Design Is a Virtue

by Robert Nieminen

During a recent conversation with Steelcase CEO James Hackett, we discussed at length the evolving nature of workplace design and how technology has advanced so rapidly that the physical spaces we inhabit have become anachronistic.

With the half-life of technology quickly outpacing the 10- to 15-year life-cycle of the average office space, and with a new generation of mobile workers taking residence in those interiors, it’s no wonder that CEOs are paying closer attention to the spatial needs of their organizations and trying to leverage the advances being made in workplace design.

Yet as an article run in the May 12th edition of the New York Times illustrates, as cubicle walls have come down in favor of the open office plan, employees have resorted to either building them back up, barricading themselves behind file cabinets or stacks of books, or hiding behind headphones to avoid being disturbed by their neighbors. Clearly, the lack of acoustical privacy is an unintended consequence of this latest design trend, and one that is causing friction between spaces and their occupants.

“If you see tension between human needs and technology, designers interpret the solutions,” Hackett told me. Rather than allowing technology and machines to dictate the experience, deep-seated human needs like dignity, care and privacy should drive the design process, he said. In other words, design is a virtue, and perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in public spaces, the focus of this issue.

Case in point: During the construction phase of the new West Hollywood Library, the subject of one of our featured photo essays, Steve Johnson, AIA, principal at Johnson Favaro, recalled how some people questioned the city’s decision to build a library in the age of Google and Amazon. According to Johnson, those who question the need for a new library overlook its true function and purpose to a community, and the values it communicates.

“[A] library is more than just a bunch of books; it is truly a place where the community gathers. And in fact, it’s a place where architecture sort of represents the value they place on reading and literacy,” he explains.

The design team looked to some of the most notable reading rooms of the early 20th century—including those at the New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library—for inspiration and to communicate the idea on a grand scale that a library is not merely a warehouse for storing books, but rather “an evocative place that really does prompt you to leave your computer terminal at home and join your neighbors in a building,” he says.

In an effort to more closely connect the city of Amsterdam with its legendary football team, Ajax, the AFC Ajax Football Club enlisted Sid Lee Architecture to create its new Ajax Experience, another featured project in this issue. The new museum articulates the value the city’s residents place on the team, and works to tell the long and illustrious story of the century-old club with vivid colors and interactive exhibits.

“Architecture serves the purpose of creating an experience for people; it’s not solely creating space for the sake of our own perception,” says Jean Pelland, architect and senior partner at Sid Lee Architecture. “It has to be about the experience that people live when they are in there.”

While we’re on the subject of virtues, sustainability is one that we’ve been preaching for years here at I&S, and we’re happy to report that designers and architects who share the value of providing design services that respect the environment can now market their services as “more sustainable,” and have a certification mark to prove it. Called the NSF General Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Services and Service Providers Protocol 391 (P391), the new certification applies to interior design and architectural firms, as well as a host of other service providers, and promises to help design professionals stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“As designers, our first step was to become a LEED AP. Then we tried to find ways to affect bigger change by recycling and ‘greening’ our libraries,” explains Holly Baird, IIDA, LEED AP, ID&C, president of IIDA’s Tennessee Chapter and a registered interior designer for the State of Tennessee Department of General Services. “This new protocol is the next step, in that it gives us objectives that are specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and time-sensitive. It identifies those who are walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”

From where we sit, this level of transparency is the next step in moving the sustainability discussion forward. Openness, it turns out, is a virtue, too.