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Improving New Ideas by Building on Old Concepts

Exploring four strategies for finding future success with lessons from the past.

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“Old is the new new,” declares author Steven Poole in Rethink: The Surprising History of Ideas (Scribner, 2016). We often think of technological progress as moving continually forward. Yet despite common wisdom, ideas frequently emerge by revisiting the past. “We are living in an age of innovation,” Poole writes. “But it is also an age of rediscovery. Because surprisingly often, it turns out, innovation depends on old ideas.”

The author leads his argument with the history of the electric car. In 1837—long before Tesla founder Elon Musk was even born—chemist Robert Davidson developed the first electric car. By the end of the 19th century, electricity powered a fleet of London taxis. Unfortunately, technical difficulties coupled with the plummeting price of oil sidelined this invention’s progress until just recently.

Although Rethink does not address building technologies, the thesis invites speculation about how we shape new architecture. Certainly, architects’ infatuation with the past is commonplace. For every conspicuous embrace of radically newfound technologies, there are many examples of celebrating tradition. Yet such approaches are typically limited to stylistic concerns rather than the generation of innovative ideas. The following strategies offer possibilities for finding the new in the old.

Resurrecting Lost Practices

The history of building construction is replete with antiquated methods that are ripe for rediscovery. A recent example is the resurrection of cordwood masonry in Studio Gang’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo, Mich. The project secures cut logs in place with grout, like stone or brick masonry units, outlines the walls in crisp steel framing, and peels the surface back to reveal glimpses inside the building. According to the firm, the cordwood masonry offers at least three advantages: It’s inexpensive, it conveys a visual effect of humility via handcraft, and it provides a high level of environmental performance. “The wood walls sequester more carbon than was released in building them, responding to today’s need to reduce carbon pollution—one of many environmental issues embraced by social justice movements,” the firm states on its website.

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Technology Transfer

New ideas can also come from borrowing old techniques from other trades and disciplines. One example is the Spanish Pavilion designed by Miralles Tagliabue EMBT for the 2010 Shanghai Expo. To clad its geometrically complex steel tube structure, the architect chose handwoven wicker mats. Citing the similarities between Spanish and Chinese artisanal traditions, EMBT hired craftspeople from Shandong province to weave more than 8,000 natural reed mats in a range of neutral colors, and attached them in an overlapping configuration on the steel frame, like shingles or fish scales. The visual display of wicker tiles that rise and fall with the undulating form of the building is akin to a crashing tidal wave or a rippling field. Not only does the application of these mats pay homage to shared textile customs, but it also serves as an effective shading strategy for the hot Shanghai summer—bathing the interior galleries in dappled light.

Reinterpreting Old Forms

Style is a powerful means of cultural expression. For many clients, nothing satisfies quite like traditional building morphologies—particularly in residential projects. One option for reconceptualization is to use a traditional formal language as a vehicle for experimenting with new materials and construction details. An example is Moomoo Architects' L House in Łódź, Poland. The two-story residence assumes the iconic shape of a box with a gabled roof—the universal symbol of house. What is unusual is the design's materiality: Aside from window glazing, it is entirely clad in blue Thermopian, an insulating composite typically used for roofing or damp rooms.

A glass fiber-reinforced panel with an extruded polystyrene core and cementitious coating, Thermopian is well-suited to demanding exterior applications, but its utilitarian nature makes it an uncommon choice as an exposed surface. The architects minimized transition details in the design, resulting in a pure abstraction of the traditional house—no eaves, gutters, or control joints are visible. Furthermore, an adjoining diagonal wall provides privacy while satisfying a local zoning regulation for a building to be parallel with its property line.

Re-Awakening Lost Concepts

The annals of architectural history overflow with unbuilt works, some of which have been quite influential despite their lack of realization. The best remembered projects tend to be highly provocative. One example is Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (Radiant City), which shocked audiences with its proposal to replace large swaths of Paris with a uniform array of identical cruciform towers. Although this particular project was never built, the idea informed many later “tower in the park” solutions for high-rise housing in other cities.

Another remarkable example is Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 proposal to enclose New York City in a dome. Commonly featured in retrospectives with headlines like “12 Horrible Plans for New York That (Thankfully) Never Happened,” the bubble over central Manhattan would appear too radical to have any lasting influence. Yet the advancement of lightweight insulating enclosures like ETFE membranes has inspired a series of Fuller-esque projects, including Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall, England, and Peter Kulka’s transparent roof over Dresden Castle, in Germany. Global design firm Orproject aspires to enclose a large Beijing park within a bubble to protect visitors from air pollution—a step closer to Fuller’s extreme vision.

As architects consider these and other strategies for looking to the past to generate new ideas, Poole’s description of technological progress inspires experimentation. “The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts, a smooth transition from ignorance to knowledge,” he writes in Rethink. “It’s more exciting than that: a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks.”

The important thing is to not stop designing. We might find answers in history, but progress does not arise from heedlessly emulating past practices. Rather, it emerges from the clever adaptation of the antiquated to new circumstances. Only in this way, Poole argues, can an age of rediscovery deliver an age of innovation.

This article was originally published in ARCHITECT in November 2016.

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