Design and the Future of the Built Environment

I was lucky enough to attend Futures Fair 10 last week. The event, created by Building Futures (who I am currently working with), covers future developments within architecture and the built environment and I attended two sessions, the first of which focused on design.

Richard Wentworth and Tom Emerson began the session by talking about the importance of recognising your culture’s past when thinking about contemporary design. They explored the cedar-burning traditions of Japanese architecture and how designers are continuing to use this ancient method when creating modern, mainstream architecture that maintains strong ties to Asian culture. The burned cedar cladding is used on the outside of the building from the first floor up, with Wentworth and Emerson expressing a love of the wear and tear on display, and the suggestions of a past, present and future for the material.

Discussion with the audience asked how we can get continuity within design between past present and future, and if it was more important to maintain the spirit of a culture, rather than recreating old working methods.

Julian Hakes acted as a timely illustration of the evolving role of the architect, talking about his recent shoe design inspired by his practice’s work with bridges. Taking a creative de-tour, Hakes found himself asking: ‘when was the last time the flip-flop was reinvented?’, and after exploring weight transference across the foot, and much rapid-prototyping, he created a wrap-around flip flop with a sole only on the heel and ball of the foot.

The design received global press coverage fuelled both by its innovative design and Hakes’ refusal to allow anyone to be photographed wearing it. Resulting responses included requests from Tyra banks to be the first photographed wearer, and web comments such as ‘somewhere, eagerly, a dog poop awaits’.

By working in a different medium to his usual practice, Hakes was able to reinterpret footwear, calling his piece ‘a reaction against a style applied to a foot, [and] more about a process of support and materiality.’

On the current climate for architects, Hakes believes ‘You can’t wait for the clients, you just have to do your own thing’, an attitude encapsulated perfectly by his footwear design.

An architect with a background in set design, Gabby Shawcross further demonstrated the broadening of contemporary architectural practice with his work involving responsive light installations. Tasked to create an untraditional, interactive lobby space, Shawcross created a wall of light containing cameras that respond to the movement of the body and colours in the environment. A visitor’s movements within the lobby would affect the motions of the lights, and the colours of their clothing would even begin to seep into the displays.

Shawcross created a similar installation using cameras and lighting for the V&A, as well as designing a touring pavilion which displays a panoramic time-based image with movements based on the interactions of those nearby. This particular project took on an even larger audience, being displayed in real-time on the O2 website.

Further discussion suggested that the broadening of architectural practice could only be a good thing, with responsive architecture like Shawcross’ being called ‘the future of architecture’. The collaborative approach on display from all speakers was also praised, as was the pragmatism shown by Hakes during the design of his shoe. However, this also led to a bigger question: are architects being driven to different industries out of a desire for instant gratification that the architecture industry can’t give them?