Nick Sowers | Observer Quarterly

This Wanted to Fail

I am standing twelve feet above a concrete floor, balancing precariously on that part of the stepladder with the warning sticker reading Do Not Stand on This Step! I am tugging on a thin rope, one of several threaded through ceiling-mounted eye-hooks holding up a fifteen-foot polycarbonate Sound Dome. At this moment, there are a lot of things running through my mind:the hows and whys this architect found himself in such a perilous position, most certainly, but chiefly this: I am failing, just like I was supposed to.

Moments later, half of the dome collapses on the floor. The other half hangs, contorted, like so many guillotines which, come of think of it, might make an interesting art installation, now that I see it from a new perspective. Instead, this suspended dome was meant to be the finishing touch on an office I designed in 2014 for the education startup DIY.org. The office is completely open, with just a few walls for the bathrooms. The openness celebrates the 1940s bowstring trusses we preserved in the ceilings, and more importantly, it is a symbol of a kind of office culture that seeks to be accessible and collaborative.


It soon became clear that some kind of intervention to create a sense of intimacy was needed. Given my special interest in sound and space, any intervention would, only logically, hinge upon an element of acoustic design. Looking at the research that’s gone into open plan offices, and having worked in an open office for years myself, it’s clear that unwanted sound is one of the biggest detractions from the open office concept. With virtually no budget for acoustic treatment, however, I drafted the plans for the redesigned space knowing it was going to sound abysmal in there. Concrete floors, arched ceilings, parallel walls: it had all the earmarks of a reverberative cavern fit for museums and mausoleums. Every cough would echo around the 4,000-square-foot space. Nobody would be able to take a phone call in privacy. Most employees would wear headphones (and isn’t that the chronic failure of the open office?


Coming down off that ladder, the Sound Dome dangling in tatters represented my own failure within the larger failure of the open office. Failure isn’t a particularly good feeling, but strangely, it’s the most productive creative force I know—motivating enough, in fact, that I seek it out. 

Failure is also about discovering new ways of seeing. Plato wrote, “science is nothing but perception”; throughout the history of science, we find that accidents beget discovery. The discovery of the age of the Universe, for example, came about by way of two radio astronomers, Penzias and Wilson, being perplexed about a source of noise that seemed to be coming from all directions. (Earth, sitting in the open office of the galaxy.) They suspected it was due to some failure in their radio telescope, but after removing all doubt in the telescope, they came upon another scientist’s theory that the radiation from the Big Bang should be observable. The two astronomers linked their mysterious noise to this theory. Penzias and Wilson would later win a Nobel Prize for their work, born out of a willingness to let failure guide them to a new discovery.

Failure in architecture, however, is a different sort than the failure of science, art, and technology. It’s slower, much slower, and the well-being of those living with and in architecture is at stake. We may not know if a building has failed in some aspect for years, or decades. A building or space might be successful for those users who took part in the planning process, but may fail completely for those who are subjected to it. Further, correcting the problems in a building is usually expensive (if not impossible) and can results in lawsuits, which make architects risk-averse. Unwittingly, every architect risks that his or her work will be incompatible with its users, its context, its era. It took Le Corbusier until the end of his life to make the statement, “Life is right, and the architect is wrong.” Failure is intrinsic to the process of making architecture.
The open office, as a failed typology, encourages experimentation and innovation. For better or worse, this is the playground of human interaction in our era, where issues of privacy, public commons, and the domain of technology in physical space can all be explored at a more rapid rate than the cycle of building normally allows. An office build-out can take just a few months, and improvements, as I have done at DIY.org, can happen incrementally and with immediate feedback.

Seeing the Sound Dome in pieces, I took a break, walked around the block, and came back to it. I recognized a few mistakes I made in suspending it, and calmly salvaged the pieces, and set aside the broken parts to be re-cut. The next day, with the whole office helping out, we tugged on the ropes and raised the dome, a twenty-first century barn raising. There it was, suspended, winking in the sunlight. As I continue to work on the ambient programming around the dome (could it respond to the movement and interaction of people inside?) it represents to me the first of many efforts to humanize and transform open offices into places where people enjoy spending their time.

To read the complete article buy a copy of Observer Quarterly 1: The Acoustic Issue.  

Comments [1]

Great article! Now I need to buy the Observer Issue, because I want to read it all. It is really well written, nice job Nick! Mary
Mary Sullivan

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