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The Blue Grid

rick kuhn perkins and will
Rick Kuhn of Perkins + Will

“How about when someone doesn’t use Yelp or post on Instagram, then what?” interjected a cell phone interface designer standing in the back of a Design Museum pop-up breakfast event held in July.

Rick Kuhn, the award-winning Design Director of the Boston office of Perkins + Will, paused at the lectern. He had been explaining how his team collected social media data to get an idea of a neighborhood’s metabolism. How many photos of that pocket park with the Civil War cannon on Snapchat? How many five-star Cuban-Vietnamese luncheonettes on Yelp? Because all this helps fill in the dots.

Members of the audience recoiled, setting down their coffees: was this question about a hypothetical non-Yelp user going to be one of those uncomfortable gotcha moments wherein Kuhn would be caught out as data slave? Or was the Yelp Questioner herself trolling $200 million design firms for some odd reason, because, after all, who doesn’t inhabit the social media space—and if they don’t, do they matter?

“Social media data is only a tool,” Kuhn reassured his listeners. There could be no substitute for immersing oneself in the neighborhood. The audience took a breath, relieved that his narrative could proceed in this limited time slot.

But the question remains: How can designers leverage the awe-inspiring powers of digital technology without becoming enslaved by a false sense of knowing? Because design driven solely by data can’t possibly account for all things unquantifiable, emergent, and intuitive. What could a neighborhood be, as opposed to what it is now, given a design nudge in the right direction?

For all the billions spent on collecting Big Data annually, somehow it failed as the basis for any critical decisions relating to the 2016 Presidential Election, the 2007-2008 Financial/Real Estate (read neighborhood) meltdown, or crude oil at $49.19/barrel right now?

Kuhn’s presentation, How Technology is Changing the Design Process, was, for the reasons above, refreshingly clear and up-to-date but hardly a sales pitch for automating everything, and everyone. It was more engaging, ironically enough, because his eye contact came before PowerPoint. While other lecturers on complex subjects might be tempted to put such software between themselves and their audience, Kuhn minimized its use. Step One in today’s design process, Kuhn had already explained, is Analysis, a process that factors in social space data, but is not limited to it.

Step Two is Design and Modeling. Using Grasshopper software, for example, the firm created a live script for the design of the 60,000 seat Mohammed bin Rashid Stadium in Dubai. How otherwise but digitally could one possibly manage the complexity of sculpting the metal mesh stadium in tandem with the structure below? True enough, and at the same time there’s clearly art going on here, a form-making that’s inspired, not managed.

A slide showing the stadium design served conveniently as a metaphor for the technology question. Let the bowl facing the sun represent the light of rationality in the form of science and the exploration of phenomena, in and out of social space. At the same time, let the bowl’s underbelly contain all that’s irrational, poetic, and mysterious with its water features and grottos. How the two go together, art and science, make all the difference. In the Islamic tradition, look no further than the tessellated tiling in the Alhambra, where geometry expresses the complexity of creation in wondrous ways.

Conveyance, Kuhn explained is Step Three at Perkins + Will. How to get the design across to others. “We’re used to seeing augmented reality such as the ‘lines’ on a televised football field, but now we can immerse ourselves even more fully in the environment like we’re standing there,” he said. “With Virtual Reality technology, we can now experience a structure as a panorama or walk-through long before it’s built. We can bring people to the site to ‘see’ the building and actually give them some idea of its magnitude and scale.”

Another hand shot up with a question. “But isn’t there a danger that a client or a contractor will put on those goggles and thinks everything is ‘real’ right away, like it’s supposed to be set in stone?” Which is to say, does VR amount to less flexibility, not more—less if you allow it to transfix you, more if it inspires a dialogue and a collaborative approach?

Whereupon, senior designer Sebastian Martellotto stepped in to explain that “Conveyance needs to be choreographed,” he said. “You can’t have one person walking around the room super excited going ‘wow, wow!’ while others are just looking at the first few slides.”

“VR is more a validation tool than anything else,” added Kuhn. “Wood models are still beautiful and useful, and our contractors continue to work with them.” A model of the firm’s famous Floatyard, proposing a floating community tethered to the Boston Harbor, occupies pride of place in the elevator foyer. It has yet to have the green light for a contractor to put it to use but displayed as is, its beauty is undeniable.

Unlike wood models, Kuhn adds, all these three phases of automation—Analysis, Design, and Modelling, and Conveyance—allow for design iterations in real time. Whereupon Kuhn invited all those who could stay to experience Virtual Reality for real in an adjacent glass-enclosed room set aside for the purpose. A model of a large civic project soon appeared on a monitor. The first person in line was already advancing through its grand scale, controller in hand like she was playing the design version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

Luckily, Yufeng Zheng, a young architect in his first year at Perkins + Will, was the one charged with running the demo. He wasn’t about to put technology between him and people any more than Kuhn, and when people doing the demo became a little disoriented or freaked, he was there as a gentle guide.  Not that anyone quit! It was too much fun. Shoot the controller beam across the hospital parking lot, and you’re suddenly there! You’re looking up ten stories. You can’t help but exclaim “wow, wow!”

And that’s only the walk-through part. Pivot 280 panoramic degrees and you can find yourself looking down from a skyway, vertigo-inducing hundred feet down. (Zheng says, “Feeling dizzy? Try looking up.” While inching forward, only a thin blue grid warns you that you are coming close to bumping into the actual wall of the office, where the caterers will soon be taking away the fresh fruit.

How easily high-tech can hypnotize, what a perfect, dreamy, geometric, and surreal world! A Salvador Dali world missing only the melting pocket watch. And yet as Kuhn replied to the questioner, tech’s only a tool. Is it too much to ask for an artificial intelligence plug-in for CAD to remind us?