architecture lab

The Changing Role of the Architect

New Research Collective Is Rethinking the Building Design Process

The word “architect” tends to carry with it some preconceived images. Most of us would imagine artistic visionaries with varying degrees of megalomania. This stereotype isn’t completely unfounded. Some of the most iconic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Ghery and Antoni Gaudí certainly embodied the trope.

Historically famous architects were primarily concerned about the aesthetic part of a structure’s design. They acted like bohemian artists because they were exactly that. But through the years function has become just as if not more important than form when it comes to beautiful design. This has architects starting to become more like researchers, anthropologists if you will, to understand what the best function for a structure is in order to understand how to best design it. Plus, now they have a wide array of technology that lets them understand how spaces are being used like never before.

One of the firms embracing the change is PLP Architecture by launching PLP Labs. Always known for their high-tech design; they are the brains behind The Edge, which is considered to be the greenest and smartest building in the world. They also have an impressive portfolio of high profile urban masterplans in cities like Antwerp, Seoul, Milan, and London.

“We naturally gravitated towards trying to rethink the responsibility of architecture,” Hala El Akl, director at PLP told me. “After ten years we realize that the role of architect has changed. It emerges from what we see as becoming more of a mediator between the actors in the environment.” A mediator does not have the same connotations as an architect but when you think about it that is any designers most important job. One of the most important yet overlooked “actor in the environment” are the end users. Hala talked a lot about a “user conscience mentality,” something she saw as central to a building’s success.

Interestingly she didn’t see misalignment of incentives between the real estate, construction, design and engineering industries that create a space and the people who pay to use it as the biggest hurdle. “The hardest thing, weirdly enough, is language,” Hala said. Not spoken language, mind you, Hala has degrees from universities in Lebanon, France and the UK and lives in London so linguistics doesn’t seem to be a problem for her. She is talking about the differing mental constructs for each discipline. “Each field has their own language and culture. Everyone has an appetite to work together but they find it difficult in practice.”

For example, one of the major differences between the designers and occupiers of a space is their understanding of time horizons. Architects and engineers typically get paid for their service and move on. They have no long-term connection to a property that would prevent them from short term (and often lower cost) thinking. PLP Labs is an effort to change that. As part of their architectural briefs, they identify what outcomes they want and create a methodology to evaluate how well they achieved them. Then they design the technology that can help them track their progress. “This allows us to come back and measure the impact of our buildings on the users and adapt the architecture,” Hala said. “By creating this feedback loop it allows buildings to adapt and evolve with its users in a more fluid manner. If you look at a large scale project it can take ten to eleven years. Today, thanks to technology, we have the opportunity to do things more efficiently.”

Don’t let all this pragmatism fool you. The PLP Labs team is just as visionary as their eccentric predecessors. Hala had this to say about the importance built word, “The cost is not only financial it is social. If we can increase the number of people who participate in the urban environment it will create a new level of integration between people and their surroundings.”

Some of PLP’s clients include large property companies (like the redeveloping the World Trade Center in Amsterdam for CBRE Global Investors), municipalities, NGOs and a few tech companies that they were contractually obligated not to name. Now they are trying to find a way to bring all of these tentacles of the same urban animal together. Acting as a moderator between these often competing forces might not be what we traditionally associate with the job of architect but good design knows no titles and innovation cares not for our stereotypes.

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