Re: Re: Sam Stephenson Old 1980s Documentary on RTE

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Ireland thinks it needs good design, when it needs more innovation.

I am thoroughly sick of this blizzard of magazines, newspapers, Expos, radio chat shows and TV programmes claiming to tell us about ‘design’. As an Army General once said, it is all tactics and no strategy. I would not like to describe Sam Stephenson as the complete designer, by any manner or means. I think that is apparent enough in the results of his buildings. One of the speakers in the documentary said, about Wood Quay offices, Sam became ‘interested’ in some of the spaces inside the building. But when it came to the exterior of the building, he lost interest. People like to over-simplify Sam Stephenson, by making him into a straw man who they can knock down easily. They see Sam as a weak designer, not as a good innovator. This is a similar problem I found myself, when working inside the architectural community. They harbour a severe predjudice against innovation, anything a little bit different or out of step. Often a good innovator is under used or under valued, relative to people who are simply good designers.

Innovation is a much larger term, it encompasses much more than design ever will. There are only a couple of really good design solutions available to an architect. Some designers are better at employing those few solutions than others. Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe could work with almost nothing and make it seem wonderful. If you look at Sam Stephenson, not as a designer, but as an innovator, you can better see the boundaries he was pushing. Sam fitted into a much grander picture, which included the politicians etc mentioned above. Politics is one very crucial outlet for people who wish to innovate. Industry is another. In the twentieth century we witnessed the birth of ‘creative’ industries. I am talking about the music industry, the movie industry, the magazine and publishing industry, the advertising industry and so on. Architecture was part of that broad spectrum of ‘creative’ industries. These industries were creative more in the sense they innovated. Changing how you deliver a service or product. Inventing new services or products, new ways of presenting them etc. Not exactly ‘grand design’, but making positive steps forward.

That is what our Irish politicians were trying to do. Sam Stephenson was able to listen ‘deeply’ to them and their ideas. He wrapped together a whole lot of beliefs and aspirations of many other innovators (politicians and others) and translated them into some architectural form. Today we appear to have lost that confidence in ourselves and our own ideas. It is not a rewarding experience to walk around some projects today, which avoid more questions than they ask. It was said that Pavaroti would avoid performing ‘difficult’ operas and would stick to easier challenges. The same could be argued about alot of ‘sensitive’ architecture in production here in Ireland now. Some of our ‘best design’ goes to great lengths to avoid insulting anyone. The Architect Louis Kahn said: “A good question is much better than the best answer.”

There is this idea today for building knowledge communities, which is still based upon the older industrial scale production of information. This model is effectively obsolete. But it still finds its way into many recent urban schemes I have seen in Ireland. How to deal with the new information economy, that is a tough challenge which I have seen designers duck time and time again. The mistakes of Sam Stephenson are still being repeated consciously by our designers. The architects try to offer us vast knowledge warehouses and industrial halls, which were relevant only in the early 20th century. You need good innovation to get beyond that, much more than you need a good designer. But we don’t seem to have those people any longer. In the past, you had real masters, immortals like Frank Lloyd Wright, who could design and innovate. Google video has a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax building here:

America has become a world leader in the service industry, because it invested in great innovator/designers such Wright. It is interesting the way in which research is combined with administration in this mini urban environment. The Johnson Wax administration building was built in the middle of the American depression, right when capitalism itself had imploded. America is leading the world in many different industries still. Much of that advantage owed to their strategy of innovation as well as design, in the early twentieth century. The Johnson building is a better model for Ireland today, than much of rubbish I have seen presented by our Irish Architects. Our economy now depends upon firms and how they work. Kevin Roche also presented many good examples of workplaces in his recent lecture given here at Dublin. I would like to refer you again to that paper by Ronald Coase, The Nature of the Firm.

The city of Dublin has become a kind of container for famous named architect’s work. Today in Ireland, we feel very proud that we can afford to hire in design services from abroad. We boast about having Calatrava or Kevin Roche design us a bridge or urban landmark. But we have not innovated in the way we design workplaces and environments for people to do their work in. Sam hadn’t got the artistic genius to complete the design as well as a Rem Koolhaas or a Steven Holl. He is probably not in that league. But in terms of the larger picture, I think Sam, it is fair to say, asked a lot of the right questions about Ireland.

Brian O’ Hanlon.

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