Design and architecture play an important practical role in making our lives easier. At the same time, they are culturally important for our well-being. In many cases, it is good to design things that work in a simple, unobtrusive way. However, ease and fluidity also have their downside: the environment can become passive, reduced to mere matter and function, devoid of cultural significance. A society that emphasizes cost savings and productive efficiency rarely enlivens people's operating environment or the world of experience. Most designers today, in particular those in the digital media environment, strive to keep things running smoothly in the background, with as few clicks as possible - which is good for a parking app. Social media is designed so that we only meet people who agree with us and encounter information that interests us. Many architects and designers think the same. The less friction the environment or object produces, the better.
It is not the effortlessness of experience however, but the creative friction (1) between people and the environment that gets our attention, inspires us and nudges us towards personal and cultural change. We need friction to keep us awake, have us contemplate our relationship to the world, challenge conventions, encounter surprises and different kinds of people in our environment. A frictionless city would be a culturally dead city, frictionless art just entertainment. There are many good examples in the history of art, design, and architecture of how an object, service, or building challenges existing patterns of thinking and inspires people to consider new perspectives, or encourages them to make better choices in their lives.
The need for a renewed design thinking emphasizing friction stems from the need for interaction: Western societies and Nordic welfare states are drifting into a situation where society is becoming polarized, where people are alienated from each other and their environment. Loneliness is a growing social problem (despite social media enabling interaction and urbanization of housing). The alienation of people may, at worst, challenge the legitimacy of the entire Western society. Architecture should have a stronger role in promoting inclusion, social mobility and cross-cultural exchange. Like art, it has a responsibility to inspire interaction, thought and debate. It cannot be separated from other art forms simply because it is intertwined in things such as function.
In my own research and teaching as well as in the work of our studio, we have explored design and architecture as tools for influencing people's thinking and behavior. We have sought to increase tolerance and social pluralism, to contribute to cultural renewal and, more generally, to reinforce values and practices that are important for positive social development. By this I mean that objects, furnishings and buildings - perhaps even entire cities - can be designed in such a way that they change people's attitudes towards issues such as climate change. For example, our design for the Ultima circular economy restaurant is an experiment about changing peoples’ relationship to food. While the chefs explored the culinary applications of the most innovative farming technologies we examined how friction in architecture, design and art can be used to change culinary culture.
The idea of using friction strategically has a strong behavioral basis. Psychology, behavioral economics, political science, medicine and health have, over the last decade or so, found that people can be "nudged" to change their way of thinking and / or behavior in a desirable way (see Thaler and Sunstein, 2008, Sunstein 2014). In our work friction is always a positive force and a facilitator of change: When a person's environment, object or service is designed to produce friction, he or she must stop or at least slow down. Contrary to conventional thinking, friction acts as a force that awakens, increases the ability to see wider, encourages the search for new knowledge, encourages active citizenship, and enhances interaction with diverse people.
Friction is one way to answer the old question; how can architecture be used as a critical tool with agency for cultural change? This does not mean that architecture or design should not work, but that design cannot be solely driven by customer-oriented, functionalist thinking that is embedded in existing structures and practices.
In our work and my research and teaching, we combine a critical attitude with a strategic use of friction. For example, a recent and still ongoing project entitled the Meteorite is a three story residential building, made solely of cross laminated timber. The aim of the design is to create aesthetically striking wood architecture in order to promote more sustainable modes of living. It relies on years of exploration in academia, research in technology and professional experience. The architecture is based on an organizational strategy, which I nicknamed the Misfit during my 2009 Figure -research studio at UCLA. In the misfit there are two formal systems which generate a poche. The air in the poche acts as insulation for the building and in addition it contains inbuilt storage as well as all technical systems, which can be easily accessed and maintained. Aesthetically the Misfit strategy allows for the creation of an impressive large scale monolithic form on the outside, which addresses the scale of the community, and an intricate human scale spatial arrangement on the interior.
Architecture may have lost some of its cultural appeal and significance in the era of digital media. However, I trust that experiences that cannot be downloaded will in the future increase in their social and cultural importance. My research in the future will focus on exploring and evaluating how architecture and design can influence our society, including its social and political dimensions. In my work we will continue to challenge traditional conventions, practices, and create critical discussion that helps and forces thinking and action. I will work to provide forums for radical new thinking, critical design, and aesthetic discourse that addresses and expands the understanding of our existential and social reality.
(1) The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has described how our brain works and in so doing illustrates how the experience of friction happens: According to him the brain ‘constantly hallucinates at the world, as a system that constantly lets its internal autonomous simulational dynamics collide with the ongoing flow of sensory input, vigorously dreaming at the world’. In other words, we perceive the world through top down models in our minds, which interact with bottom up stimuli from the world around us. For example, when you think you see a table, you actually see just the prediction of the table in your brain. You know from past experience what it feels like if you touch it, what it sounds like if you bang on it, and what it is meant to be used for. However, if some of the table’s qualities contradict the predictive model in your mind, those contradictions cause friction and rise up in your consciousness, and cause you to explore the object and if needed, adjust your mind-model of it. Top-down, prior knowledge (convention) is a pervasive feature of our perception. Mismatches between the top down predictions and actual sensory input cause friction, which can be strategically used to trigger exploration. This process can fundamentally change our embodied knowledge, the way we feel, and think about the world. This is how architecture can be used to challenge convention and trigger cultural change.
Thank you to Tuuli Sotamaa & Ari Hyytinen for your comments and contributions, which influenced this text.