Building Comprehensive Understanding #Impactmakers

How innovative architecture challenges organisational fragmentation by building comprehensiveness and using it as a tool to enhance synthesis.

Last year the Architecture Biennale of Venice’s theme ‘Fundamentals’, led participants and visitors into a breakdown of all basic building ingredients. Doors, ceilings and windows all claimed their spot in the limelight. Acting like they had the main role in each building. “Fundamentals are to Architecture what words are to Language; as stand alone, their significance is limited, it is only when brought together, punctuated, given syntax and context that meaning is created”. Stephanie Hughes architect and founder of AKKA Architects, leads me to consideration. Realising this seems like a first step we need to take before we can get to the dot on AKKA’s horizon: full synthesis. “A building can create more comprehensive thinking, when it is designed for interactions and all the users are recognised as experts in the way they use the space, in this engaging matter, collaboration is also taken far more seriously.” Innovative architecture by AKKA Architects invites the users of a space to step up, take responsibility and act as the key element of the building.

A vision not currently framed by so many clients yet.

To get some idea of the current context architecture is being used in, the underlying multi faceted question needs to be highlighted first. Fragmentation is a key element in organisations on whatever scale to all sorts of structural patterns in human lives. We tend to breakdown and clusterize, from information to groups of people. While in this fragmentation process we should stumble upon some questions. Like, once we created our easy to operate from vertical silos, how to maintain the horizontal aspects, holding together our shared vision? And how can architecture secure shared meaning usually withheld in a group, before it faces the seemingly inevitable law of segmentation? “The core lies in the people, I believe architecture should solely act as a tool in providing and facilitating the contexts to be supportive to users in creating meaning.”

“The role and responsibility of design is, I believe, to foster interactions. This is as you can imagine not a common or automatic result of the current way architecture is practised.”

Of course above challenges are part of an aggravated problem, such as facing the emergence of corporate giants. Is bigger really the way to go? Compared to small companies and family structures we see much more alignment in the interpersonal structure, where within big corporates fragmentation occurs easily, and takes greater effort to overcome and re-align again. “Which says a lot for prevention.” Misalignment is one of these symptoms, we easily think we know what our common goals and missions are. “At ground level we see that people are aware of the importance of a shared vision, but the day to day living and application of these values are the main challenges.” In all cases it is the responsibility of the space, to communicate the vision, create the atmosphere and reinforce the positive ambiance. “As an architect, I believe the space is responsible to actively catalyse the behaviour that represents what  users in a certain building  are about. Its role is  to support, facilitate, and help users  be and act more in alignment with their vision.”

Toward comprehensive thinking
“Why are you using my people to do your job?”, is a frequently heard comment made by some clients, when being introduced to this new method, where the actual inhabitants of the building are given a key role, even before the design of the building starts. “It takes great effort, from showing case studies, to previous work done, to get these clients onboard. And sometimes, when the value of such approach remains invisible to the clients, you just have to let it go. We cannot work without the users’ involvement, in this process it is not only the architects and designers who are involved.” Traditionally where you create for the client, and present and then go through a series of changes due to the many misunderstandings you run into, it becomes clear that to build for comprehensive understanding, architecture then takes a totally different process. “What I’ve seen in my time as an architect before founding AKKA is the commonly used time consuming method, at AKKA we do not work with that method, our process is based on using the collaboration of users since the early phases as an alternative.”

Designing incomplete
“We are reinventing office spaces, and more and more corporates and companies are looking at it, which shows an evolving awareness around the need for innovation of traditional architecture.”

How can we then proceed in a deeper, more meaningful practice of architecture? The key as Stephanie explains is in the use of a collaborative method. It seems simple however it also greatly affects the way of working and the ensuing results. “The role and responsibility of design is, I believe, to foster interactions. This is as you can imagine not a common or automatic result of the current way architecture is practiced.”

Fostering interactions as the first step towards stimulating interactions is in my opinion the real ultimate  purpose of architecture. Basically if we want different results, we have to do things differently.” And so I realise that  architecture is not the holy grail, and that  houses and structures existed before architects did. We find additional  proof of the new methods AKKA Architects applies when we look at the work of Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs. While their visions and  processes are quite different from the ones of AKKA Architects, they refer to a number of similar principles and beliefs. Again I keep in mind that fragmentation is embedded in human nature, but solely a part in the process. For example, in our educational systems we fragment subjects and specialisations  to make dealing with them easier. Which is acceptable when the next step: Synthesis is also part of the process. Remember the building parts being as limited in meaning as isolated words, it is the syntaxe, the punctuation and other that bringsthem together and gives them meaning. Synthesis is an essential step forward towards comprehensive thinking and an alternative to fragmentation.

The misconception [..] is the notion of ‘independent existence.’ There is no such mode of existence; every entity is to be understood in terms of the way it is interwoven with the rest of the universe. – Alfred North Whitehead

Avoiding the mistakes of the old way
“You are always in a context, beyond architecture, it is our vision to create this context through space, with underlying human interactions as the source of added value, we do architecture for interaction.” Through many challenges, -clients, constraints, construction  issues- Stephanie began formulating her current vision ‘Architecting Interaction’ and founded AKKA to carry it further. To make the vision reality, and be able to implement the thinking in actual projects, she innovated the process of architecture as follows:

Phase 1 Appreciate is about creating a shared understanding of the project between the different people concerned: users, neighbors, visitors, professionals… etc. In this phase, through community consultation, we gather the different perspectives of the different people involved in the project, not to agree on one common perspective, but rather to derive a shared understanding, enriched by all the different perspectives. Yes, this could be the moment that you discover that your carefully crafted current mission statement and values are apparently not as broadly experienced by all your colleagues as you thought. Maybe it is time to give your brand identity an update while in the process?
Phase 2 Kernel is dedicated to creating a shared vision of the project. A shared vision is one that captures the culture and future direction of the project and its users.
Phase 3 Kickstart is where design and implementation happens, this is where we learn by doing.Here is where, traditionally, the building is “finished, and handed over. Now, people can move in and inhabit the space, and the architects are never to be seen again. This always reminds me of a criminal never going back to the scene of the crime!
Phase 4 Adapt takes place after people have moved into the space, in the Living spaceDuring this phase, it is by observing how people are using the space, that we are able to refine the space and make the last adjustments needed to create a space that truly serves its community.

Collaboration towards innovation
In the meantime AKKA builds its social enterprise around key and some unlikely allies, in a strong team of 10 employees all aligned with the vision, in a larger network, and within the Impact Hub. “The Hub is surprising. Before going into the Impact Hub, we scouted other places -there are quite a few in Amsterdam actually-, but the Impact Hub offered more than a space, it offered real support for businesses.”  The first proof came out of a job, Impact Hub Amsterdam hired AKKA to design the space of the Impact Hub at the Westerpark. “What followed was a very interesting client. And the design worked as planned, which allured me to stay in the space as the team grew further. Since January AKKA Architects inhabits an office space. “I can’t even tell how often the Hub team already came knocking on our door saying I had to meet so-and-so. All of these meetings were spot on. It was never a waste of time, of unfitting to our work and interests. They were all connections that truly enriched our work.”

Unlikely allies
Lately AKKA got introduced to a group of intrapreneurs from Shell, working from the Impact Hub on innovation in renewable energy sources. This group is a perfect example for what Impact Hub calls unlikely allies: people or institutions that would normally not think of each other as partners or  collaborators. The way AKKA Architects design a building starts with the community of the project, and the way they engage with them, this is an innovative process in the architectural practice, it allows for a high diversity of players and these unlikely allies to come in a neutral space and to start actually listening to each other. This as you can imagine generates difficulties but also an internal alignment for the project’s community and a lot of wonderful new ideas and new collaborations, because they find their common ground in the spaces. “I explained the AKKA process and my vision on architecture and we discovered how this could add social value to the approach to international Shell plants. It is by involving community that we can create  shared value for Shell and the community. As obvious as this principle may sound, its application remains difficult and no alternatives were clear to Shell before the Hub introduced us in a conversation. We have had a number of interesting introductions and connections  like that.” From publications in a broadly distributed book on collaborative spaces published by Nesta to developing a new coworking space in Qatar. “One of the latest things that came up via the Hub, was a visitor from Qatar who was in Impact Hub Amsterdam to gain inspiration for creating a local coworking place for small startups in Doha. As no job is a copy-paste job, I am now involved in helping them to develop their unique space in Qatar, always considering  the local context and how it can be  improved, to foster interactions and work  towards comprehensive understanding.”

“The real compliment and proof of our work’s value is in a repeated knock on the door of our office in Impact Hub to say, ‘this space is fantastic! You captured the energy!’ Visitors know what the space is about – supporting conversations between entrepreneurs – and are fascinated by the ability of the space to help entrepreneurs work better, connect more and create products and services to start to experience the value of synthesis and create shared value.”