The Power of Hindsight

Chris Alcock reflects on changes in the nature of environments for living, learning and working, the foregrounding of user experience and how we might approach briefing for the built environment.

Why is it that we rarely appreciate the power of “incremental change”?  John Worthington (co-Founder of DEGW) describes change in two forms – seismic and incremental. The former is immediately recognisable and demands action, the latter a slow, creeping evolution of ideas and innovation that in isolation seem unremarkable but in combination are profound in hindsight. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated seismic change of the first order. But do we realise that our astounding ability to respond to it has in fact been the result of incremental change in our attitudes and experiences of work and workplace over time?

So too has change in the built environment been incremental. Certainly there have been seemingly “seismic” events – IM Pei’s intervention in the courtyard of the Louvre, the work of van der Rohe, of Lloyd Wright, of Kahn and Le Corbusier. But even these have been the result of an incremental evolution of thought and ideas.

The problem with incremental change is that it is slow and usually imperceptible, and in the context of conceiving buildings, hindsight should tell us that the time has come for us to recognise that the drivers and context have changed. Indeed it suggests that the purpose of briefing should no longer just be about the creation of a building, for a building is an inanimate object. It can of itself do nothing. Rather it is the experience one has that is associated with the building that determines value. And is that experience shaped by physical form alone?

Incremental change in the nature of environments for living, learning and working is one where the role of the building is shifting quite dramatically from its traditional pre-eminence in how we think about space to a more secondary, supporting role. At issue now is a focus on the creation and curation of the user experience which is not static, but rather, evolves over time.

Also changing is the context of the building in multiple ways. The economic drivers for our buildings have shifted from the supplier to the consumer and the evolution of our cities has driven change in time-honoured models. Witness the evolution of the school from a low-rise assembly of buildings sitting within acres of playing fields, to the high-rise inner-city complexes that are starting to emerge. See also the emergence of “experience curation” as a design profession where the architect was traditionally the primary if only author.

Seismic change in high schools – Arthur Phillip High School, Parramatta. Architect: Grimshaw in collaboration with BVN and Six Ideas.

What then for the building brief? Do we continue to ask the client “what they want”? Do we tantalise with images of exemplar spaces? Do we document needs in Excel spreadsheets, with arithmetic the ultimate science of conception?

Or do we start from the idea that the building is not the answer? Rather that briefing is about the hopes, aspirations and needs of the end user, expressed through the medium of words? And should the ultimate purpose of briefing now be one of articulating a desired experience that is achieved through multiple media and means which may, or may not, include built form?

Perhaps for briefing there is need for seismic change?

Chris Alcock is a lapsed architect and co-founder of Six Ideas. He used to direct big building projects, but these days is far more interested in helping all sorts of people navigate change.

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