A Curbside Conversation with Greg Lynn - Part 1

A Curbside Conversation with Greg Lynn – Part 1

You don’t need to talk to Greg Lynn for very long to get your eyes opened about something. I caught up with Lynn, the internationally renowned architect, designer and theorist, outside the Glendale Galleria mall in Glendale, CA (one of the many little municipalities that make up greater Los Angeles – for all you Big Bang Theory fans, it’s right next door to Cal Tech and Pasadena). He was there to see his latest creation being installed on a sidewalk between the mall entrance and the parking garage: the very first Curbside Pickup Pod.

The Curbside Pickup Pod fully installed - photo by Irina Blok, courtesy of Curbside Inc.

The Curbside Pickup Pod fully installed – photo by Irina Blok, courtesy of Curbside Inc.

Curbside Inc. is a relatively new service that seeks to bridge the gap between online shopping and bricks-and-mortar retail. Curbside operates at shopping malls and large stand-alone stores, and gives shoppers the ability to select their purchases online from any of the retailers in the mall who participate, and then cruise by a ‘curbside’ pavilion at the mall and pick up their purchases, without having to get out of their cars.

Curbside is just getting started. They are already operating in the San Francisco Bay Area (where the company is headquartered) and in the New York City/New Jersey market. They have been operating out of tent-type canopies, which they have to set up every morning and take down every night. But Curbside is working with some major retailers including, most notably, Target, and they are expanding, both in terms of territories and retail partners.

Now, they’ve made a big move to eliminate that “temporary” feel that comes with having a little cloth canopy as your operations facility. Curbside commissioned a freestanding, permanent kiosk they call a Pickup Pod, designed by Greg Lynn Form and built by Kreysler and Associates (sponsor of this blog). The first pod – the prototype, in fact – is installed in Glendale, where Curbside has about 20 retail partners.  The pod is inaugurating Curbside’s Southern California service, and is expected to be the first of many, in LA and many other places.

As Lynn described its highlights, its function, and its meaning to him, the conversation became a discussion of the nature of composites, and a few other things. It turns out this little shelter has a lot of meaning.

Architect Greg Lynn (center, in the black shirt) visits the installation of his Pickup Pod - photo by Steven H. Miller

Architect Greg Lynn (center, in the black shirt) visits the installation of his Pickup Pod – photo by Steven H. Miller

The Pod consists of a large flat surface that has been bent in the middle to form a wall and a roof. Under the roof, built into the wall, there is a storage cabinet about 2 feet deep and the full height of the shelter. A column with an expanded, bulbous head pierces through the roof, extending about twice the height of the shelter area. The portion below the roofline is referred to by its makers and as the “column,” and the part above the roof as the “pin” (probably because its head resembles a round-headed sewing pin).

“Curbside is really between online retail and in-store retail,” explained Lynn. “They came to me because they wanted someone who understood this intersection between digital space and physical space. This object [the Pickup Pod] is all about that exchange. When you buy a product from Curbside, instead of buying it from some fulfillment center on the edge of the city, like you would do with Amazon, you’re actually buying it from someplace close to where you are, from a store. Curbside pulls whatever you bought out of the store, it goes into a Curbside bag, and you have a couple of days to pick it up. And they send you a little note that it’s ready. When you get within three miles, they know you’re three miles away, and they start to queue your order up. Even if you’re not coming, you don’t have to send a message saying you’re coming, they just know every time you’re within three miles of the Curbside location. It reads Bluetooth, wireless, even phone signal.”

“So you’ve identified yourself because of your phone?” I asked.

“Right. Unless you’re off the grid, they know when you’re getting close. The antenna that’s in the pin helps them get the range and accuracy they want to have. It doesn’t have a sign, but the face of the pin is translucent and changes color. That color change can also sync up with the color of the background [in the app] on your phone. If you were to have five of these Pickup Pods here, you wouldn‘t have to go running up and down, the color would guide you.”

The pin is there for way-finding, it will have a beacon in it, so being up high in the air also helps it track people in space, how they’re moving up to it. If it has line of sight, they can get three miles of range out a system that’s normally good for just a few hundred feet. So they have a boosted signal because of the antenna up there. It will pivot, too. If you have like 20 customers approaching, it’ll actually turn to face the average of people, but if you have just one, it’ll turn to face you, and it will move as you pull up.”

He explained why composites were perfect for this project.

“Keeping it light is important both for transport and assembly. But also minimizing the parts. What I find curious about architects and digital technology is that where architects went first with digital technology was the ability to manage, and the ability to make affordable, higher levels of complexity: building buildings out of more, smaller, unique parts. That’s still, I would say, the dominant approach to digital. When you ask somebody “What’s the impacts of digital technology on architecture, the answer is usually the ability to make more complicated things affordably.

“Really, the reverse is true with composites. By embedding methods of attachment, by designing into the surfaces a degree of functionality and intelligence, you can eliminate parts and components. This is something I learned when I did the Ravioli Chair for Vitra. I came in with a couple of proposals, one of which was a super-complicated laser-cut chair. And I said it’s very innovative because it’s built with more parts and every part is different. And the head of Vitra, Rolf Fehlbaum, looked at me and said, ‘That’s not innovation. That’s like retardataire. You don’t use technology to make something more complicated, you use it to integrate.’ So then I said, ‘Let me show you my other proposal,’ which was using one composite surface to make all four legs and the back, and then using another composite surface to mold the foam against for the seat, the arms, and the backrest. That’s when I realized that composites are great at part reduction, and having a surface do all kinds of functional work, and more or less making things simpler to assemble and more integrated visually.”

And there it was, practically laying there on the food-court table between us: the essential insight into the transformative property of composites in the architectural realm:

Composites based on fabric or mat reinforcement* are all about surface in a way that makes them revolutionary. The surface isn’t added to the structure.  The surface is the structure, both ‘skin’ and ‘frame,’ and it is versatile enough to perform additional functions as well.

Virtually all of building construction as-we-know-it is based on a very different concept, a mimickry of mammalian design: a structural frame or skeleton, on which is hung a skin to protect it and give it a certain appearance, and into which are stuffed various functions in the form of largely independent systems such as plumbing, electricity, etc. There are some exceptions, such as concrete designs that integrate the wall surface into the structural wall, but in most cases, the surface is an application onto the structure, not the essential structure itself.

The pod, still packed for shipping, shows off its large, enbosed logo, built into the rear wall– photo by Steven H. Miller

This entire composite Pickup Pod is just a shell, a continuous surface that supports itself, protects its contents and occupants, advertises its identity with an enormous embossed logo, and has most of its functions integrated into the surface. There is no frame. This is more like insect or crustacean design, an exoskeleton: the surface is the frame.

It’s a new way to design. It’s a new way to engineer.

Of course, this makes sense out of Lynn’s other observation, of architects gravitating to digital technology as a way to make the complex more manageable and, inevitably, more complex. Of course that’s where they began, because at first they only saw the new technology in terms of its effect on their old problems. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that even Lynn fell into that mode with his first proposal for the Ravioli chair.) It takes a while before the light dawns, that this technology enables designing a completely different way (with its own set of new problems, to be sure!).

“All the other stuff I’ve done with composites has been addressing one of these topics,” continued Lynn, “like making a really lightweight chair, making a monolithic ceiling, but all those things were really looking at one of those aspects at a time. This is something that really brings together a lot of the benefits of composites into one object.”


* …as opposed to pultruded or 3-D printed composites (more on that soon!)


Next week – Part 2!

Some images courtesy of Kreysler and Associates, or Curbside, Inc., as noted.