IA Summit: The Lost Art of Productively Losing Control

by Luke Wroblewski March 23, 2007

In his IA Summit 2007 keynote, architect, Joshua Prince-Ramus discussed the differences between architectural design and problem solving by walking through the process behind several of his building projects.

  • Architects have been transformed from master builders to authors of objects. They lost their pre-eminent role because they ran from liability and left the “serious stuff” to implementers & workers. This created an incredibly artificial schism between ideas and implementation.
  • Architects have reduced their relevance by focusing on ideas. Architecture should be about authoring processes. Architects have to be prepared to lose control. They may not author the sketch or have the best idea but they should author the process.
  • The Seattle library process was three months without any architecture drawings. Instead the tem worked on positioning diagrams that grounded the process.
  • Example: diagram that illustrated books are a technology. With any explosion of new technology, old technology tends not to go away. As a result, the library had to accommodate new technology as it arrives.
  • Example: diagram that illustrated the social responsibility of a public library building. Used data from library usage to illustrate that 2/3 of the building was social services (library did not believe it).
  • The client signed off on a structural diagram of how the space was to be organized. This helped them evaluate and understand the actual building when it was actually designed.
  • Starting from an understanding of infrastructure allowed solutions to be specific to what each area of the building was doing.
  • The general assumption was that this was willful architecture (a.k.a. form-based design). But it actually was primarily driven by the needs of the building.
  • The big thing in architecture is “skins”. This building is discussed in those terms but it is really built around structure: the most efficient way to support the building. The skins grew out of a complete understanding of needs.
  • The architecture team designed a process for how the structure will be built. It was the most important thing they did as it got the building built for $275 a square foot. It is a different animal: incredibly beautiful & incredibly cheap.
  • Bell labs had a set of central glass enclosed conference rooms: encouraged unique collaboration and innovation.
  • Theatre for Dallas performing arts. Because worked in provisional structure where able to drive cars through it, cut holes for roof, wells, etc. Worked in multiple theatre formats. When redesigning building had a fear of ruining what made the structure work.
  • Decided to spend more money on infrastructure vs. architecture to keep the building’s flexibility. Subtle details: had to design comfortable folding chair that can be flexibly renumbered.
  • Put together shared solutions to build a common language for evaluating design proposals. With a shared language, everyone feels they can critique.
  • Use “program blocks” structure (analyze space by what it enables) to get everyone on the same page.