City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

On my first day at Fabrica, I held a meeting with all the staff and researchers. I talked about a few things, but the primary message was about the opportunity in moving to a transdisciplinary studio model.

The studio model I had in mind was drawn from long experience—the multidisciplinary teams I had created, or tried to create, at the BBC and Arup—and recent experience, in Helsinki, with the Strategic Design Unit model pursued with my ertswhile colleages, Bryan Boyer, Justin Cook and Marco Steinberg, and documented well here. And of course, the studio as the forum for design practice generally.

The Transdisciplinary StudioI had also drawn a lot from Alex Coles' useful book The Transdisciplinary Studio—not necessarily in any direct sense (I haven't implemented any details of the various studio practices described therein: Jorge Pardo Sculpture, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design, Studio Olafur Eliasson & Åbäke) but more in terms of concept, of not simply mixing disciplines, but going beyond them. Given the sense that Fabrica could be a new kind of factory, helping invent and construct the future ("Fabrica" is drawn from the Latin faber, to make, and also suggests the Italian word for factory, fabbrica), I was particularly interested in the hybrid products that much emerge from the synthesis of disciplines into something new. As Piaget has it, going beyond the displines.

"Transdisciplinary: between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline." [Jean Piaget, referenced in Coles]

Fabrica was essentially organised into discipline-based departments—film, music, product design, graphic design and so on. Although some areas, like Design, or Interactive, had the beginnings of a multidisciplinary mix, the structure was something I wanted to address. (I suggested this in something I wrote called "The New Vision", which was an internal discussion document/book—more soon—to gauge peoples' opinions.)

Fabrica, in terms of the structure of its "engine" was not a million miles from many other studios and schools. elsewhere.


Given the rest of our world—institutional or otherwise—is largely organised into such disciplinary structures, which organisations turn into silos (disciplines need not be silos; it's organisations that do that) then what would be the point of Fabrica doing that too?

Following my colleague Marco Steinberg's thought that "we have 18th century institutions facing 21st century problems", can we create a 21st century organisation? Something that faces the 21st century, in all its hybridity and complexity, on its own terms? Something that might address 21st century issues with a more appropriate, flexible and complex creative toolkit?

If we look at a city council organisational structure, you see that it is largely in a 19th century mode, and so ill-equipped to deal with a complex, interdependent challenge like climate change? All of the following departments—and more—are implicated in solving the problem. In my experience, even getting a meeting to discuss a citizen-centred project like Brickstarter can be an issue with this form of organisation.


If you look at the departments and divisions of Oxford University, say, can we really say it has moved far from the organisation of the medieval university?

So why, for instance, should Fabrica have a music department? There are a million places to go and study or practice music. Probably many better. Juilliard, for instance. Yet there are few places that sit a musician or sound designer next to a coder, next to a filmmaker, next to an industrial designer. (The same applies to other departments, obviously.)

Given our size, agility, mission and the fact that we are not interested in formal academic certification (that is another "trap" that reinforces silos) this environment is something that Fabrica can uniquely forge. This is the possibilty behind the idea of Fabrica.

Ten months in we have moved to a new studio-based model of organisation, addressing thematic areas via a transdisciplinary mode.

  • Each studio has a mix of disciplines; for example, code, graphic design, film making, writing, industrial design, sound, art, and so on.
  • Each studio has a range of projects addressing the theme, from big to small, slow to quick, client-led to self-directed.
  • Each is led by a studio lead, or leads.
  • Each has a dedicated studio space at Fabrica.

These are the studios we have now (overlapping to indicate the possibility of fluid movement between them, and shared projects.)


So where we once had a Film department full of six or seven film-makers …


… we now have a studio called "Document"—looking at the changing forms of documentary, across all media, as well as the practice of documenting projects as design input—which is comprised of a multidisciplinary team that should look like this soon:


What is the benefit of this, in practice?

Well, we have a studio dubbed "Being & Dying", for example, which addresses 'end of life' (more info here.) Ask a room full of industrial designers to address this issue and, with all due respect, you might variations on a better coffin. Ask architects, you might get a better aged care residence. Graphic designers might come up with a better design for some palliative care guidelines. No bad things in themselves; just that it's unlikely to produce the step-change we now need (I've been through all this before here, explaining why a Department of Health can no longer improve, "solve" or properly address our health, and so on.)

And no disrespect to the disciplines mentioned; it's just that's what most of our education does to people: locks them onto these tracks, "disciplining" them to produce what it is supposed that industry needs, actively constraining the tools they use and the practice model they exist within. Architects are generally trained to create buildings; as if a building is always the answer—only the very best, breaking outside of that mould (a Cedric Price for instance), tend to be free enough thinkers and practitioners (Price's solution of a divorce instead springs to mind.)

The problem is this: the world has got more complex, and actually more interesting. Yet our institutions—education, government and much of enterprise—are still structured as if it's the 19th century. (Education in particular: yes, there are all kinds of radical disruptions happening and about to happen, but broadly, much education is still working through 19th century or mid-20th century models. Cue obligatory Ken Robinson speech.)

And so Fabrica must be in another mode. We are on the end of this formal education system—along with an emerging set of other entities, such as CIID, Strelka, Sandberg Instituut, Design Academy Eindhoven and a few others—and I see our role as a potential "Unfinishing School", designed to bust open that thinking and re-explore the broader possibilities that 20th century education has closed down (note again Ken Robinson's anecdotes on how divergent thinking is actually diminished by education.)

So our studios might develop the better coffin, the better aged care centre, the better leaflets, sensitive preventatitve health campaigns, thought-provoking art, but importantly, more besides, including entirely new things emerging from the synthesis of all these skills, perspectives and technologies.

Disciplinary thinking is certainly still required, to my mind, and should be developed at earlier stages of education (though even here there are interesting questions about how and when, and to what extent—given the new tools available to the auto-didact, and the greater respect afforded to learning in practice, once again. I had several great conversations about this in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago about this—with Jeremy Yuille and Martyn Hook at RMIT, and John Warwicker and Justin O'Connor at Monash University.)

But at research stage, where we are, we can assume a strong stem of disciplinary craft has already been developed—they don't get in otherwise—and that our job is to broaden perspectives through juxtaposing that disciplinary craft with out disciplines, other cultures, other perspectives. (I also like Joi Ito's thinking that what we really need are interdisciplinary people—if not antidisciplinary organisations. I couldn't agree more, for what it's worth, though I also know that we'll need a diversity of personality types—plants, shapers and finishers, for instance—to really deliver.)

(To continue a bit of practice development, we are setting up "guilds" that run alongside the studios; these are essentially social practices to maintain those conversations, those interests—guild leaders get a small budget to take discipline-oriented groups of people to exhibitions, to buy some books, show some films in our cinema, or just pull people together in a bar when they just want to talk kerning, 3D printers or the work of Walter Murch for a bit.)

The studio model also gives a fluidity the departmental model cannot allow; it enables us to 'boot up' a studio, perhaps in response to a client or particular scenario, relatively easily—which is not so easy with a disciplinary context, unless you continually invent new disciplines, which is considerably harder. It also enables people to move between studios, and between projects (something that had been unnecessarily difficult previously.) The number of studios is limited only by our resources, rather than the number of core disciplines in the world, and it enables us to broaden horizons considerably. For instance, our first set of studios cover topics as broad as politics, death, journalism, and urban cultures, for example.

A key component is that it is also built for collaboration. We are actively looking for partners who want to work in this way. This means an external partner can financially sponsor a Fabrica studio in order to publicly explore their particular areas of interest (if it's of interest to us too, of course.)


If you're interested, get in touch with me via here.

And if you're 25 or under, and want to develop your thinking and practice in one of these areas, you can apply for a Fabrica scholarship.

Your name here

So far, the response, from inside and outside, has been positive. We're in active conversations with at least four major educational establishments about the Fabrica Studio model—they are keen to learn by participating, and observing from the inside, particularly around their research agendas which they know can no longer be constrained by "faculty thinking"—and also with a few potential commercial clients who are interested in sponsoring a studio. Our ability to produce tangible outputs—through making—and expertly communicate them, means that it's R&D, product development, media and communications simultaneously. Should be interesting.

The current set of Fabrica studios is listed here and below, and there will be more to follow in the coming months, no doubt.


Studio Lead: Ivor Williams
Researching and investigating current approaches to dying, through experimental design focusing on end-of-life care, assisted dying and suicide. Including broader issues around health and the environment, preventative and holistic healthcare, to challenge the notion of death in stark opposition to life. Utilising a wide range of approaches and perspectives, projects will develop new dialogues and models to engage with some of the most deep-rooted taboos in contemporary society. We use Fabrica as a test-bed and experimental environment, and produce books, essays, films, apps, self-directed research projects in collaboration with partners that range from experimental aesthetic reflections—design fictions, media, exhibitions, installations—through to service design- and experience design-led engagements with clients, such as health services, clinics, schools. Follow our activities on tumblr and twitter.

Studio Lead: Erik Ravelo
The Campaign studio reinvents the contemporary campaign, drawing on social movements, guerilla campaigns, new enterprise and innovative social media. It explores the emerging DNA of social innovation and organisation, working particularly with Benetton’s projects. Its focus is challenging social and cultural issues: wars, censorship, diversity, inequality, environment, religion. The studio deploys arresting imagery to capture attention, and tools to build genuine resilience.

Studio Lead: Patrick Waterhouse
COLORS is a quarterly magazine published in six bilingual editions: English + Italian, French, Spanish, Korean, Portuguese and Chinese, and distributed worldwide. Each issue covers a single topic, from Transport to Shit to Art, questioning and deconstructing through in-depth research that always begins with an idea. COLORS stretches the limits of what print can be, and also works across media including books, videos, internet, installations and exhibitions. More at

Studio Lead: Sam Baron
We produce artefacts that bring a unique view or statement to a particular context, produced through design processes that are questioned each time. We work with languages and dialogues, visual and spoken sketches, hybrid products and approaches, and through constant editing. It enables us to create collections that absorb and build upon our own cultural differences and habits, drawn from several parts of the world, and yet address the context we are working with. We work on different scales from artisanal to industrial, from conceptual projects to international exhibitions, always paying attention to meanings and how things are done, in order to deliver the best experience to customers, clients, viewers and participants.

Studio Lead: Ries Straver
The Document Studio focuses on documentary and documentation as an integral part of the creative process. We employ the languages and techniques of audio-visual documentation and digital storytelling to reflect on current social and cultural issues. We investigate the blurry line between fiction and non-fiction. We document with the aim to understand, but we use documentary to pose questions rather than give simplistic answers. We make film, video and animation and web-based media. In many cases a combination of those; hybrid projects across different platforms. Our stories are about real things, yet our work is based on ideas and imagination.

Studio Leads: Joseph Grima and Marco Ferrari
The Network Politics studio explores how cultures of decision-making, from formal politics to informal protest, have radically evolved in the age of the network. We observe the changing nature of protest both as a collective and individual activity – movements such as Occupy, the Indignados and the Arab Spring, or the digital activism of Wikileaks and Anonymous – reading it in relation to the physical space of the city. We are interested in social and political crises triggered by new technologies and the shifts in the balance of power they bring about. We engage peer-to-peer economies, decentralized currencies, radical transparency and open source culture to develop tools of social innovation for the digital era. We work on research, design and communications projects with clients from governments to galleries, in order to effect real change, as well as producing our own media, documentaries, exhibitions, platforms and objects, software, scenarios and events. Follow our activities on tumblr.

Studio Lead: Enrico Bossan
We are a growing force made of multi-media storytellers and journalists. We believe that investigating social and cultural change, through researching and shining a light on events, makes the economic and political powers ruling a society accountable. Our challenge is to cover the unseen, the forgotten, and the invisible neglected by traditional media. We publish and distribute self-directed journalistic reportage, photography projects, narrative works, multimedia and video documentary. To understand contemporary reality and its abrupt changes, we evolve with its communication tools.

Studio Lead: Francesco Novara
We explore the relationship between sound and objects, spaces, people and interactions. We use sound as a starting point, but the outcome might be objects, media, events and artefacts. Sound is one of the least understood yet most powerful senses and we produce self-directed research projects, in collaboration with partners, that explore the power of sound as interface, as medium, and as environment. These are often installations or artefacts, produced via a multidisciplinary team capable of producing spaces, media, objects and sounds as holistic experiences. We design new interfaces and experience around music, as well as exploring new formats and models for music and musicians in addition to making and performing music.

Studio Lead: Aaron Siegel
Our Urban Codes studio creates new tools in order to better understand contemporary cities, citizens and urban cultures. It focuses on how people interact with each other and their environment, the changing norms of living in cities, how people navigate and communicate in their urban environments, and the types of artifacts, markings and patterns that urban cultures create both physically and virtually. Urban Codes creates exhibitions, installations, media, apps and artifacts in order to articulate research about how contemporary communications technology is changing the way we live, work, play, organise and create in cities, buildings and communities. Follow our activities on tumblr.


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