NY's Builders of Cyberspace Turn to Real World Architects
by John Hutchins McGrath
January 30, 1998
If cyberspace is going to be a place that people inhabit, what builders of Websites really need to do is to think like architects, not graphic designers. At least that's the notion around which Marc Tinkler and Edward Pak built their business.
Tinkler and Pak are the founders of Plumb Design, a Silicon Alley startup Web design firm launched last spring. The Net is littered with already cliched mixed metaphors -- surfers on highways, Web sites of home pages. But it is becoming increasingly common to find architects -- professional space builders -- working in and influencing new media design. Tinkler and Pak are not alone among Silicon Alley companies. Both io360 and MethodFive have trained architects on staff. But while other Silicon Alley companies draw from architecture, Plumb Design is perhaps unique in that it has explicitly made the architectural model one of its organizing principles.
"We feel we have a lot to learn from architecture in terms of the way architects deal with their clients," says Tinkler in the office he and Pak share with CEO Mary Azzarto and executive producer Michael Freedman, the firm's other full-timers. "[New media] is such a client based industry and a lot of firms out there are looking towards advertising as a model, I think because that's where a lot of firms have their roots. It's more interesting, though, to draw the parallels between architecture and the new media industry because of the way architecture is so integrated with technology."
Tinkler and Pak organize both the business and the creative aspects of their company on the architectural model. Not coincidentally, both have degrees in architecture from Carnegie-Mellon University.
Tinkler and Pak are looking to the field of architecture to find new employees as well as inspiration. Architecture graduates are likely to possess a combination of technical and design skills that are valued in new media. And, according to Nancy Herrman, an assistant editor at International Design magazine and a graduate student in both architecture and digital design at Parson's, architecture provides more rigorous training than traditional graphic design programs.
"Architects are trained to formulate a project purpose or 'program' and design towards it," said Herrman. "[Part of] developing the program is thoroughly knowing the client's business and their needs. Visual artists aren't often trained in strategic planning, and the rigor of architectural education is unparalleled in the other design arts."
Architecture and digital design have a long association, one that predates the rise of the Internet. Nicholas Negroponte, before going on to found the MIT Media Lab, was trained as an architect, and his books from the early '70s were a visionary look at how computers would affect architecture and design. The Media Lab itself is part of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, and the dean of the architecture school, William Mitchell, is the author of City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn, a treatise on designing cyberspace. MIT is probably both the best known and the most accomplished university to explore architecture's connection to the digital, but it's not alone. In addition to the dual master's program at Parson's, both Columbia and Pratt have integrated digital design deep into their curriculum. To Tinkler, it is this integration that makes architecture students valuable as new media designers.
"A lot of the architecture schools feel like you learn the technical side of things in practice, and it's the theory you're supposed to learn in school. So the way they integrate computers isn't just to say 'We're going to teach you AutoCAD.' They just sort of put the computers in the lab and say. 'Use them, however you want.' At least that's how it happened at Carnegie-Mellon. Computers were integrated into the studio environment, to be used as a partner in the design process rather than just as a means to an end. Which is really the key to new media."
Stephen Perella, an architect in private practice and an editor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, thinks the effects of architecture on new media are more enriching than the effects of other fields. "The approach from an architectural point of view would be to see the Web as a spatial experience, one that can be navigated through," said Perella. "The architects' task has often been to figure out ways to make meaningful and enriching experiences with environs. An ad agency's job is simply to sell. In this culture that doesn't necessarily mean a richer environmental experience. In fact, it usually means the opposite."
Perella also sees the influence going both ways, citing computer animation as one example. Digital approaches are radically altering the practice of architecture. The new wave of billboards, the hyperkinetic, over-the-top, whole-surface electronic billboards of Times Square and Las Vegas, what Parrella calls "interfaces in the built environment," are one sign of digital influence on architecture.
But the drift of young architects into Web design may be happing for very prosaic reasons. Architects are usually in their fifties by the time their careers really blossom. Even then, with building cycles so tied in to the economy, satisfying work often follows a boom-to-bust pattern. Despite the booming economy of late, there is still a glut of architects, and they command much lower salaries than other comparably trained professionals. For many architects, especially recent graduates familiar with digital tools, new media offers enticing opportunities.
Plumb Design is seizing those opportunities. Tinkler graduated in 1996 and spent one year as director of technology at Razorfish, where he met Azzarto and Freedman. The three left to start Plumb Design six months ago with Pak, who graduated from Carnegie-Mellon in 1997. They now count the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, and the New York Academy of Medicine among their clients, and they plan on expanding their staff in the near future.
They're looking for someone with an architecture background, naturally.