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“Our environment is a factor influencing happiness. And the environment is designable”
An interview with Juan Carlos Baumgartner, the architect looking to build happiness.
Juan Carlos Baumgartner is one of Mexico’s main architects and a ferocious believe in the idea that work places are a lot more than just tables and chairs. For years he has been investigating, searching for and exploring ways in which to create spaces where the main objective is to provide the people in it with a user-friendly environment and happiness plays an integral role. Collaborating with Harvard University and its science department studying The Science of Happiness, this architect is developing corporate and sustainable architectural projects from his Space studio. In recent years, they have designed offices for well known companies such as Red Bull, Nokia, Google, American Express and the Spanish publisher Santillana. During his visit to the Habitat Trade Fair in Valencia where he was invited by NUDE to be a guest speaker, we wanted to talk to him and dig deeper into his theory about happiness in the work place, an idea which connects so well with Actiu’s "Cool Working" initiative.
Creating emotions from spaces is very fashionable idea, yet very few people are able to apply it correctly. This is a trend which you began years ago but how did you come to the conclusion that this was the future?
In the eighties, experts realised that, in the future, people would not just blindly consume products and services, but that they would start to concern themselves with experiences. This theory has a solid anthropological basis: it was only 200 years ago that the life expectancy of human beings began to rise. But before that, like many other species, they only lived 30 years. This is similar to what happens in countries like Sierra Leone today. When you only live 30 years, your concerns are very basic: eating, procreating and waiting to die. It is at this time when objects were essential for survival. But with a longer life expectancy, people start to question why they had come into the world, what is the meaning of life. And that's when they realise that the important things in life, those things which really fulfil us, have nothing to do with material objects. This basic and fundamental anthropological idea has permeated almost every aspect of our lives. We are searching for how an object ceases to be just an object and becomes a key component in creating experiences which are what really give our lives meaning.
So do you think that we are going back to our roots? That capitalism and mass consumerism have bombarded us with so many materialistic messages that we have lost all experience attached to them?
I think we are at the apex of a revolution, more specifically, a design revolution. I am convinced that in the future, all organisations will be companies selling designs. Design made cars, design made computers, phones and furniture. These organisations will be intrinsically linked to design and not only that, but managed around a design philosophy. Even public institutions will end up making policies with a vision centred around design. We will not only see a discipline focused on objects or graphic communication, but we will also see it transfer to all areas of life and we will begin to see countries that make political decisions based on design.
Do you think there are countries, such as the Nordic countries, which are more focused on design, and that the results in these countries are more positive compared to others who are unaware of its power?
In Nordic countries, for example, they have educational systems built around the concept of design, but they understand that design is not the object and space, but a way of seeing the world, how it could be and not just how it currently is. This opens endless possibilities that they did not have before. For example: I am sure that design is the solution to eliminating poverty in the world. Make no mistake: no country will bring drinking water to Africa or is going to wipe out hunger. Only a designer will do those thing. There are things that systems are not able to do, but by design, these things can be addressed.
And how do you apply this design to your architectural projects focused on offices?
We believe that there are three stages in workspaces that are closely linked to the concept of an office. The Space 1.0 version was to convince customers that the space can be a competitive tool for the organisation. This version is very basic and is to help the client make money by uniting all active members of your company in one space. Version 2.0 is much more human. Without forgetting that companies are places for making money, this idea is reflected on the people in the space. We help manage change, to understand the commitment, the relationship between people and the space, which is centred around finding furniture and objects based on health parameters. Version 3.0, which we are currently working on, focuses on worker happiness. Recent studies show that 98% of people in the world, regardless of color, culture or religion, aspire to be happy in life, and it is only rarely that those of us who design wonder how we can collaborate on this mission.
But how can a workspace bring happiness? Isn’t happiness very subjective? And even more so in a working environment?
The first think to do is to question why more than 98% of society are seeking to be happy. It means that we have created societies which respond to many things, but not to this basic element. We have built an economy that seeks wealth, and it is shown that wealth does not generate happiness. We have developed an educational system which tries to impart a huge amount of knowledge but which isn’t connected to happiness either. Nothing that we have created as a society helps us to be happier.
The second is that many of the theorists of happiness today, mainly in Harvard University which has an entire branch dedicated to the "science of happiness", generate the idea that happiness is the mix between pleasure and purpose. That is, if you have a lot of purpose in life but little pleasure then you are not happy. The same works in reverse. The key is balance between the two.
In work it is exactly the same. If you find a job that you love doing and which also fulfils your personal expectations, you are very lucky and are more likely to be happy. But many recent studies tell us that, even though nobody talks about it, there is a third key component: environment. If you are the accountant of a company who has to add and subtract numbers all day long, you may find your job boring and being locked away in a basement with no natural light, you’ll end up with a bullet in the head. There are jobs in which changing your purpose and pleasure is very complicated. But you can change the environment. If you put that same person in a pleasant space with natural light and color, you can change their environment, and our environment is factor influencing happiness. And the environment is designable.
And how do you design this environment to suit everyone? People tastes can be very varied.
It is all a question of taste. It is all about the most significant things that human beings seek for fulfilment, and these are the ones that come to light when you analyse the metric of happiness. For example, one of the factors is "friends and family". That is, people who have a large network of friends and family tends to achieve a higher percentage of happiness. You take this very idea to the office and you ask yourself, is this office designed to help make friends? No. And we mean not only spatially, there are many other important factors ... but with the excuse of space you begin to change the company culture, which includes other issues such as schedules, reconciliation, etc. We analyse what the spaces in which people best make friends are like. We take a bar setting for example, and we wonder what anthropological characteristics come to light in a bar. We translate them and take them to an office, where we create these conditions for making friends at work. When all this comes together, you end up with a work place that does not seem like an office. It could be something else. A space which generates happiness.
But you also have to take into account the operational position of each person, because in the end they are there to work and they need to be productive and efficient and they are not just there to have fun and be happy.
Someone who is not happy is not productive. It's like education. People believed for many years that education was an intellectual issue. It is predominantly emotional. The fundamental part of learning is generating excitement and wanting to learn. And this is a component that no one has integrated into education. We've all battled with the rational perspective of learning, when emotions are the background of education. It is clear that, in offices, there has to be a balance. People should have a place where you they can sit and work, because if not, we have created a bar and not an office. But the challenge is in the design.
And how do you think you can quantify the benefits that people get from this type of space?
One of the things that we have focused on a lot is the whole concept of "Everyday Space Design": all things have a consequence derived from their design and the result is tangible in our lives. We already have ways in which to measure happiness, to measure productivity, commitment, satisfaction, the problem is that most designers in this industry do not even know about them. If I didn't explain to you that Harvard has a "Science of Happiness” department and that I have a partnership with Harvard and that what we are doing is very scientific, people will see me as a crazy hippie who wants to change the world with flowers. And yet, in my daily work, there is a scientific element, an MRI of people and society. We reflect on the human being and why we think how we think. Today you can measure and assess everything depending on the size of your wallet. But even in an office, you could do MRIs on all employees and measure in detail which parts of their brains are working by comparing one work space with another.
So what you are saying is that, in the end, the architecture or environment around us is the least important thing. When approaching the design of the project from the happiness angle, the important thing is what is generated within the space, such as experiences.
We all give in to superficial elements, to fulfilling the aesthetic and formal elements but we do not consider whether these bring something positive into the psyche of those who use it. Over hundreds of years we developed to want nice things and, in part, aesthetics and beauty help and are correlated with happiness, but these are not tools for the transformation of society. We took scientific studies of happiness and applied them to the reality of a space. I’ll tell you a story: years ago we wanted to open an office in Dubai. We got there and saw super avant-garde buildings, each one higher than the last and which looked like they were going to fall down. To build it, they used very advanced, innovative techniques. But they did not use any innovations focused on helping the world or making a better planet, they were focused solely on letting the architect’s ego grow.
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