Design as Problem Solving

UCLA might be the prime attraction of Westwood Village, but increasingly becoming a focal point is the Hammer Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. It almost always has a provocative exhibit on display, as was the appealing genius of Thomas Heatherwick and his London-based Studio, which in a rare creative trifecta pursues art, architecture and design in an array of projects.

The exhibit was entitled Provocations, and it indeed provoked both the attending professionals and the public to recognize that at the core and calling of design is problem solving, not the look of something, however au courant; it is taking the complex and making it simple, not taking the simple and making it complex, as some of our star architects do.

It is not surprising that Heatherwick is quoted as saying when he was a young, inventors commanded his attention. “They don’t have style,” he said, “They look for ideas.”

And as I taught for years at the Art Center College of Design and at various architecture schools, design is the honest expression of function, while fashion and fad though occasionally appealing, is the fleeting mother lode for celebrity practioneers.

That the true test of design is how it serves the user, and if attractive and inventive, all the better.

These appealing qualities were very much on display in both small and large commissions the studio has been challenged by since its establishment 20 years ago.

They have included personal and household items, such as handbags, and rotation-molded chairs , as well as large public and private architectural projects around the globe.

These include several bridges, a distillery, a school, and a contemporary art museum, created within a historic grain silo. All dazzle, exuding an inventive approach to design, often combining novel engineering with new materials and innovative technology to create often sculptural forms.

To emphasize the studios user orientation, the projects explanation were presented as questions and answers, in effect literal provocations:

To quote: “How do you give individuality to the skin of an inexpensive building?”, “Can you squeeze a chair out of a machine, the way you squeeze toothpaste out of a tube?” “Is it possible to make a bridge out of glass?”

If you missed the exhibit at the Hammer, it is headed next to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, in New York. .

This commentary was aired on 97.5 KBU FM May 9, 2015.

It Takes A Village to Make A Civic Center

Musings on the design of Malibu’s embattled civic center, with cautious lessons for other cities searching for a community focal point.

At present, Malibu’s civic center is less a focus for the area’s desirable sea coast real estate, and more of a scattered collection of suburban mini malls.

It is also a battleground for a continuing shrill debate over its development, whether high end chain stores for deep pockets tourists and transient owners of beach front trophy houses, or more modest retail for the city’s grounded residents.

This conflict prompted the recent approval by voters of an ordinance with the intent of constricting large developments, but if anything has just further entangled the planning process, to the delight of lawyers.

Sitting in this stormy sea seemingly like a boat without a paddle is Malibu’s City Council, at the whim of hot winds.

As in the past, the council has attempted to deflect the controversy by appointing a citizens task force, and hiring consultants to guide it.

From my perspective, the problem is that it has limited the effort to drafting design standards for the future development of the civic center. Essentially, how it should look. Nice, but no cigars.

What is obviously needed is a so-called specific plan for the civic center– to guide what should be built there.

The result is that the task force, composed of several respected professionals and lead by a particularly enlightened consultant team, have been in effect – to use a popular planning adage – rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So, at the last meeting of the task force, much of the discussion was taken up by miniature and semantics, such as, a description of Malibu as a rural seacoast village.

Whatever, it gave me an opportunity at the meeting to comment, that if the civic center is truly to become a viable village, a village of people, it needs mixed use housing . In particular, affordable housing to cater to its school teachers, first responders, seniors and the local work force.

This housing would have many benefits, including reducing traffic on the PCH –residential generates half of what commercial does.

It also would more than satisfy Malibu’s affordable housing element required by the State. It certainly would please the Coastal Commission, and make it look more kindly on the city.

But most of all, it is the right thing to do. We owe it to those who serve us.

This essay was broadcast on 97.5 KBU.FM.