture, but also works interdisciplinary between architecture and structural engineering because most of our staff are also trained engineers. So I keep on being in between the two disciplines. The focus of my PhD research is the reuse of structural elements for multiple service lives and explores new design methods for resource efficient structural design.

Kat: Thank you for the summary of your background because it’s great to hear that you’ve got both professional and academic experience and that you find interest in the interface of structures and architecture. Regarding your research, from what I understand from your papers and what we had discussed, your focus is in the reuse of materials and the way to design in which basically extend longevity in the lifecycle of materials and structures. Could you talk to me a little bit about what the theme designed for the people means to you in that context?

Jan: First, I’d like to briefly clarify my research. Sometimes reuse of materials could imply, for example, the process of recycling. So when you want to reuse the material, you could melt it or crush it like it’s done for steel and concrete. But I’m actually focusing on the reuse of components and in particular structural components. This is where you try to avoid doing this [extra] step to reprocess the material again, but instead reuse a component or an element or a structural member in the state as it is. So you can avoid, the energy for melting the steel member or crushing the concrete, and instead just use it in its current shape, of course, given that it’s still in a good condition.

But coming back to your question about the theme design for the people, because it’s related to my research, it makes me think about designing for multiple service lives and for multiple lifespans. So designing not only for one structure in particular or for a building to last for one lifespan or for one owner, but instead to think of more than one lifes of a building or a structure… designing even for the next life cycle. How can we design something today that we could also reuse it in the future because the needs are changing, owners are changing, people are changing, so nothing lasts forever. We need to think of smart ways on how to design today for future life cycles.

Kat: You also hit a good point in that when we say design for the people, we also need an understanding about what they want to use the structure for. When a building is built, it has an intended purpose. An institution such as a hospital will be built by the client who will also imagine to be the owner and operator for the building for its useful life. However, for say a commercially developed building for an office, you wouldn’t be able to convert the commercial building to say like a hospital or a school because the loading requirements would be different. The safety requirements would be different. However, I think it’s interesting that if we were to be able to plan that or take that into account, it could also ask important questions about sustainability and also being able to just reuse the structure itself. What challenges do you think are the most important or the most pressing to consider in the idea of designing a structure that can be adapted for different uses?

Jan: As you said, there’s maybe an issue of reliability. You’d need to be able to design the structure in a way that you can adapt, reconfigure it, and then find a new owner for the system.

Kat: So, have the owner package their building: hey, this is what my building is designed for. If there’s another building owner and operator who could be interested in taking the same structure, basically the responsibility becomes a collaboration between the existing owner and the new owner.

Jan: Yes. And how can we make sure that the system still functions under the new load cases. We also look for other alternatives, how we can design structures today such that we can ensure that with very little adaptations, we can make the structure sound also for higher loads. Or take away those elements if lower loads are more appropriate. This way, we do not oversize the structure, but have modular and flexible designs where elements could be replaced, depending on the needs.

Kat: That’s a great idea. Because that in a way, if there are opportunities to develop a new nomenclature of buildings that basically centers on a base building with removable parts, and then these buildings can share these elements, including those for reinforcement.  The result: we’d have several different iterations of building configurations can be used.

Speaking about different components that come together, could you speak a bit about your project in using discarded ski’s to create a pavilion?

Jan: Sure, this pavilion structure, which is a grid shell made from about 200 skis was a rather academic and educational project, done together with other researchers from the lab as well as students. We wanted to build a small pavilion structure that was showcased at EPFL and at the Biennale in Lyon (France). The idea was to design a nice structure and shape from discarded material. And because being in Switzerland, there are just too many pairs of skis thrown away every year because they are kind of a fashion product. Every two or three years, people buy new skis because, there’s new models or new colors and then the old ones get thrown away. So there was this high availability of skis, which actually are a very nice building material for our case. They are highly engineered products perfectly suited for bending because they are very flexible, but strong.

This came together with the idea to build an actively bent grid shell structure, which means you build a flat grid, in this case of skis, and then you move the support points inwards to get a doubly curved shape. The skis permitted a lot of bending and very small curvature radii. From an educational and academic perspective, this pavilion provided an opportunity to make something from components that would be thrown away. Maybe this is not directly applicable to building structures, but from the conceptual side, it was interesting to show that with engineering creativity, you can come up with solutions that you might not directly expect.

Kat: I think that’s really quite elegant: there are surprising ways you can use engineering in creative way that you can repurpose a material with minimal energy to create a new space. It creates a place.

At a higher level, I think one of the greatest challenges in the topic we talked about earlier for designing one building for multiple lifetimes is the time-consuming code writing and legislative barrier for making that building nomenclature common place. So, last question to bring it back to that first topic, what do you think can help make this sort of design for multiple life cycles with minimal components a reality?

Jan: This research maybe is most applicable for shorter lifespans. Instead of designing for a single, very long, lifespan of a building, we could design for a string of shorter life spans, but make sure that our buildings and structures can be taken apart again very easily without destruction. So we can easily disassemble our structures and systems and recover the components again. They could be used somewhere else. We might not be able to change the fact that buildings need to be taken down in certain frequency. But we should at least design them for a way to recover components without wasting energy, material, and resources. The term for this is “design for disassembly” and already a big topic within circular building design.

Kat: That’s great to hear your thoughts on how by integrating the disassembly methodology into the design, we can extend the usefulness of buildings or components with minimal energy wastage. Thanks for your time today!

Jan: Thank you. Thank you for the call and for organizing all this. It’s great to be a part of the symposium.


In Conversation with Léopold Lambert

“So designing for the people for me comes with a question which is: which people?”

For this year’s Future of Design Symposium, we’re holding a series of conversations with individuals in anticipation of this year’s symposium and specifically in response to this year’s theme: Design for the People.

Our first guest we conversed with is trained architect, writer, and founding editor of The Funambulist magazine, Léopold Lambert.

Portrait high-res

To find out more about Léopold and his work regarding the political dimension of the built environment and its role in perpetrating and/or disrupting the status quo, be sure to check out the following links:

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Léopold, thank you for joining us today for a couple of questions about the Future of Design [Symposium theme]. Could you introduce yourself in a couple of sentences?

Léopold Lambert: Sure. So, my name is Léopold Lambert. I’m a trained architect. I’m an independent writer, mostly about the political dimension of the built environment in particular regarding colonialism, and [I’m the] founding editor of a magazine called The Funambulist that comes out every other month and that deals with the politics of space and bodies.

Kat: Great. It’s really exciting to have you here today because we as engineers would love to hear about your perspective and your reaction to this year’s Future of Design Symposium theme, which is: Design for the People. So what does the theme, when you first heard that phrase Design for the People mean, to you?

Léopold: Well the difficulty I have for it to evoke something precise for me comes from the fact that I try to register this within a political framework. This means that even before we can even start thinking about designing for the people, [which] in some sort of illusion of universality that all people are equal, we need to look at the political forces that are at work within societies or smaller groups of people and to see how power relations are activated among them. And, how design almost always reinforces those power dynamics.

So, I think I’m interested both in looking at how indeed design – and when I mean design, I mean it at every, every scale from objects and clothing, to architecture and cities and even territories – how design reinforce[s] those power dynamics. But also how sometimes we can practice design, against those power dynamics.

And that’s where something very interesting happens in my opinion. So designing for the people for me comes with a question which is: which people?

Kat: Léopold, that’s great to hear because you really [hit] the nail on the head by saying that; it’s true. Especially in New York and for the Future of Design symposium itself, we’ve always tried to have that duality of looking at New York specifically, but also around. And, so the people who live in cities, the different groups of people who live in cities, they all have different needs or requirements, abilities. And, the space that they use (even if it could be the same use, say a school in one location in one place) could be drastically different and has to be designed differently in order to address those groups of people.

In your research and in recent times, have you come across a group of folks or a project specifically that you think addresses a under-served population within a larger city or a larger group of people?

Léopold: Yes, and actually that will be the topic comes to the next issue of Funambulist magazine (May-June 2019). Specifically about architecture in that case, but I guess that is one dimension of design obviously. And, the idea behind what we are interested in is to look at projects that do not really think of themselves so much as benevolent projects in which like a group would be identified as being underserved to use a word you use, coming from somewhere else, trying to provide something of quality, for this certain group of people.

Instead, we’re trying to look at a project that comes from that group of people [that] they’re trying to serve politically to look specifically at architecture that does not shy away from their political dimension, that knows that somehow they represent a disruption in those power relations that are activated within society. And that will very much go against the sort of status quo for that matter.

I mean, it is very much in the continuation of what we’ve been doing: looking at how political activists are using space or using any design as a form of weapon for their political struggle.

Kat: So in terms of that power dynamic, that disruption of it, at least here in New York, unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you want to look at it: power and money have been directly linked for many decades — centuries — specifically in the lower triangle that is New York City in Manhattan. The spot where the financial institutions really took a stronghold, it’s the whole district called the Financial District…there’s been this interplay with technology, that the square footage required for offices and for operations for these financial institutions can now be much smaller. So, a lot of different industries have now moved into what was historically always a financial center.

Is this something that is at all related to what you’re talking about, about power relations and if not, could you talk a bit more about an example that does?

Léopold: Yeah, I think it definitely connects to this. I think the way, many people have been analyzing capitalism and in particular of financial speculation have had drastic consequences on the way people live on it on a daily life.

But, since you were talking about the Financial District in Manhattan, I think I would be remiss if I would not speak about also how this is the very spot that settler colonialism started in Manhattan. Wall Street used to be literally a wall, that was protecting the Dutch settlers. I think whenever we deal with parts of the worlds where Europeans have been settling in the most violent way, we always need to go back to this primal act of violence that sort of found the societies there and that are still perpetrating today, in various dimensions. And I think capitalism is very much the continuation of those logics indeed.

Kat: I’m so glad you brought that up because the original wall to this day is actually available to be seen when you walk on Wall Street itself with the cobblestones. And a lot of historic preservationists have also talked about, well, how do we educate the visitors who come see Wall Street and people who actually operate on Wall Street the history and acknowledgement of the footprint that basically our city has been built upon. And in your opinion, what is the — you know, is it a combination of all these things? Is that one thing or the other about addressing it in terms of design with regards to like creating a space, like having a plaque or is it more like conversations that are [to be conducted] between people and initiatives or tours that address this difficult topic?

Léopold: Yeah, I think it could, it can be many things. I mean acknowledgment and the education of what I like to call the political geology of place, which is like the various layers of the various political layers that compose any square meter of our cities because there’s been so [many] things happening on that very spot.

So, I think any sort of initiatives that would sort of acknowledge what has happened in the past is a tremendously important. That’s something I’m looking at in particular here in Paris with regards to the Algerian Revolution in the fifties and sixties. But as I said, everywhere has its own history of violence that we need to unearth to educate. But I think this education only makes sense within a more global movement of getting rid of those — of what’s still composed as structures of violence, that the sort of original thing are the ways it’s been perpetrated. So, of course there’s no too small action when it comes to this, but we also need to have a sort of very ambitious agenda to get rid of all these structures of violence.

Kat: When you say structures of violence, do you mean reminisces of say the original wall, or more like disrupting the way that the cities are built or buildings are designed now?

Léopold: Well, since we were talking about settler colonialism, we can see how today in a country like the United States, this is something that both founded the country, but also something that still very much characterizes the ways the country operates still today. And, uh, we can see in the various ends of struggles in which the various indigenous struggles throughout the countries. Yeah. So those logics are still very much at work.

Kat: Yep. So, tying together the past to the current political atmosphere and the fraught and challenging conversations we have to date: [what] do you think is the best way to connect (it’s just definitely just an exploratory question) about how to address those old structures, both physically and – the ones that cannot be seen – the societal and political?

Léopold: Yeah…. Well, for sure the first — very first step would be to recognize those structures and to be able to unearth them. And then obviously some people are much more versed in that matters and others because some people are very much targeted by those structures whereas others are not.

Kat: Yeah.

Léopold: And so as the very first step [is] consistent [upon] wherever you situate yourself within those structures, you need to unearth them. And then, it’s by understanding them that we are able to potentially act towards the dismantlement of the structure. So, it is this is double step, so to speak, that I think makes sense in that, in that regard.

Kat: Gotcha. Great. I realized I had asked a really heavy question. So your response is actually very eloquent, so thank you for that.

Léopold: Haha.

Kat: Oh, I realize that our time is coming to an end. I don’t wanna take up too much of yours, but I wanted to ask one last parting question, that is: from your experience of talking to those who are aware of the weaponization of architecture about the effect of design, whether that be in cities or buildings or even [those that are] societal triggered such as programming or, or welfare of difference of different element, you know, different elevations or different sorts. Um, what is the best way do you think about engaging those who would otherwise not care or those who otherwise wouldn’t be involved? But we really do need to engage as many people as possible to really make a difference.

Léopold: You mean independently from design or within design?

Kat: Within design or… I know that from your background you also look at design as well as just politics [independently]. Um, and how, our history has formed how we move through the world, both in design physically as well as politically and socially.

Léopold: Within design, I think we need to make sure that whoever is in charge of designing something that will end up out there in society, be it a building or an object, there is a responsabilization for the political forces this design contributes to materialize. And, it’s not like you don’t get to decide if there is or if there is not. There is, yeah.

Kat: Yeah.

Léopold: Then you can decide not to think about it. But then if you don’t think about it, there’s 99% chance that you will sort of reinforce the status quo; and perhaps you’re fine with the status quo. But, if you’re not fine with this status quo and then there needs to be a significant effort in challenging its logics. And so, you know, I think whoever claims to be against the status quo needs to understand that as a designer, they have this materializing power. So they should be able to think about it, to understand it and then think about how to challenge. Truly to….walking the walk after talking the talk.

Kat: I suppose putting your money where your mouth is? Or, taking responsibility for your principles?

Léopold: That’s the phrase I was looking for — haha. Thank you.

Kat: Great. I just wanted to say thanks for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Léopold: Great talking. Thanks.