Scape Design Associates' Philip Jaffa on Radical Thinking

Already looking forward to FX Talks 2020, we spoke to the founder and director of Scape about radical thinking

Philip Jaffa
Scape Design Associates

Can you pinpoint the thought that led you to a career in design?

I was sitting my finals at university and was fairly indifferent to my subject – which was chemistry – when I was introduced to a student landscape architect. That was my light bulb moment. I had always been highly creative with a passion for travel and exploring the natural world. At the time, I knew nothing about landscape design, but I was soon consumed and became determined to re-train and get into it. Looking back, I realise that the duality of skills from my right and left brain gave me a strong foundation to be a success in this profession.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?

Design by definition is a non-linear exploration and in many ways the design industries reflect the evolution of technology and human capability as a whole. Hence, I would always say that ‘now’ is the most radical era of our time. This is certainly true of my own journey as a designer. When I came into the profession 30 years ago we were still working on drawing boards and penning axonometric studies to explain our work. This and sketching were the limit of our ability to translate our designs. Thirty years on, the evolution into digital work and the advancement of building materials has blown our minds, in terms of potential opportunities to radicalise our creative thinking and to explore new ways to enhance the world in which we live.

Which radical thinkers have been an inspiration to you in your career?

I was lucky enough to work for New York based iconic landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg in my early career. In the late Sixties he effectively revolutionised modern playground design and brought landscape architecture into the remit of urban design, through the creation of a raft of innovative urban play spaces across Manhattan. He may still be the only landscape architect who has graced the cover of Time magazine. More recently I have been totally transfixed by the designs of fashion genius Iris van Herpen. She is a radical who has pioneered the use of 3D printing in the construction technique of her garments – the results are sculptural forms that are highly sensory and incredibly evocative, like Mother Nature herself.

Who are the radical thinkers who inspire you now?

See above.

Who can architects and designers learn from outside the industry?

One of the most dynamic and outrageous spaces for radical thinking ever created is at Burning Man – a temporary city erected annually in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, hosting upwards of 70,000 people for eight days. It is no mean feat for the organisers. This amazing event is an experiment in community and art, influenced by 10 main principles: radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leaving behind no trace.

At Burning Man the community has been created to explore various forms of artistic self-expression. Burning Man is about ‘why not?’ Participation is a key precept for the community – selfless giving of one’s unique talents for the enjoyment of all is encouraged and actively reinforced. Some of the major areas of creativity include experimental and interactive sculptures, experimental buildings and live performances. Collaboration is commonplace, and by breaking down the restrictive barriers of the outside world the results have often been breathtaking.

The power of the Burning Man experience is the building of bridges between the extreme and the mainstream, with many radical business, technological ideas and inspirational artworks flowing from the freedom of thinking permitted out there in the desert.

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in your field?

As the world is fast becoming more affluent, with ever increasing numbers travelling annually – more than 1.3 billion people travelled in 2018, up from 500 million in 1995 – the impact of these numbers is being felt globally.

At the same time, many consumers are becoming disillusioned with the fast pace of city living and the overconsumption of modern life, so buying more ‘stuff’ is out; the experiential is in.

In my world of hospitality design, people are seeking an antidote to their forever digitally connected, fast-moving lives. Human beings have lost connection with what really matters to their physical and mental wellbeing.

While people originally travelled for a sense of adventure, and for rest and rejuvenation, they are now seeking to travel in search of a deeper meaning. We are witnessing the emergence of what has been labelled the ‘conscious traveller’. People who are globally aware, well informed and much more inclined to act with a social conscience than previous generations.

They are arguably less concerned with consuming, and they see travel as a transformational experience, while wanting to leave a lighter footprint on the environment.

This ‘conscious traveller’ is no longer just taking a holiday to take time out and relax – they are seeking experiences that will empower them to create meaningful connections that could prompt change in their lives. At the same time, they want to make sure their travel is somehow also impacting others positively, and where possible to give something back. Travel is becoming more about community and connectivity – connecting to themselves, each other, local communities and of, course, to Mother Nature herself.

As a designer in the hospitality industry I see it as my responsibility to open the debate about the future of luxury travel – I am a strong advocate of sustainability, restoration and preservation of pristine parts of the earth. If we look to some of the ancient cultures, the Aborigines, Aztecs, ancient Greeks, to name a few, having a reverence for nature was deeply imbedded in the psyche of these ancient societies. They knew how to live in harmony with the seasons and cycles – they took much of their direction for how to live, grow, harvest, and commune with the spirit of a place from Mother Nature herself. I am advocating a new kind of radical tourism that is not just about sustainability and preservation, although it includes both; it is a tourism of harmony, connection and restoration, living in conscious relationship with the earth.

So much of luxury travel has been about being ‘exclusive’ and can only be afforded by the elite. But we have a different duty to ourselves, our communities and to nature if we are to restore and protect the earth from further degradation. The wonderful thing about travel is that it can break down barriers – we begin to understand one another as human beings in a way that goes past language or culture. The industry is in a unique place right now; we can be the ones that help build the bridge to connection, collaboration and promotion of a unique and harmonious relationship with the magnificent natural world we live in.

Jaffa considers Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel’s IK Lab a radical design… Credit: IK Lab, 2018. Courtesy of Fernando Artigas / Architect / PhotographerJaffa considers Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel’s IK Lab a radical design… Credit: IK Lab, 2018. Courtesy of Fernando Artigas / Architect / Photographer

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams is a fearless investigation into the restorative benefits of spending time in nature, supported with recent scientific evidence in biology, psychology and medicine.

Could you name two buildings/pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?

I love the silky swirls of Ron Arad’s cool Design Museum Holon in Israel and the amazing nature-inspired IK Lab fine art gallery in Tulum, Mexico, by Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel.

I think best with… (my hands/a pencil/ a computer)

Definitely the leather notebook in my bag (for writing my thoughts), a sketchbook and a pencil (for exploring design inspiration), and a camera (to capture inspiring moments).

I think best… (first thing in the morning/last thing at night)

When the inspiration arrives, the timing seems not to matter.

I think best when… (e.g. in a gallery/at home/ outside/over drinks/with friends/on the bus)

There is no doubt that I find my greatest insights when out in nature. I believe that nature can hold us through every emotion and through every life experience and will always provide what we need when we are open to her. This past year I have been a regular cold-water swimmer at the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. For the daily swimmers, the act of getting into the cold water brings about a feeling of freedom from life’s stresses, a sense of connection with nature and the swimming community, and a euphoric sensation of being alive that can sharpen the mind, often leading to moments of deep insight.

The thought that keeps me up at night is…

I see that there is a growing dissatisfaction in our civilised world. We can see that the old ways of linearity, having a typical job, living a city life cut off from nature, and the materialistic lifestyle is not providing the happiness we were led to believe in. Our bodies, hearts and souls are becoming sick, and it’s separating us from our intuition and creativity. I am seeing more and more societally chronic illness and stress, and it is causing great losses to family structures. In the workplace I observe productivity in decline with longer and longer working hours, particularly in the design professions where unreasonable deadlines are often enforced by the demands of insatiable clients.

I believe we are nearing a turning point where we can’t make people work more hours or force them to create value when they are exhausted by overwork and city living. Major shifts are required, with many businesses already taking measures to counterbalance these effects, with more flexible working weeks, coaching programmes to improve team effectiveness, even team yoga. But I don’t believe they are focusing on the fundamental issue. My belief is that we need different values for business and even life – like fulfilment, happiness, creative potential, connection to nature. These more feminine principles need to be incorporated and not just at work but throughout every aspect of our lives including, of course, in the world of tourism development.

It is clear now that we cannot expect the solutions to be generated by major corporates or government. It’s so scary to step outside of what we know by ourselves because all we know is the systems we have imposed on us. But surely the answers must come from the grass roots upwards by creating lifestyles that create balance and a more harmonious world. Hence, in my world of tourism there is a wonderful opportunity to open the debate on what are the fundamental principles of future touristic developments. My belief is that we should be promoting the sustainable preservation of the pristine whilst sympathetically evolving the places already impacted by interaction with mankind, for the benefit of reconnecting people to the natural world.

The thought that gets me out of bed each day is…

The same as above. There is so much work to be done.

Iris van Herpen SS19

Do you like to think with, or think against?

I would say I do both. As a landscape architectural practice we are collaborative by nature. No project we work on is benefitted by the dominant ego of one of its key designers – architect, landscape architect or interior designer. It is clear that the design of a beautiful resort is best accomplished when we work together to generate a single narrative of design. At the same time, I am becoming increasingly concerned about too many buildings being packed in for commercial gain and the subsequent environmental impacts. So, my work life is an emotional journey and a constant balancing act.

If you weren’t a designer/architect where do you think your way of thinking would have led you?

Outside work I love to dive … exploration of the undersea world is as exhilarating as exploring nature above it. Two years ago, I fulfilled a life’s ambition to swim with humpback whales and to do this we had to journey to the remote islands of Tonga. It was a truly magical and life-changing experience to be in the water with these mythical creatures. Hence the opportunity to work in marine preservation would have been a big yes from the heart.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?

Revolutionary, groundbreaking and innovative.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across recently?

I have been delighted to see a handful of brave MPs take the radical action of resigning from their political party due to the complicit nature of their leadership towards inaction against institutional racism (this is the 21st century, for Pete’s sake!) and the fundamental state of British politics with regards to the divisive beeline we are taking towards Brexit. I am hopeful that this will lead to a groundswell of action, leading to a change to the destructive path of this dinosaur of a political ideology.

Philip Jaffa is the founder and managing director of Scape Design Associates and has some 30 years of diverse international experience in hotel and resort landscape design. He is a passionate advocate for a radical rethinking of our values and priorities, including reconnection with the natural world, believing that this alone offers wellbeing to humankind and the chance to conserve our planet. 

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