MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Innovation in crappy buildings? Occupy the workplace

Innovation arises most effectively in “crappy” buildings.

This was the argument advanced recently by Alexis Madrigal in his blog on technology in The Atlantic. As articles like this will do, responding commentary bounced around the internet, and I thought I’d pick it up and toss my own thoughts into the argument.

I’d offer that there is a great fault in the position put forward by Madrigal. The fact that innovation takes place in buildings, and since most buildings are crappy, means that most innovation will arise from crappy buildings. This, however, is not an argument that crappy buildings are best for innovation. Instead, it is the simple statement of the sad condition that we all share – that the innovation we have is only the innovation that has overcome the significant barriers presented by crappy buildings. The innovators in these contexts might best be celebrated for the cleverness that it took to overcome inadequate resources and barriers to communication. But how much have we lost along the way? How much more innovation could we have if more people worked in good buildings?

Apple, Building 20, and the rest of us

A bit of buzz had built shortly before Steve Jobs death over the design of the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino (which he presented rather masterfully before the Cupertino Plan Commission). The design, by Norman Foster, is a perfect circular doughnut of a building, something like the mouse wheel of an iPod stretched over 800 feet, or as Madrigal says, “Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple's ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.” It’s an elegantly simple architectural statement, and certainly will be a highly finished building with some very unique construction methods and materials. Most of the parking will be underground or hidden and the site, formerly an HP campus, will be returned to a park-like state.

Madrigal referenced Stewart Brand’s branding of “Low Road” buildings as the places where most innovation takes place, and put out a call for people in search of innovation to nominate their own Low Road workplaces. Madrigal recalled Building 20 at MIT, which no longer exists, as the great model for these innovation incubators – a big, wooden, nondescript building constructed in the economic spareness of World War II.  Madrigal also evokes Jane Jacobs (“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”).

In their own commentary on Madrigal, the writers at express a concern about the implications of the argument asking, “if Building 20 is where innovation happens, but Apple’s megaheadquarters are where architects get involved, then is architecture’s relationship to innovation merely that architects get involved with an organization after it has lost the capacity to innovate? Is architecture’s relationship with innovative organizations primarily that it instantiates their ossification?”

In our practice, we are in the midst of a (frequently typical) commission for a place that will act as an innovation incubator. We have just gone through a very quick design exercise to get our foot in a funding stream, and are assessing and reassessing what we’ve done as we now are about to start the “real” design process. Our project will be both about old building as well as new, partially in a “crappy” building and partially in a new design by us.

As we began our initial efforts, examples and arguments like Madrigal’s were in the back of our minds. In front of us was a client with two, or maybe three heads.

We are working for a university and one of its schools, greatly interested in making a major architectural statement for at least three very good reasons – to enhance the perception of the institution, to attract top research talent from around the world, and to act as an innovation incubator for improving the health and wellness of our region. We are also working for its facilities department, greatly interested in making only the sparest and most necessary of moves.

These conflicting perspectives, these competing values, have us moving up and down the scale trying to understand just where is the best place for institutional aspiration and architectural authorship to surrender to innovation legend and occupier/user customization.

A concern

I have a great concern about the kind of logic and argument that Madrigal is trying to advance and that may be embedded in Brand’s work, as well. The fact that most of the world’s buildings are not “designed” in a conventional sense, but are built naively, designed speculatively, designed without full understanding of user characteristics, or designed for purposes other than they are now being used, naturally means that most innovation arises from those “Low Road” buildings. This does not, however, mean that it is Low Road buildings that are the key factor in innovation success. The innovations that we celebrate may be only a small fraction of the innovation intended and pursued, and which successfully overcame the barriers of an insufficient supply of buildings that ate truly supportive of innovation.

I’d speculate that a significant amount of the failure of buildings to support innovation is a failure to design to support the awareness, communication and combination that we now recognize as central to innovation pursuits.

As a simple example, clients compel architects to design for function, and architects respond with functional designs. That is, clients ask for “conference rooms” and architects design formal spaces for scheduled meetings with chairs around big tables and with pictures on the walls. In these most typical of the contexts that generate anonymous buildings, neither client nor architect has asked about, explored or discussed the value and purposes of the organization and how to design to facilitate the interactions in these and other spaces that best support the development of a shared culture of communication and sharing of knowledge and experience. In fact, most clients directly reject the making of a social workspace, and most of those who reach further naively believe that image-making will be the generator of innovation.

In other words, consider the sad potential that a significant amount of creative output and important innovation is lost because of the inherent barriers in Low Road buildings, and the failure to think critically about how to support the cultures and communications of innovation in High Road buildings.

Architecture is vertical. Workspace is horizontal.

Paraphrasing a frequently reformulated axiom of comparative architectural styles, I’ve offered that “architecture is vertical, workplace is horizontal.” That is, it seems that architecture, carrying the responsibility of big budgets, regulated by codes and ordinances, and contracted (mostly) to large, management-driven organizations, is inherently hierarchical and ordered. The stuff that goes inside of the architecture is lighter, of shorter life span, beneficially adaptable to changing circumstances and occupancies, and is (potentially) less ordered, and (potentially) more democratic.

I’ve used that observation to generate this diagram, and to explore this matter of places and spaces for innovation again.

I’ve represented architecture along the vertical axis, naturally. I’ve given it a range from a Low Road of anonymous and apparently non-designed buildings to a High Road of  “signature” buildings. Along this range can be the core and shell of otherwise speculative developments to more highly programmed buildings for known organizations and occupants.

Along the horizontal axis is a range of approaches to planning the interiors of these buildings. I’ve used a context of control for the scale here, setting the highly regulated world of corporate real estate at one end, and more ad hoc occupancies at the other. Along this scale can be relatively intelligent but still centrally provided “settings” for specific kinds of work and activities, and less proscriptive and more helpful planning “guidelines.”

It seems that the domains of successful innovation might most typically take place in the upper left quadrant. In this space we would find buildings that are programmed and designed with an understanding of the interactions and communications that are essential for innovation, that build the “awareness” that Allen and Henn have identified as a key underlying value for innovative organizations. The spaces in these buildings might be very unstructured, but might have the resources – infrastructure, technologies, agile assets, operating manuals – that would enable the occupants to take charge of their own working environments and adapt them to the dynamic and changing demands of creative pursuits.

It seems to me that this approach could provide both for highly iconic (organizational signature) buildings as well as rich interior working environments. These conditions would not cause a reduction in creative zeal nor a suppression of innovative activity. They might, in fact, be the contexts that enable the potential for a significantly higher level of creative commitment and productive invention and application.