Jason King Talks Urban Design, Computation and Los Angeles

Alumnus Jason King received a Bachelor of Architecture from Woodbury in 2008 and co-founded Somewhere Something, a computational design firm and consultancy. King has consulted with engineering firms, architects and cities throughout the world in matters of design, fabrication and workflow optimization. Returning to Woodbury, King was instrumental in developing and launching the school’s fabrication lab, which he oversaw for the first three years of its operations. We caught up with Jason to ask him about his career and how see cities evolving into the future.

Interview with Jason King

Q: Why did you choose to study architecture and planning?

Throughout most of the 1990s I was a professional skateboarder, a career that for most has a finite lifespan. By the end of the 90s it was clear that my time was up and that I had never really thought about what was next, so when I “retired” from skateboarding I moved to Europe for two years to both procrastinate and figure out what to do next.

I lived in London but took several trips around the continent, one of which took me to both Florence and Bilbao in 1999. I knew nothing about architecture and had never considered it as a career; I don’t think I had ever heard Frank Gehry’s name before visiting Bilbao’s Guggenheim. I was totally taken by the Renaissance architecture in Florence. I then flew into Calatrava’s airport in Bilbao, rode the Foster designed subway to Gehry’s Guggenheim; I bought a book about architecture at the Guggenheim and flew back to the states and got a job (for which I was completely unqualified) at a small design firm in Santa Monica. For the next couple of years during this transition I looked around at architecture schools, eventually leading to Woodbury.

The decision to study planning at USC over a decade later was much more deliberate. My expertise in computational design enabled me to build a consulting firm, but the projects I was actually designing were relatively small, usually not requiring advanced computational tools. Parallel to this, I became involved with local government, serving on a committee of my neighborhood council. I was really interested in the future of transportation and land use in the City of Los Angeles. I do the bulk of my commuting by bicycle, a somewhat harrowing act that made me concerned not only for my own safety, but all who are interested in using alternative modes of transportation–and those for whom it’s not an alternative, but the only available option.

As a hobby, I began using computational design and evolutionary algorithms to analyze transit and land use alternatives–all while yelling from the sidelines about decisions being made by local government officials that were impacting my community. I decided to apply my skills to larger, complex networks (cities) so I pursued a Master’s degree in planning.

Q: You’ve seen Los Angeles evolve over many years, including through your work with the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation. What role do you believe architects play in urban development?

I want as many architects as possible to go into planning, urban design and policy. For too long our cities have been conceived using two-dimensional thinking. In planning programs, I am beginning to hear the phrases “spatial science” and “spatial analysis” a lot, but I think it takes a certain type of training to really understand space. Not to say that one cannot be proficient in policy and think three-dimensionally, but I do not believe it happens for most in a two-year Master’s of Planning program.

I believe that good architects are able to navigate–and even be inspired by–constraints better than anyone else. Cities are full of constraints, some good some bad, and I think architects feed off constraints like few other professionals I have met. Furthermore, as building projects continue to become massive collaborations involving specialists performing increasingly specific tasks, the role of the architect is as much orchestration, making sure all of the moving parts are working in harmony, as it is design. The same is true for any urban-scale project, even more so.

Evolutionary algorithm analyzing existing transit crossings and Transit Oriented Communities density benefits to optimize a BRT alignment and stop locations in the North San Fernando Valley. Los Angeles, 2018

Q: You co-founded the practice Somewhere Something shortly after the financial crisis of 2008. What challenges did you face starting a practice?

I was fortunate to be shielded from it by having a handful of small projects I was excited about and also by a profound ignorance of running a business. We were small enough with enough agility to survive for a decade and I learned a lot about business along the way.

We subsidized the down times in our design firm by starting a fabrication firm, and hired strategically so that we had people who were both good designers and knew how to run machines.

Over the last few years, Biayna (fellow Woodbury alum and business partner) and my reputations grew as leaders in the field of computational design and the bulk of our revenue was generated through computational design consulting.

Q: As a Senior Urban Designer at IBI Group, how do you see the implementation of technology in urban environments evolving in the coming years? Do you believe we’ll continue to see more collaborations like Sidewalk Lab’s smart city development in Toronto?

It’s happening so much already, and yes, I expect it to continue. It was exciting (and frustrating) to work for the City of Los Angeles, experiencing the collision of tech and government operating on vastly different timelines. I worked in the New Mobility department, so I was dealing with autonomous vehicle planning and infrastructure, TNCs (Uber and Lyft) and bike share.

A lot of my focus at the City was devoted to the expansion of the Metro bike share program, which I think is a great program. But the time it takes to find funding sources, get Council approval, meet with Council Districts to decide on station locations, get plans approved, order bikes and stations… it takes a very, very long time. Toward the end of my employment at the City I was writing the guidelines for permitting dockless bike share and meeting with representatives from the incredibly funded dockless companies. What would take the City a year (and about $12 million) the dockless companies could do in a matter of weeks at no direct cost to taxpayers, and they were charging the user half what we were.

I am conflicted about a lot of city-focused technology and the ambitions of the tech companies. While I am in favor of dockless bike share, I worry about the influences of capitalism. Unlike cities that can operate with very low farebox recovery, private companies need to make a profit. I worry that the companies will only target higher income neighborhoods, continuing the shameful pattern of ignoring our historically underserved communities. As cities continue allowing private businesses to operate in public spaces, it’s paramount that we have strong regulations guaranteeing equity.

Q: What advice would you give to young designers who aspire to follow a similar career path?

Stay agile and be really good at something that not many people know how to do. Understand your value and make other people understand it too.


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Feature Image: Civic Center master plan, courtesy IBI Group
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