Big Ideas: “Use Metabolist principles to change the social narrative on sea level rise from one of fear to one of opportunity” with KoDA Founder, Wesley Kean

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wesley Kean. Wesley is an architect, Principal & Founder of Miami Beach-based KoDA. Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wesley Kean. Wesley is an architect, Principal & Founder of Miami Beach-based KoDA.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I found my passion for architecture at a young age in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire where I grew up. I learned the tools of the trade from my father, a builder and carpenter, who remains a key influence in my work today. My father used to say, “measure twice, cut once!” and I apply the same philosophy to design today. I measure using analysis of site, program, and culture and evolve the ideas into architecture. In my opinion, skipping past the measuring phase would yield a completely meaningless architecture. While studying architecture, I learned that it was more than a construction and development industry, but that it can actually impact lives on a broader scale. I’ve understood the weight of responsibility that comes with design and its impact on our communities. The fact that ideas have the power to change the world, is what gets me up and excited to go to work every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

My firm KoDA was asked to design a project in a very controversial location in Miami. Controversial because of its location within a public park, which carried with it political, environmental, historical and cultural pressure. We approached the design first by evaluating the viewpoints of each of these individual stakeholders and then re-built the design concept up from there. The result became an iconic symbol for the city in which the Mayor came to the City Commission meeting to personally speak on behalf of the project calling it “iconic” for the City. It was very inspiring to see the profound positive impact an idea about a structure can have on a community.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

There has been some recent momentum on the discussion of sea level rise in the world. More often than not, however, the conversation turns apocalyptic very quickly. After all, this is an overwhelming subject and one with myriad physical, emotional and political challenges that force many to avoid the topic altogether. Most of the discourse among architects, planners and stakeholders revolves around ideas about sustainability and resiliency. However, we need to also be thinking about transformation, adaptation and preservation. With the world population increasing exponentially, 8.6 billion people by 2050, we face the reality that not only will more people live on this earth, but that less space will become available. According to the Atlas for the End of the World, cities with a population of 300,000 or more are projected to sprawl into remnant habitats in the worlds biological hotspots. This would create a tremendous amount of pressure on the world’s natural environment and precious ecosystems. Therefore, in search of the silver lining, I took a look at Metabolism, a post-war manifesto by Japanese architects in pursuit of entirely new urbanism.

In order to understand how Metabolism can be a prescriptive solution for cities confronting sea level rise and other environmental challenges, one must first understand its fundamental concept. The notion of Metabolism is to conceive the growth of the city as a biological condition, much like the cell division of elements found in nature. The Metabolists wanted to transcend what they referred to as “continental civilization,” and conceptualized floating cities along the Pacific to become Japan’s newest archipelago. After the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they determined a need to abandon man’s desperate obligation to land and liberate our cities from the constraints of terra firma. At the time, this stood in stark contrast to the Modernist framework of urbanism and resulted in ideas about artificial land, pelagic civilization, and megastructures to support group form.

Metabolism addresses the particular challenges of sea-level rise by focusing on a new architecture and urbanism which detaches the built environment from the ground. More specifically, in Miami, where I base my practice and live with my wife and 18-month-old son, we experience the failed, pervasive land and hydrological engineering schemes of the twentieth century. For example, just this week The Miami Herald reported that a Tallahassee appeals court reversed a decision by the state’s Department of Environmental protection to grant exploratory oil drilling in the Everglades. The current focus on expanding development westward and re-building the city’s seawalls higher and higher as the water continues to rise is interminable. Rather than resist, the natural course of the water should be allowed to follow its determined path. Knowing the issue in advance makes us capable of anticipating it, and utilizing the technology of today to adapt to it. New Metabolist developments can be focused around existing infrastructure and elevated to allow the area below it to return to back to nature to serve as public landscapes, agriculture, and bio-swales. The answer is not in Venice, Amsterdam or New Orleans, but in a post-war Japan. A time when architects were forced to become critical thinkers, re-inventors of urbanization and archetypes as we know them. We have the ability to change the social narrative on sea level rise from one of fear to one of opportunity and optimism. Adapting Metabolist principals and thinking radically about the future development of our city has never been more critical.

How do you think this will change the world?

The nations of the world are rigorously and continuously striving for economic development. One of the largest contributors to economic growth, number one in the U.S., is the Real Estate industry. According to the World Atlas, Real Estate, renting, and leasing constitutes the largest sector of the United States’ economy with the GDP value added of $1.898 trillion accounting for 13% of the national GDP. Developers within the real-estate industry search for the world’s valuable land for development. This includes waterfront such as river, lake and ocean-front properties, but also near national parks and other ecological hot-spots around the world. In many cases, the most valuable real estate is that which is closest to nature. What we fail to recognize is that this land, when developed, is not necessarily within the protected parks or waterways but, in most cases, just as fragile. If we were to approach the development of our land with the same eco-sensitivity as our waterways, national parks, and other fragile territories then we will quickly realize that there just isn’t enough space on land to support our developmental and agricultural needs. Therefore, Metabolist architecture alleviates this pressure and uses architecture to define a new “terra firma,” minimizing the impact to our very fragile ground plane.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

As Newton said, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every great idea has seen their fair share of reactions and it would be naïve not to believe the same for this one. The difference, however, is trying to identify what those reactions may be in advance so that you can channel them and use them to your advantage. I’ll give you an example. The famous “Surrounded Islands” installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in Miami’s Biscayne Bay caused ecological up-roar. There were concerns about the impacts on the bay’s ecology, mainly seagrasses and manatees. The artists not only kept these biological stakeholders in their thoughts but actually realized that the luminance of the fabric provided much-needed shade to the shallow waters of the bay. Also, the pink luminescence of the fabric was found to stimulate the manatee’s sexual behavior, which in turn increased procreation.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

I was reading “Project Japan: Metabolism Talks,” by Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas. Not far into the book, I was sitting on Miami Beach with my wife, toes in the sand, beach chair aimed at the ocean and had an epiphany: the principles established by these post-war visionaries were in response to the devastation of post-war destruction in Japan, but, in a way, foreshadow what a post sea level rise affected Miami would look like. From there, I shared the idea with my design studio, continued to write, research and test our own hypothesis on the topic. Now, we have our own project called “Marine-City Miami,” where we are looking to develop a new Metabolist-inspired urbanism over the infrastructure surrounding and within Biscayne Bay.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

At the moment, all of our efforts on the subject are unfunded and because of this we’re not able to progress its development as quickly as it needs to be. We feel that these are immediate threats facing Miami which, in turn, become a prototype for solutions in other coastal and eco-sensitive areas around the world.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Stay confident. Often feedback creates insecurity. I’ve learned to overcome it and use it to strengthen the ideas.

2. Go to Japan. When I started the research there were still a fair amount of Metabolist examples and even more of the Metabolists alive. I could have studied more of the actual Metabolist building and perhaps even interviewed some of the architects.

3. Seek funding early. We’re self-funded, but it would have been helpful to seek a grant or some other source of funding to expedite the process.

4. Involve the municipalities sooner. While we have been in touch with the Miami Beach building department and Miami-Dade County, having them become part of the design process would have strengthened our position.

5. Get involved with local universities. While the majority of the ideas were developed in our own design studio, the local universities such as the University of Miami, Florida International University, etc. have talented students who are eager to share ideas on how to change the world.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

This is a risk for all industries, including our own as architects. I always say that we need to evolve or become dinosaurs. This is true for AI as well. While AI has the power to think in a rapid and compound manner, I believe the human condition will always make us relevant. Especially in a field equipped with the responsibility of creating environments to suit that same human condition.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

Artificial Intelligence and 3D printing technology have made major milestones in the industry. I believe these new technologies will have a substantial impact on the way we design and build future cities. Research and analysis will be provided through complex algorithms that can then be distilled into a performative design. This is our approach today but will be expedited with the advance of these technologies in the future.

I also believe strongly in low impact development. A lot of the problems of the future seek out expensive engineering solutions. However, based on the failed engineer policies of Florida’s past, I’m a big believer in low Impact development, which uses things like bio-swales, rain gardens and other green infrastructure to address these challenges.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Honesty, humility, and determination. These are things my parents instilled in me and have equipped me with the tools I need to get where I am today. Judging on the past 33 years, I’m excited to see what lies ahead.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Success is defined within and can be different for everyone. Therefore, the most important way to become successful is to define it for yourself. Once you’ve done that, stay true to who you are and never stop learning. A consistent thirst for knowledge is a key component of success in my mind.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Currently, we’re funding our own research. However, we’re working on seeking funding through grants that reward progressive architectural and urban ideas about the future.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow @KoDAmiami on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Wesley Kean’s Bio

Architect Wesley Kean, Principal & Founder of Miami Beach-based KoDA, designs with ambition and optimism. Kean is an expert in connecting architecture with nature and finding radical solutions to sea level rise and other environmental concerns conducive to South Florida. His views on “How Metabolist Ideas Can Potentially Solve Sea-Level Rise Vulnerability” have been published in AIA’s Florida/Caribbean Architect magazine.

Founded in 2015, his award-winning firm uses analysis and research to develop the design of highly distinctive buildings, landscapes, interiors and experiences. Currently, KoDA is designing several luxury homes in South Florida and overseas including a six-bedroom, 7,429 square-foot home in Golden Beach that addresses the challenges of sea-level rise by implementing these metabolist concepts.

Kean and his team of architects and designers are designing a new retractable roof pavilion for Bayfront Park’s Klipsch Amphitheater in Downtown Miami. The halo-like structure will enliven the performing arts venue and create a new identifiable object for the city. The structure would be one of the largest urban solar projects in the country, and symbolic of the City of Miami’s support for green energy. KoDA is also designing Aviation Resource Group’s new 3,300 square-foot headquarters and recently completed Armazem Design’s new 6,000 square-foot showroom, both located in Dania, Florida.

As an architect and an urbanist, Kean feels a particular responsibility to serve his Bay Harbor Islands community. He is part of the planning and zoning board of this historic neighborhood where he reviews all development projects planned for construction. In January 2019, Kean was appointed to the City of Miami Beach’s Next Generation Council, which provides recommendations to the Mayor and City Commissioners on City-related issues affecting millennials like affordable housing, career, sea-level rise, transportation opportunities and incentives. Through the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce Millennial Action Council, Kean also co-chairs a committee on start-up culture and entrepreneurship.

An active member of the AIA and NCARB and a visiting critic at the University of Miami, Florida International University and Miami-Dade College, Kean is also a champion of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a member of the Miami Music Project soundboard.

Kean earned a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Miami, which included an Urban Design, Architectural Theory and History of Architecture program in Rome, Italy.

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