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“Most people think architects design buildings and cities but what we really design are relationships”, said American architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, during her TED talk late last year.

Cities and buildings are about people, and people come to cities for all kinds of exchange, she emphasized, alluding to trade, services and social reasons. Gang is the founding principal of Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design practice based in Chicago and New York. The firm has been using innovative design strategies to make better urban spaces and proving that it’s not just technology that makes things smarter.

During her presentation, Gang set out three examples of buildings her firm had designed to prioritize outcomes over output. In each example the architects explored the purpose and objectives of the building in great depth, and with all stakeholders. From there a design was created to best serve the unique needs of each facility.

The Arcus Center: a meeting space that encourages conversations

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership brings together students, faculty, visiting scholars, social justice leaders, and members of the public for conversation and activities aimed at creating a more just world. As a learning environment and meeting space, they required a building that could breakdown traditional barriers between different groups and in doing so increase possibilities for meaningful conversations.

Gang’s team took inspiration from traditional buildings such as a Native American ‘long houses’ and Quaker meetinghouses in the US, the ‘togu na’ of Mali and ‘bai’ of Palau, even the step wells of India.They designed a building around a central space, with a fireplace and kitchen. The fireplace created a focal point and gathering space, while the kitchen ensured a constant flow of people.

“It’s almost like this three-way intersection that encourages bumping into people and starting a conversation,” said Gang. “You can always pass the kitchen and see something going on, you can sit by the fireplace and share stories, you can study together in big groups or small ones, because the architecture sets up these opportunities.” Applications to the center have increased 10-fold since the new building opened.

Aqua Tower: a high-rise with a sense of community

High-rise buildings may be an efficient use of space but they generally do very little to connect people with each other or to the outside world. With 82 stories and a height of 876 feet, Aqua Tower ran the risk of being just the same. However, with intelligent design Gang’s team was able to create a rare sense of community within Chicago’s towering skyline.

A typical high-rise “may seem isolating and inward; you may only see people during those awkward elevator rides,” said Gang, “so we invented a way to use balconies as the new social connectors.” Balconies in the Aqua Tower are slightly irregular; transitioning as you move up the building, meaning you can see neighbors from your balcony. “You can lean over your balcony and say hey, just as you would across a backyard,” said Gang.

The irregular shape of the balconies was also designed using digital simulations to intentionally disrupt the flow of wind, in The Windy City, in order to make those spaces more comfortable. These design strategies are working too, as evidenced by the social groups that have emerged in the building, such as the popular community garden on the roof.

Polis Station: a police station that strengthens neighborhood relations

North Lawndale, Chicago, had the standard model police station, seen all over the city. “It is perceived as a scary fortress surrounded by a parking lot,” explained Gang, “people are afraid to go near the police station.” So Gang and her team had discussions with all stakeholders, police and public, exploring the question “can design be used to help re-build trust?”

The solutions they came up with were as simple as they were effective. In order to make the station more integrated within the community the architects designed highly active spaces on the outside of the building. Barbers shops and coffee shops now bring the community to the police station everyday. While popular basketball courts next to the station breakdown barriers with the youths that often have a poor relationship with law enforcement.

The name ‘Polis’ comes from the Greek word for ‘sense of community’. Gang explains that, “if you can increase opportunities for positive social interactions, between police and community members, you can rebuild that relationship and activate the neighborhood at the same time.”

Through intelligent design the police station building was able to support better policing in a big way.

Speaking at the Smart Buildings Conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands, last Monday, Memoori’s James McHale, discussed exactly these types of opportunities afforded by all kinds of buildings. “Prisons that actually reduce reoffending rates; hospitals that improve recovery times; schools that have better exam results, and; offices that reduce sick leave and improve employee retention,” he suggested.

Today’s smart building movement is more than just a technological revolution. Innovative design is proving that smart technology is just one tool in a box full of new ideas embodying futuristic ideals; green, safe, efficient and human centric. By defining the true objectives of all stakeholders, architects and technologists are beginning to see the true potential of our urban spaces.

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