Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.


SpaceX: Boldly Going into the Future

Yesterday, South African-born billionaire entrepreneur, inventor and engineer, and founder of eBay, PayPal and SpaceX, Elon Musk, launched the first private attempt to dock with the International Space Station. This bold move goes down in history as the beginnings of a new frontier in space exploration – the age of private spaceflight.

I’ve been following the private sector’s developments in space technology for some time now. You may be wondering why the big cable news networks and blogs are making such a fuss over the Falcon 9 rocket’s launch. The gist is this: before President Obama came into power, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (known as NASA to non-space geeks) had this brilliant, yet exceptionally expensive plan for a programme that would take-over from the aging space shuttle fleet (the STS, or space transportation system programme that’s been a large part of NASA’s recent history). It was called the Constellation Programme, and the idea was to return to the moon by around 2017, and from there, move to a human landing on Mars or an asteroid. They’d even begun testing new rocket-engine technology and had developed three concept vehicles based on an engine called the Ares. Things were looking good for NASA, until Obama came into the White House, and, inheriting a poor-administered political landscape and having to begin a term of office in what was probably the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, he effectively cut all funding for the Constellation Programme. Just like that, the excitement at returning to our cosmological neighbor was brought to a standstill.

NASA thus decided to outsource its rocket building activities to the private sector, so that they could focus on astronomical research, and at the same time, give themselves more time to work on a new rocket system that could fulfill at least some of the objectives of the scrapped Constellation programme. SpaceX is one such private company that has shown significant potential in developing and successfully launching a vehicle that, it is expected, by 2014 will be able to allow the United States to launch their own astronauts to the ISS and not rely on their partners at ROSCOSMOS (the Russian Federal Space Agency).

SpaceX has proved that it is possible to engineer a space vehicle at a fraction of the cost of what governmental agencies spend on this type of design work. Yet it also opens up the skies to a myriad number of designers, engineers and future thinkers who are willing and ready to contribute to the advancement of our civilisation, a future that is certainly embedded firmly in the realm of the stars.