Voices | Sam Allis

Designed to inspire

Pecha Kucha is a worldwide phenomenon, but you don’t have to travel far to enjoy it

By Sam Allis
June 28, 2010

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Pecha Kucha.

What is that? Is it like a Chia Pet? Maybe an ancient ruin in the Andes near Machu Picchu? How do you pronounce it? “PEH-cha KOO-cha,’’ is the standard English version, but then you also hear an elided “peh-CHAK-cha’’ among cognoscenti.

Pecha Kucha is the onomatopoeic approximation of “chit chat’’ in Japanese. A Pecha Kucha Night is an event where architects, designers of all stripes, technology cadets and artists get together to show their own work and see what others are doing. They come to learn and to be inspired.

It began in Tokyo in 2003 and migrated across both the Pacific and the United States to Boston. There are now Pecha Kucha nights in more than 300 cities in the world, including a bunch in America. Let’s see, you’ve got your Bangalore, Beijing, Beirut , Boston, and Berlin — and they’re just some of the B’s — right down to Wagga Wagga, Australia, and Zagreb. This thing is seriously global.

Pecha Kucha Boston began in 2007. Its 18th iteration took place last Tuesday, when a herd of young professionals packed the Elks lodge near Central Square: Drinks for an hour at a cash bar in the bowels of the hall at 6, followed by the main attraction at 7, kicked off by cofounder Brett Stilwell, a local Web designer. The signature Pecha Kucha Beer Break took place after the first five presentations.

“I know half of the people here,’’ said local architect Andrzej Zarzycki, explaining why he showed up. “Now I want to learn about the other half.’’

Presenters — there were 10 — showed and narrated 20 slides for 20 seconds each, of projects they are working on. The 20 x 20 format is the soul of Pecha Kucha. The emphasis is on speed. If you can’t get it done in 20 x 20, you’re not ready for prime time.

What Pecha Kucha participants don’t do is network. Yes, they have name tags, but no one is passing out business cards like Necco Wafers in a hotel conference room. Nor is this crowd dressed for success. Folks arrived in shorts and sandals, wrinkled shirts and tank-tops. They’re smart, curious, and scruffy. And overwhelmingly under 40.

Pecha Kucha Boston has been a movable feast. It has held its nights at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, MIT and the bar of Mantra, a restaurant on Temple Place. At the first one, held at Mantra, architect Nader Tehrani showed his plans for the restaurant, which he designed.

Last Tuesday evening at the Elks lodge, we saw presentations from, among others, the two founders of a nascent Design Museum Boston that will exist online and in empty retail and public space, and the executive director of Boston Fashion Week about his design plans for this year’s event in September.

The primary cosponsor of the Tuesday Pecha Kucha was Common Boston, a nonprofit group where architects and designers work pro bono with neighborhood activists to improve conditions there.

My favorite presentation was MIT researcher Alex Leavitt’s amusing riff on the life and death of a “meme’’ — an online cultural unit. It’s called “Vuvuzela,’’ named after the South African horn that produces that obnoxious drone we’ve been hearing at World Cup matches.

We first see a short video clip of the bizarre incident at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for an award. Leavitt then takes us to the World Cup, where the face of West is superimposed on a person blowing into a vuvuzela.

We see how the vuvuzela sound appears on the Internet as a forest of z’s, and then read a sign that bans vuvuzelas from Yankee Stadium. Leavitt also shows us filtering software to erase the vuvuzela sound on TV.

As one of the great unwashed, I know what I like in architecture and design, but I haven’t a clue how projects are hatched. Pecha Kucha opens a window for me to the thinking behind them. It also calls a designer’s creative bluff. No one at Pecha Kucha says, you can’t do that.

Other disciplines should use it as a model, providing members can leave their egos at the door. Personally, I’d love to see a Pecha Kucha night for plumbers. I’m not kidding. I’d be there like a shot.

Sam Allis can be reached at