Innovation through interdisciplinary activity
If we type the words innovative architecture into google search, we are presented with an array of elaborate forms and shapes which represent a catalogue of recent architectural feats.
Whilst these appear to be extraordinary and dynamic examples of architecture, we must ask the question – Are they correctly described as innovative?
The definition of innovative (architecture) in the Oxford dictionary is a little vague:
Featuring new methods, introducing ideas, original and creative thinking.
A further definition of Innovation is more understandable:
The application of better solutions to meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.
Maybe a simple example of this preferred definition is the development in the design of football stadia over the past forty years – in particular, the spectators’ primary requirement for an unhindered view of the event!
Even as recently as the 1980s many of us will have sat (or stood) with a steel column (or two) blocking out a large section of the field of play.
Over the subsequent years this was resolved – firstly by the introduction of cantilever structures, made-up of complicated webs of Meccano-like elements, which strenuously hold up the giant roof spans. Perhaps we could call this innovative structural engineering.
More recently this technique seems to have been surpassed by the introduction of the giant truss or arch, utilising single bridge-type structures spanning the length of the field of play, and from which the roof is then suspended. Perhaps we could call this combined innovative architecture and structural engineering.
It would seem, that innovation in architecture is often found at the cross-over of different disciplines and professions, the obvious example being architecture and structural engineering, or at the margins of the architecture, where players are involved in other parallel activity.
Worthy examples of this would be the work of Thomas Heatherwick as furniture designer / architect, and the work of Will Alsop where artistic concept, elaborate structural solution and engagement with community – are robustly interwoven in the development of a project.
Thinking broadly and in terms of unarticulated needs – one of the most significant incubators of innovative architecture is in the recent development of Design Practice Research and in particular - the work of Leon van Schaik at the RMIT University (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology).
Through a program of six-monthly symposia, this brings together a diverse range of experienced practitioners who analyse, explore and discuss how they design and practice architecture, and how their professional activity influences the built environment, public and social behaviour.
Our own experience is testament to this innovative process. Through participation we uncovered much about our own practice and previously tacit knowledge. This program enabled us to convert instinctive action into consciously articulated and tested knowledge. In particular - the reflective process led us to understand mechanisms, connections, influences, social and cultural contexts in which the practice operates.
Through practice research not only design boundaries are challenged, but the ways of understanding architecture and its role in the wider context, allow the process of innovation to thrive.
With this discourse in mind, we investigated the process of practice and strived to identify innovative architecture in our own practice. Conversely, we found that a recent initiative to investigate and formulate a response to London’s much discussed housing crisis, was most likely to fit this description.
The premise for this work was straightforward – a large percentage of London’s housing stock is in the form of terraced houses, which no longer suit our way of living, and many of which are poorly converted into uncomfortable flats and bedsits.
Our task was to contrive a sensible way of converting terraced houses into compact, modern-day dwellings to suit current living requirements.
Our thoughts on this were mainly about incorporating stairs and landing space into dwellings rather than using them as common access space. In this respect we devised a model for efficiently dividing a medium-sized terrace house into three good standard dwellings – comprising 2 duplex units at ground and first floor levels with a single penthouse or loft apartment above.
We see this as innovative in that it addresses a matter concerning social requirements and market needs, and at the same time nurtures the existing housing stock, which is a significant component of London’s heritage and identity.
These examples rely heavily on interdisciplinary activity for their innovation.
They draw knowledge from different fields and new ideas are created by thinking across boundaries.
But our understanding of innovation is not crystal clear and this is well illustrated by three rather different quotes on the subject by Carl Jung, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Edison.
The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one per- sists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw
Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.