Two Approaches to Preserving Cultural Monuments

Yesterday I followed along in horror as the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral burned down. The building — one of the great monuments of Western Civilization — was terribly damaged in the conflagration. Fortunately,​ no lives were lost. However, I still felt very sad. Buildings such as Notre Dame are more than mere shelter; they’re also vessels of culture. This fire was a great loss not just for the city of Paris, but for the world.

Seeing the disaster play out on​ Twitter, I couldn’t help but think about the way that we (in the West) go about preserving our cultural heritage. We incur great expenses to maintain structures like Notre Dame “as they were” — kept “authentic,” with as little alteration as possible. Buildings such as Notre Dame are symbols of our past; reminders of where we come from. We strive to keep them the way they were.

In this view, the emphasis is on the artifact itself; what matters is that the structure be preserved unscathed. Occasionally, something terrible may happen, such as yesterday’s fire in Paris. In that case, we put great effort in reconstructing the artifact as accurately as possible. (Architectural historian Andrew Tallon laser-scanned every inch of Notre Dame in 2010.) Fires, wars, and natural disasters have destroyed great monuments in the past. They’re often rebuilt exactly as before. (An example that comes to mind is the campanile in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, which collapsed in 1902.)

This is one way of going about preserving our cultural identity. Another way is best illustrated by another historically important religious structure, the Ise Jingu Shrine in Japan. This building is much older than Notre Dame; it’s been around in its current form since the late 7th Century CE. One of the interesting things about the Ise Shrine is how the people go about preserving it: Instead of waiting for time to take its toll, inhabitants of Mie Prefecture tear it down every twenty years and rebuild it as before.

When you visit the Shrine, you’re experiencing a building that is simultaneously over a thousand years old and also not older than twenty years. What matters isn’t the artifact per se – that exact building — it’s the process that brings it about. The ritual of rebuilding the Shrine preserves not just the structure, but also the methods that brought it about. Its continuous re-creation keeps it more immediately relevant than an artifact that is preserved “as is” for all time. Every generation gets to make it its own. (Literally.)

This is a completely different way of preserving the past. The focus is on systems, processes, and craft over the finished product. It’s a way of bringing cultural identity to life in a way that is more engaging than the more common approach to preservation. It’s also more resilient: a devastating incident like yesterday’s fire wouldn’t be such a major disruption if the structure was meant to be rebuilt anew every generation or so.

I don’t expect we’d actually do this with our great monuments; the expense of re-building an artifact as big and elaborate as Notre Dame ever twenty years would be too great. I want to see the great cathedral reemerge from the ashes, and would love to see it rebuilt as it was. I expect the people of France will bring it back to life. That said, I can’t help but wonder what it would mean for us to adopt a more systems-minded approach — not just to the preservation of our buildings, but to culture more broadly.

A Space for Collaboration

Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon working with a friend and colleague. We were synthesizing the results of a workshop we co-facilitated earlier in the week. It was fun, but I often felt constrained by the limitations of the space we were in and the technology we had available.

This type of work usually requires reviewing lots of photos from sketches and stickies posted on walls. My friend and I bounced ideas and memories from the workshop off of each other; we spotted patterns in these materials and captured them in a presentation deck. It’s easier to do this sort of work if we can both see the photos and files we’re editing. We took over the living room in my house, where we had access to ample wall space and projector. We projected photos from the workshop on one of the walls in the space, while we sat on the couch discussing their implications.

While this sounds like the ideal setup, soon it became apparent that there were limitations. For example, we were constrained to a single rectangular window of information on the wall. We could show photos and the document we were editing, but only if we split this rectangle, reducing our ability to see what we were doing. This was workable but not ideal.

A bigger issue was that only one of us could control what was being projected. For example, I was examining the photos from my laptop and my friend was editing the presentation deck. If I was sharing the pictures on the wall, we couldn’t see changes to the presentation deck and vice-versa. Yes, there are workarounds to this problem. For example, we could’ve used Google Docs (or something equivalent), which would’ve allowed us to edit the deck jointly. But this wasn’t ideal either. We spent more time than I would’ve liked trying to figure out how to best collaborate in this setup.

What I wanted was for all of the walls in my living room to be “digitally active” — to allow us to arbitrarily distribute our work around the room and jointly control it. Current computer display technologies are based on a one user/one computer/one display paradigm; projectors are treated as a display that is expected to be displaying the information of one computer at a time.

Instead, I’d like to place various photos on the walls around the room — perhaps recreating the space of the workshop. My friend would put his presentation on another wall. Both of us could then annotate and edit these digital objects arbitrarily. We’d be inhabiting a physical space that was also digitally active, a shared computing environment that we could inhabit and manipulate together.

Something like this is already being built at Dynamicland. That project features a space that allows users to manipulate digital information with physical artifacts. The digital information is projected onto the environment, with cameras detecting the positions of objects in physical space. As you manipulate these objects, the information projected on them changes. It’s a fascinating environment, one pregnant with potential. However, Dynamicland’s objective isn’t to extend our current collaboration paradigms but to reinvent them.

What I’m describing here is conceptually different: I want the sort of stuff we’re used to moving around in computer windows in our laptops and desktop computers up on the walls, while transcending the current single-user paradigm. (It’s a much more conservative vision than Dynamicland’s.) Does such a thing exist? (Perhaps using augmented reality instead of projectors?) It seems like it should be feasible.

Environment-Centered Design

Dan Hill on the impact of technology on the urban experience:

the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

User-centered design is partly to blame:

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy.

Mr. Hill argues that an effective approach to using technology effective in these domains requires looking beyond user-centered design towards an “equal and opposite” approach of environment-centered design:

The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the way we use technology at urban scale will effect profound transformations on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people in the planet. “Tech” won’t be something they’ll be able to opt out of; it’ll be the infrastructure of their lives. It’s imperative that designers start to think beyond the effects of technology on individual users.

The city is my homescreen

An Architecture + Systems Thinking Reading List

A friend asked me for a syllabus on architecture and cybernetics. I don’t have a comprehensive syllabus on the subject, but I did send him a short list of readings that have informed my thinking about architecting from a systemic perspective. I thought you may get value from this list as well, so I’m sharing it here. The resources are in no particular order.

What major resources have I missed? Please let me know.

Three Lessons From the Work of Charles & Ray Eames

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take my kids to see an exhibit of the work of Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. The Eameses are among the most famous designers ever, so little of the work on display was unfamiliar to me. Still, seeing so much of it together in one place was inspiring and enlightening.

The Eameses had a compelling mix of rigor and joie de vivre that has universal appeal. The show captures the playfulness of the resulting work. (My kids were a bit apprehensive about going to see a museum exhibit but got into it once they realized some of the items on display were toys they could play with.)

Three ideas stood out to me in this visit that I thought worth sharing. They apply to design in all domains.

Framing is a creative act

Careful composition and selection — determining what to leave out of a problem domain — opens up new ways of understanding and approaching familiar problems. As Brian Eno has written, “A frame is a way of creating a little world round something… Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?”

So much of the Eames’s​’​s work was about creative framing of ordinary things. In their myriad photographs, framing was the central (and literal) creative gesture; Powers of 10 moves the frame up and down levels of granularity to change our understanding of our place in the universe; the Case Study Houses re-frame the materials, construction techniques, and aesthetic of housing.

Accommodate a range of experiences

In the part of the show that presented the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit, a quote from Charles Eames stood out to me; it reflected their aspirations for the exhibit. He said, “[Mathematica] should be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable.”

A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses's Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A physical model of a mobius strip, part of the Eameses’s Mathematica exhibit. Image by Ryan Somma CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of accommodating a range of experiences is very important, and in some cases, challenging. Sometimes we must design for users that have very different perspectives and degrees of experience. This calls for 1) a solid understanding of the problem domain, 2) maintaining a beginners mind, and 3) testing and iterating.

It’s structure all the way down

I’ve always been inspired by the breadth of the Eames Office’s output. They excelled in film, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, exhibit design, and more. Beyond the obvious joy the Eameses got from experimenting with media, materials, techniques, and craft, the unifying conceptual drive behind all of this work was an acknowledgment that it was all underpinned by structure.

Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr
Photo by Cliff Hutson on Flickr

A building has structure. House of Cards — a delightful toy that consists of playing cards with carefully placed slits that allow them to be interconnected with each other — has structure. So does a chair, and a film. Even given the wide scope of their work — and the fact that most people saw them as “designers” — Charles Eames saw himself as an architect. “I can’t help but look at the problems around us as problems of structure,” he said, “and structure is architecture.”

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs in the Oakland Museum of California until February 18, 2019.

SF Architecture Walking Tour

In the last couple of years, I’ve led small groups of colleagues at the Enterprise UX conference on a walking tour of the architecture of downtown San Francisco. UXmatters just published a writeup of this year’s tour.

My tour focuses on how we create mental models of environments, based on the framework laid out in Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City. It also explores things UX designers can learn from the architecture of the built environment. We do this by looking at landmarks in downtown SF.

I learned about many of the architectural facts and locations I talked about from a fabulous walking tour of the city led by architectural historian Rick Evans. Looking at the UXmatters writeup, I’m struck by how much of what I talked about I picked up from Rick’s tour. I haven’t given him enough credit, and hope to change that with this post.

If you have a morning or an afternoon to spend in downtown San Francisco, one of the best investments of your time would be to take Rick’s tour. It’s enlightening and a great value.


One of the most frequent objections I hear about approaching design work more architecturally is that architecture is “top-down.” By this, my interlocutor usually means that architects come to problems with a prescribed solution that they impose onto the situation, In contrast, of course, to a solution that emerges more fluidly from understanding the context and people served by the thing being designed.

It’s understandable that they’d come to this conclusion since many of the famous architects people know about produce work that doesn’t look intuitive or contextually relevant. It’s hard to see, for example, how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is the result of a user-centered design approach. The worst offender here is perhaps Le Corbusier, whose urban Plan Voisin for Paris would’ve razed large portions of the city in exchange for a de-humanizing grid of skyscrapers:

Continue reading

The War Room

Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.

A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.

Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.

Continue reading