Architects are now employing anthropologists for more user-focused design
In his book Affluenza, the psychologist Oliver James names Denmark as the developed country least affected by what he describes as a virus-like consumerism that makes us prone to depression, anxiety and addiction. And, although he does remark that sometimes means that the Danes’ creativity lacks the complex edginess that often haunts British popular culture, he surmises admiringly, “even their bus shelters are stylish”.
Bus shelters are an apt symbol. In our hazy, lazy subconscious we like to see Danish culture as a blueprint for egalitarian political correctness.
What is clear is that their time has come. When words such as sustainability and green design are bandied about with abandon by many in the UK, there is at least one Danish architectural firm which has been there and kept on doing it since the 1960s.
Consequently, Arkitema - the firm in question, has a long track record of environmentally-sound projects. So much so that designing in a sustainable way has become a natural and integral part of how they work. But, not being ones to sit tight and say “we told you so” (it’s not the Danish way), they are now building on this enviable heritage by examining more closely exactly how we live and work and how this can influence the way they design.
And, I suspect Oliver James would approve of their way of doing this. Instead of working with business consultants talking about workflow and processes and doing time and motion studies, they have employed two anthropologists who now work closely with their architects and study the habits and habitat of their clients.
As long as man has needed shelter, architecture and anthropology have been linked. However, for centuries the aesthetics of design have taken precedent over the function and the way people interact with the building. To become an architect, a student has to study many disciplines; history, physics, maths, geography, urban planning to name but a few. For all this, rarely are they asked to think about the way man behaves and why.
Except in Denmark. Holger Dahl, Arkitema communications director tells a story that illustrates this perfectly. “In the 1920s when the School of Furniture Design opened at Copenhagen’s Academy of Fine Arts, the renowned furniture designer, Kaare Klint, told students designing a cabinet; ‘Think about how much space a family of say four actually needs. Maybe they need eight plates? How much space do eight plates take up?’”
“So, instead of designing a fancy cabinet from the outside – they began on the inside and worked outwards. Of course his philosophy fitted very well with international ideas of the time such as Corbusier’s “A house is a machine for living in”, but it is a concept that has become a part of Danish design culture.”
It’s also a concept which goes hand-in-hand with Arkitema’s views on the role of the architect: “We believe that the architecture of the future must be created by a combination of many varying skills – not by a single master and their assistants. We aim to reinvent the architect with both aesthetic and social awareness,” says Dahl.
In other words, they see many current new buildings as egotistical and centred around an individual architect’s imagination. Instead, they prefer to subsume their creativity into the greater good, working closely with clients and those who will be using and living in the building to shape the end result.
It’s a policy Arkitema is putting to good use on a design for a new head office and research and development facilities for Vestas, the world’s leading supplier of wind power solutions, in its home town of Randers. Architect Mette Rødtnes explains: “Our anthropologists worked closely with Vestas employees, talking to them about their work and observing the way they went about their day-to-day tasks.”
“They are highly inquisitive, but without any pre-conceived notions –looking at everyday situations as if they have just come from some strange planet.”
What they noticed in particular, was that the engineers were at their happiest and most engrossed when they were creating prototypes and testing them in the workshops. However in their old headquarters, to get to these facilities they had to leave their desks and go to an entirely different part of the building.
Separating the workshops from the administration side of the operation – desks, meeting rooms, and so on – had created an artificial divide between managing and manufacturing which was totally at odds with the ethos of the company. The testing facilities were in fact at the heart of the whole operation, yet they were being sidelined and their importance seemingly downgraded by being situated out of sight and at some distance from the main hub.
The resulting design is a low-rise, triangular building, mirroring the shape of the wind turbine. Importantly, workshops are now integrated with other managerial features. Apart from the psychological message this gives, it also means engineers can spend more time doing what they feel most comfortable with, without the need to go constantly back and forth to opposite sides of the site.
It’s true that this approach is part of a wider move to create more people-focused designs where form meets function. However, the use of anthropologists as an ongoing and integral part of the design team is a real progression, marking a new dedication to the cause.
It’s been said that the future lies with “eco-architecture” rather than “ego-achitecture”, but the Danes are taking the whole sustainability issue one step forward and including people into the equation. And, the truth is that for Arkitema this is no trend, merely a further evolution of their continuing ideals.
And it seems the world is coming round to their way of thinking.