Toby Maxwell reports from the inaugural FX TALKS event, where a stellar line-up of inspiring thinkers shared their perspectives on thinking big and doing different with the audience
Photography by Gareth Gardner
The last thing this industry – or any other for that matter – needs is another dull conference. ‘Death by Powerpoint’ is a feeling most people have experienced at one time or another, so for the first-ever FX Talks event, it was essential that those attending would hear something quite different. FX put together a line-up of six fascinating speakers, each with wildly different areas of experience and expertise. What they all have in common, however, is that they are radical thinkers who have challenged established thinking, and continue to think differently.
Their careers demonstrate that radical thinking can be found in all manner of industries, demographics and lifestyles, and that hearing the thoughts and perspectives of others can be the catalyst to inspire others to innovate and make a difference.
The discussions were the fuel to another essential key component – the networking sessions. With some 250 attendees from across all areas of our industry, there were plenty of varied views on offer, as well as a good deal of synergy to be had to make for the resulting fiery networking buzz.
FX Talks is the brainchild of FX editor Theresa Dowling. She said: ‘It has been a great privilege to deliver this unconventional industry event after several years of dreaming about the concept. There’s an obvious correlation between the power of radical thinking and what you design for us now, and in years to come.
‘Thanks are due to our generous sponsors for taking a risk of doing something different by backing FX in this initiative, and of course to our inspirational speakers who were able to bring their diverse insight and inspire us all to think differently, challenge conventional thinking, and make a positive difference to the way we live and think.
‘While there are so many interesting and thought-provoking people in the world, FX Talks can carry on talking ... Here’s to our next event in 2018!’
Much like the diverse line-up of speakers, the host of FX Talks brought with him a wide perspective from an illustrious career as a broadcaster and writer on architecture, cities and places. As well as presenting the BBC2 series, The Great Interior Design Challenge, Dyckhoff also presents BBC Radio 4’s The Design Dimension, and was formerly an architecture critic for BBC television’s The Culture Show.
An honorary Fellow of the RIBA and a trustee of the Architecture Foundation, his extensive writing credits include various books and documentaries, as well as a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper’s Weekend magazine and spells as architecture critic for both The Times and New Statesman.
The focus on radical thinking delivered by FX Talks is timely, said Dyckhoff: ‘This is a time of change, instability and “anything goes”, whether its technology, the revolution that’s occurred across communications in the past 20 years, politics or economics – it’s a time of crisis, but it’s also a time of real possibilities, and it is exploring those possibilities that this event is all about.’
Co-founder and director of Stirling Prizewinning architecture practice Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Simon Allford shared some perspectives on delivering a kind of architecture that looks beyond the limited boundaries of conventional brick-and-mortar projects, considering the wider scope of spaces, human interaction with buildings, and the ways in which design works in context.
‘Architecture is speculating about life rather than artefacts,’ he said. ‘What’s interesting about our role as architects is that when our part in a project comes to an end, that is when the life of a building begins. So, in a sense, architects are quite detached from the actual life of the building. Its life is spent with its users.
‘It’s true that it is a dynamic, fast-moving world that we live in, but by definition, when everything around us is changing, it will always feel that way – ultimately, each generation has lived in its own dynamic and fast-moving world.’
Allford warned against assumptions and making decisions based on ‘comfortable views’, suggesting that these are one of the biggest enemies to radical thinking. ‘Whatever you’re comfortable with, there is probably another way. Whatever view you have on something, consider an alternative view.’
He suggested that in some of our built environments’ there is a danger in trying to impose too much structure and order. ‘We as architects strive to design new worlds, but in fact, the type of world that most people want to inhabit has an element of edginess, a condition of the uncontrolled and a lack of management. People sometimes talk about “curating” buildings, but the danger with this approach is that you risk cutting out the random, the chance, the delight and the surprise. We live in a measured and statistical world and there’s little left to chance now.’
Allford talked about how his practice is most interested in design and architecture that is immersed in ‘the world of the everyday’. This is not the world of art galleries and concert halls – although he adds that it has also designed these – but it is the more everyday buildings that truly make a city what it is.
Allford believes it is the public spaces that define our cities and that in many ways this requires a rethink of our current focus solely on the buildings themselves. ‘Buildings come and go, while the streets remain. The power of space, layers and history of buildings is established by context. You’re not merely making a hospital or an office or a residential scheme, you are making buildings for an urban situation that offers delight for those who walk past and those who use it every day, creating the opportunity for encounters; chance encounters that can come about from delivering this kind of “public promenade”.
Everything worth designing is worth designing well.
Monty Roberts steered proceedings in an entirely different direction, to non-violence in training horses, bucking established protocols as a cowboy on the hills and plains of Nevada, where he honed his natural gift as the original Horse Whisperer.
Having noticed as a young boy that wild horses had their own way of communicating, he went on to incorporate this into his own nonviolent horse-training approach. Some 6,000 years of conventional practices had used fear, pain and domination to beat the horse into submission, and yet Roberts’ biggest challenge was not even the horses whose natural instincts he aimed to align with, but traditionalists who did not take kindly to his challenging their conventional thinking.
‘I grew up with violence from a father who was violent towards the horses as well as to me. When I said: “But the horses are telling me they don’t need that approach” he’d reply “You’ve got to hurt them before they hurt you”. I worked with a horse devising a method that gave it freedom of choice, but ensured the horse felt that little bit more comfortable with me than to move away from me, even though as a human I’m a natural predator for him. I called it Join Up, and I couldn’t wait to show people. I thought this is revolutionary, and that the world would change tomorrow – surely they would have to change when they see how much better this is?’
But Roberts was wrong. Instead, they fought against this radical thinking and was hated for it by his critics. ‘I remember my father once saying, “You’re possessed by the devil, and I’m gonna beat the devil out of you with these chains”. It left me with four broken bones that day. Of course, this wasn’t a good thing, but we can still draw some good from it all, because it caused me to keep to my goal of showing how this training could be done without violence.’
The BBC’s programme Panorama, screened some 20 years ago, showed him training a mustang against the clock by using the language that horses communicate to each other in the herd – they don’t use whips or violent abuse to co-operate with each other. It was a radical concept. And he tamed the horse really quickly and peacefully by winning its trust through applying horses’ own behaviour.
He added that things have changed more today than ever before in the history of horses. ‘How gratifying is it to win championships on a horse that is not struck with a whip? It was absolutely radical, and most people fought it. But that resistance is caving in, and one of the reasons it’s collapsing is that I kept my goal in place, kept going for it, and worked hard every day to demonstrate how much better non-violence was.’
Roberts said that some may suggest he just was lucky with the right horses, but he replies that if you work hard enough at something you believe in, then you do get lucky. Over the years he has visited 43 countries demonstrating his work, training 11,500 horses in 28 years.
‘Radical thinking is not always going to work for everybody – there are no guarantees. But investigate it, consider your work, and see if it’s the right way to go. I still have critics who somehow see my work and feel it shows their way to have been wrong all along. But I call these critics my best friends because they play a big part in getting me up every morning, working harder, keeping me from making the mistakes I’ve made before, and getting the horses to do the talking for me.’
“Radical thinking is a lot of fun. I haven’t had a day off in seven years… except every day is a day off when you’re doing the thing you love. So seek the thing you love, and if it’s radical and hard to attain, just keep seeking it.’
Jonathon Porritt is a leading authority on sustainable development, co-founding the Forum for the Future and formerly a director of Friends of the Earth and co-chair of the Green Party.
He started with a warning that some of the world’s leading polar scientists have had to revise forward their predictions for when there would cease to be any summer sea ice in the arctic to 2030, pointing out that this will have a huge bearing on life on our planet, not least since the melting of the permafrost would result in huge quantities of methane being released into the atmosphere and rapidly speeding up further global-climate change: ‘This is not some story that is going to unfold over decades – this is your reality, now.’
And yet, contrary to how it may sometimes look, there is much going on with the potential to have a big impact on the future of sustainable thinking, with organisations – many of them large – looking for the next big ‘disrupter’ to the market status quo, and plenty of smaller innovators working on solutions that could shake up existing structures and market assumptions in a number of key industries such as transportation. Porritt used the example of the ongoing research into autonomous electric vehicles and the likelihood that once this technology reaches the next stage, it could signal the start of the decline of today’s fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engines in the automotive sector.
‘We have a choice to either continue on the path that we are on today, in which case we irreversibly screw up the planet. Or, we celebrate the genius of the human species, and set about creating sustainable lives for the nine billion people who will be on earth by 2050.’
Porritt added: ‘Everyone here is involved in making choices, specifying products, trying to work out how to do the best possible job for your client. Perhaps it’s worth asking yourself: “What’s the balance here between sustainability credentials, and the cost and quality?” Every single choice or decision you make has a bearing on that very big choice over what happens to the planet, and plays a part in tipping that hugely significant process one way or the other.’
Michael Pawlyn is a pioneer of biomimicry, establishing Exploration Architecture in 2007 to focus on designing high-performance buildings and solutions for the circular economy. His work is all about using some aspects of biology to help create solutions to some of the problems of our work and living environments.
He grabbed the audience’s attention by pointing out how amazing the humble camel is. ‘The camel has been described as a horse designed by committee, but that’s really unfair!’ – not least, he explained, since the camel’s nose is in itself an inspired work of nature with its ability to help the animal to conserve water by cooling exhaled air during the night, and by extracting water vapour from exhaled air; this itself an inspiration for an innovative cooling system for a building in the Middle East.
From many more ideas to be had throughout the natural world, Pawlyn presented a range of examples of houses whose design had been inspired by the unique structure of shells, and an office that whose design was inspired from the way in which the eye of the spookfish maximises the intake of light. The result is what he describes as ‘form driven by daylight’.
‘Biology can be the solution to so many problems. I genuinely believe we have all the solutions we need to make really high performance buildings, and to make people healthier through buildings that use fewer resources, transform waste into value, and that can even harvest water in the desert.’
He spoke of the risk of a creeping sense of ‘endarkenment’ in which politicians and economists make the kinds of decisions that do not meet our long-term needs or solve our bigger problems. ‘One of the mistakes we’ve made in the past is that we’ve been waiting for political leaders to change things. WE are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Ordinary people like me and you can shape a more positive future. You can let the future just happen to you if you want to, or you can choose to shape it. If you do the latter, it is something you can do every moment of your waking life, from moment to moment. So let’s choose the future we want, and set about creating it.’
Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster Joan Bakewell has had a long and distinguished career, much of it involving frankly tackling some of society’s thorniest subjects. Her particular areas of interest are the arts, religion and old age, all subjects about which she has fronted a number of programmes for the likes of BBC Television, Sky Arts, Classic FM and LBC Radio. Among her many accolades is the Lifetime Achievement Award at the RTS Programme Awards, presented in 2016.
Joan Bakewell started her contribution to FX Talks by explaining that she was not intending to address attendees specifically as architects, planners, designers, or by speaking to anyone in the room in terms of their careers, but to each person as an individual who is growing old – something everyone is doing irrespective of their job roles. ‘The challenge is to address the whole view that we have of ageing. It has to be changed in our society; the way we look at ageing has to be completely transformed because it is a huge opportunity. Getting old is not bad news, in fact it is a triumph of medicine that we are living healthier and for longer, particularly over the course of the past century.’
In 2014, the average age of the population was 40. In 1974, it was only 33. Back then too, 13 per cent of it was over 65, whereas in 2014 it was 17 per cent. She added that now, there are some 15,000 people over 100, and that number is expected to double in the next 25 years.
It is not just in terms of statistics that the older population is undergoing change though. Bakewell said: ‘Old age is no longer a place of willing submissives. Old age has a voice. The old are economically and politically powerful – older people vote in greater numbers than their younger counterparts.’
She challenged those present to try to think differently about the older population by trying to see themselves as getting older and relating better in order to meet the needs of an ageing population. ‘The old like the seasons. They like sunlight, big windows, big spaces, and hate the cold. And they often have problems that need addressing, such as hearing or sight loss.’
‘People are working longer, and you probably have to expect to be working into your 70s. I’m 84 and still working, but that’s due to one very important factor: I’m doing something I really enjoy. That’s a really important part about growing older – you must shape your lives to doing something you enjoy because you’re going to have to do it for longer than you might have originally thought.’
‘Living to the age of 100 and beyond is perhaps quite a different plan to the one you might have anticipated, so it is important that we consider ourselves growing old and think radically how those changing needs can be met by the work of architects, planners, and designers. And take the time – as older people do – to enjoy the little things in life.’
Tim Hunkin may not be a household name, but anyone fortunate enough to have visited the pier at Southwold, Sussex, would no doubt appreciate his memorable blend of engineering brilliance and uniquely eccentric sense of humour.
A Cambridge engineering graduate, Tim Hunkin initially worked outside of engineering, spending 15 years as a cartoonist for The Observer, creating a strip called The Rudiments of Wisdom. He has also worked in television, writing and presenting three series of The Secret Life of Machines for Channel 4, and has spent 10 years working for museums, building interactive exhibits and curating and designing exhibitions, some of which explain complex scientific principles to visitors.
Since 2001 Hunkin has been making arcade machines for the penny-arcade-style Under the Pier Show at Southwold, creating a surreal world of fun that has real appeal across the generations. His machines include the Mobility Masterclass in which an elderly person tries to cross a motorway using a ‘zimmer’ frame, Rent-a-Dog in which the user steps on to a treadmill to take a pretend dog for a stroll while a screen shows some rather comical scenery, and Quickfit, an exercise machine that enables you to enjoy the illusion of keepfit from the comfort of a bed.
He explained the complex, detailed and often trial-and-error approach to turning his initial ideas for exhibitions and arcade machines into prototypes before being refined and recreated as the finished article.
It is a painstaking, labour-of-love approach that is immersed in a deep passion for all things engineering and making. His talk addressed the difference between designing things and making things.
Throughout his career, the approach has been what he describes as: ‘Thinking with my hands.’ He added: ‘I think better in the workshop than I do sat at a desk. The most useful drawings that I do are not when I am sat in the office, but rather they are the ones I do in the workshop while I am working on things.’
Hunkin concluded: ‘Here’s a radical thought: step away from the screen, and pick up a hacksaw.’ For which he received a standing ovation from the audience!