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Top 20 TED Talks for Architects

Originally published by Arch Daily as ‘The 20 Most Inspiring TED Talks for Architects’.

Here are 20 inspirational TED talks for architects (in no particular order) from people with broad and unique views on architecture. Some might enlighten, educate or even enrage you. At the very least, they should get those creative juices flowing a little better.

1. Carolyn Steel: How Food Shapes Our Cities

Before agriculture, permanent settlements did not and could not exist. Architect Carolyn Steel discusses how food has shaped the cities we live in, urging watchers to realize that our world is made from what we eat. Estimating that the population of cities will double by 2050, she frames food as a powerful tool to positively shape our future urban environments. For more on the dangers of how we currently produce and distribute food, check out Urban Agriculture Part I: What Cuba Can Teach Us – which also features Steel’s TED Talk.

2. Alastair Parvin: Architecture for the People by the People

When Alastair Parvin graduated from architecture school a few years ago, many European architects were out of work. He stopped fixating on what he was “supposed” to produce – buildings – and instead, embraced the resourceful and strategic thinking he had learned in school to make himself more useful. Parvin began to ruminate about the people who never could afford architects and how they could benefit from design thinking. Out of this WikiHouse was born – an open source construction system that enables anyone, anywhere to build a house.

3. Tim Brown: Designers – Think Big

Tim Brown calls upon designers to move beyond their professions and “focus less on the object and more on design thinking as an approach.” He advocates design thinking as the answer to many of the world’s problems, whatever they may be, calling upon watchers to start thinking about those problems and what we can do about them.

4. Iwan Baan: Ingenious Homes in Unexpected Places

Iwan Baan lives out of a suitcase 365 days a year, famously traveling and documenting architecture around the world. In this TED Talk, Baan speaks about his experience behind the lens and specifically, his fascination with what happens after architects and planners come and go from a place. Over and over again, Baan has come across settlements in seemingly uninhabitable places and spaces, made possible by the ingenuity of people with absolutely no design training. To find out how 3,000 Venezuelans made a 45-story, unfinished skyscraper – with no elevator – livable, check out this publication featuring photographs of the vertical dwelling known as Torre David.

5. Rogier van der Heide: Why Light Needs Darkness

What makes Le Corbusier‘s Ronchamp, Tadao Ando‘s Church of Light, and Peter Zumthor‘s Therme Vals so special? According to lighting architect Rogier van der Heide, it’s how they incorporate both light and dark. Using the history of lighting design and real-world examples to build his argument, van der Heide explains how and why the interplay between dark and light creates interesting environments.

6. Skylar Tibbits: Can We Make Things That Make Themselves?

Can you imagine a world in which buildings are self-assembling, replicating, and repairing? Skylar Tibbits – a trained architect, designer, computer scientist, and teacher at MIT – can. Tibbits focuses specifically on the idea of self-assembly, suggesting the betterment of our current manufacturing capabilities lies in understanding how natural systems work. Using MIT projects he’s involved with to illustrate the possibilities, Tibbits invites watchers to see the future through his eyes.

7. Jessica Green: We’re Covered in Germs, Let’s Design for That

Different programmatic spaces are host to different microbial environments. Some microbes are good for us, while others are bad – so why don’t we start designing for healthy microbial environments? Engineer and biodiversity scientist Jessica Green advocates the possibility, using a case study to demonstrate how our bodies and buildings are constantly in contact with microbes, influencing everything from the freshness of the air to our breath.

8. Moshe Safdie: Building Uniqueness

“Looking back over a long career, architect Moshe Safdie digs deep into four extraordinary projects to talk about the unique choices he made on each building – choosing where to build, pulling information from the client, and balancing the needs and the vision behind each project. Sketches, plans and models show how these grand public buildings, museums and memorials, slowly take form.”

9. Paul Pholeros: How to Reduce Poverty? Fix Homes

Housing for Health uses the built environment to stop people from getting sick. Architect Paul Pholeros was one of the people involved with the initiative when it was created for a small indigenous community in Australia nearly thirty years ago. The goals outlined at the onset were deceivingly basic – like providing people with the ability to shower every day, something only 35% of people in the community could do at the time. Pholeros talks about the project in detail, as well as the ones that followed and their positive influence.

10. Diébédo Francis Kéré: How to Build with Clay… and Community

Diébédo Francis Kéré knew exactly what he wanted to do when he got his degree in architecture. He wanted to go home to Gando in Burkina Faso, to help his neighbors reap the benefit of his education. In this charming talk, Kéré shows off some of the beautiful structures he’s helped build in his small village in the years since then, including an award-winning primary school made from clay by the entire community.”

11. Thomas Heatherwick: Building the Seed Cathedral

There’s usually an obvious answer to most problems, and then there’s Thomas Heatherwick’s solution. Heatherwick is an architect who refuses to take the conventional path, instead dreaming up new ways to do things. Here he demonstrates his prowess: showing a folding bridge that curls up and ‘kisses itself’, taking seeds out of small paper packets and constructing a light-filled cathedral for them, or turning apartment buildings upside down and creating a rain-forest between them.

12. Bjarke Ingels: 3 Warp-Speed Architecture Tales

With buildings, it is usually the finished product which grabs the most attention, however, for Bjarke Ingels the story behind the design is more interesting and useful than whatever the final product happens to be. In this vein, he races through his ’3 warp-speed architectural tales’ detailing how his design process mirrors Darwin’s theories, adapting and improvising, cross-breeding and creating mutant off-spring – like a ‘Cambodian-style ruin’ next to his apartment in Copenhagen. Ingels argues that instead of architects creating buildings that revolt against traditions, they can adapt and use their designs to embrace them.

13. Joshua Prince-Ramus: Seattle’s Library and Other Projects

How does a graph become a building? Hyper-rationality, that’s how. In the eyes of REX and OMA New York founder Joshua Prince-Ramus, Hyper-rationality means taking cold, hard, rational thinking and taking it to extreme, almost absurd levels, a process which they used in Seattle’s Central LibraryMuseum Plaza in Louisville and the Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas.

14. Cameron Sinclair: A Call For Open-Source Architecture

Architecture can tend to be a hierarchy where lead designers develop ideas which gradually trickle down through the ranks. Cameron Sinclair has a different idea. Sinclair is co-founder and CEO (Chief Eternal Optimist) of Architecture for Humanity, a non-profit organization which wants to tap the world’s supply of socially responsible designers to aid in humanitarian situations. Starting with only a laptop and $700, Sinclair is now working towards creating a globally accessible network of collaborative, open-source design, where thousands of people from thousands of specialities can all contribute, creating fast and free innovation to help the lives of those who really need it.

15. Magnus Larsson: Turning Sand-Dunes Into Architecture

Desertification is gobbling up agricultural land in Africa at a rate of 600m a year, and while it might not seem like the most sane or practical idea to build a 6,000 km long wall stretching across the continent, Larsson thinks he can do it with nothing more than bacteria and sand. His vision is to create a wall which would be supplied, designed and built mostly by nature itself, creating green spaces and providing a place for people to live.

16. Julian Treasure: Why Architects Need To Use Their Ears

Julian Treasure wants to know: ‘Do architects have ears?’ Most of us communicate primarily through sound, which is hugely dependent on our environment, yet architects tend to exclusively fetishize the visible, almost entirely neglecting the other senses. Treasure explains why architects need to find a pair of ears and use them – in some cases it could be a matter of life and death.

17. Liz Diller: A Giant Bubble For Debate

The National Mall is possibly the most significant public space in the U.S. The famous stretch has long played host to huge demonstrations of public discourse and dissent. Despite this, the space is hemmed in on either side by a string of stony cold buildings, none so hulking and introverted than the Hirshhorn.  A concrete doughnut,  it has been unflatteringly described as corporate, arrogant, and ‘neo-penitentiary modern’.  Diller Scofidio + Renfro plan on transforming this introverted hulk into a bright open public forum to reflect the spirit of the mall. How do they intend on doing this? An air-bubble. Liz Diller of DS+R explains…

18. Frank Gehry as a Young Rebel

For many, when they think of Frank Gehry, they think of the typical Starchitect. When this talk was recorded back in 1990,  the Walt Disney Concert Hall was just a series of haphazard models and the Guggenheim Bilbao was just a twinkle in his eye. Modest, witty and surprisingly honest, Gehry wants to prove that he does straight-stuff, logical and relating to what’s going on. A man who views architecture as a pure form of sculpture, he tells surreal stories about smutty-comic books, accidentally winning a competition via a drunk napkin-sketch of a fish, and dressing up as a postmodernist skyscraper.

19. Daniel Libeskind: 17 Words of Architectural Inspiration

It is fair to say that Daniel Libeskind is one of the most prolific and controversial architects currently practicing. His firm wins some of the globe’s biggest commissions; his style is loved by some and frequently lambasted by critics. Here Libeskind lets us into his unusual world, excitedly racing thorough seventeen words which form the basis of his mantra on architecture. He explains why he has shunned ‘the well mannered box’, instead playing fast and loose with the established rules of architecture, to create something which he sees as emotive, human and heartfelt.

20. David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

And finally, for a bit of a reprieve from architects talking about architecture, we have a musician talking about architecture. If anyone was ever in doubt about the transformative power of architecture upon all things great and small, here is Talking Head’s front man, David Byrne describing the intermeshed history of architecture and music.

He travels all the way from Gothic Cathedrals and Wagner-designed music theaters, to 20th century grunge clubs and discotheques, and finally the advent of gargantuan in-car speakers and the mighty mp3 player. Byrne describes how architecture has continually shaped and tweaked the evolution of music.


Source: Whelan, Jennifer. “The 20 Most Inspiring TED Talks for Architects” 27 May 2014. ArchDaily. http://www.archdaily.com/?p=510150

Source: Rackard, Nicky. “The 10 Most Inspirational TED Talks for Architects” 26 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Feb 2015. http://www.archdaily.com/?p=364725

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