David Benjamin, founding principal of The Living, finds inspiration in natural phenomena. His largest project to date, a temporary tower in the courtyard of MOMA/P.S.1, the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary art space in Queens, New York, was composed of bricks created from hemp and corn stalks bound together by mycelium (mushroom filaments). The goal, he said, is to create building materials using organic processes with “no energy, no waste, and almost no carbon emissions.” By contrast, Marlon Blackwell finds his inspiration in the culture of his home state, Arkansas. Blackwell’s Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church has a dome made from a recycled satellite dish: “I traded some beer for that,” said Blackwell, adding that the building cost about $100 a square foot. “Part of our mission is to demonstrate that architecture can happen anywhere at any scale and any budget.”
But some of the architects who spoke questioned the very need for new ideas. Brian MacKay-Lyons, the Canadian born principal of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, said, “I think innovation is overrated. It’s not something you should go chasing. You could be waiting a long time.” Instead, he said, his goal is “timelessness.” He decried the “cult of the compelling object,” even when showing slides of houses that have tilted and cantilevered their way onto magazine covers. Rick Joy, the Tucson architect, agreed with MacKay-Lyons, saying, “I’m not Madonna, so I don’t feel I need to reinvent myself.” In fact, he said, now that he’s working on more and larger projects than ever before, his goal is to stick to core principles: “ensuring that the details support the concept” and “striving for an heirloom quality of craft.”
If there was a subtext to the conference, it was that globalization has enriched the profession. (The participants, more of them foreign-born than American-born, were a cross-section of what may be the world’s most polyglot profession.) Dan Wood and Amale Andraos of WORK Architecture Company are building a conference center in Gabon with stone that is first being shipped from Africa to Italy for fabrication. Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu of SO-IL found a supplier of the chain mail they needed for a gallery in Seoul by “shopping” on the website Alibaba. And Giancarlo Mazzanti of Bogota, Columbia’s Mazzanti Arquitecto, spoke of winning competitions in a number of South American countries. Competitions that are open and anonymous are democratic, he said, in part because they give architects a chance to build in places where they don’t have personal connections.
The last speaker of the day was Odile Decq, the Paris-based architect known for cultural buildings throughout Europe and Asia. Like nearly all the participants, she is as interested in architecture’s soul as in the buildings it produces. So after showing several spectacular projects, including a 150-foot sailboat with futuristic fittings, she segued into a discussion of the architecture school she just opened in Lyon, called Confluence: Institute for Creative Strategies and Innovation in Architecture. Its goal will be to train architects who are both ethical and—of particular concern to women—able to realize their ambitions entrepreneurially. The school’s slogan could also apply to the Innovation Conference: “Anyone can apply, but only if they want to change the world.”