Crisis or Opportunity? Red+Black interview with Thomas Fisher

how Soon is Now

One of the standout highlights of the 2o16 National Architecture Conference, How Soon is Now, was the closing keynote address delivered by Thomas Fisher.  Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture, the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota, and Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the College of Design. He is also author of the extraordinary book titled ‘In the Scheme of Things’. The Red+Black Architect was fortunate enough to speak with Thomas Fisher on the first afternoon of presentations, prior to his powerful closing address.

Thomas Fisher, speaking at How Soon is Now. (image courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architects)

Thomas Fisher, speaking at How Soon is Now. (image courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architects)

Red + Black Architect – It seems the architecture profession has been in a continual crisis for about some time now. How did we get into this position and how long have we had this certain crisis?

Thomas Fisher – Well, I suppose it depends on what crisis you’re referring to, there’s sort of the post-Great Recession crisis, but it sounds like you’re referring to something longer-term than that.

R+BA – Yes, more recently we had the global financial crisis, but it goes back much further than that, possibly back to modernism potentially.

TF – I guess my view of things is that when things aren’t working, it’s usually a signal that it’s time for a change. I think one of the things that I find fascinating about our profession is that, on one hand, we’re sometimes extraordinary risk-takers when it comes to form and even ideas, but when it comes to our own practices we are incredibly risk-averse. As we just heard from Andrew Beer, the Dean from the South Australian Business School, we have been for quite a while going through a phenomenal change in our economy, which is requiring everybody to come up with new delivery models, new business models.

In theory, you would think the design community would be good at this, but in fact have been fairly conservative in our willingness to try completely new ways of doing things, so I see every crisis as an opportunity, as I think we do when we design. I mean usually clients are coming to us with a crisis, right.

R+BA – Absolutely

TF – The design is the way to get them past their crisis. Well, okay, if our profession is in crisis, we need to design a way out of this, and I think to be a designer you have to be optimistic. I believe that this is just an opportunity for us to do things in different ways.

R+BA – What are the biggest problems facing our profession, as you see it?

TF- Compensation is often brought up and we have fee structures that are really presented as if we’re at cost, like our buildings are at cost, and what we don’t really recognize is that we save our clients far more money than it cost them. If you just look at energy savings, we save our clients vast amounts of money through design strategies that we now use and, so, I think one of the challenges we have is that we need to frame ourselves as how much we save clients. You pay us more we’ll be able to save you more because we spend more time saving you money. If you don’t pay us much, we won’t save you much and it’ll actually cost you more.

R+BA – Perhaps this is causing a vicious cycle where architects are not being paid enough, so they don’t have enough time to do the job well enough, to justify increasing fees.

TF – Yes and in this regard, I’m also fairly critical of the universities. I don’t think schools of architecture have done enough to actually do the kind of research that would provide the kind of information to the profession to make these architects. We all know about post occupancy evaluations, but those tend to be more from a user point of view. I think that there’s a lot of research opportunity there to actually go back in and benchmark what the building could have been, what are sort of standard products would have been and how much the architect saved them in terms of everything from performance and operations to savings on turnover of staff. I mean all of these things are costly to clients and, so, the universities need to have a research agenda, which is, I think, more closely aligned to what the needs of the profession are.

R+BA – Research is one role of the universities, but what about the education about next generation of architects? What do you think needs to be done in that regard?

TF – That’s right. I think we are moving into a time where it’s a little bit along the lines of what happened in the legal profession and I think I write about that a bit In the Scheme of Things.  The legal profession in the Great Depression of the 1930s was in similar turmoil. They used to go to law school to become a trial lawyer. That was what lawyers did because they learned how to write briefs and to argue cases in front of judges. In the Great Depression of the 1930s there were too many graduates of law schools coming out for the need for trial lawyers and, so, there was a conversation in the middle of the 20th century of maybe we should close down half of the law schools, but instead what the law did is it reinterpreted what it meant to study law, so, now, trial law is just one of many avenues. There’s environment law, there’s corporate law, there’s a wide range of legal paths you can take. I think that some of the data seems to suggest that less than 50% of lawyers ever set foot in a courtroom at all in their entire career. So trial law, which used to be all of law, is now just one of many things.

I say this because I think the architectural profession is going through the same transition. We will always do buildings, like there are lawyers who will always be trying cases in court, but buildings will be only one of a wide range of value-added services that we’ll be offering clients and communities. Some of those will involve design problems that don’t really involve buildings at all, so part of the educational shift that has to happen in architecture is similar to what happened in law, which is that you go to architectural school not to learn how to design and build buildings. You go to architecture school to think like a designer and the applications of that are much broader than what we have been doing in the past.

R+BA – ‘In the Scheme of Things’ is now about 20 years old and you are just about to launch a new book. How has your thinking changed over this period?

TF – I think one of the biggest differences is the economy has changed, the context has changed and when I wrote In the Scheme of Things, I was still fairly focused on architecture. I wrote this for essentially an architecture readership.

The new book, which is about applying design thinking to our politics, to our economy, to higher education, to infrastructure, to a whole range of systems that are not working very well, is really aimed at decision-makers, so the audience of the book is very different because I think we spend a lot of time in the profession talking to ourselves. The new book is really an integration of many pieces that I’ve been writing in the Huffington Post for the last several years. I’ve been writing in the Huffington Post because many staffers for politicians, particularly in the English-speaking world, read the Post.

I thought, well, I could write and I just continue to write in architecture magazines for the profession, but I thought if I’m going to be writing about the value of design and design thinking, I needed to be in a place where non-designers were reading and, so, the Post has been a terrific place to do that. At some point I’ve written so many pieces I started to wonder, well, do they fit together and is there a bigger argument? The new book has really stitched together many Huffington Post pieces into a set of arguments that’s really about design thinking applied to some of these bigger systems that we don’t think of as design. I mean our economy is a design of system. Our politics is a design of system and there are, frankly, not working very well because they’re badly designed.

R+BA – This seems to be one of the overarching things we’ve seen so far in the conference, with a lot of discussion about cities, big infrastructure projects, zooming in to the fine detail, but then looking at the bigger picture as well.

TF – I think that’s actually one of the great skills that we learn in architecture school that we take so for granted, but very few other disciplines do this, is that ability to zoom out and zoom in on scale. Many disciplines work at a particular scale. I have colleagues in engineering who just look at nano technology, the nano scale. I have geography colleagues that only look at the sort of geographical scale. We’re one of the few that sort of go in and out constantly. What that does is that you start to see connections depending on the scales that you’re working at, and that’s both spatial scale, but it’s also temporal scale. At a time when the context within which we’re working is changing dramatically, I mean one of the differences is that I don’t even know if I mentioned climate change In the Scheme of Things. I mean the idea of climate change 20, 25 years ago hadn’t really hit us yet.

R+BA – 20 years ago it was still being perceived as another generation’s problem.

TF – Right. At least we talked about energy conservation, things like that, but we hadn’t really seen it happen and, so, we’re living in this time when there is all of these larger contextual changes happening and that ability to see connections at various scales is one of the most valuable things that we do. We don’t tell clients that and, again, this is part of the problem. They think, “Oh, you’re an architect. I only need to talk to you when I need building.” When, in fact, where we should be as a profession is, “You know, we’re having a lot of problems in our community and they seem to happen at different scales. Can you help us?” I would argue that that is an architecture problem, or at least it’s a design problem.

R+BA – In some of your recent work you have discussed the idea of an architectural equivalent of a public health service. Could you elaborate on that idea?

TF – My interest in public health started when my colleague, who is the dean of the School of Public Health at my university, was writing a history of that field and he started to ask me about Frederick Law Olmsted. I wondered why he cared about Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect who designed Central Park. Well, it turns out in the American Civil War, Olmsted, with a group of doctors, started this thing called the American Sanitary Commission, which became the American Red Cross. So a landscape architect was essentially at the beginning of the public health movement, at least in the United States. It turns out that was true in other countries as well.

I also became interested in the fact that the public health community was increasingly interested in working with our disciplines because many of their challenges like obesity and cardiovascular disease, asthma, automobile accidents, whatever, all of these are built environment-related, so they were increasingly wanting to partner with us.

It is also worth noting that the public health impacts of what we do are so enormously costly, so when, again, we’re faced by communities who may wonder, “Well, why should I hire an architect? You guys are expensive” is when you look at the ways in which we’re now living, the obesity epidemic alone, at least in the United States, we spend $176 billion a year just on obesity-related illness. I don’t know what the global number is, but there was a World Health Organization report that came out a couple of weeks ago that said that obesity globally is now at a record rate 1 in 11 people are obese.

When you have a client or community that says, “Well, why would we need to bother hiring designers,” in fact, we can align ourselves with public health to say that part of what we do as a design community is think about the health impacts. Those health impacts are so expensive that whatever our interventions cost they’re minuscule in comparison to what we’re going to save society by improving the health of this population. So again, this idea that design is on the saving side, it’s not on the cost side of the ledger.

Thomas Fisher discussing his design thinking consultancy for the Centre for Disease Control. (Image courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architects)

Thomas Fisher discussing his design thinking consultancy for the Centre for Disease Control. (Image courtesy of the Australian Institute of Architects)

R+BA – Yes, and I think that goes for things like apartment design for example where you’ve seen in several cities very ordinary buildings go up with very poor amenity. You have to wonder what the health impact of those design decisions and the forces that culminate in those buildings will be.

TF – Yes, I think there’s a lot of conversation in the States, but I think it’s a global conversation. The public health community has essentially started a health impact assessment process and there’s a lot of conversation going on about making that just part of all decision-making. That our transportation decisions, our housing decisions, our urban design decisions, all need to asking what are the health impacts of this decision versus that? Because, again, the health impacts are so costly that we’ve been making decisions thinking we’re taking the least cost route, when truly this route is in fact the most costly because of the long-term negative health impacts that these decisions are having.

I’m very interested and to me this is how the design community can make big improvements. A lot of conversation at this conference is about agency. We talk about how to get people to listen. Well, I find this is really why my more recent work has been spending a lot of time looking at the economics, because you can make economic arguments. You don’t even have to argue that design makes our lives better. We all know that, but the economic argument itself is so compelling that it drives people to the design community and, then, we can do the other good things that we know how to do.

Despite all the talk about a crisis, all I see in this is opportunities. I just think the ways in which we can define our value or demonstrate our value is just enormous. It’s just there for us to take.

R+BA – Thank you for your time


Thomas Fishers new book is entitled ‘Designing Our Way to a Better World’ and has just been released.


Architecture is for Everyone

About Michael Smith

Architect and Director of Atelier Red + Black based in Melbourne, Australia
This entry was posted in 2016 Architecture Conference, all posts, construction industry, International, Interviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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