The Future of Design, Lecture, 2009

Lecture at Future of Design Conference
University of Michigan, 2009
Adam Yarinsky

I have chosen to explore and share my ideas mostly through practice, working together with many different kinds of people across a wide range of project types to make architecture- from the city scale to the scale of a small object. Architecture, for me, requires direct, unmediated experience with the work as an essential means of communicating its intent; what Raphael Moneo described as “the solitude of building.” This proposition has manifold implications- for design’s connection to culture, for the ideas we choose to explore, and for the design process itself.

However, today, twenty-five years after Moneo made that statement, architecture is more than buildings. The breadth and diversity of design precludes a simple formulation of what architecture is, or how it can be experienced. All of us here, through our designs, our teaching, our writing and our research, are shaping the future of design – and doing it in very different ways. Because of this, there is not one future of design, there is a multiplicity.

So, where do I start?

To begin with, it is necessary to distinguish what we mean by design- I understand design to be both a verb and a noun: a process of creation, and its outcome, or result. Means and ends are bound together in reciprocal relationship. The longer I practice, the more I am compelled by the realization that both the process and the results of design have changed completely – several times – in a surprisingly short span of time. The tools we use to create architecture will continue to change – in ways we cannot even imagine. And the challenges we will face cannot be fully anticipated. So what then is the future of design, from my perspective as an architect?


The future of design, as process and product, is tied to the recognition of change itself as an intrinsic aspect of architecture- and this capacity to encompass change is the most powerful connection that architecture has to the culture within which it is situated.


Things change in relation to themselves and to other things; they are interdependent. In response to a complex, unpredictable and interconnected world, a relational basis of form is needed. In this formulation, the role of architecture is to frame relationships – between people and things- that unfold over and through time. The means by which architecture does this is different according to the scale and duration of human activity.

This is in contrast to an object-based paradigm which freezes design as a representation of ideas or the result of a process. This is also distinct from an architecture that possesses “flexibility.” The point is that change for architecture is not something that it necessarily does or depicts, but something that it enables and in which it participates.

Briefly describing three scales of design- from the largest to the smallest, using projects that we have designed (Architecture Research Office), will illustrate how I believe that their ideas are conceived and shaped in terms of change.

Urban Scale: Process
At the scale of the city, we have considered how design might become a framework for variable processes rather than master plans that are set forth as fixed objectives. At this dimension, the form at any particular moment is a snapshot of a dynamic situation, set in motion and defined by the concepts governing the design.

The City of the Future
This project is a competition-winning proposal for “the city of the future”- imagining Manhattan in one hundred years. The project overlays past and future coastlines to map encroaching water caused by rising sea levels. Within these areas of inundation, a new building type is proposed to be implemented over time; one that perpetuates the street as a horizontal pier-like infrastructure to accommodate mixed uses. The design of this project seeks to expose, understand and redefine the shifting boundaries between nature and culture that are fundamental to the city’s future.

On the Water: Palisade Bay
The second project, also a response to climate change, is a redesign of the upper harbor of NY and NJ, a collaborative effort led by Guy Nordenson which was awarded the 2007-9 Latrobe Prize research grant from the CoF/AIA. The project proposes a constructed archipelago and recontoured shoreline that is a gradient between city and water, in contrast to the existing vertical sea walls. The gradient, constructed out of islands and berms of dredged material, widens the tidal zone. This new temporal edge blunts storm surge force and blocks the incremental advance of water onto land. Conceived in this way, the design promotes the idea that a continuum between land and water is beneficial for both people and habitat.

Five Principles for Greenwich South
The recently completed planning study for the Greenwich South area of lower Manhattan envisions multiple possible futures, created through diverse stakeholders- architects, government officials, and the public- rather than a set master plan. Guided by a framework of five principles, implemented in terms of short, medium and long-term goals, and given form through the participation of multiple designers, this effort is both focused and expansive. This approach to urban design, and the process to create it, has the potential to enable more effective public involvement in the design of cities.

Building Scale: Program & Site
A number of projects we have designed are additions – strategic interventions within larger contexts. An addition is intrinsically relational; mediating internal and external conditions. Our work on additions and renovations of buildings has transformed existing structures to align with changed uses and missions. We approach these projects as new totalities, the old and new coexisting as elements within an integrated composition. Design demands deep knowledge of the program, often gained through direct inquiry with users and ultimately encompassing larger institutional goals. It also requires a clear analysis of the physical and social context of the building. The completed project facilitates new relationships through how it is used and experienced.

Princeton School of Architecture
Here, the transparent glazed addition to the School of Architecture at Princeton University re-centers the School, joining the major spaces and programs in the building. This new element is a window that defines internal and external relationships between the program and the campus by creating space and views between them. This helps strengthen and integrate the School with the mission of the University.

Friedman Study Center
The redesign of the basement of Brown University’s Science Library into a 24 hour study center – an “internal addition”, or renovation – is one of several library projects we have undertaken. Libraries are encompassing great change as reading, quiet study, and the storage of printed matter give way to gathering digital information and collaborative work. This leads to new space requirements and new formal qualities. In this project, a large area formerly filled with stacks is reorganized. This facilitates multiple modes of experience, arranged according to the type of activity and associated noise level. The design correlates a diversity of programs while allowing them to remain distinct.

Market Park
We can also envision urban additions. The market park, a design proposed within the Greenwich South study, bridges the ramping trench of the Battery Tunnel, and embodies several of the basic elements of the larger planning framework described earlier. The hybrid form of this project assimilates infrastructure into the life of the city, and provides for an intense mixture of activities. The design concept is a responsive field whose formal identity makes legible the different systems it mediates.

Body Scale: Perception
The body moves in space. As we move, our prospect changes. The variable quality of natural light further effects perception- and how a building or space is designed to be occupied over time. In our work, we strive to precisely calibrate the design to the particular characteristics of the human body. The body- thought and feeling- is the apparatus through which our ideas are directly understood. Often, the ideas we choose to explore and develop are themselves conceived in terms of these phenomena.

Times Square Recruiting Station
In the US Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square, a building we designed about ten years ago, the reflection and transmission of light through the glass facades changes from night to day, and with respect to the viewing angle of a person outside. This alters the way that the illuminated abstraction of the American flag behind the glass is perceived. The building’s shifting relationship to its context is the conceptual basis for the design – which is both a static political symbol, or sign and a dynamic commercial advertisement.

Central Park West Apartment
In this apartment interior, a series of sliding CNC-milled lattice screens are designed with a particular porosity and pattern of apertures to selectively filter light and view- connecting and separating programs that occur on either side. Even simple, ordinary materials such as medium density fiberboard can be calibrated in terms of life experiences and natural conditions.


I want to conclude by discussing two implications– for the process and products of design- that arise out of this acknowledgement of change, and a relational basis of form.


Complexity: A Research Based Methodology
First, we need to acknowledge that because change is constant, design exists in a complex web of shifting relationships. Program, function, appearance, meaning, history, and many other variables all mingle together simultaneously. The new does not necessarily or immediately supplant the old. Also, there are multiple and diverse constituencies for design.

We need to understand the driving forces behind the complexity to develop meaningful responses. The goal is to make design intelligently responsive to its specific situation, not erase complexity behind an idealized order.

This complexity gives rise to many possible ideas that must be sorted out in each project, to determine which ideas are appropriate. We have to become comfortable with the fact that, in each project, the issues and questions are always slightly different. Therefore the methods and tools we use to study them must also be different.

A research-based design methodology is necessary to expose the critical issues. This open and, at times, opportunistic process of design strives to gain maximum knowledge and is not driven by a technological or formal agenda. To be successful – now and in the future- we have to be genuinely open to learning from what we do.

However, information should not be construed as concept. It is imperative to bridge the divide between analysis and inspiration. Design is a meaningful transformation – the result of creative leap that comes from interpretation of information to formulate ideas. Informed intuition is an essential aspect of the design process.

Redefining quality as Performance
Today, the significance of a work is increasingly based on what it does – its performance. Structural and environmental systems, for example, have long been subject to measurable standards. These are becoming more exacting. And achieving specific program space requirements is also a quantifiable benchmark of success.

Looking to the future, coupled with this technical and functional performance, the capacity of a building to achieve the aesthetic and conceptual goals of the designer will be crucial. The ubiquity of more powerful modeling and visualization tools will help facilitate more precise exploration of how form transmutes ideas through perception. We will have unprecedented control over the ways that architecture mediates human experience.

Performance will be judged not solely by the assertions of the architect but by actual results. Does the view really occur as intended? Does the light enter as described? And most importantly, how are the ideas present and understood directly in the design? Just as there is embodied energy in materials, perhaps there will be a way to give value to embodied ideas in form. For me, the quality of ideas of a project will be measured by their capacity to frame dynamic relationships.

In this vision of performance, layering of many ideas will supplant singularity. The extent to which something is multivalent, and enables fluid relationships between people, will be a new basis of quality.

A Relational Basis of Design
Fundamentally, a change-based process of design begins with an acknowledgement of the complex and fluid social and physical reality in which design is a participant. (The image of the “Muir Web”, conceived by Eric Sanderson for the Mannahatta project, depicting all elements of a given ecosystem, is an apt representation.) The understanding that architecture is intrinsically relational- at every scale of experience- enables the process and products of design to be dynamic and open to question. This allows ideas and forms to be responsive to evolving parameters.

For the present and the future of design, we must prepare ourselves to engage change as an integral aspect of everything that we do – as the mediating criteria through which ideas in architecture are conceived, created and experienced. This is an incredible opportunity and incredible challenge for us all.

Thank you.