Surviving the design studio: 6 golden rules for architecture students and architects. 

You are half way through the design project or the semester and things are dragging. A few weeks or months ago you were enthused about the project and now it doesn’t seem like things are good. You are worried about your own skills, your research is going on and on, you don’t understand where your are headed and the studio leader, or your boss, or client, keeps looking at you quizzically. Most of all the design is stuck and you are running out of time.

This is not an uncommon situation.

It is important to understand how to avoid this malaise both from the perspective of studio or team leader as well as from your own viewpoint. Everyone can take heart that architectural teams are potentially the most creative, productive and innovative teams on the planet. Why would I say that? Firstly, archi-teams are able to conceptualise and visualise things in three dimensions. Secondly, these teams are not afraid to to conduct processes of creative destruction in order to reiterate or refine a concept or element of a design. That is why the design studios are great laboratories of design. Thirdly, in an architectural studio you can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity; in other words, you can work along multiple and possibly contradictory lines of design. To achieve all this however requires effective leadership and committed team members.

Architectural teams or architectural school design studios are not about sequential or linear lines of thought. It is not about ticking the boxes in sequence. Or swiping right or left on an app. Sometimes, this is not easy for the rest of the world to comprehend. Sometimes this is not easy for architectural students to comprehend as they undertake their first studios at graduate school.

To survive and prosper there are a number of golden rules for both architecture students, design architects, project architects and architects leading or teaching those teams.

1.Studio leaders are human and every team member is different.

It’s a good idea to get to know your design studio leader or the architect leading your team. What are their interests? What are they passionate about? Where do they think the cutting edge of architectural practice is? What kind of design research are they involved in? More importantly, how do they propose to approach the projects design. What is the design pattern or structured process that they seem to be advocating? What characterizes this pattern? Is it orderly or more chaotic and intuitive?

For studio leaders this means sharing and imparting with students or team members the travails of your professional life. What are your points of view on the most recent urban controversies? Who has inspired you as an architect? What are your areas of expertise? How would you characterise your own education and what would should have been different about this? All of this requires a proactive approach to the design process and recognising diversity in the team. Everyone in the studio or team will have a different style of communicating it is up to the studio leader to recognise this in order to foster an ongoing culture of design discussion across the project.

The uncommunicative or passive-aggressive team leader or team member who is reacting and lurching from crisis to crisis is everyone’s worse nightmare. Communication is the key. If you cant do anything else else talk to your friends about the project. The more you talk about a design project during the process the better it will be at its outcome.

2.No two studios are alike. 

Architectural Studios on the inside never seem like the brochure or presentation. So don’t be dissapointed. The particular dynamics of  every studio is different. Different leaders, people with different skills, different styles of leadership and a conception of architectural design. Every design team is different and every design studio experience is different.

Don’t think all because your last studio or project was great the next one will be as well. My rule of thumb is for every 5 studios you teach one will be great, 3 will be ok and one will be a disaster. A few years back I set up a new syllabus for a studio. A lot of research and peer consultation went into it. In the first semester of teaching it was great. The second time it was ok and the results were almost as good. The third time it ran it was a total disaster. The students hated it, my peers were not convinced and the admin staff thought it sucked.

So, don’t expect it to be the same as last time. As a team member its good to clarify to yourself what you think the design process will be. Ask yourself, is it linear problem solving or is it about producing a series of varied solutions? What is the tone of conceptual thinking that is being promoted in the studio? Is it about historical or typological analysis, urban analysis, semantic meaning, abstraction or the technicalities of parametric design? What weighting in the studio is given to aesthetics and graphic communication? A key question to ask an understand is what model of design generation is being promoted in the studio or team? How are you expected to produce design solutions?

3.Engage by asking dumb questions.

Ask dumb questions. This is the easiest way I know how to start the process of communication in a design team or studio. Because the obvious and seemingly dumb question is the question that usually needs to be asked in the design team. Designing is about testing, and indeed stress testing, propositions, arrangements, aesthetics, processes and details. Usually this is done via the question. Usually, it is the obvious question that everyone’s as been thinking that really needs to be articulated.

Admittedly not everyone is an extravert and some people find it difficult to ask questions. For design leaders this means encouraging questions, as they are asked, and not being dismissive. I like to ask my own dumb questions. This helps to break down any barriers of communication between team leader and team members. I know it may sound trite but encouraging or developing a feedback loop of dumb questions speeds up the evolution of the design. It also increases the ability of team members to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions and again this contributes to a design culture within the group.

More often than not it is the seemingly dumb question that can unlock the key issues and complexities of a design concept.

4.It’s not about the mark and nor, is it about winning the award.

Its not about the mark, and in the real world it is probably fair to say it is not about winning the award. Unfortunately, architecture schools have been corrupted by university fee regimes and the brand cache of a degree. Architects as a global profession have been corrupted by the peer distinction and star architect system.

A focus on the marks or awards never really got any one anywhere. I think it’s about packing as much design thought into a design project as you can. The design thinking embedded in the project needs to be robust enough to weather the storms and criticism of conceptual logic, value management, client whims, regulations, constructibility, politics and peer criticism. Trying to appease –by balancing out and juggling too many different factors–the awards judges or your tutors in terms of a imagined assessment regime only gets you in a mess. It usually only leads to design indecision and not knowing what is important amongst a range of factors.

For studio leaders it means getting the team members to focus on the process of the design research, design generation and production as the primary goal. Peer review juries and competition panels are notoriously fickle. Of course, regimes exist in architecture schools for marking and should be thought about and taken seriously. But, an incessant focus on trying to second guess a marking regime or a jury always detracts from the design process.

The good news is that anyone focusing on the design as a foremost priority never really loses out. Even if you don’t win the billion dollar project through a competition it’s still great to have a design that embodies your own design values.

5.When stuck get unstuck and hack yourself and burn your computer 

Let’s face it any design project can get stuck. We all get stuck for ideas or are unsure about the outcomes as a design evolves or progresses. All it means is that you need a fresh perspective. If you re stuck you can usually try anything. Have a break from the project for a day. Get your friends or others in tothe studio crit. Design an alternative concept and compare it to what you have. Throw around a few new crazy idea. What is the most bizarre and idiosyncratic idea of concept you can throw at the project. Is there something new you have not tried?

Hack your own design. You can do this by changing media: making a model, doing a sketch a different style of drawing; a section instead of a plan. Burn your computer and do some sketches. Take a stick and draw in the sand.

Hack yourself, to get out of the design studio grind. Go to a party and think. Take the road trip option. After you have undertaken some of the above methods you can reassess.

For studio leaders getting your students or team members to try out new ideas or new approaches when they are stuck is critical to successful outcomes. Usually designers get stuck when they find the path forward limited by pragmatic considerations or they are overwhelmed by their own self criticism. Designers are usually their own worse critics. A good team leader will understand this and support those team members prone to endless self criticism.

 6.Leaving it to the last minute doesn’t really cut it.

This is probably the most important golden rule and point. This is a real trap for the unwary, for those leading and for those being led. I call it the: a lot of research and too little design syndrome. Studio leaders should be constantly challenging team members to avoid procrastination and design via physical or digital means. research takes place in paralell with research. Make diagrams of your research instead of just reading it or writing about it. Design is not about thinking and researching and thinking and researching and hoping that a spatial entity will all come together in your head and then then translate exactly into the computer.

Design is about trial and error. For this reason designing a project is a race. The more trial and errors the more you can iterate a design. I can tell when I am in a building where the elements have only only been designed once. The second or third pass is where great design happens.

Architecture is too important to leave to the last minute.


The Next Commodities Boom: Defetishising Australian cities policy.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is suprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced minisiterial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, wholisitic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.


Against the porn of lifestyle houses: four houses to dream about when you design a house.

The first house I designed was in second semester of second year and I didn’t really now what I was doing. How could you? Thankfully, thanks to my tutor I was slowly led through the process of how to design something as complex as a house. My tutor (who is now a colleague) wisely got me to look at numerous examples of houses, the AJ metric handbooks, and I did look a lot at all the houses that won awards for a few years in the magazine Progressive Architecture. I examined house plans. I spent a lot of time at home measuring things. How high was a bench, how wide was a door, how deep was a cupboard? What where the dimensions of a bed and how much room was needed to navigate around it. Of course in first year the time I was inspired by the work of MLTW and Sea Ranch, I liked the flow of the forms as they cascaded down the hill on the coast of California it seemed a far cry form the flat gable and hip tiled suburb I grew up in.

These days there is a lot of what I call house porn which seems to be incessantly streamed across social media. Big windows, a bit of cedar, white walls, long linear kitchens, minimal kind of Mediterranean bathrooms. These houses seem to be perfect and idealised settings for bourgeois lifestyles devoid of reflection, memory or dare I say it melancholy. Watching the reality television shows, either the cooking ones ( I am partial to MKR), or even the building and renovation ones, I get the impression that houses are simply containers for, and expressions of, lifestyle and nothing more.

Lifestyle houses are always different. They are always filled with “features” and customised to the whims of their clients. They both brand the owners identity, and help to form that identity. I am tired of seeing houses planned around an open spatiality, linear vistas leading to large windows; more and more the bourgeois house looks like a real estate marketing brochure. More and more I fear architects succumbing to this as the exemplar. In a way great houses are difficult and monstrously empty creatures. As an antidote to this I try and describe my impressions of four houses below which, for me at least, avoid the lifestyle paradigm.

Villa La Roche

The American architect John Hejduk in his book Mask of Medusa relates how he set up an exhibition in Corbusier’s Villa La Roche in Paris. The power of his prose is compelling but as he was hammering in nails to set up his 1972 exhibition to the house he remarkably found red dust coming out of the white walls. He states:

Villa La Roche is house with other qualities beyond the simple white cubed functionalism that we assign to works in the twenties. It is a house where the functional elements  suggest other uses such as some kind of dark religious ceremony or ritual. Hedjuk was convinced that the house was used by english spiritualists who came to the continent for ceremonies in the 1920s. He argued that the houses main sitting room was configured like a church. It suggests that houses must always refer to something like this, that functional elements have double readings, and that every house must have its own kind of  alchemy.

Ottolenghi House

This is another house that has always fascinated me, and whilst I have visited quite of few of scraps works in Venice and the great theatrical Castelvecchio in Verona an like many people who have visited Scarpa’s work in Venice I have yet to get the opportunity to visit this house.

Scarpa was quoted as saying I am “A man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece.” Again this is a house, like Villa-La Roche, suggests places outside of itself. The rusticated columns made of discs of stone and concrete are both monumental and yet made of a series of fragments suggesting ruins. The travertine floor, and the ponds which adjoin the house, as well as evoking the Venetian lagoon, are reminiscent of Scarpa’s influence in the gardens of the East. As a result of its compositional fragmentation, the house is also like Venice in other ways, itself constructed from fragments of plunder from the Levantine world.

The house is buried and Scarpa uses this as a means to introduce light into the interior spaces of the house in an extremely controlled way. This is done via a compositional incision on one side of the house. This incision is not unlike a Venetian street or Calle. Whilst no where near the Venetian lagoon the house still evokes this city. The combined effects of fragmented plan, entrance with adjoining ponds, the steps up and changes in level, and the dividing fireplace with its intense hard-plastered blue all suggest that this is a city within a house. It is the idea that the house can itself be a city

Villa Muller

Adolf Loos designed and built many houses. But Villa Muller is probably the best of these, perhaps because it is well documented, and perhaps because Hejduk (him again) wrote such beautiful words around it. The window grills with there hint of the orient, the exquisite Delft tiles at the entrance, the stone that adorns the house. More alarmingly, their are pictures of Loos in the house with his bride in his final years racked by Syphilis. It sits in a suburb on the outskirts of Prague overlooking that city.

There is nothing automatic or unconscious about this house. Every gesture of composition is tightly planned:  this is a house that is seems to defer canonical notions of style. Is it modernist or is it a classical building. A tomb perhaps? I have been to the house but never inside. I suspect it is one of those houses that desire impels you to enter and experience. But, once inside, the desire only heightens as you realise you are in an empty tomb.

Villa Malaparte

Probably one of the great Villas of the 20th Century it is on the isle of Capri not far from Tiberius’s Villa where he ruled the empire. The villa is famous for  a number of reasons, design by Libera, who aside from Terragni, was probably the  best of the Italian fascist architects and its owner  Curzio Malaparte at first a fascist sympathiser and later a communist his most famous novel was Kaputt written in 1944. The novel is one of the few novels to authentically describe the banality of evil. It located at Capo Massullo, on the Isle of Capri. It was the central location in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mepris. The cinematic version, as compared to the house in reality,  gives evokes arcane rituals across ancient landscapes. It is a place where the limestone crags and shards of Capri meet the horizons of the Tyrrenhenian sea. Somehow in my mind Villa Malaparte seems to evoke all of these intertwined aspects of both the 20th C and antiquity.

All of the above houses evoke and suggest other places and indeed states of being. They are not overly saturated with light, reduced to nothing through minimalism, mock joined to the landscape or overly inscribed with parametric techniques. In some way each of these houses suggest that the house is still a site of poetry, a site where archetypal forms, memories and historical associations merge. These days the house is too often seen as lifestyle porn. A home for Kardashian luxury sometimes with a little bit of materiality  and craft thrown in to demonstrate authenticity.

The architectural tradition of the Australian house leaves a lot to be desired. The appeals to unifying landscape and environment, touch the earth lightly lifestyles, well meaning sustainabiltiy and the mannered stylistic traditions of the 20th C are all to noisy for my liking. As Hejduk suggests, in his foreword to the little book I have on Villa Muller it is the tone of the house which the architect must determine before anything else. The house is a setting for the theatre of life. Simultaneously, a place of where desire, loss and dreaming mingles. A house is ideally a place of silence that respects country rather than one that fills over country’s destruction with an endless stream of features. Better to speak into the void.




Design Activism: Expanding architecture as advocacy after #Occupy.

This last week or so I have been teaching a new intensive subject just at MSD, the Melbourne School of Design. As a subject Design Activism explores the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the politics of advocacy, activism and protest. The discussions in class linked architectural and urban design to critical theory, activism and community development. We discussed many case studies in class and the students themselves bought in examples in order to begin to understand the strategies and governing principles which guide activist campaigns.

The case studies included perspectives from both international and local contexts, as well as from the virtual world.

One of the most exciting aspects of the subject was that it bought together various activists, academics and practitioners involved in the interfaces between alternative architecture, protest and community organisations. This time around our guests included:

Bev Polzin and Dr. Wendy Salter of the AVP movement.  Who discussed non violent protest and alternatives to violence.

Peter Hogg  who discussed inner city urban planning activism in Melboirne.

Cathy Alexander who sketched out the mechanics and dynamics of the Australian media.

Lorel Thomas National Convenor of Safeground who discussed how to best lobby politicians.

Gary Muratore of Burger Off. Who discussed one of Australia’s most succsefu

Dave Phillips of Mccann who graciously explained the inner workings of advertising campaigns and the advertising industry.

Leandro Caputto of TOMA. A collaborative group of architects working in Santiago Chile recently represented at the 2016 Chicago architecture biennale.

and Derrick Jensen of the Deep Green Resistance movement. Derrick shared his own journey with students explaining his views on militancy.

Mirjana Ristic now of TU Berlin who demonstrated how concepts of spatial urbanism can be used to map conflict.

Design Activism goes against traditional models of architectural practice normally taught in architecture schools. There are usually two views of architecture as a career. In the first view architects graduate and then find a internship or find a reasonable firm to work in. Slowly but surely we gain experience and get to the decision point of staying in someone one else firm or starting practice yourself. Both of these career pathways are based on the traditional model of practice. In other words, the model in which architects are paid by clients to design and deliver buildings. As time has gone on this model has come under increasing pressure, from other competitors who claim to do what architects do, and the traditional model of practice, with all of its uncertainties and has been called into question as a viable and satisfying career path. Often the architects who subscribe to the traditional model of practice either as employees or owners of firms are confined and limited in their ability to act due to issues of patronage, politics and funding.

As a subject Design Activism was designed to explore the ways out of the above traditional nexus and associated conundrums. With the demise of the Occupy movement it is timely for architects to now reflect on architecture’s role as a vehicle for political protest. Thinking about Design Activism, in terms of both theory and practice, is a good vehicle to do this.

Moreover, in recent years, in architecture schools across the globe, community development or “global design” design studios have been all the rage. For many students and architects this has been seen as the prevailing way to make architecture more relevant to global concerns of injustice. These studios usually have a simple formula: Take a group of architecture students to an island or developing country and get them to do stuff. As I found during the studio I ran in Mexico these types of studios raise ethical concerns about the architects relationship in networks of colonialism. Sometimes a FIFO (Fly in Fly out) mentality reigns supreme and perhaps it is not effective. What happens after the architectural experts fly out? How do we as architects decolonise our practices? A recent book by Clare Land based on her thesis begins to suggest how we might begin to do this in relation to indigenous issues. Architects have along way to go.

The Design Activism course allowed the students space to explore and discuss the contradictions of power across the interfaces of urban infrastructure, architecture and the territories of political protest. In future blogs I will discuss and present more of their work. Design Activism is an attempt to expand the domain of architectural design into the realm of advocacy and political activism. Exploring where the interfaces and fault lines are between architecture and the politics of protest is important if architecture is to evolve as a discourse.

Of course, I don’t want to be overly critical of the FIFO studios; not all of them are bad; although I decry the often woeful design aesthetics produced by these studios; however, I do think we need to ask: how, as architects we can be activists? It shouldn’t simply be a matter of taking a trip, or as Derrick Jensen suggests putting a green roof on a building, and then feeling warm and fuzzy because as architects we are thinking that we are doing good. That may not be enough.