Photography by Sean Airhart / NBBJ

At 8:00 a.m. on November 3, 2011, the seventh annual NBBJ design charrette commenced. Leaders in design and delivery from the firm’s seven offices, along with jurors Daniel Friedman, Chris Rogers, James Brasuell and I, gathered at NBBJ’s South Lake Union location to do two critical things.

NBBJ charrette

The first and most important was to take this time, freed from daily demands, and use it to work together, building human networks spanning disciplines, expertise, familiarity and offices. Building social networks in this firm of 700 is a central strategy intended to support effective, rapid adaptation and innovation; design work and the systemic building of a firm culture focused on integrated thinking, leadership and work with social relevance. The second purpose of this charrette was to explore socially challenging questions within a real community: develop a clear concept, define the problem and create a process and product. A charrette of this kind tests and shifts methods and conclusions typically used in practice, creating space for innovation and exploration among a team working together for the first time.

NBBJ charrette

Why is this sort of exercise important? Because organizations tend to become engulfed by their traditions, bureaucracy and past, resulting in irrelevant, risk-free solutions that lack innovation. This predilection typically applies more to large design firms than small. In addition, the current economic crisis demands that design professionals make a fundamental and rapid shift in understanding what is relevant and how to work in a world that demands innovation and problem-solving skills more than ever. There is more that needs to be designed, more that needs to be explored and more that needs to be integrated; this must be done differently and with strong leadership. It is essential that firms fight the inclination toward stasis and hardwire their organizations’ cultures for change—particularly large design firms, who impact greater portions of the world. It is essential that these organizations invest in and support a human centered approach to integrated thinking among their networks of diverse design professionals, so they can respond to critical, complex issues quickly and with heightened understanding.

NBBJ charrette

At the November charrette a total of five interventions were identified for exploration, all within easy walking distance of NBBJ’s South Lake Union office. They included a full-block campground, a speakers’ forum, a dog park, a cemetery and a full-production farm. At 3:00 p.m., after a wild day of talking, cutting, drawing, modeling and building, the 10 teams presented their work, each in a maximum of five minutes, to their colleagues and the jury.

NBBJ charrette

These are challenging times, and in some cases, firms are holing up, tweaking how they work, discussing past “profit centers” and complaining. Others are not complaining, and see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to dig in, think and work hard. These firms understand that the challenge is to constantly strive to re-conceive how they work, to be relevant and to respond to changing needs and circumstances. The need for agile, skilled design is dire, and the need for rich, soulful solutions placing social fabric and civic life at the forefront, with their myriad complexities, is essential.

Some thoughts from jury member Daniel Friedman:

Third Typology or Fourth

In a famous editorial written for Oppositions 7in 1976, Anthony Vidler identifies a “third typology” modeled after neither primitive hut nor machine but rather after the city itself—composed of historical forms and fragments but released from any implicit obligation to history; made new with each new context; self-referential; independent from the specificities of both use and function. “The heroes of this new typology,” Vidler writes, are “the professional servants of urban life, [who] direct their design skills to solving the questions of avenue, arcade, street and square, park and house, institutions and equipment in a continuous typology of elements that together coheres with past fabric and present intervention to make one comprehensible experience of the city.

NBBJ charrette

Vidler’s insights help frame one reading of NBBJ’s all-firm, in-house design competition, since its organizers challenged designers to investigate five urban “types.” Besides their obvious programmatic considerations, we could pretend for a minute that one of the problems NBBJ was trying to solve was a “fourth typology”: How do we extend the characteristics of earlier typological models – primitive hut, machine and city – into the realm of globally connected, local communities, whose forms incorporate teletechnology and social networks?

Of 10 excellent projects, I’m not sure any suggest wholly new criteria for type, but one stands out in its potential for genuine hybridity: the cemetery scheme that features vertical fiber optic tubes, which penetrate the green roof plane of a large but simple memorial volume, illuminating both interior and urban space. This kinetic forest of tall, luminescent reeds gently bends in the wind, generating continuously shifting waves of light at the same time it generates its own electrical energy; seen at night from afar or above, or from within its darkened enclosure, the designers intend to conjure up a galaxy. They channel Boullée’s Cenotaph to Newton and Rossi’s San Cataldo “City for the Dead,” which they skillfully atomize and recombine in the context of digital experience. On the one hand, the tubes embody the ancient herm, distant relative of the headstone and bollard, named after Hermes, god of boundaries and crossings; even more hauntingly, they recall Aboriginal “Sorry Business,” in which family members commission artists to design special funerary poles (“sacred logs”) elaborately carved and decorated to capture the essence of the soul they memorialize. On the other, they suggest a novel convergence of data and death, resulting in a new and expressly-urban funerary architecture.

The NBBJ cemetery project delivers a poignant speculation on the building type from which all type flows, the one with the deepest and most distant past. In its aspiration to provide new urban space for future “Sorry Business” – in its steady accumulation of giant, life-affirming, luminescent “monuments” – this project transcends its program. “The limit of architecture lies precisely in this point,” Hegel writes, “that it retains the spiritual as an inward existence over against the external forms of the art and consequently must refer to what has soul only as to something other than its own creation,” or put differently, in the words of poet Julia Mishkin (from “Sir Isaac Newton on MS and Alchemy”), this project suggests “the way departed souls / are beyond the world / redeeming light from inertia.”

Jury Comments

James Brasuell

“Imagine a world where a spirit of collegial and respectful collaboration is the norm during the process of designing the built environment it’s a far-fetched fantasy to be sure, but few are as well equipped to raise the level of conversation about environmental design as architects and landscape architects. The thought-provoking assignment of the NBBJ design charrette – to reimagine common public spaces replete with ideological and cultural baggage, like cemeteries or public forums – produced beautiful designs, but the caliber of the conversation was the most telling indicator of the unique talents assembled for the activity. I remain deeply impressed by how eloquently each team described complex, idea-saturated designs, providing clear access to abstract and complex ideas without patronizing the audience or diminishing the awe inspired by their work. I left the event hopeful about the ability of the design community to spread the word about the benefits of good design and reinvigorated with new ideas about the value offered by urban environments.”

Chris Rogers

“The charrette provided a conceptual framework from which the teams could further the evolution of South Lake Union as a patchwork of great public spaces, initiated by the firm’s highly successful Alley24. The successful exploration of each typology required that equal play be given to physical space, time, adaptation and shared use in order to transgress divisions of class and ownership. I was very impressed by the thoughtful commitment of time and energy made by the firm. It felt more like a retreat than a charrette—a perfect climate for an open exchange of ideas. I never once heard a cell phone, which suggested to me how well the participants were able to step away from their daily grinds—another indication of the importance placed on the exercise.”

Barbara Swift

“I was blown away; the process and products of this seven-hour commitment were impressive. It is one thing to read and hear people espouse the importance of setting aside time for discussion and exploration, and it is another to witness it in action and see the results. The approach to each problem was exceptionally humane and centered on a deep commitment to social justice and ecology. This was constantly reflected in the presentations, the approaches and solutions. The five interventions each raised deeply challenging issues. An urban campground and notion of traveling light gets right to the underpinning of land ownership, social stability and inequity— and none of these issues are easily addressed. In this case, the physical strategies were lyrical and the organizational issues were still challenged; what more can you ask for in seven hours?

In another case, an “app” was developed to build a community network of dogs and dog owners, which demonstrates that not all problems result in three-dimensional object solutions. It is all in how you pose the question and how open you are to the outcome. In the case of the dog population, the organization responsible for the dogs – the 6,000 new tenants in South Lake Union –have the obligation to integrate the dog-park zone. The solution: an elevated network cutting through buildings and connecting blocks with parks, blurring property lines and placing the responsibly on the tenants, not the public. Not surprisingly, the solutions for the cemetery, the citizens’ forum and the farm all included strategies deeply rooted in a primal way. The solution for the speakers’ forum included a bowl scooped out of a slope with the sky as the roof. The cemetery concepts used sky above and earth below in a simple, powerful strategy. With both of these designs, the overall results were ephemeral, poignant, powerful and relevant.

I found it inspiring to see solutions that expanded beyond the disciplines of those involved—to hear problems framed by their humanity, not by the simple program, to see solutions that were not object driven but embedded in social need. It was inspiring to see a firm work hard and commit the resources to continually renew itself, to invest in its greatest resource—its staff.”