Paul Finch is the program director of the World Architecture Festival (WAF), the world’s largest festival and live awards competition dedicated to celebrating, and sharing architectural excellence from across the globe. Paul is also deputy chairman of the UK Design Council, chairman of Design Council CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), and editorial director of the Architectural Review and Architects’ Journal. He ventured into journalism in 1972, and has worked in various capacities on a number of editorials, including Building Design, Property Week, Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review.
The Columnist interviewed Paul for his thoughts on the influence of architectural and interior design on promoting creativity, collaboration and talent retention at the work place.
The Columnist (TC): As the Programme Director for the World Architectural Festival, what are some of the works which have made a deep impression on yourself?
Paul Finch (PF): I can recall many category winners over the past five years and all the “Overall Building of the Year” winners – partly because we have had a different building type on each occasion: Grafton Architects’ university building in Milan, Peter Rich’s cultural interpretation centre in Mapungubwe (South Africa), Zaha Hadid’s museum of modern art in Rome, Cloud 9’s office in Barcelona with a striking environmental façade, and most recently the Gardens by the Bay project in Singapore. This latter project is the most complete example to date of a design collaboration between architect (Wilkinson Eyre), landscape architect, environmental engineer and structural engineer. In some ways it is the most memorable of our winners because it addresses so many different issues: cultural, climatic, scientific and artistic.
TC: When judging the works at the World Architectural Festival, how much does the super jury take into account the ability of the spaces in encouraging collaboration and creativity of the residents of those spaces?
PF: Super-juries are looking for all-round architectural excellence rather than one specific element in a design, so the question of how design (especially interior design) is an aid to creativity would occur in some building types more than others. Obvious examples where this would be important are schools, advertising agency offices and theatre projects. Of course it can be difficult to predict exactly whether spaces would prompt creativity but there are usually clues in the design; for example, the provision of social spaces, and circulation routes that mean people bump into each other (metaphorically!) more often.
TC: Designing work spaces to improve productivity and to foster collaboration are not new concepts. Studies have shown how space design affects worker productivity, level of collaboration between teams and degree of innovation. While this has been accepted and embraced by the West, not many organisations in Asia have adopted these considerations when designing their office spaces. What do you think are stopping Asian organisations from taking that step forward?
PF: Offices have been a key part of city life and urban employment for far longer in American and European cities than is generally the case in Asia, so there has been a far greater opportunity to research and understand how office life can be changed for the better. It must be said that most offices in the West are far more like Asian offices than those designed to encourage creativity and collaboration. We still have a long way to go, and I imagine the same will be true in Asia.
TC: Some say that space design which encourages organisational creativity, is only applicable to organisations which place an emphasis on human development and product innovation, such as Google and Red Bull. What’s your take on this?
PF: I don’t think this is true, although creative organisations are more likely to think longer about the brief they give their architect and interior designer. But many other organisations look to design to make their operations more efficient, for example by reducing the incidence of people taking time off because of illness. Some companies value design because it helps them attract better staffs who are less likely to quit. Also, the sort of office your organisation occupies says quite a bit about what sort of organisation it is – we all need meeting rooms, but are those rooms pleasant places to be? Do they have natural light? And what are the arrangements for chance encounters which may lead to conversations that generate ideas? That is why the coffee point or the café are important.
TC: How does architectural and interior space design play a role in attracting and grooming the right talents within organisations?
PF: There is a saying about the role of design which can be summed up in the acronym ARM – Attract, Retain, Motivate. After location, design is the first thing many potential employees will notice. As they say, you rarely get a second chance to make a first impression! Design tells you what an organisation feels like. Design can also help retain staff, all other things being equal, taking into account the main reasons for people leaving are money, promotion or both. A good question for staff is whether they look forward to being in their office, whether they are happy to invite work guests or even family to visit, or alternatively if they feel faintly depressed, and even embarrassed to invite visitors.
TC: In a rapidly developing Asia, space is fast becoming a scarce commodity in urban areas. How do you think architecture design can overcome this while creating spaces which help to facilitate and foster a broader, more creative interaction amongst people?
PF: Team collaboration is becoming more common in many organisations, so the emphasis on people having a private office, the size of which denotes your status in a hierarchy, is almost a thing of the past. So is the idea of superior furniture for managers and low quality for everyone else. Salaries may differ of course, but most offices these days tend to be open plan, suggesting a certain democracy of workspace. What this means is that social and meeting rooms/spaces become far more important because this is where discussions take place and decisions are often taken, about both big and minor issues. So the emphasis in design terms is often about reducing the amount of personal workspace to minimum, hereby creating more space for meetings and collaborations in the rest of the building. ‘Hot desking’ can work for many organisations, where people are as likely to be attending external meetings as they are to be in the office. The fact that workplace and domestic-use technology are becoming identical suggest that working from home, at least some of the time, will reduce the requirement for so much office space, which is unused much of the time.
TC: Do you think organisations eventually get defined by the spaces which they reside in?
PF: Significant organisations often wish to project an image of themselves through the architecture and interior design of the buildings they inhabit. We still refer to the Chrysler Building after eight decades! On the other hand, most organisations are based in offices which were developed speculatively, so have had nothing to do with the architecture. The reason for choosing a building is just as likely to be availability or cost as architectural style. On the other hand, office tenants have plenty of choices about interior design and the way space is used, and those choices say a lot about what the organisation (and its senior managers) are all about. Even the way decisions are taken is revealing, as is the brief and budget given to the interior designers or architects. It is not just a question of budget however – more an attitude of the mind.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.