How Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes creates space by architecting interactions

Happyplaces stories (video)

The first thought goes to a space that makes people happy. And the second thought, which is slightly more intriguing to me is a place that is happy itself. And that is something quite interesting to think about because emotions are usually linked to people. Or at least, living things. To think of a place that is happy, I immediately relate that to a place that is alive, which is for me what places are, intrinsically. As an architect, creating places for people is really in the realm of the service. I can’t think of any of the space we create as a product. They have to be a service. And when you shift that thinking from product to a service, it then brings into the picture the person using it. The building is serving, which is the users how we call them when we speak about spaces in architecture. And it is ridiculously easy for architects, and you will see it quite often, to forget to consider the users in the spaces they design. The focus ends up then, being focussed on the design itself, the product as I say. On the walls, what it looks like, and not at all on the experience that happens in it. And that is a very disappointing thing to discover because you wouldn’t think it would be that way.

Velocity of people

I have had a quite traditional journey in the world of architecture, up to a certain moment. I studied architecture. I worked at one of the considered best architectural offices in the world. It was an exciting journey in the sense that I have learned tremendously. It is as interesting to learn what to do as what not to do. And during that journey things emerged for me where things felt right, and things didn’t. Some things did, and some things didn’t. The things that did not feel right I had to figure out. And figure out an alternative. And this is where I discovered that my focus on the experience and the service architecture provides, is vital. It cant be a product. It cant be a sculpture. It cant be designed from outside. It has to be the experience of it. The easiest way to explain that, is to model my vision on Einstein’s E=MC2. We don’t need to know that it means in science. The idea is, ‘E’ stands for ‘energy’, the ‘M’ stands for ‘mass’, the ‘C’ stands for the speed, the velocity. And the idea is, traditionally but also generally, architecture focusses on the mass. It focusses on the ‘M’ of the equation. And that is what architects deliver. They deliver the space, the walls, the house, the building; this is all mass. The focus of my vision of ‘architecting interactions’ is to shift from delivering mass to delivering energy. And to do that, to move from the product of mass to provide the service of energy, you then need to take the velocity of the equation into consideration. And that comes from people. That comes from people moving in the space, using it. It also comes light moving in the space. It comes from air and wind moving in the space. Primarily though, the biggest portion of it comes from people. Since they continuously use the space. It is quite intriguing to focus on the usage of the space.

Vision

‘Architecting interactions’ is my vision of architecture. On the goal, the use and the value of architecture in this world. The premise of ‘architecting interactions’ is to shift the focus and the importance from architecture to interaction. For me, the goal of our work is to deliver spaces that enhance interaction. And by interaction, I mean physical interaction, human interaction. And architecture becomes a tool to do that. Which of course leads you to think that you can do that too with other tools, which is true. The idea of creating spaces, as we stick to architecture, that enhances human interaction focusses on the human. If we create a space — let’s call it a context, it could be a space, it could be an outdoor park, it could be even just a piece of furniture — the ideas is: if we are going to create a context that enhances interaction, this context needs to be human. By human I mean that it needs to be ‘holding’, ‘hugging’; it needs to be to people what people need it to be at that moment in time for them. And every space needs to trigger interaction, only to varying degrees. If you think of a train station, there are interactions there, different than in a hospital, different than in a school, different than in a private house, but they all have interaction. The idea is that we work on a scale of interventions. Like a dimmer switch. That’s why the space needs to be smart enough to nuance these interactions, more or less depending on its function and what people are doing in it.

Human qualities

The three qualities of human context are: ‘the incomplete’, ‘the impermanent’ and ‘the imperfect’. The idea is to intentionally design incomplete, impermanent and imperfect spaces, contexts and environments. The main focus of these three qualities and to create a human context is to bring in the input, collaboration with users. Bring in user-participation. That is where you create value, that is where things become different, where every context becomes different from another, although they were designed in a similar process by the same architect: the users are different, and the value comes from them. The idea with for example ‘the incomplete’ is to, if you were to draw a circle and not close it, our eye instinctively closes it. And that is the same thing with spaces and contexts. Once you design something that is incomplete, this incompleteness is the open space, the invitation to want to participate. To give their input and to contribute to it. This is where added value is created. The idea of something that is impermanent, something that changes shape, form or texture over time is a very similar thing. We see the participation of people in it. We see the participation of time in it. Those things are what triggers interaction. The first quality, ‘the imperfect’ is where we look at things, this is in contrast to the modern slick minimal esthetic which makes everything so finished and perfect, that there is no room for you to participate anymore. There is no space for you; there is nothing you can add to it. There is just no opening, no invitation to join in. And the idea of creating something imperfect is precisely that. To create a space for improvement, although that is not the idea. The idea is still to create an open space for people to participate and contribute to.

The idea of the human context is something we strive for in the final product that is delivered, the final service that is delivered. But as well in the process that takes us there. If you would compare the process that we use to a normal architectural process, that you learn it is entirely different. The process for architecture is designed from the perspective of architects. That is just like any other discipline or industry, things are designed from the perspective of the experts. For the clients, the users, the people involved on the other side, it makes very little sense. ‘Architecting interaction’ started as a vision. Started with almost idealistic ideas. The most important thing for me was to make it a reality. And to make it the driving force for creating contexts, spaces and environments. To do so, we had to clarify the process that we work with. The idea is to build a process that keeps in mind the main goal and the main driver of that vision, which is creating interaction. And as I mentioned, this interaction had to be present all along. It is not something that is solely created is the delivered service. It is something that has to be there from day one.

Phases

It is a four phases process. Three of those phases are ‘hard’ phases, and the fourth is a more ‘soft’ phase. The building will be open after the third phase, not after the fourth. And that last phase is critical, going back to this idea of ‘the incomplete’. In three phases we deliver a space, a building, whatever the assignment was. And then people move into it. Start using it. And our last phase is spent studying the space while people are using it. So we are delivering something that is physically incomplete.

To recap the phases, the first phase is based on understanding. That phase is solely dedicated to understanding the question, the drive, the brief; what the clients want. Part of that is helping them understand what they want before we can understand it too. This phase largely consists of conversations and workshops with the users. Sometimes the client is not the user; you have to involve all people in the building. If we’re talking about a school, this means we’re talking with the students, staff, parents, the bus drivers, the neighbours in that neighbourhood. You have to imagine this as a series of concentric circles. In the centre, you have the people most affected by the project. And then it grows from there. Every group of people gives you a different insight into the project. They each tell you something that the other group doesn’t know you. The parents will tell you something that the students don’t know. The students will tell you something that the teachers don’t know. And the neighbours will tell you something that the bus driver doesn’t know. This is how we can attempt to understand a project in a comprehensive way and have the full picture of it. At the end of that phase, we create something that we call the ‘home language’. The ‘home language’ is what tries to capture the culture of the community of the project, thus all the people that are involved in it. That ‘home language’ is then translated into the first strokes of design. That is what we do in phase two, what we call ‘envisioning’.

Here we take what we have learned from that community, their culture, dream, vision, what they’re looking for in that project, what they are looking for beyond that project and start translating that into the first strokes of that vision. The aim of the second phase is still to reach a shared vision, because it can’t be someone’s vision and not that from someone else. That is a complicated thing to do. This is where priorities come into place as well. And that shared vision is achieved and takes shape in form and starts being illustrated, and we go into phase three.

And phase three is the ‘creating phase’. Where things get developed, things get implemented, things get built; the space now is being created, starts taking shape. And the end of that phase the space is ready for people to move in. It is now complete.

There are things that people don’t need before they move into a space. There are things better designed, better thought of and better implemented after people have moved in. Th reason behind that is observation. People’s behaviour will tell you things that their words won’t tell you. And what your experience won’t tell you either. The idea is to allow people into the space, and that period of people settling into the space, the space settling around the people is where we as architects learn tremendously from. Our role here is to observe. Observation is the key to that space. To observe and learn from the behaviour in a way to refine that space. Finetune it. And make it fulfil people. Make it suitable for people. This moulding happens based on observation. Those are roughly the four phases we work with.

Dialogue

All along these phases, we have vital touchpoints with that community, what we call the ‘community consultation sessions’. We have a number of them throughout the project. And depending on the phase we are in, the questions and the answers in these sessions become different. We always ask people for insights. During these sessions; we as designers and architects are looking for insights. And insights are not opinions. That is something difficult for people to understand sometimes. People are very quick in giving you opinions of what they like and don’t like, but that is not what it is about. It is about insights and experiences to be able to shape the best space possible, the happiest place possible. This whole process is deeply collaborative. Collaboration is at different levels, in different shapes and forms throughout the project. But the experts, here the architects, stay the experts. When you get all of these insights, all of these experiences, it still takes an expert to go through them and come back with the best possible answer. What needs to be clarified, is that the process is not about asking people what they want you to do. Most people don’t know, they never really thought about it. Some people don’t care. Some people will tell you what they want, but that is not really what they want, but they don’t know that. Some people will tell you what they want, from a very personal drive that is not shared at all by the community. By observing people, more than actually listening to them, you will learn more from people’s bodies than their mouths. And that is a fascinating thing. And obviously, to be able to do that you need a proper foundation. I studied psychology, I studied language, people’s behaviour, people’s typical use of words. It involves more than our usual education of architecture, what is fascinating. We want to get to know these people. And then be instinctively be able to create a space, a project, a place for them that is more than they ever thought they knew. The surprise element is the added value that you can’t get in another way.

Background

The fact that I come from a different place than where I am now, at least most of my time, affected my thinking and work. To be honest, don’t know how exactly, I can see snippets of evidence of how that worked. I come from Beirut, Lebanon, which is as you can imagine a very hectic place. Beirut is a very small city with a lot of people. Very chaotic, very busy but magical as well and incredibly diverse. I have lived there. I grew up there. I studied there. And as long as I was there, there are some things that you see and some things that you don’t see because you are in the middle of it. The big part that affected me is how people used space. There is an incredible notion of the use of public space in Beirut, in the sense that official public spaces are virtually non-existent. And yes the street is everybody’s place. People live on the street. You have cafes and shop staking over the streets. And not in an organised way with a permit like you have here in Holland, but people there appropriate the space. And that is fascinating. That happens on the street level, that happens on the roof levels. That happens in between buildings. That happens in small streets. People start making connections, whether with the laundry lines or with intercoms. Or a piece of wood to cross from one balcony to another. Those things are fascinating. But you have to stop and look to see them. I came to Amsterdam a few years ago, which is a very different environment and a very different culture. It is different in its physical state, in its cultural state. What you notice is that people relate to each other differently and people relate to space differently. That relation to space is the most intriguing thing to me. People have a very different notion of space here, whether it is a virtual space or personal space, physical space or private space. When you meet someone in Lebanon, in two days you can be invited to that person’s home. I haven’t seen that in Europe. At least, not that fast. That shows a different understanding of my personal space versus the space we share versus your personal space. And that is quite nice. On an urban level; people carve their own space in Lebanon. Thet is because of two things. One, there is a total lack of government-driven planning. At least until recently. Two, people have to do it. People are used to plan for themselves. We have to do things ourselves because of a lack of a public support system. When you have to renovate your building or fix a piece of sidewalk, you just do it. Because your shop is here, and you need that sidewalk to be fixed to get more customers. We’re very down to earth in that sense. We get our hands dirty. And that is something I really enjoy. It takes it personally. It makes you care in a way that is different to other places I have been to. That feeds my belief how important interaction is. Between people, between people and objects, between people through objects and all the other combinations you can think about.