Nicolas Turchi: Injecting Time in Architecture and new directions for contemporary design.


What does it mean to receive visions from the excellence of research in design? It means to perceive the need to understand the role of design in society and to look with perspective at the interrelations generated by the study itself, discovering new contributions from other disciplines.

Nicolas Turchi is an Italian designer and researcher working on several hot topics of contemporary design. His academic path crosses Harvard, the Polytechnic of Milan, the University of Bologna (where he teaches as an Adjunct Professor in Computational and Parametric Design) and the Manchester School of Architecture (where he is a lecturer in Advanced Digital Design). He worked in several international practices, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Peter Eisenman Architects, MCA Mario Cucinella Architects and Hernan Diaz Alonso Architects and has now founded his personal practice NT[A]R.

We chatted with him, discussing disruptive developments in design and the need to envision new opportunities for designers.

It is a historical moment full of ferment for the Design world. Research within the paradigm is increasingly advancing the boundaries of action for designers. Design Thinking is now also a buzzword in the world of corporate strategy. What are your thoughts on this, and where do you place a role that has always been important and is now increasingly central in defining ‘reality’? On the other hand, many companies work on consulting spin-offs that bring together teams of designers to solve problems traditionally dealt with by managers. How do you see the role of the designer in all this?

We are indeed currently living in a historical moment for the Design world. The borders of action for designers are increasingly expanding thanks to the advancements in research and technology.

The goal of the problem-solving strategy known as “Design Thinking” is to comprehend user demands and produce original solutions that address those needs. It is an iterative process that includes understanding the users’ perspectives, outlining the issue, coming up with potential solutions, prototyping, and testing. More and more businesses are including Design Thinking in their company strategies. I believe a problem-solving approach needs to be paired with the ability to think critically, analyze data, prototype and test ideas that might fail in the end but could potentially open up to unexpected trajectories and innovative explorations.

The role of designers increasingly becoming central in defining reality is fostered by the ability of the designer figure to align with a constantly more complex reality that demands figures who are highly skilled in filtering through the layers of this ever-evolving complexity. The designer’s role in consulting spin-offs that bring together teams of designers to solve problems traditionally dealt with by managers is critical, especially in the way designers bring a unique perspective focused on understanding the needs and behaviours of users and creating solutions that are human-centred and empathetic. Managers will focus on operational efficiency and meeting business objectives, such as cost reduction etc. While these are important considerations, they may only sometimes align with the needs and desires of users. Designers bring a unique set of skills to the table that can help organizations to develop innovative solutions that are not only effective but also meet the needs of their users through the use of visual communication and user research, creating solutions that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Your research juxtaposes speculation and practice, and your work sees elaborations inspired by founding philosophical works in epistemology and the history of ideas, so what does it mean to be “in the convergence” between this legacy of concepts and practice?

Such a position implies bridging the gap between theoretical and practical knowledge, bringing these two domains into fruitful dialogue, and developing a critical and reflective approach to design practice.

Theoretical knowledge gives designers a deeper understanding of the principles, concepts, and methods underpinning design practice. In my case, this knowledge draws on multiple fields of knowledge, touching on philosophical works, physics, the arts etc. Moreover, being open to innovations and receiving new perspectives from other disciplines encourages me to reflect on my practice critically, question my assumptions, and explore new possibilities.

On the other hand, the practice provides me with a concrete context in which to apply part of this knowledge, experiment with new ideas, and develop new skills.

Being “in the convergence” means navigating the tensions and contradictions between these two domains, embracing a holistic approach to design, recognizing the interdependence of theory and practice, and bridging the gap between these two domains. By doing so, I am growing professionally as a designer but also evolving as an individual. Once again, especially in our profession, I cannot see these two aspects being separate. The work produced in my practice speaks about stories that involve me in the first person, the clients, and all the people involved in a project and their perception of reality. I would argue that this is the most effective way for a design practice to remain relevant, grounded and specific but simultaneously constantly dialogue with the external world and draw notions from other disciplines. We are rapidly moving towards a world of connections and relationships rather than static entities.

Also, in cognitive sciences and neuroscience, there is a lot for architects and designers to explore; what is your idea about this?

Cognitive sciences and neuroscience offer a wealth of insights and opportunities for architects and designers. Acquiring a deeper understanding of how the brain processes and responds to environmental stimuli, including the built environment, can help designers create more functional, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing spaces, promoting human health and well-being.

Lately, with my practice, I have been exploring agent-based design as part of what I call User-enhanced Design in Architecture: the possibility of deploying the built environment to enhance the user experience. The idea is to make on neuroscientific research to build environments that would trigger specific behaviours, stimulate the user and further learn from its reaction – creating a model that constantly adapts to the user needs.

I am especially intrigued by the design implications of using certain technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and eye-tracking, that can be used to study the brain’s response to design stimuli in real time. Ultimately, the gathered data can be fed into AI models to inform design decisions.

Your work is focused on researching the temporal dimension in space. Could you tell us about your research topics?

As a practitioner and an academic, I am invested in challenging the conventional mode of approaching the discipline. I have always been fascinated by the idea of temporality, its human perception and how art and architecture specifically could address it. Time provides meaning to our presence as humans. I believe that historically there is always been enough room for discussion about space in architecture while time has only recently began consistently inhabiting the architectural practice and the academic discussions. With my research, I seek to destabilize the spatial supremacy in architecture, borrowing notions from recent Physics and Philosophy and championing the key role of the experience of space in today’s built environment.

The user becomes an active observer who can change the surrounding environment, or its perception, through the lens of its human presence. This power to shape the world through perception and action is not only limited to physical changes but also extends to how we perceive and interpret our surroundings. Humans can alter their understanding and experience of the world by actively observing and interacting with the environment.

As an Architect and a Computational Expert, I inject the time dimension into the design workflow and form finding through complex computational methodologies, actively exploring new ways to incorporate temporality into the design process. Animation and simulation are at the core of the used design process and never an end result. One of the keys is understanding the world around us, what we call reality, not as a series of static entities but as a complex network of everchanging relationships between qualities.

“Spacetime Architecture” consistently questions the reality we live in, its perception and the dogmas that have been defining the discipline until recently, proposing creative solutions that are relevant to the time we live in, introducing technologies and innovations that might not necessarily pertain to the architectural field yet but that have the power to shape its near future.

It is a historical moment in which Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence – in the various meanings that this expression can take – provide designers with new tools for practice. What is Computational Design for you, and how does it impact your practice?

On the practical side, one of the most significant impacts of Computational Design on design practice is the ability to explore and test a greater range of design options in a shorter amount of time. By using algorithms and computational tools, designers can quickly generate and evaluate multiple design alternatives, allowing for more informed design decisions. These might relate to specific criteria such as structural performance, energy efficiency, or material usage. These considerations lead to more sustainable and efficient design solutions, which is increasingly important given the challenges of climate change.

But to me, Computational Design means more than that. I consider it a mindset and a game changer for how we are used to conceiving the act of designing something, whether a building, a piece of furniture, etc. Computation, procedural modelling, parametric design, AI-aided design etc. are all good agencies in the hands of the designer, a set of skills that architects should at least consider if not fully embrace. They support optimizing our workflows, better communicating with clients, and realizing more efficient buildings. They also offer us new opportunities for exploration and a unique perspective to understand our world’s reality better. Being fascinated by these innovative tools and diving into their exploration naturally marries the inquisitive nature of a designer and, in return, offers new chances to push the boundaries of the discipline.

Besides the Computational Design course, our School of Disruption offers a “Metaverse Real Estate” course. How do you think augmented reality and virtual worlds can open up new horizons for those involved in design and architecture? What contribution does the digital space make to the discipline?

Virtual worlds allow designers to test and refine designs in a safe and controlled environment without the need for expensive and time-consuming physical prototypes. This can lead to more efficient and effective design processes and more accurate and innovative design solutions. My design practice NTAR already offers services across platforms in the metaverse and the real world. There is no doubt that the metaverse provides designers with a degree of freedom that the real world will never match. This is particularly appealing to speculative designers like me, who are more interested in developing a specific design language and narrative and are interested in working with unique clients rather than simply seeking profitable opportunities.

In addition, the digital space offers new modalities for collaboration and communication among designers, clients, and stakeholders. By allowing multiple users to interact with and contribute to digital design environments in real time, designers can work more collaboratively and effectively across geographic and disciplinary boundaries, cutting on time and costs.

As an academic, I believe the digital space offers new opportunities for design education and public engagement. Not to say that this will ever fully substitute in present learning environments, but it might easily define a hybrid that will be considered the norm in a not-too-far future.

That said, I am more convinced that the real revolution will happen within the phygital environment, where augmented reality will take off. We already live in an augmented (distorted?) fact, the question is how much we can push the filtering of reality without losing the feeling of immersiveness.

Even a field like Space exploration needs designers to model and construct ways of interacting and living in extraterrestrial environments. Do these contributions also have disruptive potentials in how spaces and interactions are conceived on Earth?

Absolutely. As designers, we invest efforts and resources in site and context analysis that expands beyond surveying purposes. Designers are exceptionally trained to concatenate analysis to synthesis. While designing for space exploration requires designers to consider and solve complex problems related to life support systems, human factors, and environmental conditions that are unique to extraterrestrial environments, these challenges need designers to think creatively and innovatively about how to provide safe, habitable, and sustainable environments for humans in extreme conditions. The solutions that designers develop for Space exploration have the potential to be applied in a wide range of terrestrial contexts.

Furthermore, I am interested in how the design of extraterrestrial environments also requires designers to consider the psychological and social factors that contribute to human well-being and productivity. These considerations could lead to new insights and innovations in the design of terrestrial environments, such as workplaces, hospitals, and educational facilities.

The design of extraterrestrial environments raises ethical and philosophical questions about the relationship between humans and their habitat. These questions could lead to new debates and discussions about the role of design in shaping our relationship with the natural world and the ethical responsibilities of designers in creating sustainable and equitable environments for all.

Design is often juxtaposed with the concept of ‘Optimism’. After all this, how do “new design discourses” provide a new basis for rethinking a future that we define as sustainable and capable of providing new institutions for collective life? How can ‘design optimism’ be shared with society, giving it new perspectives?

Although historically accused of an incurable detachment from reality, designers cultivate an honest optimism that coincides with a constructive view of our world. In my opinion, designers are active members of society who deserve a better stage. Recently, more and more stakeholders appear to have assigned designers to a role that seemed lost. That of the great humanists and inventors of the XVI Century. This has not happened by the occasion but thanks to designers’ inner curiosity that led most of them to reinvent themselves to align with the evolving society constructively. By embracing emerging technologies, reimagining social and economic systems, and addressing global challenges such as climate change and inequality, designers can play a critical role in shaping a more optimistic future.

Designers can share this “design optimism” with society by engaging in public discourse and collaboration, advocating for policy changes and social justice, and creating accessible and inclusive design solutions. By showcasing the potential of design to create positive change, designers can inspire and empower individuals and communities to take action and create a more sustainable and equitable future.

In today’s society, designers need to jump on the main stage and highlight their initiatives’ successes and their positive impact on communities and the environment. Therefore, communication is becoming crucial among designers’ skill sets to build public awareness and support for innovative design solutions and encourage more widespread adoption.

Another approach is to engage with stakeholders and communities in the design process, creating opportunities for co-creation and participatory design. By involving diverse perspectives and local knowledge, designers can make more culturally responsive and sustainable design solutions better suited to the needs and values of the communities they serve.

Your profile as an academic researcher goes hand in hand with your profile as a professional and entrepreneur in the studio you founded. Architects are among the first “researchpreneur” in history. What is your vision of ‘transfer’ from research to the market? What obstacles and incentives do you see in bringing deep research (which emerges from your academic curriculum and your experiences in high-profile global firms) to the market in an entrepreneurial ecosystem?

As a computational design expert and academic researcher who is also an entrepreneur, I believe that the transfer of research to the market is a critical part of the innovation process. However, this transfer can be challenging due to various obstacles and incentives that exist within the business landscape.

One of the primary obstacles to transferring deep research to the market is the disconnect between academic research and the commercial world. Academic research tends to focus on long-term goals, while commercial markets are often driven by short-term objectives. I have always experienced this while working in architectural offices and teaching in academia simultaneously. Now that I have my practice, I realize that bridging this gap requires a strong understanding of the market and the ability to communicate research findings in a way that is both relevant and accessible to potential customers.

Another obstacle is the difficulty of securing funding for research and development. Many investors are risk-averse and may not see the value in investing in research that may not yield immediate results. This requires researchers and entrepreneurs to be creative in finding funding sources, such as grants or partnerships with industry leaders.

On the other hand, there are also incentives for bringing research to the market. For example, commercialization can lead to increased funding opportunities, as well as the potential for increased social impact. It also allows researchers to see the tangible results of their work and directly contribute to the industry and society at large.

To successfully bring deep research to the market, researchers and entrepreneurs must be able to navigate the complex ecosystem of industry, academia, and government. This requires a range of skills, including strong communication skills, strategic thinking, and the ability to identify and seize opportunities. I nevertheless remain optimistic about the potential for research and entrepreneurship to work together to create positive change in the world.

Finally, a message for our community. The SIDI network sees, among other profiles, entrepreneurs working for innovation and designers and Architects interested in new horizons of the discipline, and School of Disruption students interested in Computational Design, Space, new digital media… Given your admirable academic and professional path, what advice would you give them?

It may sound cliché, but my main advice is to remain curious, keep your eyes and ears open, and catch the ever-evolving vibrations of the world. This is the only way I know to stay relevant in our fields. So always be inquisitive, never stop learning, and remember that knowledge comes in various forms – a book, a conference, a tutorial, networking with other professionals, or travelling the world.

Expand your horizons. When you feel too comfortable in your environment – whether it be the workplace or a circle of acquaintances – it may be time to change your perspective, leave your comfort zone, and write a completely new chapter of your life.

Focus on building a solid foundation of knowledge and skills. Whether you are an entrepreneur, designer, or architect, a deep understanding of your field is critical for success. Take the time to learn the fundamentals and practice your craft regularly. At the same time, embrace multidisciplinarity – innovation often comes from bringing together people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and expertise. If you have distinct interests that divert from your main field, keep nurturing them, build bridges between seemingly incompatible worlds, and unique perspectives will emerge.

Finally, don’t fear taking risks and be bold in pursuing your goals. Innovation requires experimentation and taking chances, even if it means making numerous mistakes along the way. Meanwhile, stay humble, embrace failure, and let it be part of your experience. This will not only make you stand out as a professional but also elevate you as a person.

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