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Top Architects and Designers Debate Forces Shaping Innovation at Blouin Summit

Sep 21, 2012, 10:03 AM EDT
From left: Benjamin Genocchio, Mickey McManus, Charles Renfro, Phillip Anzalone, Anne Guiney, and Gisue Hariri
Stephanie Berger 2012

The Space & Design panel at this year’s Blouin Creative Leadership Summit began with a question that, to panelist and architect Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, immediately intimated “a line drawn in the sand.” Renfro was among a group of five esteemed panelists gathered this afternoon in the library of New York City’s Metropolitan Club to discuss what designers can learn from architects, and, conversely, what architects can learn from designers. But Renfro, along with MAYA Design President and CEO Mickey McManus, Phillip Anzalone of Columbia University GSAPP’s Building Science and Technology Department, Gisue Hariri of architecture practice Hariri & Hariri, and Executive Director of the Institute for Urban Design Anne Guiney, quickly steered the conversation toward an entirely new set of lines in the sand and then proceeded to muddle them.

“It almost makes my teeth hurt to make a distinction between these two categories of people,” said Renfro, who remarked on the interdisciplinary practice of his own firm, which has allegedly designed everything from drinking glasses to master plans. Guiney picked up on a similar note, expanding the question to ask what architects, planners, developers, journalists, and policymakers can all learn from each other. “When you’re talking about the scale of the city,” said Guiney, “all of those disciplines and others... have to be at the table.”

However, what began as a general consensus about cross-discipline collaboration soon dissolved into a more complicated and contradictory understanding of the hybridized field of architecture and design. When architect Hariri introduced the near mythical success story of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs into the conversation, a new line was drawn, this time between the role of capital in innovation and the role of the unquantifiable currency of ideas. Moderator Benjamin Genocchio, editor-in-chief of Art+Auction and ARTINFO, turned to the panel to ask if these two forces were at odds.

“Good design is good business,” Hariri asserted. “This is how to get [architecture and design] connected to commerce and also the economy of the world.” Hariri reiterated her point when she later averred, “if it’s a good idea, it will get done.”

But the notion that good ideas will always be heard — and, importantly, receive the apposite patronage to be realized — hit several road blocks as the discussion began to question the roles that governments, institutions, and the general public play in innovation. McManus argued the need for designers and other creatives to be catalytic individuals behind sweeping societal changes, but he also recognized the difficulty of that premise. Many of the panelists seemed to agree that the very institutions and the communities that architects and designers seek to serve often become the conservative parties that fear the change brought on by their non-conforming ideas.

When the forces that enable innovation, such as capital investment, public support, and institutional patronage, can become the same forces that control and constrict innovation, there is no singular answer to the question of how design spurs productive change. And so the discussion ended on a somewhat ambivalent note, though not without gleaning some of the core issues in the disciplines of architecture and design. “It would be nice if we had more informed conversation,” McManus said towards the end of the Q&A session, “and didn’t just kind of look at the easy answer.” That is because there is no easy answer.

To see photos from the Space & Design panel at the Blouin Creative Leadership Summit, click the slide show.