Nerve-center Fusion

Finally, architects and technologists are talking to one another.
Tom LeanderApril 30, 2007

Walk into a room, any room, and it speaks to you. This is an emotive response, entirely in your imagination, but it’s palpable, and architects take it very seriously. That response can have a profound effect on social interactions. Work in an open, well-designed space and you may find that you want to talk with your colleagues, eager to communicate what you know. Find yourself in a dull cubicle and you may feel confined.

What happens when technology is added to this invisible, emotional chemistry? Remember that technology is supposed to produce miracles of productivity — or so business-software ads would have us believe. That may be true much of the time, but too often it not only clashes with design, but works against the conditions that free up communication and inspiration.

James Oliver was a technologist at Goldman Sachs’ London trading office in the mid 1990s when he noticed how technology hardware impeded productivity at the bulge-bracket powerhouse. Oliver was in charge of upgrading computer gear, and decided to be an early adopter of flat-screen LCD monitors. They were more expensive than the alternative. Still, he made his argument for them on points that lay within the province of design. “An active trader,” says Oliver, who is now co-founder of a Hong Kong design and technology firm called One Space, “may have six monitors at his or her desk, each measuring about 40 centimeters deep. Desks are back to back. That’s not a useful space you’re creating.”

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“It makes it harder to have a conversation,” he adds. “You’re dealing with large volumes of money. It’s a hard, stressful job, and the workspace has to be pleasant. You need to communicate verbally, very easily, and yell across a particular price. The people component is important.”

Oliver made his point, and Goldman went flat-screen. The monitors, it turns out, were also prettier to look at. “Aesthetics matter,” he says.

The Social Dimension

It’s no secret that technology has greatly changed the work environment. That change isn’t always for the better — think of computer monitors stacked on phone books, dusty piles of servers, wire booby traps beneath desks, and comically inept teleconferencing gear. True, computers and software have surely increased workforce productivity; many clerical tasks, for instance, have been automated out of existence. And some companies are experimenting with mobile technology to make office life a little more bearable. Many IT and financial-services firms offer employees scattered café areas reminiscent of Starbucks, with the idea that workers, equipped with wireless laptops, BlackBerries, and cell phones, are free to work wherever they wish.

But that’s about as far as it goes. “Over the years, many companies have touched on this topic but not gone much further,” says Sandy Apgar, a partner with The Boston Consulting Group’s real-estate practice.

That’s a pity, says architect Greg Pearce, the head of Hong Kong University’s master of interdisciplinary design and management program. “Technology,” he says, “is getting to be a part of everything we do. It frames working life. As an architect, my interest lies in how the social dimension changes as technology gets more pervasive and more invisible.”

Pearce is part of a small but influential cohort of designers who believe that implementing technology is not a bolt-on endeavor, but an integral factor in design. He argues that the interplay between technology and design so often fails because they are approached as if from warring factions. Would-be Louis Sullivans and Frank Lloyd Wrights believe technology can be bent to their will. Meanwhile, the nerds adore their gadgets and see little point in collaborating for beauty and functionality.

A drive to overcome this long-standing division surfaces in the marketplace of ideas from time to time. Architects call it convergence, meaning the physical properties that comprise a space — walls, ceilings, supports and struts, furniture — and technology will eventually be considered the same thing. The mission, then, from the architect’s point of view would be to plan with a technologist at the outset. One prominent believer in convergence is Bill Gates, who hired two architectural firms to design the Gates family compound in Medina, Washington. One feature of the house is that it incorporates technology as part of the architecture itself, making it almost another material to work with.

Establishing Roots

Walk into the high-tech offices of Nezu Asia, a Hong Kong hedge fund, and you’ll see what’s possible when the two camps collaborate. The Japanese word nezu means “swamp root”, a guiding metaphor that takes visual form in the reception area, where a tree root appears suspended in a steel-and-glass case and bathed in light. The case is transparent, and gives a view to the trading room beyond, where blue carpeting soothingly leads the eye to four desks with LCD monitors set perpendicular to a curving bank of windows. In daytime, these windows wash the room with natural light. A wall separating the trading room from adjacent rooms doubles as a museum display of earthen vessels from ancient Khmer and other Asian civilizations, part of a collection owned by Nezu’s founder. These ceramics hover against their black settings, lit from above and below. The effect is restful and inspiring, like a slice from a Rothko chapel.

None of this detracts from trading-floor functionality. “We’re all pretty close to each other and hear each other,” says Richard Kincaid, the CFO of Nezu Asia, which manages US$800m in assets. In fact, Kincaid says, there is a mysterious play between the presence of the objets d’art, the modern setting, and the intense demands of the work. The fusion of high-tech and ancient give the traders a pride of place. “It’s just a cool, interesting place to work,” he says.

The office was designed by Pearce, who with Oliver started One Space in 2004. One Space has designed a number of highly functional workplace settings with no compromise of aesthetics, including hedge-fund firm Deephaven Capital Management, and Fubon Bank’s Hong Kong headquarters. The company’s largest project so far has been the first major modification of architect Norman Foster’s landmark HSBC building, also in Hong Kong. The extension reworked HSBC’s cumbersome three entrances into a unified lobby, but in a way that complemented Foster’s design, and included a display of HSBC’s voluminous historical photographic archives on long, flat LCD screens that look like a part of the building itself.

Enabling the Enabler

The germ that led to the technologist and architect’s collaboration was a casual conversation at a Hong Kong party about the rueful fact that architects and technologists never seem to talk to each other. Oliver had come to Hong Kong to be the chief technology officer at Goldman for the Asia Pacific region. He left to start his own technology-outsourcing firm called Principal One. But, he says, he’s always been interested in making spatial design and technology installations compatible. “Tech is an enabler in a space,” he says.

Pearce designed Hong Kong Station — the rail terminus of the city’s Airport Express — as the principal architect for Arup Associates, a unit of Ove Arup and Partners, between 1992 and 1998. He also oversaw the master plan for Hong Kong’s IFC site, a huge development that now comprises Hong Kong’s tallest building, other offices, a hotel, and a shopping mall, in addition to the Hong Kong station.

When Pearce speaks, he impresses as an apostate of his profession. “I don’t believe in the heroic architect,” he says, although one of his strong influences is also the unorthodox and romantic, if not heroic, architect Louis Kahn. Instead, he argues that the collaborative, interdisciplinary approach is fresh and right
for Asia, where companies in technology-dependent businesses such as financial services are expanding almost with a virtual blank slate. Technology may not yet be invisible, but it doesn’t have to make you miserable. Fused with design, it might even make you more productive.

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