NEXT!: AIA San Francisco at the Cutting Edge

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A 128-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum optimization processor. (
A 128-qubit superconducting adiabatic quantum optimization processor. (“DWave 128chip” by D-Wave Systems is licensed under CC BY 3.0)

There sure was a lot of science at AIA San Francisco’s recent NEXT conference. Not that I have anything against science; some of my best friends are scientists, and I like a well-turned section modulus as much as the next guy. It just struck me how pervasive it was.

Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture & Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, opened the day with a review of “The New Frontiers of Design,” beginning with an image of a quantum computer designed by D-Wave Systems. Not surprisingly, the harnessing of data underlay much of the work she showed, from Josh On’s charting of the incestuous nature of corporate boards (They Rule, 2004) to Nervous System’s Kinematic Dress (2014). But it was not all computer science; her presentation included projects premised on physics, such as Arthur Brutt and Ido Bruno’s Earthquake-Proof Table (2011), and biology, such as the organs-on-chips being developed by Harvard’s Wyss Institute to facilitate more rapid drug trials. Genetics emerged in Ai Hasegawa’s (Im)possible Baby, Case 01: Asako & Moriga, a speculative project that “aims to stimulate discussions about the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies that could enable same-sex couple to have their own, genetically related children.”

Genetics also plays a role—on an evolutionary timescale—in the groundbreaking work of UC Berkeley psychology professor Lucia Jacobs, whose lab has recently demonstrated the role of olfaction (the sense of smell) in human spatial orientation. Her presentation was part of a panel moderated by Robert Lamb Hart, AIA-E, author of A New Look at Humanism in Architecture, Landscapes and Urban Design, on “Using the Sciences to Enlarge the Way Designers Think About Design,” which also included presentations by neuroscientist Tom Albright, immediate past president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, and biophilia expert Chris Garvin.

Several panels looked at the intersection of digital technology and the built environment. In a panel on “spatial intelligence,” Mark Miller, AIA, Lindsay Baker, PhD, and Aviad Almagor explored how recent advances in data technologies are enabling better understanding, analysis, design, and control of spaces for responsiveness and efficiency. Eyal Ohana, Mark Coleran, Ken Graven, and John Chiodo discussed strategies for integrating digital technology into built spaces to enhance social interaction. Emma Stewart, PhD, David Scheer, and Clifton Lemon introduced the idea of a “living model” of the city, in which modest monitoring systems gather district-wide data to inform the design and development of new projects, as well as the optimization of existing circumstances.

My favorite science-rich presentation, though, was by Sean Ahlquist, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan. Its tongue-twister of a title, “Transdisciplinary Design for Technology-Embedded Tactile Environments,” belies the elegance of Ahlquist’s project, which is to design therapeutic play environments for children with autism. His interactive structures, rigged with Microsoft Kinect-guided projectors, enable a child to trigger images by pressing on their fabric surfaces, engaging muscles and joints in proprioception. Producing complexly curved membranes using the university’s CNC knitting machines, Ahlquist puts all the fashionable things—parametric form-making, material experimentation, digital-analog hybridization—in the service of a real need. We could use more of that.

Sean Ahlquist, Social Sensory Surfaces research project for children with autism spectrum disorder. Courtesy of University of Michigan.

Science even infiltrated the “Business Track,” in Mark Miller’s second appearance—with Richard Pollack, FAIA, and Steven Burns, FAIA, in “The (Present and) Future of Business Practice”—where he made the case for architects embracing a practice of innovation, harnessing data with the goal of creating more responsive buildings, better attuned to results and connected to users. Other business-focused panels included “Innovating Negotiation: The Art & Science of Making the Deal,” with Joan C. Williams, Elizabeth Tippin, Esq., and Rosa Sheng, AIA; “Building a Successful Practice: From Infancy through Mastery,” with Michael Strogoff, FAIA, Mark Jensen, AIA, and Wally Gordon, AIA; and “Architects and Social Media,” with Kenneth Caldwell, Amanda Walter, and Mark English, AIA, moderated by editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, William Menking.

Two further panels formed a bridge back to the previous day’s Placemaking Deepdive, which took a decidedly more analog, on-the-ground approach to creating and stabilizing vibrant, diverse neighborhoods. Kearstin Dischinger, Amanda Loper, AIA, Tim Colen, and Irving Gonzalez, AIA, presented new and proposed programs for addressing San Francisco’s critical housing shortage, such as the Affordable Housing Bonus Program; and Mallory Cusenbery, AIA, and Tomas Alvarez’s “Equity in Action: Co-Creating Space for Social Change” profiled programs—like City Space Youth Project—that engage young people in grassroots placemaking.

To me, the most surprising thing about the conference was that, other than Chris Garvin’s contribution to the “Using the Sciences” panel, only one session focused expressly on issues of sustainability: “Water Recycling for a Resilient Future,” with Tracy Quinn, PE, John Scarpulla, Rowan Roderick-Jones, PE, and Fumiko Docker, AIA. Perhaps we are reaching the point at which sustainability is an assumed part of any discussion of the design of the built world. Or perhaps it was that the theme of data, central to so many of the presentations, so readily incorporates the metrics of resource consumption into broader explorations of place.

Expanded descriptions of all sessions are available at!schedule-of-events/c24vq.


Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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