Q&A: Mark Dytham, PechaKucha co-founder, on connecting with creative people around us

The international sensation PechaKucha nights are like show-and-tell for the world-renowned and the obscure alike. Call it a new kind of social network.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

During the day, Tokyo-based Klein Dytham architecture is busy designing the offices of Google Japan, or opening the most talked-about bookstore in Japan's capital.

Come nightfall, Mark Dytham and his partner Astrid Klein run the art space SuperDelux -- and from that spawned an international sensation called PechaKucha nights.

In the event series, presenters play show-and-tell with 20 images shown for 20 seconds each. Since their start in 2003, PechaKucha nights have spread from Tokyo to over 600 cities worldwide.

“There’s actually nowhere in cities where artists and creative people can show and share their work,” Dytham said. He’s speaking to the work that doesn’t fit into a gallery or the artist nobody has ever heard of … yet.

The success of PechaKucha points to a larger trend -- the difference between digital to digital interactions, and using digital platforms to bring people together in the physical.

Dytham says, contrary to popular opinion, "There's nothing social about Facebook or Twitter." He believes the next phase of the internet will focus on digital to physical interactions. Already, startups that use online networks to connect people in the physical, such as Airbnb and Taskrabbit, are doing increasingly well. As a presentation format that connects disparate groups all over the world, PechaKucha is something of a precursor to this.

And if you’re wondering what the Japanese word Pechakucha means, it’s a great transnational onomatopoeia: the sound of chitchat.

Tell me about how PechaKucha began.

When we opened the art space SuperDelux we were short on events. So we thought, “Why don’t we have a bit of a show-and-tell?” Ten years ago was the advent of digital photography and on Monday mornings in our architectural office we’d have a show-and-tell of sorts. We still do this today. We put images in a Keynote or PowerPoint presentation and talk about what’s been happening on our construction sites, what we’ve seen at the factory if something is being made for us, or where we’ve been on the weekend. We thought it would be a really nice idea if other architects could show their work too.

Good architects all talk too much. So we came up with a very simple format. We thought, “How about 20 images, 20 seconds an image. That’s six minutes 40 seconds. And if we use auto forward, they will automatically run through. We could get through a lot of presenters in an evening.” That was the basic premise. It’s like design karaoke.

It was all kind of a joke really. It wasn’t until the evenings got going that we realized we’d hit a sort of sweet spot. The presentation is more about the image than the talking head. And you don’t need to talk about your architecture, and that’s what became interesting. Architects got up and instead of talking about their buildings, they talked about their interests.

PechaKucha Night's started in Tokyo in 2003. There's been an incredible domino effect since then. In 2012, the event was held in 534 cities worldwide. Can you talk about that?

We’re at 671 cities now. It’s kind of insane. To this day we’ve never asked anybody to run an event. That’s really important. And we don’t charge for the format, it’s completely free. We haven’t pushed this at all.

In 2005, we held a PechaKucha night during design week in Tokyo. Quite a few people from overseas saw it and thought, “This is a really nice format, I’d like to run it in my city.”

The first event outside of Japan was the LA Architects Forum. The second event outside of Japan was in Bern, Switzerland. By 2006 we were in about 15 cities and I made a website.

SuperDelux sounds like a kind of meeting hall for architects and designers. It’s interesting how the format exploded in this professional-social context. Does this point to the importance of speaking about things we care about? Why do you think PechaKucha became so popular?

There’s one really big reason why it has exploded. There’s actually nowhere in cities where artists and creative people can show and share their work. You might have lots of galleries, you might have lots of theaters, but if you’re a young architect or designer and you’ve just finished your first house for your parents, or a hair salon for your mom’s friend, you’ve got nowhere to show that work. You’re not going to get it into a magazine because nobody knows who you are. You can’t have a lecture because you can’t just talk about “a” house. You need a body of work. But you’ve generally got 20 photographs of something.

This is why it’s been really interesting in smaller cities. It’s a way of finding out who lives and works around you.

You say that architects generally speak too much and that presenters started talking about things that weren’t directly related to their architectural work.

This first happened in London actually. Architects thought it would be rude to talk about their work. So they talked about what inspired them or their collections –- whether it was Coke cans, sneakers, or a collection of photographs about typography. Nigel Coates, a professor at the Royal College of Art, talked about the books that were on his bookshelf. Twenty images of interesting books from his bookshelf. It was a really lovely thing to do. Instead of talking about his work, he showed his book about ballet.

We encourage famous architects not to talk about their work now. It’s much more interesting to hear about what car they drive or things that inspire them.

What are some of your most memorable presentations?

The one that sticks in my mind the most was in San Francisco. Some Pechakucha nights have themes. This particular theme was failure. Bob Berkebile, who is a famous architect, talked about coming back from the Vietnam War and becoming an architect. He worked on a big team that designed a hotel [the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City]. He was actually staying in the hotel when it collapsed. A hundred and fourteen people died. And he asked, “Did I kill all these people?”

He felt that he had a huge debt to pay to society. He started working with the American Institute of Architects and was the founding member of the LEED program -– which is the environmental way that you build buildings all around the world today. It was an amazing presentation. Very moving.

So that’s a heavy one. There was also a presentation done in Christchurch, New Zealand. The presenter had a PhD in large non-flight birds. He looked scientifically at Big Bird from Sesame Street and tried to work out what type of bird it was, giving it a Latin name. Again, you would not be able to do this in a normal lecture.

As an architect, what is something no one ever asks you about your work which makes you think, "If only someone would ask me that. Everything would finally make sense. I would never have to be interviewed again."

Good question. Very few people ask us why we do things. Why do we make the decisions we make? That’s a question I would like to be asked.

Do you think that’s indicative of our time in a larger sense? It seems like not asking, “Why?” is a very philosophical conundrum.

I would like to ask that question to many other architects. I judge a lot of competitions and that’s generally the question I ask. People find it quite difficult to answer.

I think we get hoodwinked into styles and conversations that are not really relevant to the bigger question of why. Architectural debate can be a lot of fluff. People being honest about why they do things, as opposed to drumming up theories, is something I look for.

This 20 slides thing is also about clearing your head and saying something really succinctly. Some people think, “There’s not enough time!” Six minutes 40 seconds is quite a lot of time in fact.

We all talk for too long. We’ve got infinite space on our hard disks. And we find it very difficult to edit. We don’t press the delete button. We’re scared of editing things down. We think that if we’re verbose, it gives us more power.

We find the more famous the architect or the presenter, the worse they present at a PechaKucha night. Students are pretty damn good at it. And it’s maybe the first time they’ve ever spoken in public. The great thing about these evenings is it puts everyone on the same level -- they’ve got exactly the same tools.

You once said, "There's nothing social about Facebook or Twitter." If they aren't social, what are they? What kind of work are they doing?

What I mean is they are digital to digital. I come home and make digital friends. I don’t make physical friends. We are digital to physical. That’s the next step of the internet in a way. Think of Airbnb. It’s a digital community that ends up with you renting a room in someone’s house. For the last ten years we’ve been interested in the development of digital to digital, now I think we’re moving into a network of digital to physical.

I think that we’ve forgotten about going out and watching people present in a lighthearted, jovial manner.

I’m in Toronto right now and I’m walking down the street in Chinatown and I see this Kit Kat bar that’s green tea flavor. I hate green tea flavor anything, or else I would have bought it! Then today, serendipitously, I read that you have a Kit Kat collection.

I have over 150 different flavors of Kit Kat. I mean, they’ve all been eaten but I keep the boxes. Anything from green tea to cherry tea to English milk tea to plum soda and apple vinegar flavor.

In Japan, you have to have new things all the time. In the UK we have regular Kit Kat and dark Kit Kat. That’s about it.

In Japan there’s this absolute national desire for newness. And that’s one of the reasons I’m here in Japan as an architect. There’s a national trait for improving things. So every six weeks they renew the Kit Kat bar. They’re not making huge leaps, but it’s pretty amazing.

Do you think collections are an important thing to participate in? Do you think everyone should have a collection?

I do. I think even more today because we all think we’ve got Pinterest and we can just stick things up on the web and have a connection, but we really aren’t connected. I really do like my CD collection, my books, and my Kit Kat boxes.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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