7pm: We are in Airbnb’s amazing headquarters in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood of San Francisco, for a talk by Craig Dykers from Snohetta. I live blogged Dykers before, so I know we're in for a treat.
[Dykers was presented by this lovely architect who works at Airbnb and plans their office spaces.]
CD: This presentation is very graphic, so if you’re at an angle you may want to change seats. There is sex, so you’ll want to see that.
The lecture is about a question.
I was in China many years ago, and was learning Chinese. I walked into a fruit stand in Nanjing, and the only thing I recognized was oranges. So I said “Can I have three oranges?” in Chinese and the guy said “yes” and held up four fingers. I was disappointed, and repeated myself—and again he said yes—and counted “one, two, three,” while pointing out the spaces between his fingers.
That changed everything for me. It’s those things in between the objects that we create where life happens. That’s a valuable lesson this Chinese seller taught me.
Those of us in creative professions often bandy around the idea of a “concept.” But if you ask people what a concept means, you’ll likely get 5-6 answers. A concept can mean many things. In our office, a concept is a question.
There are different kinds of questions—dangerous questions, questions that occur over coffee, questions that reverse back on themselves, questions that recur regularly, highly entangled questions, non-gender-specific questions, questions that are supposed to make you look smart…and so on.
But the most important question in my mind is the question that leads to another question. I think children understand this very well. They love watching you flip out because you can’t answer why the sky is blue. In creative professions, you’re always digging deeper. Why do we bother?
Deeply rooted in all of our searches…is a desire to find some kind of comfort. And that is connected to a kind of altruism. If we think we can provide comfort to ourselves—making the world a better place—we think it will help others. But why do we think it’s up to us to make others happy? In a sense we’re chasing our tails. The biggest cultural institution and effort on this continent, since we don’t have cathedrals, is the automobile.
People thought it would be great, allowing us to transport goods, live farther away, and be mobile. It must have sounded so great. Never could we have imagined the spaghetti of roads that the automobile brought to us.
It’s too scary to ask what the consequences of our altruism are. That’s not a moral comment, but a sensibility about questioning the question, and questioning the answer.
In our office, people are not abstractions. Here at Airbnb, I sense a slightly different feeling, where you get to know the people you’re creating for, but that’s a relatively new thing. In many fields you don’t know the people—their names and interests.
I know there’s a lot of people here from SFMoMA, and I’m going to give a little lecture about art, which is scary because I don’t know jack shit about this stuff.
On April 2 1917, Marcel Duchamp set out to buy a urinal, for a new art project. It’s a weird day—when Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany. It’s too much of a coincidence for someone like Duchamp—clearly, he intended that.
He created this piece, which was never accepted in his own day. It’s very erotic, with a kind of nipple.
When I learned about this piece, when I was in school, this was the top of the top. It represented a kind of abstract thinking to us. But I don’t think it actually was. Here’s why:
In 1866, Gustave Courbet was painting, and representation was changing at that time. He painted this—called The Origin of the World—and this is where you may want to get a bit closer to the screen, as it’s hard to tell what this is. [laughter]. It was for a private client, but eventually became part of public discourse.
When you go to see the painting, it’s in the back, near the mechanical room, and it’s fun to see innocent people wander up and come face to face with a woman’s…biology…in this way.
One hundred years after, in 1966, Duchamp releases his Étant donées.
When was the last time you stood naked in front of a mirror? It’s not easy to do, and if you look like me, it’s not very pretty. We’re not very well made things. We’re not very abstract.
By the way, I show this image because in a previous version of this lecture, I only had female figures and someone said I must be a misogynist. So I said, okay, I’ll show a dick next time. So here it is—now I’m safe.
We descended from other animals. But nobody domesticated us but ourselves. We operate somewhere between predictability and intuition. If there’s not enough predictability, you take your clothes off and have a party. (It’s disorienting.) But if there’s too much predictability, that’s also not good.
When people see this bull statue in New York, about half the people take a picture at the front, and the other picture at the back. The balls are so shiny because people hold them to get their picture taken. You might think you wouldn’t do that, but we’ve all done this kind of thing.
Our office is Snohetta, named after these mountains. To us it’s important that our firm isn’t named after a person, because that’s not how we think about authorship.
We’re constantly doing stuff—walking around, making things. We work in the same space where we eat, so there’s a constant transition between working an eating at this big dinner table.
We try to work together in making things. It’s one thing to make something by yourself, and really hard to do it with others.
We call our clients our “hosts.” When we work with people, we try to have fun and engender laughter. But it’s also serious, because it’s a lot of money. I like to share this picture, because…the guy in the yellow shirt is the money guy. And he was like that from the beginning, even when we were $500K under budget. It always costs too much.
When I think about our work, instead of asking how much our work gives, we’re interested in how much it allows others to give back.
National Ballet and Opera in Oslo
The project which has been most in the press is the National Ballet and Opera in Oslo. People in architecture say “you’re working with the ground plane.” But for us it’s about perspective.
Meerkats don’t need that much height, so a few go up on a little hill, and if they see a predator they can call out so their friends will be safe. It doesn’t take that much height—and humans are like that too.
If you put people on plateaus, you get a sense of hierarchy. But if you put that space on a slope, that hierarchy is softened, and you can get more of a sense of who is there with you.
By now, the number of people who have scaled this roof is more than 2x the population of Norway. The opera is so popular that they simulcast the performance on the roof. And it also descends down to the water, so you can actually touch it. If you tried to touch the water in San Francisco, you’d probably get shot.
When the building first opened, we were waiting for critics’ reviews, and the first headline about the building was this—a couple got caught having sex on the building.
At the time, I thought “oh god,” because I had spent 10 years working on this building. In retrospect, I think it’s kind of nice. There’s a club now—there’s a website where you can add your name if you have sex on the building. People also send us videos, like this one, of a motorcyclist who drives all over the building.
And people do that, because the building is allowing people to give something back, and that’s good, even though the security guard was probably upset.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina
We hoped this building would be seen as a hopeful point of connection between the east and the west…given the history of the site. But it ended up being a turbulent time, with September 11, 2001.
We were fearful after all this war, the library would burn, as it had in ancient history.
Later, we heard that the library was being protected by students who had formed a human chain around it—people who were both pro-government and anti-government. If you can imagine a library being such a site of peace. And the library remained that way, untouched, throughout the Arab Spring.
National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion
This little building links the memorial of the dead to the skyscrapers, which are about capitalism and the future. It’s the most horizontal building at the site, and it’s meant to remind you that you, as a person and not an abstraction have value. It’s a luxury to have such a small building in New York.
The north facade gives off a lot of light through reflections, even though it doesn’t get any direct sunlight itself. We build the atrium around these two very somber columns which were part of the original World Trade Center structure.
People come up to see the columns—it’s the building with the most flesh pressed up against it—and they’re always surprised when they do so.
Because they look in to see the columns, but they see people inside the building peering up at them. It’s a theater of life. I always felt that if we could bring one smile to the World Trade Center site, that would be a good thing.
Ryerson Student Center, Toronto
The building is designed around bringing light inside—something that’s important in the frigid country of Canada. The panels are [scored] by a digitally controlled machine and folded by humans. The panels are all the same, but they look very different and as if they’re constantly changing.
Every floor in this building is wildly different from the next. One floor is the “beach,” another is the “grotto,” and one is the “bluff.” And that’s what it says on the elevator—there’s no numbers. They’re all different colors—the “garden” is green, the “sun” is white and orange. The “beach” has no traditional seats, and is the most popular. The students took it over, and every night at 6pm there are breakdancers. People show up in bikinis with beach balls, in this academic environment, and they don’t know how to manage that.
We have two projects now that are next to strip clubs, and this was the first. The students would take pictures of the dancers on their patio on their breaks, and the university got sued, because it’s a privacy issue.
Toronto gets so cold that sometimes the building’s exhaust freezes at is leaves, and it creates really disconcerting clouds that go by really quickly and create dramatic lighting effects.
You might be familiar with this facade—Bill Chrysler made this, he’s here tonight [applause]. Each panel is unique which ended up being more cost effective than making them unitized. We call it a “preshrunk jeans” facade because it has these wrinkles which are going to help the building age beautifully. On the inside we have ways of bringing in “natural” light deep into the building—it’s actually artificial, but it feels like it’s natural light.
Times Square Reconstruction
We’re the architects and landscape architects in charge of the reconstruction of Times Square. It’s an insane project, where we’re responsible for every surface you move across. Places to sit, move, relax, perform.
This is a map of “Measures of Irritation” showing how many places there are where people are pissed off.
We installed stainless steel pucks in the ground, the size of a nickel, and they just reflect the ambient light back and give you a sense of orientation.
There are over 600 events a year in the square.
There’s some enormous benches, which are all about making your butt happy, because if your butt is happy, you are happy.
“The more generous we are, the more joyous we become. The more cooperative we are, the more valuable we become. The more enthusiastic we are, the more productive we become. The more serving we are, the more prosperous we become.” —William Arthur Ward
We’re taking all the vehicular traffic off of the square for 5 blocks—and people had a fit when that was proposed. But we’re only halfway done the project and here are the stats. There’s a huge reduction in crime and injuries in the square.
The economic benefits from the project are able to cover half of New York Police Departments’ whole budget or 7x the budget of all the parks. This is just from five blocks of pedestrianized space.
There’s also a cost. There’s a huge increase in costumed characters in the square, including women known as “Desnudas” who would go topless. Which is legal in the city, but it caused a problem for families who weren’t prepared to see that.
The police commissioner suggested tearing out the pedestrian plazas, but there was a backlash and that plan was reversed.
We’re also working on Penn Station. It’ll probably be a 30 year project and I’ll be dead by the time it’s finished, so it’s a good thing we have young people in the office.
Question: Are you more of a boss in the office or a collaborator?
CD: I really love people—when I was young I sold women’s clothes, and worked in a movie theater—but things do change over time. I notice now that when I walk into a group of people at the office, all the interesting conversations stop and people get quiet, like, “oh god, Craig’s here.” Nobody intends for that, but that kind of thing is kind of inevitable.
Question: Is it your role to touch every project?
CD: Oh no. I mean, I may touch a lot of things—it’s fun to touch things—but I don’t make love to every project. The older people get, the less they can focus in a way. But I can think strategically about certain things.
Question: What do you look at in SF MoMA when you go inside?
CD: Any architect or landscape architect who says to you that they understand exactly what they drew is lying. Often you’re shocked by a little line that you drew and how it resolves as a built thing. The mind is not capable, I don’t think, of seeing things in real terms. We can only imagine certain characteristics. It’s dangerous to say that, because it’s hundreds of millions of dollars of your clients’ money—and there are clients here tonight—but I think it’s important to be honest about this.
Question: How does a building stand the test of time?
CD: I think we’re all the same at a certain level—this is a political thing and I don’t speak for everyone in the office—but I think that a tribesman is not different from someone here, and I think men and women are the same. When a building makes us see those similarities, that’s a good thing. But it’s not just about providing comfort—architecture should also challenge us and make us see things that we don’t otherwise see.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. The [ahem] poop on the street in San Francisco is that Airbnb is hiring architects and building its own hotels.
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Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts.