Let’s disconnect from the virtual world and use the well-designed built environment to have better, more engaging conversations

Simon Allford

Two days away at the CoreNet conference in Amsterdam and a delayed flight home has left me reflecting on the delights of 21st century communication. I don’t Tweet (too dangerous and if not too boring) so of course it follows that I don’t follow either.

In the main it all works brilliantly, as per this morning when I was able to stop off on the way to Schiphol to review an on-site mock up for our University of Amsterdam project and, simultaneously by phone and iPad, run through all with the project associate back in London. Indeed wherever I am, I can pull strings, using text and email to both keep in touch and manage.

But equally, in another mood I find it all very instant, often pointless (I need to learn to reply less and delete more) and, on the occasion of a loss of connection, infuriating. Which is why it is such a pleasure when, on occasion, I develop the self-restraint to disconnect from the virtual world and to engage with the people and the world around me.

The theory is that in the city, the building and the workplace, the most interesting and fruitful conversations occur when one is in the ‘public space’

CoreNet was a conference about end users sharing their experience of architecture. Which should make it, if not interesting, certainly a salutary lesson for us architects. I shared a platform with Argent’s Nick Searl and Google’s Joe Borrett, in a debate conceived and chaired by Scott Brownrigg’s Ken Giannini, that talked about the Spaces In Between. The theory being that in the city, the building and the workplace, the most interesting and fruitful conversations occur when one is in the ‘public space’. That is the space where people move, meet and congregate. The space where work goes on, where informal meetings occur and where useful chance encounters happen.

As a talk it worked reasonably well. Nick made an important point about the success of King’s Cross Central (KXC) being predicated on the fact that they have committed to first imagining and then building the infrastructure of the city (services and streets making places and communities of people) before considering the buildings. Especially as KXC is an urban and commercial success.

Which is of course why Google chose to relocate there and why we are now designing for them a building whose promenade is the architectural equivalent of KXC’s streets and squares: it will survive long after the ‘vanilla’ office space has been reconfigured.

And anyway we intend, through the use of light, scale and material to get rid of the vanilla: not to be replaced by tutti-frutti but certainly by space with a specific rather than generic character. So in fact the spaces in between, as architectural theorist Colin Rowe demonstrated in his Collage City concept, are in fact the buildings (or desks). For they are the transient parts of the city in between the permanent and memorable streets and squares.

I believe we got our story across at the CoreNet debate as most of the audience seemed to be looking at the screen (enough to ask pertinent questions after), there were a few moments when they laughed at the right point and no-one left early. Then again, it is increasingly difficult to tell what an audience thinks nowadays as most of them are on their phones and pads, texting, emailing, tweeting and following. All of which suggests the spaces in between will only continue to flourish if we all learn to resist the delights of digital communication and listen, talk to and generally engage with the random delights of life around us!

Simon Allford is a founding partner of AHMM