Interview – Pinar Guvenc & SOUR: Designing for a VUCA World

By Christie Johnson

VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. 

This is the world we live in. 

From the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion of generative AI to the Israel-Palestian conflict and a fast-moving climate crisis. Humanity is undoubtedly facing huge and unprecedented extremities.

On the face of it all, our day-to-day lives appear to move in the same methodical and uninterrupted way. But the systems we navigate within – natural and manmade – are deteriorating. And we’re running out of time to address it.

The built environment is an integral and powerfully placed platform to strategically confront pressing human and environmental issues. After all, it touches the many facets of our lives. 

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Pinar Guvenc, partner at global architectural firm SOUR. We discuss how SOUR is tackling the conventional architectural standard that is no longer serving communities and the environment. Learn how SOUR is finding viable and sustainable ways to confront the wicked problems formed by our new VUCA world. 

For further reading, see our past collaborations with SOUR:

Introducing Pinar Guvenc and SOUR

Pinar Guvenc
Pinar Guvenc

“The job of the architect today is to create beautiful buildings. That’s all.” – Philip Johnson

Is this true? Should today’s built environment be solely based on impressive aesthetics? Although Philip Johnson’s modern and postmodern architectural style was much celebrated, architecture for architecture’s sake is perhaps an outdated notion. And it’s certainly not what the team at SOUR is striving to overcome.

SOUR is a global design studio with the mission to address social and urban problems. They serve their mission through mixed-methods research, community co-creation, process innovation and digital fabrication. Most importantly, they bridge the gap between research and design by generating actionable insights.

Architects have long been revered as deity-like creators. Untold wit and intelligence can seamlessly birth new worlds. Deemed the master builders of human civilisation, they are tasked with creating extraordinary immortal structures for future generations to marvel at and enjoy. 

Yet herein lies the problem. The architectural “god-complex” means people and the environment are doomed to suffer. “We as consumers don’t have much say or education on the environments we exist in. The industry has disassociated so much from the people even though it’s an industry for the people by the people,” says Pinar Guvenc, a partner at SOUR. “How do we empower communities and consumers of real estate and public space to be more educated and ask for more?” 

6 people on stage at a talk
Pinar Hosting SOUR’s Panel on What’s Wrong With Design

At SOUR, community co-creation is the most powerful way to tackle this enduring cultural problem. “Because we are a mission-led studio we have the great opportunity to work in many diverse areas of work,” explains Pinar. “We realise it’s a very big goal so it’s in our nature to co-create in every product regardless of what type of project we’re working on. This enables us to serve on many different types of projects and helps us get into all sorts of areas we don’t know.”  

And the uncharted grey areas are where SOUR comfortably sits. Hence the name: SOUR. It’s a play on the word social and urban but it also represents their impressive attitude. SOUR is an acquired taste: they enjoy the new, the challenges, the discomfort. “We often say there is enough sugar coating in the world. It’s time to get real and be SOUR!” 

SOUR’s Latest Journal: Designing for VUCA

The world is at a tipping point. Our built environment is failing. The starchitecture status quo is no longer serving our communities or nature. 

The solution? Designing for VUCA! 

We exist in increasingly complex systems where our actions are generating a plethora of wicked problems and unrelenting unknowns. SOUR’s Designing for VUCA Journal 6  is dedicated to concepts, prototypes, and actions within and for the built environment, with an understanding of the VUCA context. 

Designing for VUCA

So, what exactly does VUCA mean? “VUCA was dubbed to cover everything that is happening in our world that is very volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” explains Pinar. “Even when we look at the past two or three years, with the pandemic, the huge explosion of generative AI, the war that’s happening. All are great examples of how volatile, uncertain and complex the world that we live in today is. On top of that, we have a crisis in the world that is not necessarily addressed like a crisis which is climate change.”  

SOUR believes traditional architectural practices are somewhat blinkard when it comes to addressing social and environmental issues. It tends to follow high-level solutions – or best practices – that invariably fall short of addressing the everchanging problems lurking in our VUCA reality. There is no quick fix or panacea for the challenges we face. Slapping a band-aid on it and hoping for the best simply won’t sustain within increasingly complex systems. Sexy starchitecture is not a realistic or sustainable option anymore. 

“The way we need to approach today is really probing systems and seeing what works and iterating and finding emerging solutions that actually work and can address the problems today,” explains Pinar. “There is no solving. With complex systems, we have wicked problems that we can’t necessarily solve but we can definitely make progress.”

It’s time to ditch the billion-dollar innovation and instead focus on millions of innovative processes co-created with diverse expertise. All plans for our future structures – nature and manmade – must effectively address issues around energy, waste, natural disasters and carbon footprint. 

Staff photos up on a wall - Interview - Pinar Guvenc & SOUR: Designing for a VUCA World
Staff photos at the SOUR Istanbul office, where community is considered invaluable

We must build for a VUCA world and the only way we can do that is through the art of collaboration

“We need to get better at working together and actually co-creating outcomes together in order to realise any solutions or any problems we’re trying to address today,” urges Pinar. “Even if we might be talking about water shortage or wildfires or human rights issues – it doesn’t even matter anymore. Everything we’re talking about – the processes and solutions – relies on humans. We cannot dissociate innovation, technology, and R&D from all these human concerns and considerations we have because in the end we’re everywhere and we will be responsible for the outcomes we’re creating.” 

Co-Creation: Empowering Communities in the Built Environment

“We very much believe in co-creation which is why – regardless of the project we’re working on – we implement co-design methods,” says Pinar. “Co-creation really enables community members and representatives to be partners and to really play an active role in the production of the project.”

Architect working on building design on two computers
A glimpse of the work of Inanc Eray, Architect and Designer for SOUR
Photo Credit: Harrison Boyce

SOUR recognises the untenable disconnect between communities and their built environment. For too long, the industry has gentrified and marginalised individuals. 

The way that architects engage with people must change to create a more sustainable future. 

Pinar explains: “There is major distrust from communities towards many institutions, and rightfully so! We find ourselves educating clients non-stop on this. This is something we need to get better at and many architecture firms don’t do – or claim that they do – by running a survey with the community. That’s not co-creation. I think architects have the responsibility to remember that we not only create forms, but we also need to do community-centred design research. We need to strengthen our muscles in synthesis and really generate actionable insights from design.” 

So collaborating with just the professionals isn’t enough. Instead, architects must meaningfully engage people with lived experience and local knowledge. “If you engage communities from the beginning they will feel more belonging in the project,” says Pinar. “It will create a sense of ownership in the project. You are more likely to create a better outcome out of it. To me, it’s hedging risk. It protects us from the risk of really messing it up!”

Challenges Facing SOUR and the Built Environment

Pinar explains the biggest challenge facing SOUR and our complex built environment is mindset

The built environment severely lacks a culture of learning and development. “There is a saying where if the car industry was like the real estate industry we’d still be riding horse carriages,” says Pinar. “There is no culture or there is a very low culture of innovation and prototyping.”

“It’s an industry of benchmarking,” continues Pinar. “Every other developer in the region benchmarks that project and acts accordingly. If one project which was trying something new fails, it is basically marked as ‘That doesn’t work, it’s very expensive, it failed.’ There is no culture of ‘how do we learn from that and create a better version.’”

Some photos from SOUR’s talk at Buro Happold’s Urban C:Lab in Rotterdam, 2022

SOUR talks on Buro Happold’s Urban C:Lab in Rotterdam
SOUR talks on Buro Happold’s Urban C:Lab in Rotterdam

Urban C:Lab is a programme initiated by Buro Happold focused on exploring emergent disruption in the built environment. A collaborative endeavour, Urban C:Lab works with clients, designers, academia, think tanks and institutions.

Learn more about the initiative on their website.

SOUR and Plans For The Future  

“We’ll continue to push, that’s the plan for the next 5 years!”

Challenging the culture of dissociation in architecture and architectural PR is a priority for Pinar and the rest of the SOUR team. Bringing back the human and community aspect is essential to ensure a brighter and more sustainable future for all. 

People – ironically – have been removed from the design equation and SOUR will continue to challenge this fraught methodology. “When you have a final shot of a space, typically it’s taken when there are no people there, right?” says Pinar. “How many architectural or design magazines cover meaningful efforts versus a glam shot?” 

“We really hope to have broader conversations in how we approach innovation. Not everything has to be about a sexy high-end final product with high-tech something for sustainability. Instead, we could be talking about very low-tech, and therefore low-cost, measures that could help us create more sustainable outcomes. We could talk about how if things work for people it will sustain in the long run and how to better design and co-create to create outcomes that are authentic to communities.” 

Learn more about SOUR’s mission and latest publication Designing for VUCA Journal 6

SOUR also recently joined forces with Bartels & Vedders and numerous collaborators on the proposal for the new Izmir Sustainability Center: SAL – designed as Türkiye’s first floating public building. 

Through its floating structure, SAL is an answer to the need for constructing earthquake resilient buildings. In addition to avoiding earthquake loads and ground improvements on a site with a high risk of liquefaction, SAL significantly reduces embodied carbon footprint and responds to rising sea levels. By tapping into Izmir’s traditional shipbuilding know-how, SAL aims to answer future problems related to natural disasters, energy transition, port relocation, and climate change.

You can find the project page here

You can find the official competition page here (Website in Turkish).

Izmir Sustainability Center: SAL
Izmir Sustainability Center: SAL
Izmir Sustainability Center: SAL
Pinar Guvenc & SOU: Designing for a VUCA World

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