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What Works

Marrakesh: City of Hustle and Havens

This pink-walled maze glows with a frenetic energy that makes NYC seem lazy. Outside in the streets, getting lost is inevitable, goods spill from every corner, and negotiating is the norm. Behind the walls, inner courtyards and gardens provide quiet spaces of calm. The synergistic relationship between what’s happening outside and what happens inside makes Marrakesh work.

The center of the hustle is Jemma el-Fnaa–the main square and market place in the center of medina–frequented by both tourists and locals alike. Rows of fresh juice stands, tall mounds of spiced nuts, smoking grills covered in kebobs, henna artists, snake-charmers, storytellers, Berber musicians: here you’ll be well fed and always entertained. And while the offerings are eclectic, there is a shared sense of energy, culture and community that is impossible to deny.

Radiating out from the square is a network of souks: think commerce on crazy pills. Stalls covered in rich colors, patterned textiles, illuminated lanterns. Selling the new and the old, the authentic and the manufactured–but always selling. A place designed for both freedom to wander, and the intent to buy.

All of this merchandise madness happens facing out, but turn inside or up, and you’ll find quiet spaces of chill. Step through a wooden doorway, down a narrow path and suddenly it’s calm. The lush green courtyard of restaurant Le Jardin, the open-air rooftop cafe at Nomad, spaces that serve as the antidote.

Marrakesh is a place that intuitively understands what people need–communal experiences and individual moments, highs and lows, action and rest, spaces to do and spaces to be.

What We’re Working On

Downtown Houston is in the midst of an exciting transformation from a commuter city to a true live, work, play destination. We’ve been working on two commercial assets that are poised to embody this new Houston in unique ways.

In the Galleria area, we’re transforming a classic 80’s Houston office building into a space for unexpected delights. Using brand to create dynamic spaces for the community to come together, and moments of delightful disruption to break up the work day.

And in the east side of Downtown, we’re evolving a premier office building into a place that cultivates relationships–both inside its walls and out. Making the brand work to engage tenants with the neighborhood, create a closer network between companies, and be the place to build business relationships downtown.

What is a place without people?

Photo source: Jason Henry for The New York Times

Automated food space, glorified vending machine, fastER food–whatever you call it, it may be the future of how we grab on the go. But what happens when you replace a friendly face with an interface… will it work?

It’s no surprise that in the age of instant gratification, ease and speed are essential parts of the customer experience. People want goods on demand, on their terms; companies want to increase purchase volume and efficiency. Seems we’re all eager to maximize convenience. From humble beginning of tap-and-pay, to mobile payment, to self-checkout, to the one-click buy.

The newest trends retailers are gearing up for? Complete purchase automation. No more waiting in line, speaking with sales associates, swiping your card, tapping your phone, or counting your (gasp) cash. Just grab your stuff and walk out the door. Leading the next wave is Amazon Go, a talk-of-the-town Amazon’s cashier-less grocery store. And Eatsa, an automated healthy fast food restaurant, based in San Francisco. At Eatsa, you place your order directly from your phone, or via an in-store iPad, then pick up your food from a temperature-controlled cubby with your name, without interacting with anyone.

David Friedberg, Eatsa’s founder, noted in The New York Times that “Over time, we want to automate more and more to increase speed and reduce cost, so we create a food product that’s much cheaper and also happens to be healthy.” It’s hard to argue with the value of cheaper, healthier food. Of an easier checkout experience. But at what cost? What is the value to a brand of a smile? A recommended daily special? Someone knowing your name?

Yesterday, I went into a local coffee shop. Dead simple order: iced coffee with milk. Took less than 30 seconds to prepare. At checkout, the cashier complimented me on my necklace–a gold dragon that I bought with my family while travelling in Hong Kong as a teenager. I told her the quick story of how it came to be. I’m certain that coffee tasted better. I’m certain I’ll return.

Barbara Kahn, a Wharton marketing professor and the director of Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, explains that “the touch and feel of the products and sales associates are important in the purchase process.” Those little moments and conversations when you engage with a sales associate, barista, or cashier contribute to a complete brand experience, building positive sentiment towards a brand. Technology has yet to become capable of eliciting the same depth of attachment, as it tends to be a flatter, single-sense engagement. We also have much higher expectations that technology will work, so the bar to bring unexpected joy is much greater

Just as places define people, people define places. If people spend money but not time in places, the greater value of that place (and the brand it represents) suffers. It’s role in our communities declines. It risks becoming simply a mechanism, not a true experience.  

Change is inevitable, and as expectations evolve, we will continue to move towards speedier transactions. Brands must work to identify the true value of people for their places of business, and strike the right balance between the efficiency of automation and the experience of humans. And never underestimate the power of humans to surprise and delight.

What Works For Vishaan Chakrabarti

Photo source: Dallas Morning News

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Travel. I’m on planes constantly for projects and speaking engagements, but I always try to carve out time to see new things. I’m writing these responses from Athens, where I saw sunshades on a balcony that I thought could work well for our project in Newark, New Jersey. Whether it is the way the marine layer engulfs Los Angeles, or the cobalt light of Copenhagen, I’m always finding inspiration in the new, in the different, and in the strange.

What trend are you seeing in architecture & design that you believe is working?

Ethics. To call ethical behavior a trend is appalling, but it has been so absent in my profession for so long that its reemergence has to be celebrated. For years now brilliance was pitted against ethics in design…so to be a brilliant designer was to be a “bad boy” (usually male) that happily worked for dictators and the wealthiest among us. But there is a tectonic shift taking place in the field as witnessed by newly premiated practitioners like Alejandro Aravena and Tatiana Bilbao. At PAU we are always focused on great design and social impact simultaneously, and hopefully we will be judged not by the number of our “likes” but by the content of our character. 

What place have you visited recently that is doing something truly distinctive?

Berlin. What I love about Berlin is the way they deal with the past. Everywhere there are purposefully uncomfortable reminders of the Holocaust, including an extraordinary new project called the “Topography of Terror” by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Furthermore, in Berlin historic buildings are not preserved by cleaning them to the point of sterilization, but rather are left to age gracefully as is, graffiti and all, like the telling layers of wrinkles on the face of the beautiful Dame Judi Dench. 

What brand do you love and why?

Leica. I have been a photographer since I was a boy, and there is no feeling like shooting with a Leica film M-series rangefinder. It is not just because the design is physically beautiful. It is because the design is so compelling, so revolutionary, that it literally changed photography, much the way Chanel changed the way women live and work, not just look.

What are you reading or listening to currently?

An Era of Darkness, which is a history of the British looting of India by Shashi Tharoor. There is a myth that colonialization modernized India.  When the British arrived on India’s shores in 1600, India’s economy was 23% of the world’s GDP, and had the world’s largest shipbuilding and textile industries. When they left seventy years ago, India’s economy was 3% of the world’s GDP, had a subsistence agrarian economy, and had lost 35 million people to the horrors of the Raj. It’s inspired me to try to create some type of a remembrance project around it, so both the Indians and the British can learn and heal.

And what’s you favourite colour?

As an architect it will always be black, to avoid ink stains, but I am also learning to like the deep brown color of my own complexion.