An environmental psychologist is consulted to explain why the brain responds the way it does to certain settings. A nurse provides early guidance on the design of a new hospital. An anthropologist shares research on how human beings throughout history have thrived in particular environments.
The talent informing architecture is increasingly coming from a breadth of backgrounds, and it’s redefining the profession.
“Architecture has always been cross-disciplinary,” says Upali Nanda, Assoc. AIA, director of research at HKS. Nanda came to architecture via the arts and behavioral sciences, and has brought a multidisciplinary mindset to her work. “We are now at the point where we have to transcend those disciplines in an integrated approach that is core to how we work. What’s been lacking is synthesizing those disciplines and bringing them together, so that we do it consistently and make it a part of every project,” she says.
HKS endeavors to do just that. In 2008, the firm launched a nonprofit research arm to push the boundary on design research and evaluation in collaboration with academic and industry partners. It also has internal groups on business consulting, operational planning, computational design and fabrication, and sustainability. “HKS was set up to be a large global firm invested in doing best-in-class work with a nonprofit doing research that extends beyond the scope of a project,” Nanda says. “Some research needs to be done just in the name of research; but you want to be able to translate that immediately into practice and have that constant dialogue back and forth. We now have anthropologists, industrial designers, business analysts, clinical nurses, and simulation experts as part of our team. Those professionals are bringing in a different way of thinking.”
The increasing complexity of architectural projects, the sophistication of clients, and a desire to make true impact through design are among the many reasons for talent that comes from diverse fields. Sharon Davis earned an MBA and spent years in the financial services sector before becoming an architect and founding Sharon Davis Design in New York. She’s now harnessing her business acumen not just to design and program buildings but to help foster local economies in places like Africa.
For the nonprofit Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda, completed in 2013, Davis helped create jobs as well as a building. “The training of people became part of the project,” Davis says. “We said, ‘Let’s not bring materials from outside; let’s use the earth in front of us and put our money into labor.’ We trained local masons to make bricks, and now they’re being hired for other projects.”
Mark Foster Gage, principal and founder of his eponymous firm in New York, has built his practice with a combination of licensed architects and talent from the tech and product design fields. That tech-meets-architecture capacity is one way for a small firm like his to gain a competitive edge. “Just as a new car company can’t compete with General Motors, a smaller firm can’t always compete with the big firms,” Gage says. “So my office is more like a Tesla in that it’s aiming to do competition tangentially by introducing new tech and opening up possibilities for innovation that other firms can’t offer.”
His firm is working on a performance space in Manhattan, for example, that’s incorporating highly sophisticated interactive technology on a large scale. “What if we design the building itself as a machine for dealing with interactivity and social media? There’s going to be a market for these new types of intelligent buildings.”
Gage is also an assistant dean and chair of admissions at the Yale School of Architecture, a school that famously reserves at least 30 percent of admissions for people with little to no architectural background. “We’ve had an Egyptologist, an ecologist, an optometrist, a circus performer,” he says. “We’re trying to bring intelligence from all of these other disciplines into architecture school. We want them to converse between disciplines, and that’s what’s largely going to define architectural practice for my generation— collaboration and interdisciplinarity.”
Where firms source their workforce talent is also broadening. The Internet has become a powerful collaborative tool. “I can post that I need a certain specialty, and I can find and see portfolios from anywhere in the world,” Gage says. “Major corporations are also going this route, but it’s particularly empowering to smaller architecture firms. It’s like a video game—you grab the ax when you need the ax and sword when you need the sword.”
Gage’s secret source for global talent is Craigslist. “I would say that a good percentage of the people we collaborate with come from posting on one of the lowest-tech sites on the Web. I have connected with people from the arts, from the automotive technology industry, a hot-rod manufacturer, metalworkers, a mushroom grower, a metallurgist, renderers … and, of course, movers.”
Architects are also being sought out for compelling collaborations beyond brick-and-mortar design. When brain scientists at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore wanted to study the neuroscience of aesthetics and how that impacts the way humans experience the built environment, they called on Tom Kundig, FAIA, of Seattle-based Olson Kundig. “What’s helped my career is actually not being solely focused on architecture, but rather being attuned to the world around me,” says Kundig, who studied physics before switching to architecture. “Architects should be professional voyeurs. At our firm, we’re looking for misfits that are generalists, with the hope that we can assemble this body of people that come at architecture from different angles. It becomes a stew of intellectual thinking that’s fascinating.”
Robert W. Moje, FAIA, a founding principal of VMDO, says his firm often brings in expertise ranging from the brain sciences and graphic design to public health when designing one of their dozens of award-winning K–12 projects. For Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Va., one of the largest net-zero school buildings in the country, the goal was to foster childhood imagination while tethering it to curricular learning. “We’re trying to do that in a sophisticated and educational way that’s tied into brain science,” Moje says. “I spend a lot of time trying to understand how the brain works and what the implications are for architecture.”
Would his firm ever hire a neuroscientist on staff? Maybe, Moje says, but better yet a neuroscientist-turned-architect. “The profession has potential to help humankind by branching out and binding ourselves with other fields to see how we can make architecture more meaningful to the greater society. Neuroscience is just one example,” Moje says.
More than tapping myriad expertise and mining specific skills, the fusion of disciplines into the profession is paramount. “There’s a magic in getting more people involved in the creation of architecture,” Moje says. “As a profession, we think architecture is ours, and we don’t always want input. In reality, we need to start understanding that the more minds you can put on a problem the deeper and richer the potential solutions.”