The civic entrepreneur

Continuing from Dayna Cunningham’s exploration of decision-making, democracy, and civic engagement, we revisit an interview first published in Future Practice in 2013. In this conversation, Rory Hyde questions Indy Johar, a London-based architect and co-founder of 00:/, on the changing nature of architectural practice and the democratic structure of placemaking.

This conversation continues to gain traction as it reflects an approach to architecture that is becoming more dominant year by year. It expresses a need for architects to embrace holistic thinking and cross-disciplinary work in the aim of creating ”a virtuous social, environmental, and economic cycle.” This thinking embraces Melissa Lane’s call for architecture to recognize a civic responsibility beyond the professional brief and contract documents. In the wake of the global financial crisis and in the midst of the climate crisis, this “big picture,” systems-level thinking will allow architecture to maintain its efficacy.

While Johar does not frame his work in the rhetoric of sustainability or climate change, a low-carbon practice is a natural consequence of his approach. By adopting an entrepreneurial and opportunity-based ethos, he frees himself to conclude that a building is not always the answer.

I came across a video of a debate hosted by the Architecture Foundation about the role of architecture in the crisis, where you said you “would reluctantly call yourself an architect.” So with that in mind, what do you see is wrong with the title “architect,” if anything, and how might you define yourself otherwise?

I don’t think the challenge is the term “architect,” I think it’s the unfortunate professional and institutional infrastructure and the values associated with it. In fact, I think architecture is going to become more and more powerful as we move away from the idea of management and toward creating conditions for behavioral nudges, self-organization, and a deep influence on systems; physical environments and the ambient structuring of spaces will play a powerful role in this. But I think the way we’ve trained architects and the institutional body around architecture is just redundant, and we need to dissociate the two.

The systemic problem is that the internal debate is focused on the image and semiotics of architecture—the image as a tool to raise capital financing for buildings—it was the “iconic” nature which was seen as the key driver of architecture. On the other hand, we had the counter movement, the tectonic movement which fetishizes the act of construction. Unfortunately, neither of those approaches are actually about the performative impact or the institutional behavior of those environments.

There are very low levels of behavioral understanding in architecture. The models that architects produce are physical, spatial models; cardboard models of the frame. It’s like Picasso turning around and saying “Here’s the frame of my painting, would you mind buying it”?

What sort of tactics or approaches are you using in your practice to redress this balance, or to try and bring architecture back to a more human-centric approach? In particular you mention the importance of working with various different disciplines beyond architecture.

Somebody asked me just this morning whether I knew anyone in Vancouver doing “architecture, design, placemaking and economics”? And I thought it was interesting that they were her four criteria; it was the fusion of those things which she thought we did. Our capabilities came out of being part of the policy think-tank world, as well as the design world, so there are fundamentally different disciplines at the heart of the team. We’ve got some fund managers sitting here, we’ve got urban geographers, we’ve got anthropologists, we’ve got coders, so actually the background of the team is very diverse. We do build things, we also do research—real research—and we also host forums, so you actually have to do all three. I think the richness of the team is one of the key aspects of that as well.

I was speaking to the Helsinki Design Lab team at Sitra a few weeks ago, and they speak of how the policy is really important, the programming is really important, but it also needs to have a spatial aspect to be able to really communicate the idea. I’m interested in how you might approach doing a real building, or is that something you’re less interested in these days?

No no, we’re doing lots of real buildings. I actually think that dichotomy of doing a real building or not is part of the problem. The challenge is not whether you do a real building or not, the challenge is whether you are making places better. The language default is a problem. I can spot an architect when he walks into The Hub because they say “Oooh, nice space,” and I think “Yeah, you’re missing the point.”

We are about to finish a £4.5 million building in Sheffield, we are doing a new super low-energy dorm for a girls school, we’ve just done several hyper low-carbon houses, we’re developing the WikiHouse, we’re doing a new decentralized school called the Scale-Free School in Marylebone which will be a mixture of institution and physical environment, we did The Hub, all the tables here are open-source tables done on CNC routing, based on a wiki platform.

Sorry, I take it all back! So you really are tackling the full spectrum and delivery.

That’s right. Sometimes I have to list all those projects just to remind people. I suppose the problem with the question of whether we do buildings or not is that it’s the wrong way of framing the discourse. Yes, we do built environment—we think built environment is key—but that’s not the focus of it. The focus is the outcome, and we happen to do built environment if that’s what’s required.

One of the other themes in your work I’m really interested in is your approach to economy. I found a quote, where you say: “It’s time for architects to start reading the financial papers.” You seem to take it much more seriously than many architects or other people in this space. Economics is a territory that’s normally relegated to the developer or clients, we don’t seem to worry about the money except how much the building costs. How do we reclaim this territory? Is it about getting involved with business models, business plans, thinking about how this thing might make money?

It’s all the same act. The idea that we can disassociate one aspect from another aspect is an illusion. It’s an illusion of a 17th-century Enlightenment model, where we figured out that we could deal with the world in vitro, you could take architecture and isolate it, you could take the business model and isolate it, you could isolate different components, and say “Hey, if we isolate it, we can deal with it in effective ways.” That is an Enlightenment model of how you organize the world. Now, what is becoming apparent in the world we’re living in, is that in vitro modeling of the world isn’t able to cope with the complexity, i.e. the externalities all those models were generating. So carbon is just an externality of a model which doesn’t take account of certain things. It’s an in vitro business model. That’s the more fundamental problem, that I think we’ve reached the end of this siloed idea of building stuff. That’s the systemic issue.

We are talking about building ecosystems where there are no hard divisions between the built environment, the value model, between the impacts it has, between how it absorbs carbon, what materials it uses—it’s about seeding an organism, and I don’t think you can make such hard distinctions between things. I always use the term “design venturing”; I think great entrepreneurs seem to be pretty good designers frankly, they tend to have a very good eye for those things, because they use the same skills. So I think it’s about this method of how you build systems, the “architecture of systems,” as opposed to the “architecture of brick buildings.” That shift is one of the big things we are seeing, because this in vitro modeling doesn’t work.

It’s probably useful to talk about your Compendium for the Civic Economy now, as it seems to be the perfect manifesto of that idea of the spatial and economic ecosystem. What is the civic economy, and do architects have a role to play in it?

In a sort of high-level sense, the civic economy is an idea about how technology and a deep democratization of process is liberating a new way for people to organize themselves locally, and to actually create institutions and organizations which are fundamentally focused on a civic purpose. They can be for-profit, not-for-profit, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a new citizen method of organizing micro acts which can create a virtuous social, environmental, and economic cycle. So whether it’s the sixty-eight FabLabs all around the world, The Hub, or Community Kitchens, all these projects in the book are about the synthesis of social capital and investment capital to create a performative impact.

Now, the role of architects is huge, but it’s about place-making as opposed to the design of a physical product. Hosting and creating those flows and networks, seeding them, and allowing them to iterate, is what the 21st-century architect will be doing, which is hugely significant. This is acutely democratic in terms of influence and power—there is going to be no single leadership, but democratic leadership. So I think the role of the architect is hugely significant, I just think it’s a new type of architect. And I think this is part of a longitudinal trend, this democratization of capital, democratization of power, democratization of leadership, and this post-management world is opening up all sorts of new challenges.

This new 21st-century architect you’re describing also seems to directly plug into the crisis of the economy at this moment. Architects were the first ones to lose their jobs, really. Our work had become so dependent on capital, financing and banks that we’ve been forced to rethink how we operate. So, is this new architect as civic entrepreneur an . . . opportunity?

Yes and no. The reason why I dislike the word “opportunity” is that it sounds like it’s a new way to capitalize ourselves. I think the civic entrepreneur is the genuine space of intersection and creation of value. I think it’s the genuine space of how we will almost certainly be operating and hosting those new value networks and allowing them to emerge. For example, there are some great guys out in Cardigan in Wales who are building a new jeans factory. Are they architects? Yeah, because they are building a whole new idea of a factory by deeply embedding it within an ecosystem, by using permaculture methods; it’s going to require different innovation process, different design process, different synthesis process. So actually we are seeing new forms of this stuff starting to emerge.

I think what we are seeing is the reemergence of the thinker and maker being fused again, and I think it’s this fusion where architecture is at. Some of these people may not call themselves architects, but they play that same role of fusing thinking and making, and creating a new capacity of doing. But to make this shift will require us to genuinely let go of the past and embrace a near future.

One of the things I think is great about the book, is that it puts this word economy right up there front and center. A lot of the community development world seem to be very cautious of this word, it’s somehow associated with something they are trying hard to counter. But then you present this fantastic project by the Fintry Development Trust, where a community has pulled together to purchase a wind turbine as part of a larger array. For me that really feels like the future, it shows that a community can do more than just oppose something or make a shared garden, it can actually engage on the scale of infrastructure, economy, and real energy.

Exactly, and what it’s starting to show is the creative capacity. If we talk about Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude, this is showing the generative capacity of the multitude, and that’s also what is starting to be unleashed. We’re creating new methods of organizing ourselves, of organizing investment, talent, capabilities and possibilities with space, and being able to create genuinely low-cost and low-governance but high-value models of financing around that, and return on investment for communities. So, for me there is something quite potent starting to happen.

One of the projects from the book you’ve been leading directly is The Hub. This seems to be a core ongoing project for the studio, and you’re even sitting in the brand new one in Westminster right now, which is something. What is The Hub, and what kind of people are working there? There also seems to be a unique funding model which is central to its operation.

In its simplest sense The Hub is a platform to encourage autonomy and new forms of business. It’s a platform with four layers: a physical environment which is biased towards being pro-social, operating in a connective capacity; there is an investment platform, which is about investing in the start-ups and the ideas that are happening in that environment; there is a learning environment, which is a night school that will be announced later this year; and then we have a journalist on the books, so there’s a media platform. For me, in the high-level sense, it’s about saying the modern corporate won’t be about the singular aim being executed, but about how the corporate shifts platform behavior, and supports many people’s aims. And the purpose is that they have an aim but they also have an economy of scale and the infrastructure provided.

Another project I’d like to discuss is WikiHouse, which has created quite a positive buzz. When you first announced it a couple of months ago and I checked out the website—I guess it must have been its first iteration—there was this very interesting but simple structure for making a little room out of CNC milled pieces of plywood, but checking back again today it really makes sense as a platform, as something which is about sharing and networking, and which has a global reach. Perhaps you could talk about the big idea behind WikiHouse, and in particular, what problem is it solving?

One of the things we realized was that we are seeing a longitudinal trend of production moving from factories all the way down, and what we are going to see is the nature of production moving down lower and lower, more local and local. The tables in The Hub were manufactured in the space, they were all CNC routed, we are open-sourcing all the designs, so we are creating an almost DIY open IKEA model. We did this first with tables, we tried it out, it’s a very interesting aesthetic—almost Japanese joinery meets digital tech—and very interesting in what it does to the nature of making. We were exploring this, but as soon as you move into a post-authorship model, which is not about owning a particular intellectual property or a particular domain, and you move into the notion that this generative model means that people can use some of the details and technology, you start to create something which is quite fast and collaborative.

Now, the WikiHouse is what I call a “poem of the future.” One of the things our practice has really struggled with was finding an aesthetic or tectonic that reflects our way of thinking. It was probably the first time we came to a tectonic structure where effectively we were able to create a product, open-source it and simultaneously digitally print it, to create something where the manufacture and construction can pretty much be done by lay people. So it’s a start at creating a hyper-democratized mode of making by actually sharing that making with many, many people, to try and iterate that model and transform it. In a sense it allows us to tap into a zeitgeist of doing.

Until now there has been an articulation between the professional designer-maker and the amateur, what this is trying to do is create that smooth curve between these two positions—between the long tail and the high tail. By blurring that boundary you can do things which historically have not been done before.

It’s really fascinating, I like this idea of blurring between the pro and the am. It feels like you are trying to do with space what HTML has done to web design. It let everyone and their cat be able to contribute to the web by designing a website. And what’s interesting is that this doesn’t actually dent the value of the professionals, but only expands the tail of access.

Exactly. I don’t think WikiHouse will undermine architecture, I think it will genuinely create a new collaborative infrastructure for architects and designers to work together. Whether WikiHouse works as an idea doesn’t really matter; we did it, we’re doing it, and it’s growing. I don’t think we should be fixated around our solution or anyone else’s solution, and we hope other people will take this on and make it better. These are little things which show what’s possible, that these technologies are possible. Right now we’re looking at whether we can make an entire building refurbishment using open-source plans, all the cutting patterns, everything. Can we do that? Let’s see how far we can push the model.

Rory Hyde is Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. He studied architecture at RMIT University in Melbourne, where he completed a PhD on emerging models of practice enabled by new technologies. Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture is his first book.

Indy Johar is a qualified architect and co-founder of several social ventures. His interests lie in the synthesis of strategic design, policy making, and social venturing/innovation. He co-founded 00:/ in 2005, a design practice focused on catalyzing change in cities, towns, and neighborhoods through a fusion of physical and institutional interventions.

Original interview conducted by Rory Hyde on November 29, 2011 via Skype; published in Future Practice

Copyright 2013 from Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture by Rory Hyde. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc