• Q&A: Designing Global Communities in the Digital Era

    Understanding human behavior helps us create spaces that best suit the needs of those that use them. Drew Thilmany, M.A. in Applied Cultural Analysis, explores new approaches to community-focused design as an Industrial Ph.D. fellow at Henning Larsen.

  • Your background in anthropology is unique to Henning Larsen. How does your perspective on human interaction within physical spaces influence the work you do here?

    Architecture has a lot of tools for documenting how people use space, but anthropology and ethnology help us understand why people use space in particular ways. Why do people occupy one space over another? If we understand the motivations for using different spaces and how they fit together, then we can use architecture to shape these motivations. The needs of one group don’t always translate to the needs of another, so critical investigation is really important to make sure things align. Understanding the way people think about and experience space helps us design it, shape it and evaluate it.

    Social interaction changes over generations, adapting to new trends and social norms. How do we account for such changes in architectural design?

    We can predict the shape our buildings will take, but there are a lot of questions for what the future holds, given the rate that technology advances and how social interaction changes. We do our best, and part of what I do is help think about what the implications of those things will be for the use of space. Historically, architects conceptualize space in relation to the kinds of behaviors that they want to produce. That’s how they delineate between things like public and private spaces. But the way we actually behave in public and private is changing, because the proliferation of digital technology means you can open all these portals between different spaces at any time. Somebody can be in bed waking up, but simultaneously on a screen in a train having a private conversation with someone else. The lines between what we do in public and what we do in private are blurring because these digital arenas are permeating our lives. If we’re trying to facilitate communities in the built environment, then we need to understand what’s happening in the common space and how people build community.

    How is digital media shaping our idea of interaction and community? What does that mean in the context of creating communal spaces?

    Community is largely about how we see ourselves in relation to a group. For many people that happens digitally now, even more than it happens in their everyday life. You can be part of a thousand different digital communities, without ever having to physically show up in any of those places. That means that the way you understand your relationship to those communities largely takes place in a digital environment. But you can have buildings where you refocus what kind of interactions people have, and some buildings are even starting to do this – You’ll move in some place and it’s got a Facebook page, so when somebody tips over the trash at night all the residents can complain about it. This adds a digital commons to physical space and allows people to access it remotely, to appear to one another in a digital environment. That can open up a lot of different opportunities, but it depends on how you want to apply it. You have to think about the value of being the face to face. For me, there’s a huge value in actually interacting physically with people.

    Generally speaking, ideas of community tend to have local roots. Does the process of community-focused design change when we’re working on global projects?

    If we want to create inclusivity as an architectural concept, then we need to translate it into something people can understand through their experience of the environment we design. If we want to design an inclusive building and we shape it in a certain way, but the people who have to use it can’t feel what they think of as inclusivity anywhere in that building, that’s a failed translation. When you have organizations that reach into increasingly diverse areas and they’re working with design, whether it’s architecture or something else, you encounter these types of conceptual translation issues.

    What do you see as the future of community-focused design? How might these practices influence the way we create spaces for global communities?

    I think the future of this is developing in-house teams who do this kind of work, and who are partnered with projects from the beginning. Then, these kinds of concepts and principles help shape the design process, rather than being things that you have to figure out if you can still fit in. I think this difference between something as a service and as a design driver is a really important conceptual distinction. How can we use this to elevate our global presence as people who make the most sustainable buildings, the best interior designs, or the best space planning for social interaction? Those are things that you get a reputation for by finding innovative ways of including them in the process.

    Drew Thilmany holds a dual B.A. in sociology and anthropology from Warren Wilson College and a master’s degree in applied cultural analysis from the University of Copenhagen. His work in anthropological analysis focuses on the relationship between social interactions and architecture. He is currently a Ph.D. fellow with Henning Larsen, the first to do so within his discipline.

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