MoMA Curator Paola Antonelli’s Hybrid Approach

Reading Terminal, Philadelphia, a “cosmopolitan canopy” / John Greim, fotolibra
Reading Terminal, Philadelphia, a “cosmopolitan canopy” / John Greim, fotolibra

“In this day and age, is a hybrid approach a panacea, a cure-all?” This question was posed by Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s senior curator of architecture and design, who was host of a recent salon at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), which brought together an unusual group of professionals, all who engage with hybrid approaches in their work. The event sparked a conversation that was in itself a hybrid of sorts, which I would venture to guess was one of Antonelli’s ambitions.

Unburdened by the limitations of a single disciplinary focus, the speakers were free to engage with each others’ work, asking questions, making suggestions, comparing and contrasting experiences. For the designers in the audience, mostly millennials who are not scandalized by the cross-pollination of disciplines, the conversation was provocative.

Antonelli began with a whirlwind presentation about all things hybrid today and its historical trajectory in both groups and individuals. She discussed its roots in biology, in which it is defined as the offspring of two different species, and then how this concept has been used in fields such as artificial intelligence, art, and industrial design.

She covered hybrid organizations that have corporate profit and public benefit, the inter-disciplinarity of universities, and the liminal space so many of us now inhabit between the physical and digital world. Throughout, she asked us to consider who defines people, projects, or spaces hybrids.

Elijah Anderson, a professor of sociology at Yale, then spoke about his research on cosmopolitan canopies, the “islands of civility in a sea of racial segregation” – hybrid spaces within cities in which people of all races and ethnic groups can intermingle with ease, like Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (see above).

Next up was Eric de Broche des Combes, architect, graphic designer, and lecturer in landscape architecture at the GSD, who discussed the representation of landscapes in video games, a hybrid between the physical and digital realms. He maintained that “99 percent of the feelings you experience in video games are physiologically the same ones you experience in real life.”

NYCVISION rendering / Eric de Broche des Combes
NYCVISION rendering / Eric de Broche des Combes

Jane Fulton Suri, partner and chief creative officer at IDEO, a multi-disciplinary design firm, another practitioner of hybrid approaches, discussed how she has learned to manage hybrid teams. Her team recently made a machine that emits a single perfect bubble when your calendar says it’s time for a meeting. To get this team to work together, Suri used a variety of strategies, including nurturing mutually-admiring relationships, finding common ground through leveling activities, and iterating forms early in development to spark productive conversations.

Lastly, Alexa Clay, researcher, author of The Misfit Economy, defined her research interest as “where worlds collide.” As a personal experiment with hybrid approaches, she employs an alter-ego of an Amish woman who goes to tech conferences and asks the participants simple questions to raise consciousness about the rapid adoption of needless technologies.

Antonelli believes that “it’s the spaces that provoke and engender hybridity that are the most interesting.” Ultimately, in a time in which so many of the world’s problems — from climate change to geopolitical unrest — are issues that cross disciplinary boundaries, hybrid approaches used wisely can be indispensable.

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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