Photographs by Michael Wojcik
Vision and collaboration are critical to invention. The process is a collective endeavor towards the discovery of new solutions. To get there, collaboration has to exist at multiple levels—across fields and teams, and within teams themselves. Ideas have to be shared, and open to modification and mutation within the cooperative creative process. Everyone has to be willing to take risks—to try unfamiliar processes, things they haven’t done before, and projects they may not be convinced will be accomplished.
Winka Dubbledam, Principal of Archi-Tectonics and Chair of PennArchitecture, has fostered this way of working since her early days as an architect in the office of Peter Eisenman, a leader in developing computational design. At the time, digital techniques were opening doors to new possibilities for architecture, but because it was nascent, practitioners held little experience in this kind of work. It was in Eisenman’s office where Dubbledam first began to bring mathematicians and physicists into design projects.
“As an architect, you are the generator of the idea, for better or for worse. And then, like any other project, you have to set up how you are going to execute it.”
Dubbeldam believes that the best ideas arise from pushing the boundaries of fields and expertise—being willing to strike out into uncharted territory and see what happens, allowing intuition, vision and opportunism an equal partnership with precision and rigor. Every project is the combination of many ideas, experiments, and problems solved, all of which need to happen together to create change. Ideas germinate when expectations are disrupted, when problems are turned upside down and comfort zones are breached. Dubbledam is clear that this is not an easy process. She is fully aware of the need for commitment on all sides, and that she must empower researchers to believe in the work. Her role is to generate excitement. Archi-Tectonics is a research-based design practice that Dubbeldam established in 1994. From its inception, Archi-Tectonics has remained committed to strong teamwork, both within the firm, and with collaborators from diverse fields outside of architecture—from engineers to biologists, and even media and gaming specialists. With a highly sophisticated eye, Dubbeldam and her team at Archi-Tectonics produce elegantly beautiful buildings and installations. They continue to remain cutting-edge, inventing novel solutions to new problems that aim to negotiate the complex relationships hidden in any given design brief, while providing sensory, ambient and mood-based environments to stimulate the user, and creating sustainable, low-maintenance, and responsible buildings. Dubbeldam considers herself a hybrid, working across architecture, sculpture and product design. She recognizes the importance of technology, engineering, and user experience, and the need to bring this thinking into projects early. Archi-Tectonics operates from the assumption that, no matter how small the project, all require a searching examination of their parameters and variables, and of their interconnectedness to other systems and their context. Nothing happens in isolation.
“You learn a lot from the kind of interactions where you realize that, although you thought you were so open-minded, you had in fact pigeonholed yourself in one box.”
Big complex projects, like cities, encompass many smaller projects. Dubbeldam believes architecture can respond to factors that relate to social, cultural or economic activities, the flows of goods or information through cities, and even magnetic or electronic force fields. Archi-Tectonics seeks to overturn traditional urban planning, through bottom-up and crowd-sourced strategies that generate flexible and adaptive urban possibilities, each entirely different from one another, but related through a set of programmable variables, or to enable residents to debate, shape, and even fund, proposals for their own city. Open processes are critical, where all ideas are considered worthy of consideration, and where everyone contributes to refining and developing the good ones, through a balance of trust and criticality. Invention is a team sport; it only occurs when people with different skills, visions, and ways of thinking come together. The office structure of Archi-Tectonics is collaborative—"I like the team to work with me, not for me," Dubbeldam notes.
Teamwork needs to become a partnership in which all members of the office are invested in the research and commissioned projects they undertake, and therefore willing to commit deeper to the work than in a typical, hierarchical office structure. Strong leadership still matters—“any system stalls the moment that people don’t make decisions”—but leadership, like the office thought processes, must be more horizontal. The same is true of the office’s relationship to experts in other fields, who they work with very closely from the beginning of an idea.
“You have to have people around you who say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that!’”
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Collaborations work in both directions. Archi-Tectonics are able to offer their collaborators in STEM fields concrete projects that are realized and provide strong external validation to the research. Galleries give the opportunity for the work to be seen and reviewed in prestigious public venues, and provide metrics that may help the researchers get additional funding. And the office is continuously exposed to new thinking and new technologies foreign to architecture, which in turn help the field to grow. Dubbeldam is conscious of her place in a much larger environment and appreciates the limits of her knowledge as an individual. This level of awareness continues to lend much to Dubbeldam’s success as a leader at Archi-Techtonics. While she is a generator of bold ideas and an adaptably decisive tactician to follow, it is her ability to lay trust in the creative people around her that has proven most integral to the firm’s long-term prosperity. She attests to a belief that architecture is truly about compromising control to let things go, trusting in the emergence and evolution of a project. This is equally true of Dubbeldam’s approach to her position as Chair of the Department of Architecture at Penn. She has been a tireless proponent of architectural training that embraces critical thought and inquiry, that learns from other cultures and fields. Dubbeldam favors an experimental paradigm in which students and professors alike collaborate to push the boundaries of the discipline, allowing the pedagogical context to become a central stage in the development of new analyses, new techniques, and new theories. Practice—whether in the office or the school—is for Dubbeldam open-sourced, networked and hybrid