People want to be surprised by the unexpected. As an architect who crosses into the realms of performance and installation work, this has become very clear to me.
Designing architecture that has the capacity for the unexpected is not at all “rebellious” or “risky,” but an overlooked necessity within our built environment.
Partnering with renowned choreographer Alonzo King and Grammy-award winning musician Mickey Hart, I recently had the unique experience of creating a collaborative ballet, which explores the intersections of architecture and movement. In the ballet, Triangle of the Squinches, instead of static backdrops, all the “sets” have various unexpected kinetic characteristics. The ballet partners the dancers with transformable architectural surroundings, providing the performers with the unique opportunity to explore, play, manipulate and transform their environment, creating and defining new spatial relationships simultaneously.
The architectural objects are designed to record the physicality and impact of the dancers pushing on or pulling against them by shape shifting, rebounding, deforming and reconfiguring themselves. Like the human body, these same architectural “bodies” have the ability to resist and subvert their partners’ moves, forcing the dancers to adjust their movements and mood to their imposed physical environment. By engaging one another in a direct partnership, the architectural elements and the dancers begin to explore and reveal the body’s often unapparent, conflicting and desired relationships with architectural surroundings.
For eight evenings I sat in a packed theater of 800 attendees and listened to the gasps, the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the audience reacting to the unexpected changing forms and use of the sets as the dancers climbed, shifted, re-shaped, folded, mounted and concealed themselves within and upon the architectural objects. At moments, he sets seemed weightless; at other times they seemed to weigh thousands of pounds. Sometimes they appeared solid or dense, only to be revealed as thin and delicate. After every show, audience members came up to me and asked how things were done, built, moved, what materials were used and how I found them…People are curious and yes, they want to be surprised by things around them.
In a recent installation I designed for Cirque du Soleil and Infiniti, an interactive landscape around an Infiniti car included LEDs and motion-sensors that would track Cirque du Soleil goers and cause the landscape to change color, pattern, light intensity or simply shimmer. People were delighted at the unexpected depth of interaction the installation offered. They explored, played and danced with the interactive tree, trying everything out before deciding they absolutely needed a photo of themselves within this whimsical world. Here again, people wanted and loved to be delighted by their architectural surroundings, and in this case, one that allowed them to manipulate and alter their environment in a somewhat similar manner to the ballet dancers above.
In regard to more traditional architectural projects, the unexpected can exist within spatial or programmatic transformations, malleability, adaptability and flexibility to create a very open design with many possibilities. Additionally, a project’s materials can be used in inventive and unexpected ways. Applying these “unexpected” solutions to even the most mundane archetypes – a parking garage, for example – can enable it to become a world travel destination descended on by the public (see the garage at 11 11 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach by Herzog & de Meuron, for instance).
It’s easy for most architects to head toward a conservative design approach—not ruffling any feathers, or raising any eyebrows by proposing unexpected or untested design ideas. Architects tend to play it safe by doing what is “expected.” LEED scoring has made things even safer; now we architects can uphold our own design mediocrity with environmental scoring systems that defend and award even the most hideously and unengagingly designed structures.
People seek transformation, suspense, surprise—terms rarely used by most architects within their design processes. But it’s the creation of the unexpected that evokes emotion and provides interest, tension, humor, whimsy and even the realization of brilliant pragmatism. These are the things that allow architecture to thrive, to be loved, engaged and cared for by its public. Ultimately, that is what creates great works of architecture that sustain.