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.

What is innovation, really?

innovate [verb]

make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

In today’s fast-paced world, the question of innovation arises frequently whenever a tech company releases a new product. It’s discussed more often when that tech company is none other than Apple, once considered the “most innovative company” under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

When Apple announced the iPhone 5s, the argument for their lack of innovation and simply just releasing iterative products was at its strongest. The parallel was drawn between 1 Infinite Loop and their fiercest new competitor, Samsung. In the case of Samsung, it’s argued that their products seem more innovative because of all the new features packed into their latest devices. In other words, more is better – not an altogether incorrect assumption, but in terms of innovation… that remains to be understood.

This reasoning has got me thinking about what we consider “innovation” to mean in a world saturated by new products, a world where discourse is accelerated by the power of the World Wide Web, a world where the exponential increase in technology drives economies and mass-desire for the next big thing.

When Steve Jobs shepherded Apple out of their dark ages with the colourful iMac, he was regarded amongst the great businessmen and inventors of recent history – Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford. That original iMac brought something truly unexpected to the computing world: fun. It brought computers to life; its bold design decisions – made by the formidable designer Jony Ive – diverged from the existing conceptions of what computer design constituted. It was innovative in the field of industrial design by its very nature of being different, of being bold and new.

When John F. Kennedy chose to “go to the moon […] and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” thousands of NASA engineers embarked upon one of the most daring projects ever – to design a spacecraft that could safely land man on the moon, and fulfil our unending quest to explore, to go beyond, to seek new frontiers. They innovated in the field of science, discovering countless new things that have spilled-over into general use.

Nikola Tesla is perhaps history’s unluckiest innovator – under the shadow of Edison, his inventions went largely unseen or appreciated. For example, he’s the father of radio, yet many consider Guglielmo Marconi to be the actual inventor.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own.”
― Nikola Tesla

Yet Tesla persevered, because he was so invested in his ideas, so driven by his passion to create and discover and test new ideas, rather than be forced to succumb to the whim of the general public and abandon his work.

His name has inspired Elon Musk’s innovative attempts, namely Tesla Motors. His work there is changing the way we understand something intrinsic to modern living: the car. Musk is daring to make the electric motor car a viable and stylish alternative to the environmentally damaging internal-combustion engine vehicle. Musk isn’t worried about social convention; he’s going against it to create something new, something daring.

I could list a hundred more examples of innovators daring to change the world with significantly new ways of thinking, but I think you get the point: to innovate means to diverge from what is the established path, it’s to explore, to test, to try new things and go beyond what everyone else feels is the convention. And in doing so, it results in the creation of something meaningful. This doesn’t mean piling more features onto an existing product – that is actually iterative design, not innovative design.

The word “innovation” has become saturated over the years with our misconception of it meaning “more features.” It’s driven by our desire to want more, because more is supposedly better. It’s a mass-consumerist ideology that has permeated today’s societies. The true nature of innovation has been lost. It’s lucky that we have people like Elon Musk who still believe in its original intention.

Instead of focussing on wanting more, we should become more discerning about what it is we desire. Are more features packed into a product – many of which you probably won’t want to use more than once – really what you want? Or is it the attention to every facet of a product’s design, every little detail, whilst adding just those features that will add value and meaning to your interaction with the product, a more compelling alternative?

This is indeed a compelling age to be living in, as the very idea of what it means to innovate is being challenged by both bold ideas and new steps forward, and the marketing-driven feature-piling approach of many tech companies. Perhaps there will never be a final definition, as our desire to explore and create will constantly force this notion in new directions.