"A Chance to Rethink Cities and Places"

Interview with Dan Hill

A century ago, the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen suggested to “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” This phrase has become beloved by strategic designers, a strain of designers which realigns and applies some of the principles of design to ‘big picture’ systemic challenges. UK-born Dan Hill is one of those peculiar hybrid thinkers. He is currently Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish Government’s innovation agency, and in previous leadership positions applied strategic design to the built environment, education and research, government and media. Here, he responds to questions on the impact of the current crisis across a multitude of scales – the home, the office, and public space.

The current crisis might change the way we work and reside. Let us begin in the private sphere: working from home is not new. Aside from having better-equipped workstations at home, what are the more fundamental changes you could imagine?

For years many have ‘worked from home’, and regularly. Yet we have never flicked a switch like this, shifting the broad mass of professional classes at least, back into their homes, in order to work. Modernity thoroughly separated out form around disparate functions. The lazy phrase that “my office is wherever my cellphone is” was never more clearly false. It is awkward to work in this way. Apps like Zoom can mask your domestic environment with virtual backgrounds, just as noise-cancelling headphones can mask the sound of your flatmates, children, pets. Yet given that the restrictions that come with the pandemic could well continue for much of the year, and working from home will become much more common, will we see a genuine design response that does not mask, or negate, but supports?

There is no doubt an increased pressure on a space not designed for families and friends working from home, or living together almost 24/7. This pressure is both physical and spatial, as well as psychological, emotional, social. By far the majority of dwellings we live in have not been designed for this.

What might this mean for the design of our homes if we continue to work from home even after the threat of the virus subsides?

We will need to rethink how that pressure can be dissipated over time and space in different ways, building out new spaces, or conditions, for disconnecting, not-working but also not-interacting, for zoning out as well as tuning in, for shifting layers of privacy, focus and congregation. These spaces could be complex, resilient and super-green. They would adapt well to new patterns of living and working in the same place, given the open diversity of spaces and amenities built around and within private residences. There are historical examples that can serve as starting points to think about this, take for instance the Ivry-sur-Seine social housing complex, designed by Jean Renaudie and Renée Gailhoustet in 1967–75.

On a smaller scale, ‘home-work’ spaces could be designed specifically to address and resolve tensions. Functionally, there are precedents in the ‘shop out the front, studio in the back’ model of the Renaissance-era Florentine bottega or even the live-work studios of ’80s New York. Yet what is this for every home, including in suburbia, and for furniture generally? There, too are historical precedents. Alvar Aalto’s simple curving plywood Screen 100, for instance, effortlessly demarcates space in ways that afford multiple, moveable activities. Screen 100 is a luxury item now, albeit with the true sustainability of lasting several lifetimes. But we could ask ourselves: what could more accessible versions be?

What if we never simply return to city centres en masse? What if, after the virus, some people decide to stay at home completely, or supplement their home-work space with their local co-working space, library, or café? Applying the Saarinen principle, how might our neighbourhoods change as a corollary?

A shift to being at and around the home almost half of the week, en masse, not only saves tonnes of carbon and other pollution, reducing congestion on public transport, creates space for increased biodiversity, shifts patterns of activity across the city — but it also destabilises much of the speculative commercial office market, and thus much of the model of the city centre itself. The premise that ‘the city centre is where work happens’ no longer applies.

By removing the idea of the all-consuming city centre, we end up with numerous city centres, pinned on actual neighbourhoods. Known in the trade as a polynodal city, comprising many ‘nodes’ rather than one big one in the centre, the British architect Cedric Price once described this shift as moving from the ancient city’s boiled egg, protected by a shell of city walls, to the 17th-19th century city’s fried egg — both predicated on a clear ‘yolk’ in the middle — to the modern, or post-modern, ‘scrambled city’, a shapeless, albeit often tasty, mush, connected by the albumen of cars, a featureless morass of egg.
Right now, we might think of a further iteration: the city as omelette, a simple dish with many variations, which can carry numerous different elements, each with different ingredients, each offering different focal points of taste, different local cultural influences, distributed concentrations of intense flavour in a sea of egg.
If we want to articulate Saarinen’s multiple scales, however, perhaps a better description might be a kind of ‘polka dot pattern’ spread across the city’s fabric, with multiple ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhoods full of people working, learning, playing and living. This breaks the model of the single large city centre, with work and leisure carried out at neighbourhood level, and the city centre empty.

This sounds like a very large shift. Given that many cities are affected by these developments, would we see a whole new type of metropolis emerge?

In fact, there is one city that already exemplifies the polka dot city motif mentioned above: Tokyo. There is no discernible meaning to the centre of Tokyo (Tokyo Station is not really it) but instead, the city is pinned-up on dozens, hundreds of sub-centres, mini-neighbourhoods with agglomerations of higher density around their subway stations, which after the protective firebreak of tall-ish buildings, drops quickly to humble but beautifully human-scale side-streets. No particular single central business district rules over the others, and the neighbourhood currently in vogue can apparently shift with the wind. Yet each area seems to retain its values, character, and function within the city, one way or another. Crucially, at street scale, on-street parking is not allowed, which opens up the streetscape for people, on foot and on bike, for conversation and activities, and yes, for moving goods and people around but as a secondary ‘enabling’ activity to the life of the street itself. Buildings of the quality of Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House humbly thread themselves into these neighbourhoods, blurring the domestic and the urban, home-life and work-life, a polka dot pattern mentioned before. This is not to say we should all Be More Tokyo. The place is unique, as all places are, and its value would resist copy-pasting.
Whilst a global pandemic is a completely awful thing - there can be no ‘silver linings’ — it does also present a chance to rethink cities and places, from the scale of the screen up to the neighbourhood and beyond. I’m interested to explore exactly how we might do that, and with whom, and what kind of new patterns of living might emerge as a result.

Publication date: 26.6.2020
Images: © 1. Ivry-sur-Seine Social Housing Complex, Léopold Lambert; 2. Ursula Sprecher; 3. Cedric Price; 4. Dan Hill; 5. Ryue Nishizawas Moriyama House, Edmund Sumner-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo

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