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The Key To Great Architecture? Ask Unusual Questions

Ennead Architects starts every design project with a seemingly unanswerable question. Here’s why you should, too.

Architecture rarely titillates, but the Standard Hotel in downtown New York is not your average building. Its glass facade straddles the High Line, Manhattan’s eminently Instagrammable elevated park, giving park goers a direct view into the rooms. Courageous guests are known for leaving their curtains open and putting on a show.

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The design for the Standard began as all of Ennead Architects’ designs do: in response to a provocative question. In that case, the architects asked, “Can a hotel galvanize an entire neighborhood?” The answer, it turned out, was yes (and then some).

[Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO]
This approach has helped Ennead, formerly Polshek Partnership, find fresh solutions to vexing urban design challenges, from wastewater treatment to refugee housing. During the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week, the firm shared examples from its own portfolio, then led a workshop urging participants to ask big questions about some of New York’s most intractable problems. “It’s not so much about asking the right questions, it’s about asking good questions,” partner Don Weinreich said. “It helps you turn some stubborn entrenched problems on their head.”

[Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO]
Partner Richard Olcott described the case of WGBH in Boston. The beloved public radio station wanted to confine its headquarters to a single site, but had secured a plot of land divided by a street. Ennead’s question: “Why can’t we build over the street?” The answer was that it was illegal. But Ennead proposed an inviting, transparent overpass, and the city of Boston eventually granted the architects approval.

[Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ESTO]
Ennead faced a similarly stubborn challenge in New York: redesigning a 55-acre sewage plant that could never be shut off. The question became, “What if we didn’t design a building, but a kit of parts?” That way, they could develop the site in phases, yet have consistent design elements from one section of the facility to the next. Ennead did exactly that–the kit includes a wall system, a roofing system, a glass system, and so forth–and the project continues to this date, nearly 30 years after it got underway.

During the FCNY workshop, Ennead asked participants to break into small groups and come up with questions around improving five classic New York problems: the subway, garbage, parking, the city’s underused rivers, and empty storefronts. Questions ranged from lofty (“Can you shift the geography of Manhattan to face outward, toward the rivers, instead of inward?”) to wishful (“What if we make garbage beautiful?”) to head-smackingly obvious (“What if the subway smelled better?”). All were aimed at finding novel solutions to complex problems, however far-fetched. As Weinreich said: “Embedded in the investigative line of questioning are the answers themselves.”

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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