Mohawk Blog

Magic Kingdoms — How Our Environments Shape Us

Jeff Jarl
Nicola Parisi + Jasper Sanidad
Uber Headquarters

Environment shapes the way we live. Can the right surroundings make us more creative?


Oasis, the English rock band, wanted to “Live Forever,” but most of us would settle for life in a Blue Zone.

We’re fascinated about those areas in the world with high concentrations of healthy folks living over 100. Naturally, we’d like to live longer too, and curiosity about the diet and traits of people in Blue Zones (places like Ikaria in Greece; or the Ogliastra region of Sardinia in Italy) has converted this anthropological observation into a lifestyle, and yes, books and diets.

What’s the recipe for a long, healthy life? Theories range from a healthy-ish diet, access to the outdoors and beautiful coastlines, to an “engaged” lifestyle or being part of supportive multi-generational families. Older people practice tai chi and tend to gardens in Okinawa, while they bike and take classes in Loma Linda, a hub for seventh-day adventists. In Yuzurihara, Japan where lots of people live beyond 85, residents tend to eat Japanese root and sweet potatoes. Still, replicating Blue Zones perfectly is likely impossible in a modern city. Largely, it’s the geography, climate and culture of these regions—and the types of activity they encourage—that set the stage for long life.

Studio, Painted Mary
Studio, Painted Mary
Photography by Nicola Parisi
The Library, Uber ATG
The Library, Uber ATG
Photography by Jasper Sanidad

Environment encourages a way of living. Our surroundings shape how we live. Can the right surroundings make us more creative? Unsurprisingly the answer is yes, but what surroundings are “right”, and for whom? Creative spaces are the internet eye candy that both the indie and corporate camps are fascinated by—they’re kind of Blue Zones of innovation. Individuals and multi-nationals are both concerned with the same thing: having a space that maximizes creative output, so breakthroughs follow. Is there a blueprint for the ideal creative space? In some ways, yes, but perhaps not as detailed as we’d like. But successful creative spaces—a home studio or on advanced technology research center—as different as they are, have commonalities.

For San Francisco-based artist Mary Finlayson of Painted Mary, the key factor that makes her studio function is ease of access. It’s steps away. “The space chose me. I was renting a studio downtown and just found that I was never making the trip there because I’d always end up working from home instead. So in the end I decided to convert the living room in my apartment into a studio space. It’s a great room because it gets a lot of natural light and can be closed off from the rest of the apartment, so it feels very much like a separate space.”

Machine Shop, Uber ATG
Machine Shop, Uber ATG
Photography by Jasper Sanidad

Finlayson works at home in her living room, and likewise the modern workplace is heading in a more homelike direction to foster creativity. Environmental designers are bringing elements like natural light, pleasant views and comfortable places for casual coffee and productive conversation to offices where cubicles and conference rooms once reigned.

For the new Uber Advanced Technologies Group Center in Pittsburgh, designers from Assembly Design were tasked with creating a new workplace where research and development in mapping, vehicle safety, and autonomous transportation would take place, espousing values like hard work, dedication, and creativity for a brand that prizes disruptive, original thinking.

“Just as there’s no magic root vegetable that will render us all nonagenarians, there’s no single off-the-shelf solution for a creative space that will unlock the next big idea.”

To get the best out of ATG’s engineers, Uber’s Eric Meyhofer envisioned a more open collaborative space, but one with space for the concentrated work that researchers do. Each studio space at ATG has an informal area, two small conference rooms, and six workstations. This was a big change. “Keep in mind that most of these engineers were Carnegie Mellon academics prior to this. They were used to the quietude and private offices of academia rather than the white noise of open plan.” says Assembly’s Denise Cherry. Unless you’re Batman, you wouldn’t mistake ATG for home, but it’s light years away from a cube farm. It’s grabbing a bit of that home like third place spirit.

Exterior View, Uber ATG
Photography by Jasper Sanidad
Exterior View, Uber ATG

Despite their difference in scale, ATG and Painted Mary have another thing in common. Each has a variety of functional spaces for different tasks, and that includes spaces for making things. “I’d say the most important factors in a good space would be having natural light and having different zones for different types of work,” says Finlayson. “I spend equal amounts of time working on the floor, at a large table and at my easel. I will work in each zone interchangeably throughout the day so it’s important to me to have different spaces to tinker around and make a mess and not have to clean it up right away.”

Assembly’s Cherry says, “Opportunity and variety set the stage for innovation.” But while Finlayson has customized her space to her needs somewhat organically, the challenge for Assembly at ATG is to accommodate numerous team members in an 80,000 SF converted warehouse.

“Environmental designers are bringing elements like natural light, pleasant views and comfortable places for casual coffee and productive conversation to offices where cubicles and conference rooms once reigned.”

Assembly strove to “create a workplace with enough variety to allow every person to do their best work. No two people work the same way,” says Cherry. At ATG, Assembly’s design includes a variety of settings—solo spaces for individual work, studio spaces for teamwork, casual spaces for collaboration, and formal spaces for meetings. Each person can work 360 degrees and work areas have room for toolboxes, carts, and prototypes. And importantly, ATG’s studio spaces are designed for teams to see their projects through from brainstorming to conclusion.

Seeing the work and the final product is crucial in both settings. Finlayson’s home studio acts as a kind of prototyping gallery space—she hangs and stands her work throughout, giving each piece the context she needs to know if it feels right in a home. At ATG, there’s some serious prototyping of a different flavor. In a fully-functional machine shop, autonomous cars are engineered, built, and tested, then driven across white tiles into the main central nave. Machine shop and showroom are closely connected. While creativity needs a variety of spaces, natural light and the feel of that homelike third place to flourish, it also needs a spark of inspiration—be it literal or abstract. One look at Painted Mary’s work and it’s clear that the home inspires the content of the work itself. Her vivid graphic compositions make use of the familiar, comforting elements of domestic style: chairs, plants, tables and books.

Painted Mary Studio Space
"Striped Wall" 18x24, Gouache on linen, Painted Mary
Photography by Nicola Parisi
Uber ATG
Tunnel of the Future, Uber ATG
Photography by Jasper Sanidad

At ATG, inspiration is sparked too, but with more abstract design elements that tell a larger story to a group looking for a little competitive edge. The design nods to Pittsburgh’s past and present with an aesthetic and materials (“Cor-Ten and blackened steel against crisp back-painted glass; warm, live edge woods and concrete against clean detailing and linear fixtures”) that tie the past, present and group mission together. As Assembly Design team member Denise Cherry describes it, the design, like ATG itself, endeavors to answer the question “What happens when the City of Steel meets the City of the Future?”

“If cubicles made us efficient machines, creative spaces empower our humanity.”

Just as there’s no magic root vegetable that will render us all nonagenarians, there’s no single off-the-shelf solution for a creative space that will unlock the next big idea—especially not one fitted for both solo painters and teams of engineers. But that shouldn’t obscure what we do know about environments that stimulate creativity and innovation. A creative work-place must allow us the freedom to think and make, get messy or collaborate, concentrate and focus, lounge, stand or sit—engage in a full range of activity that makes thoughts pop with an atmosphere that connects to whatever the ultimate goal might be. If cubicles made us efficient machines, creative spaces empower our humanity.

This article was originally published in Issue 14 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here.

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