Blurring the boundaries

07.06.10

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I find one of the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of my recent design experiences is the Blurring of the Boundaries between what is a workplace, a learning environment, a hospitality environment or living environment. It is refreshing to see ideas that developed in the world of say workplace design being applied to schools such as open plan working or the design of workplaces evolving with the introduction of customer facilities like reception and business lounges of five star hotel quality and service, and urban apartments heavily influenced by hotel aesthetic and technologies and hotels influenced by the workplace, retail and residential design world.  Home working may have not been a major factor in the design of homes as forecast in the 1980’s but we can certainly see the opposite occurring, as home settings such as the kitchen table idea appear in the office. And so forth…

This Blurring of the Boundaries affects the design of the architecture, interiors, FF&E and services of new buildings in many sectors. 

In an era of global travel, internet and knowledge exchange it is not surprising that we are influenced by more and more things. As one of my University tutors said to me, my designs will always be influenced by everything I have ever touched or witnessed or smelled or listened to in my entire life. Therefore my influences are growing every day.  It is not surprising when seen in this context that a school is being influenced by new ideas from the world of work.

For example, I am working with my colleagues at Scott Brownrigg to design a new grammar school that is essentially open plan with a few cellular spaces for instructing or special functions. As the head teacher describes 80% of the time his students are in constructing mode and only 20% instructing mode. Instructing mode is what we would recognise as a teacher in front of a classroom teaching or instructing.  So the head teacher asks why do his old buildings support only instructing type of learning when most of the time students are constructing in teams or individually?  The concept of open plan workfloors was created to support constructing. The open plan areas will contain a variety of individual or collaborative worksettings.  Doesn’t that sound just like workplace consulting speak? It is the same philosophies developed in space planning and workplace design over 30 years ago and with the same objectives.  To help students and teachers to be more effective, which translates to better learning results and happier and more successful students and staff.

We have other blurred boundary projects such as an office project for a major corporate organisation that is creating a visitor experience to rival a luxury hotel and offer customer facilities of business lounges, concierge services, conference rooms, café and restaurant. The design, FF&E and technology is very much a high end hotel.

In another recent project we added an executive serviced apartment to a serviced office building refurbishment in the City to enhance its mix and in another have created residential interior concepts that respond to the lifestyles of international owners who use apartments in London as a luxury hotel which changed the layout and finishes.

I am energised by this trend of Blurring the Boundaries because in our studio the same designers cover all these sectors and cross fertilise ideas which clients say, keep the designs fresh and I know it also keeps our team motivated…and me motivated! We are lucky as a firm to have many sectors that we work in to cross fertilise ideas and actively blur the boundaries.

Blurring the Boundaries raises the interesting dilemma for Architects and Design firms however. These questions are hot topics:

Should we continue to be specialists in our field if ‘our field’ is actually morphing into and crossing over into so many other fields? 
Do we have the right education/skills in our staff? 
Do we departmentalise work internally in our office?
What is the unique selling point of a firm that only designs offices or residential, or hotels, etc?
Can diverse firms achieve great design quality?

I believe there is a place for both the specialist and the generalist firms and individuals but the questions above still have to be addressed.

I happen to be trained and qualified as an Architect and as far as I know most architecture schools teach students to believe that they can design anything. So we all come out of university thinking we know how to design buildings, interiors, furniture, graphics, landscaping, products, structures and well just about everything because we are ‘creative’ (and probably a bit arrogant too). We can design living, working, leisure and entertainment buildings, we can design cultural, civic and faith buildings, even retail and sports facilities. Nothing is beyond the grasp of a good recent graduate.

Of course this is a complete exaggeration and not true.  But it is true that most graduates are generalists and not specialists.

Only a few uber designers have actually been so good or lucky to have clients that allow them to design the building and everything else down to furniture, and cutlery. Frank Lloyd Wright and Mackintosh are two.

Soon after graduation, we all usually have that uber designer ego weaned out of us as the reality of real work sets in. Usually when we start to work with clients, fees, timescales and budgets, we (designers or architects) end up becoming specialists, good at design or delivery or management and usually associated with a type of work; retail, residential, offices, hospitality, etc.

I think there is a cycle occurring now for the commercial design profession.  Specialists are turning back into generalists or building teams of specialists across sectors or skills to create these cross over blurred boundary projects. It is great to see and good for the profession and for our clients.

Published in June edition of Mixology.