Bing Thom’s Sensuous, Tactile Arena Stage

Architect Bing Thom’s new Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C. may be the pinnacle of biophilic design with its use of sensuous and tactile natural materials, access to sunlight, and natural ventilation systems. Biophilia, as defined by famed biologist E.O. Wilson, is “the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms.” (see earlier post). When applied to buildings, biophilic design actually goes beyond functional environmental sustainability and harnesses natural elements to create wellbeing (see earlier post).  

The building makes a bold statement in its Southwest D.C. neighborhood, an area once ridden with crime but now coming back in part due to institutions like the Arena Stage. Managing director Edgar Dobie said theater companies “need to have a pioneering spirit” in order to help rebuild damaged communities. Arena Stage was the first desegregated theater group in the country and also had some of the first desegregated audiences. Now fifty years later, the new $135 million space, which took some ten years to finish, provides a “utopia” for the neighborhood, but its programs are still deeply connected with the local middle school and community groups. Local residents get discounted tickets.

By design, the community is physically connected in with the building. Arena Stage was comprised of two smaller theaters that looked away from each other along the D.C. waterfront. Instead of pulling them down to create something new, Thom placed a towering cantilevered roof over them that feels like a tree canopy, and added the new Kogod Cradle studio theater. The three theaters now face each other, creating “three jewels in a jewel box.” The interior space connecting them creates a rich public flow-through, which was designed to “create collisions” among the audience, actors, and administrative workers.

The interior promenade allows theatre-goers to recover from the “intense experience” of the live performances. “They can take a break during intermission by exploring the spaces,” said Thom. However, Molly Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage, instead thinks the new spaces actually reinforce the intensity of the performances. “The new building proclaims the sensuality of live theater.” She added that “theater should be sexy. It’s about the human body. So many buildings in D.C. are so square.”

Thom conveys the sensuality of live performance through the use of rich natural materials. The interior of the Kogod Cradle, with its undulating wood walls, feels like the inside of a forest.

The sense of being in a forest is also enhanced by a set of 44 to 55-feet-tall tree-like pillars throughout the building made of Parallam, an engineered wood product consisting of 95 percent recycled douglas fir and cedar wood chips. These pillars, while biophilic design elements in themselves, are there to hold up the massive glass walls — each bears 400,000 pounds of weight. 

A love of nature is found in these pillars, but also in smaller details like smooth wood hand rails and rough concrete walls that are fun to touch. Thom said: “These small elements are how the designer shakes hands with the visitors. The tactile element is very important. These are things people lose sight of in the computer age.” Thom’s wife’s rich carpets, which Smith said “bring the fire to the building and give it energy,” create another tactile element and include overlaid drawings of the building. Almost all of the new building is made up of recycled or reused materials.

The subtle landscape architecture, designed by Chris Phillips, ASLA, of Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg, helps integrate the building into the community — a number of access points enable easy entry and flow-through the public spaces in the interior. Trees on site were saved, said Thom, and a few oaks replanted. There are also plazas where outdoor studio work can occur. Unfortunately, though, one of the more ambitious landscape architecture ideas — to create a running river around the building to mirror the Washington Channel — was cut because $20 million needed to be removed from the budget.

Also, check out The Washington Post’s coverage of the building and learn more about Thom’s work.

Image credit: Nic Lehoux, courtesy Bing Thom Architects.

Edward Tufte: “Good Information Design Comes from Analytical Thinking”

Edward Tufte, the “Galileo of graphics” or “Leonardo of Data,” is continuing his series of day-long lectures on the basic tenets of information design, one of which is PowerPoint is authoritarian. Tufte is well-known for his beautifully-crafted books including: “Envisioning Information,” which he says is about “pictures of nouns” or maps and aerial photographs; “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” which is about “pictures of numbers” or how to depict data and statistics with integrity; and “Visual Explanation,” which is about “pictures as verbs” or the representation of causes and effects, process and dynamics. He is touring to ensure analytical thinking pervades all designed graphics, tables, charts, figures, and presentations, particularly those coming from the government and business worlds where, he argues, PowerPoint has done major damage to the presentation of information, with often deadly effects.

In one example, he points to NASA’s culture of “hierarchical, authoritarian” PowerPoint presentations, with their “relentless sequentiality” as particularly problematic. Tufte argues that PowerPoint’s “cognitive style” is unsuited to the presentation of the complex engineering data needed to make quick, life-or-death decisions. The 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster was in part due to the mix of dumbed-down PowerPoint slides and reports produced by Boeing for NASA, which “provided mixed readings of the threat to the spacecraft; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.” In other words, NASA decision-makers didn’t have access to accurate presentations of the data, which could have led them to decide to hold-off on the launch.

Instead, graphic representations of data should be taken out of PowerPoint and included in brief hand-outs to show “causality thinking,” or the cause and effect in the data. Presentations should be “content-driven” (not format-driven), and void of “chart junk,” which just confuse readers. “Presentations should be 100 percent content — content comes first.” To create credible presentations that decision-makers can act on, graphics should include labels, linking lines, sources, lots of detail, and function like maps. “Maps have been around for 6,000 years. Detail clarifies.” Furthermore, it’s on the onus for the presenter to “provide reasons to believe the presentation.” (In fact, as the NASA case demonstrates, presenters also have a moral obligation to be very clear and accurate).

Enabling people to use their own cognitive style when reading and interacting with information is the best way to go. “This interactivity is the genuine form of personalization, it’s real personalization.” While some may think the graphic (above) leads to “information overload,” in reality, it’s bad design or clutter that causes those issues. Eyes, which are a powerful “information through-put,” can download about 20 MB of content per second. As a result, “content is what is intriguing” and presenters should “maximize content exploring and reasoning time.” High-resolution graphics are about “finding patterns. Virtually no design is visible.” Tufte say if lots of information can’t be processed via a graphic, it’s not because there’s too much content: “Fix your design, don’t blame your audience.”

Tufte said high-resolution graphics are especially needed now because the world is “rich, complex, multi-variate.” He added that “the world’s serious problems all have three variates.” In turn, presenters need to turn all this complicated and important information into “simple flatlands,” or take something three-dimensional and make it two-dimensional. Improving the resolution by bits of time or area is the way to do accomplish this. “Science is really all about improvements in resolution.”

The guru of information design guards against summarizing other’s information and data and potentially missing key arguments, but a few of his last points on presentations included:

1) Get good examples in the wild. “Copy, don’t create anew.” Look around for other excellent charts, graphics, presentations of data.
2) Find a good table format. Reports are usually about performance data. “Don’t use grids, but do use a decent typography.”
3) Create a powerful, interactive “supergraphic.” (see image above).
4) Use intellectual models that work — reports should read like reporting from The New York Times or Google News. The science journal Nature has “cutting-edge visualizations.” Any newspaper’s sports section is good model to use for the presentation of lots of data.
5) A story needs to be believable. “Don’t talk like an MBA.”

On Web design, he added that icons for Facebook, Twitter, etc are “not content,” but “administrative junk” that should be minimized. He pointed to the home page of The New York Times, which he said has “over 400 links” and gets millions of page views per day. Also, he added that 92 percent of any Web site should be content, leaving just 8 percent for navigation and “Web administrative tools.” For mobile design, he pointed to Apple’s iPhone, calling it a model of “content or user-centered design.” Lastly, if people must use PowerPoint, just “use it as an operating system only — no logos or boilerplate templates.”

Check out Tufte’s free online tutorials on a range of subjects as well as his books. Interestingly, Tufte is increasingly focused on land art and landscape design — his most recent book heads off in this direction. Also, see him live in New York City, Philadephia, San Francisco, and San Jose later this fall.

Image credits: (1) “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” Edward Tufte. (2) How to Look at Modern Art in America, Ad Reinhart /