Avoiding architectural extinction: The hazards and joys of interdisciplinary architectural practice and research.

Last week I blogged about branding and I got some comments back saying that it was all about the actual design of the building and “branding” was a superficial concept. Of course, design should be  paramount. In this week’s longer blog  I write about the need for authentic interdisciplinarity in architectural education, research and practice. 

In architecture there has always been a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity. Architecture, both as a field of research knowledge and as it is practiced has always crossed borders. Architectural education at its best gives, to those of us who subscribe to the cult of architecture, both generalist skills and the ability to understand, in detail specific areas of knowledge. Well trained architects are knowledgeable in construction techniques, urban planning, the  sciences (particularly the environmental sciences) and for some mediating cultural difference is essential; not to mention the world of organisational behaviour and science. On a design project architects are expected to make decisions about space planning, function, structure, environmental services, statutory regulations, contracts, construction methods (costs and details), organisational behaviour and heritage issues. In addition, knowledge of aesthetics is important: tectonics, style, methods of visual abstraction and how things look in the finished form (colour, paint, materials). And of course, and uniquely, spatiality. By this latter term I mean how things will appear, and made present, in three dimensions in space.

History of the city

High in my pecking order of things architects need to know about and research is  history. Why? In some way’s history can glue all the diverse archipelago of knowledge that constitutes architecture together; also architecture has its own traditions and histories. Buildings, cities, cultures, people all have history. These histories are all intertwined with architecture. The gradual erasure, of history and theory, in architecture schools is probably one of the most barbaric things to happen to the discipline. Nowadays, who needs history when you have the immediate gratifying moment of architecture in the internet world of dezeen, archdaily or snapchat.

Architects are expected to have knowledge across many domains as well as enough detailed knowledge within different domains to make decisions. The architect must make decisions that are both strategic and detailed and operational.  Some  architects can easily move across the spectrum and between these different scales of decision. But some architects get stuck at the extremes of these two poles. In other words some architects think more towards the “big picture” end of the spectrum and strategic and other architects can only think around the detail end of the spectrum. The best architects are those that can do both, or at least recognise both ends of the spectrum. This is what we might call interdisciplinary thinking.

Of course this kind of interdisciplinary thinking, or the idea of it at least, has its hazards. In higher education I would be rich if I had a few dollars for every time I heard the words interdisciplinary. It is an idea, with its associated mantras, that seems to have been been around forever. When I started architecture school the Yakka overalled, bearded (original hipsters?) greenie architects were always talking about. Well, talking about it between tokes on their spliffs. It was their way to take down a provincial profession centred on the gentleman architect.

Systems theory

I think to some extent the idea of interdisciplinarity it is related to the dream of systems theory. The idea that by understanding the world as a series of systems we can then begin to link together different systems and l of knowledge. The multi-talented Gregory Bateson was a key proponent of this and it has been said of him that “Bateson’s epistemology proposes a ‘communicational world’ based on cybernetics, systems theory, and ecology.” Wow ! Let me write that again: WOW ! In the 1920s, Bertalannfy, the founder of General Systems Theory, was to contrast the mechanistic approach to biological disciplines and he consequently ‘advocated an organismic conception in biology which emphasizes consideration for the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principles of organization at its various levels.’  (Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 12.). In 1968, he wrote that ‘If someone were to analyse current notions and fashionable catchwords they would find “systems” high on the list. The concept has pervaded all fields of science and penetrated into popular thinking, jargon and mass media’(General System Theory, 3.). It kind of sounds familiar and such sentiments appear to point to the influence of General Systems Theory in architectural discourse. In effect, and arguably without systems thinking, and related concepts we may not have all of the discourse and polemics attached to parametric design.

Higher education and research 

The above dreams of unified and general systems seem to spur on the idea that universities are one place where systems and cross disciplinary thinking can be fostered and encouraged. But, the problem is real collaboration comes together when common platforms of thought are bought together, and in a sense even into conflict, from disparate fields of knowledge (not to mention inclusiveness). For  architectural educators working with educators from other disciplines this generally means: agreeing on a common design processes, understanding different disciplinary conceptions of design, agreeing on hierarchies of knowledge and circumscribing what should be included in any particular curricula or syllabus.

In the architectural education setting this means agreeing on joint learning aims and outcomes. This is not to sound critical of any one university or program. We all want to teach the modes of interdisciplinary thinking as this is important for future graduates. It is not simply about teaching a bit of architecture and then teaching a bit of engineering, or product design or whatever it is side by side each. It’s not simply a matter of offering broad humanities subjects alongside architecture, or just renaming things. Too often this kind of thing ends up being about teaching by committee. where the committee devises the syllabus and the syllabus is a grab bag of topics. I suppose one of the reasons I hate planners is that they are always talking about interdisciplinary perspectives and yet when push comes to shove few of them seem that interested in the aesthetics, spatial considerations and design processes. I would love to run a studio with planners but they never seem to be that interested. As I have written elsewhere few planners seem interested in learning about design thinking.

In this context implementation of truly interdisciplinary teaching and research programs is the key to real success and positioning in the competitive word of the future knowledge economy. Not just packaging up, shuffling subjects, or research topics, around, renaming and then branding these different units.  But effective leadership and implementation is so important if interdisciplinary architectural and research education is of real concern. And this is why the studio is so important in architectural education and research because it is the central, perhaps the only place, for this kind of thinking to take place.

My sad experience in the discipline of architecture is that interdisciplinary research is too often overlooked in favour of research that is narrow and highly specific and technical. Maybe, it’s always been like this I guess. Of course I don’t want to sound like a pompous whiner. But, if you are a generalist, as most architects trained before the millenia are, or a humanities graduate with some ideas of crossing a few different areas, or conducting research on the perimeter, or at the limits of your discipline, you will probably have trouble getting funding. Perhaps this is why architectural research is so underfunded.

Doing it 

Thankfully, in the real world interdisciplinary thinking is embedded in architectural practice itself. In getting projects built architects, engineers, consultants, user groups of different cultures all come together. One of the really key parties in the project mix are the sub contractors. Often, despite their unfashionable high-viz vested ways and penchant for non inclusive language, they are the ones where the information is. My friend, the esteemed professor, of construction management once said that in the future he thought that all the design decisions would be made in the supply chain.  Of course one thing he meant is that it is in the supply chain where real interdisciplinary practice often takes place. That is where  architects conveying the concerns of the clients across a number of dimensions, problem solving with other specialist disciplines, seeking information from both contractors and subcontractors in order to make complex and difficult decisions.

The prospect of extinction. 

architects need to acknowledge the interdisciplinary aspects of architecture in design studio education, research and practice. Otherwise, our profession will become increasingly typecast as a profession of “technical specialists” who draw the design. Otherwise, our work will become increasingly commodified and that’s a recipe for diminishing returns and extinction.



It is what is called swot vac here in our graduate school of architetcure. We are now well and truly in the crazy season and quite a few of my students have gone to ground; hopefully to remerge, like butterflies form a chrysalis, with beautifully imaged projects next week at the studio juries.  

Loathing the the bow-tied, botoxed yellow traced architect dandy: In search of a new brand strategy for Australian architecture.

This week I consider the necessity of taking a more spohisticated approach to branding the architectural profession.

Recently a friend told me the story of visiting an eminent architect on the weekend in his specially designed holiday house. My friend was visiting with her partner, and another friend, a  wealthy philanthropist who potentially had oodles of money to spend on architecture and architects. To my friend’s horror the party of visitors found the eminent architect reclining in his Eamesy Carlo Mollino chairy chaise lounge thing and casually doing a few Sunday afternoon sketches with, of all things, charcoal sticks and yellow trace. He was even wearing a bow tie for god’s sake (I can’t even tie one of those) and my friend swore she could see signs of Botox on his brow. The contrived nature of this scene, he had been warned that th emoney was coming to visit, shocked both my friend, and the philanthropist, who afterwards felt no desire to commission anything with someone so flirtatiously pretentious.

The architecture brand, and the branded architect, is bedevilled by superficial gestures that seem to play up on a broader notion of the architect as a kind of creative genius with yellow trace. Whenever I go out to dinner and meet bankers, lawyers, managing consultants, doctors or medical specialists (especially the anesthetists) they all say, “oh so you are an architect” and then “that’s SOOOO interesting” and then the punch line ” I always wanted to be an architect.” I hate that so much. But usually, like most architects I just grit my teeth and try to smile. However, we really should stop putting up with this shit and tell people what we really do. And then charge them lots of moolah for it.

But, my own pet hates aside, the above situations do raise the question of branding. How should architects brand themselves and their services? Should we rely on the old tropes of the creative dandy with the yellow trace? Or should the profession seek to brand and promote itself in entirely new ways? Ways that address the global commodification of space, the rapid evolution of social media and the  disconnection of community experienced by various publics.

Interestingly Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner prize, are a collective that suggest how changes in contemporary practice require architects to think about branding. Firstly assemble is not one (one genius), or two (one male genius plus one “business” type) or even three architects (one genius, one “business” type and one “networker”). We all know about these tropes and its great that Assemble has 18 members and it proclaims to “work across the fields of art, architecture and design.” More interestingly Assemble claim to “involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the ongoing realisation of the work.”

This is a really different model of practice and it is one that suggests a different approach to branding the architectural firm (if you want to call it that) rather than one just based on a name or a cult of aesthetic dandyism and pretentious yellow tracings.  Powerful brands for architectural firms are those that connect with the public (not only the clients) that they serve. To do this requires a firm strategy that connects a strong narrative to the firm’s public as well as its potential clients. Just having some superficial and funky graphics, and a bow tie, and a cool geographical name is not really enough these days.

The big star brands in global architecture such as OMA, ZHA, Gehry, Fosters and Rogers are really good at branding. They all have a story to tell. Their brands are built on being able to control, market and amplify themselves through various communication channels and media. In these instances, these firms are more well known, and better branded, than much larger firms such as HOK or Gensler or AECOM who gain more revenue in dollar terms than the celebrity architectural brands. These days only a few Australian architectural firms make the global rankings published each year by Building Design magazine. Hence, there is no reason why any firm for that matter can seem much more potent than what it is via effective branding and control over different and emerging media channels.

In strategic management theory effective branding is way to position a firm in relation to its competitors. Derived from firm strategy it should guide and be the template for communicating the firms’ core services, client and user experience and social media interactions. It should also guide and be integrated with a firm’s working culture. Too often the connection between and the perception of the architects brand and the internal working culture of the office is in conflict.

In some ways architects are rooted and based the local architectural culture and traditions of their own city. An effective and well through out brand can enable, even a small firm, to look much bigger than it is. As someone recently asked me what are the attributes of Australia’s architectural brand in the global system and how does this compare to the branding of Danish, French, English or Italian architects. Is the global brand of Australian architecture simply perceived through the lense of Murcutt sheds, The Opera House or maybe its all about swimming pools?

Whenever, as architects, we go to the Venice Architectural Biennale why do we so admire the Nordic pavilion and the Nordic architects represented in it. Why can’t Australian’s just exhibit the work of a few architects, or focus on a few themes, in our pavilion instead of having some kind of generic free for all where every firm, or mediocre idea, gets a guernsey?

Other professions, such as the lawyers and the accountants, have done a better job of promoting themselves to the public. Architects have done little to do craft brand strategy’s in any collective sense and it shows. As a global brand architect’s need to do more work to promote Australian architecture as a place of architectural experiment with its own unique cities, landscape, canon and traditions. I guess I am sick of seeing architecture being seen as some kind of washed out and generic supermarket brand.

It’s time architects collectively realised that branding is not just about a the old tropes, a few cool names, a bit of funky graphics, bow ties and yellow trace. After all is said and done its really about the narrative.

The crazy season is upon us in the small corner of my universe known as the graduate architecture school.  The students have two weeks to go and quite a few of them already started sleeping in the atrium. 

Waiting for the Barbarians: For architects there are no right answers only wicked problems.

This week I discuss the need to acknowledge wicked problems in architecture. 

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians C.P. Cavafy 

The Wicked Problem 

Most practicing architects subscribe to the idea of the wicked problem. For architects wicked problems exists. Its a aprt of their everyday life. But for the rest of the world they dont. This makes life hard for architects who by virtue of their intense, and a longer than usual, education can see the different dimensions of urban and architectural problems in greater detail. But, the rest of the world wants answers and why not?

A central concept underpinning architecture is the idea of the wicked problem. The wicked problem was first formulated and expounded by Rittel and Webber  in a 1973 paper entitled “Dilemmas in a General Theory Planning.” The paper highlighted that scientific problems are different to wicked problems in which, because of their complexity,  there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers. Rittel and Webber’s paper was a response to the critiques of professions and professional and elitist knowledge that emerged in the wake of 1968 and with the critiques of high modernism.  As they state “The professional’s job was once seen as solving an assortment of problems that appeared to be definable, understandable and consensual.” But they argue that the failure of specialised, or seemingly elitist, professionals or knowledge workers to solve these problems is not the professionals fault. The fault is the type of wicked problems that architects, planners, landscape architects and urban designers are faced with.

As a young architecture student and it was put to us that our future careers would be tied to solving wicked problems. That’s a hard truth to have to tell archietcure stduents today. As most architects will appreciate wicked problems have the following characteristics.

Problems of definition

Wicked problems are not easily defined. When presented with a wicked problem conceptualisation will never capture the dimensions of the entire problem.  To think a wicked problem can be defined may actually make it harder to solve.

Thinking of architecture as something that is about simple problem solving does not really hack it with me. Resolving a brief and then applying this to site conditions with a few sustainability, urban design, (fill in the gap), gestures thrown in and thinking this solves a  problem is mostly fantasy to me.

There are right answers

To think a problem can be definitively solved is a fantasy is because wicked problems never end. They do not have a finite life or a finite boundary. they tend to reverberate long after the project is built. Moreover, wicked problems are such that you don’t actually know when they are solved. As Rittel and Webber state:  “Wicked problems have no stopping rule In solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are criteria that tell when the or a solution has been found. Not so for the wicked problem.” In other words there is no way to test a solution to a wicked problem.

I guess most clients of architects expect answers and expect solutions that are ideal or “correct” propositions. After all that is what they are paying for. Yet architects are often caught having to explain, and indeed educate, clients that in some circumstances there are no ideal answers. There are no true or false answers to wicked problems. Moreover, attempted solutions to such problems exist on a spectrum between less bad and bad. Try explaining that to a client who is paying for your services.

Most architectural projects are the result of unique circumstance. No matter how much architects try there is often little knowledge that is directly transferred from project to project. Like architectural projects Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation.” In architecture it is not possible to employ trial and error. Once the building or the project is complete it is complete.  There is no chance to reflect on its flaws and rebuild it. One way architects try to overcome this is by employing processes of design iteration and prototyping (digital and physical) to try and explore different options and solutions in a given situation. But a lot of clients don’t want to pay for these iterations and they don’t understand why architects can’t get it right the first time. After all, in the client’s mind we are the experts. It’s all too easy for our competitors to offer simplistic and cheaper solutions. Easy answers and trash for cash.

As Rittel and Webber note: “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” 

For an architect even the smallest budget renovation, a bathroom or perhaps an extra bedroom or living space on a house is a snakepit of complex problems. Planning regulations, limited budgets, service availability alongside client requirements and taste cultures make the renovation or small house one of the most complex things an architect can design. The smaller size of a project does not necessarily imply that the problems are any less or that the architect’s duty to act responsibly is any less.

Teaching and Research 

My students look sad and disoriented when they tell them there are no right answers. They are more employable if the understand this. But,in the realm of architectural education students, who now pay small fortunes to attend university, just want to come to class and know exactly what it is that they need to learn so they can pass. Any attempt to simulate the fluidity and ambiguity of the real world in the lecture theatre is increasingly more difficult and usually fails. As a result I would contend that the managerial emphasis on measures of so-called “teaching quality” is correlated with the drifting downward statistics on graduate employment outcomes. In teaching to “customers” rather than students the employers easily end up saying our graduate students are crap and this gets into the ears of the shock jocks and the populist politicians.

Wicked problems like most architectural projects are fluid and highly ambiguous. The managerialists as well as the shock jocks don’t want to hear this. Increasingly architects, and other domains of professional knowledge in the built environment, are too often derided as being elitist and damaging in that, all too familiar, anti-common sense way.  Federation Square and Southern Cross Station are two recent examples of this tendency. The irrational and global backlash against climate science, and scientists, is perhaps another symptom of this. Brexit and the rise of Trump and his associated policy settings is probably another phenomena associated with this.

In Australia there is a lack of research funding that is  accepted by a political class enticed and seeped in this global culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. We are witness to a political class that regularly derides research and evidence based policy. Architectural academics and indeed architects need to counter this by communicating what we are doing more effectively to the public. As architects we need to highlight the everyday wicked problems we are faced with and argue our case with both clients and policy makers. Otherwise, we are just waiting around for the barbarians who are too easily bedazzled by simplistic solutions and so-called right answers.




Surviving the Design Studio: 10 things design tutors really really hate (and like) about Archi students.

This week I discuss how to make the most of being in a design studio at architecture school.

I will keep this one short and simple. The following is based on my own experiences and I was trying to figure out how many design studios I had actually taught over the years. I think it is around 30. Maybe more. On average about one a year since I graduated. Most studios have been pretty good and my current students this semester at MSD are awesome. Some studios have been bad; usually as a result of a bad combination of mismatched expectations (usually: tutor expects students to do work, students not motivated to work). Of course some studios I have done are great and memorable. A few studios and moments spring to mind “The Springtime for Hitler Studio” (Speer’s classicism), the studio when I jumped on the student’s model ( a really bad move), the Situationist studio when all the students hated me and I pretended to be Debord, the fire station studios, the tower studios, the Mexico Studios and the summer studios both at RMIT and MSD. Studios with friends or colleagues too numerous to mention although the early studios I did with Neil Masterton of ARM were great. The ones I did with Dr. Karen Burns whilst doing my PhD were memorable. Now I am sounding perhaps all too nostalgic. But, nostalgia for past studio glory means nothing. The real point to remember for architects, design tutors and architecture students is you are only as good as your last studio or project.

So here is the list of the things we as tutors both like and of course hate, and I mean really hate. If you are doing more than five of these hate things then maybe you should not be at architecture school.

10 things that design tutors really like/hate.

1. Turning up 

Hate: Not turning up without a prior email or message. It’s always best to turn up to the crit than not turn up. The one thing a studio tutor hates more than anything else is a student who does not turn up.

Like: A courteous email or text to say you are not turning up.

2. Being on time

Hate: Turning up late after you have had the main discussion with everyone else in the studio.

Like: Being on time

3. Being present 

Hate: Spending the entire session looking at you from behind a PC or multi-tasking on a phone (of course I am being a little hypocritical in mentioning this).

Like: Being present to interacting and listening to all of the conversations in the studio.

4: Listening when other students present their work.

Hate: Just turning up for your presentation. Not engaging with the presentations of other students.

Like: Engaging with and asking questions when other students present. Most good tutors like to hear questions from other students when someone is presenting. After all the reason we have studio groups is so that individual students can see and learn from what other students are doing when confronted with the same problem.

5. Working consistently

Hate: This is really a bundle of syndromes. Doing a lot of work at the end of semester or just doing enough work to get by each week. The tragedy of this is that a design project could have been so much better if the work did not happen in short bursts. Students who consistently do this often wonder why there marks are lower or the get bad crits at the final.

Like: Students that work consistently and produce something no matter how seemingly minor each week.

6. Doing a lot of work. 

Hate:  Getting the project up to a reasonable point for mid semester and then just stopping work for a few weeks until the end.

Like: Doing lots of work each week. Letting your tutor know when you have other time pressures.

7. Seeking help when stuck 

Hate: getting stuck after a 1 hour of design work and then waiting a whole week to see a tutor. Worse still employing “getting stuck” as an obvious excuse to do no work.

Like: Student who contacts tutor or friends as soon as they are stuck in order to get unstuck.

8. Avoiding print queue excuses. 

Hate: Making excuses. The more common ones being: Print queues, IT problems (May variations on this one) and Laptop stolen. Problems printing seems to be an affliction that strikes a small but significant minority of architecture students.

Like: A student that seems to be constantly reflecting on and improving their own design and project workflow. A student constantly checking in with the tutor about this. A student organised enough not to print at the last-minute.

9. Drawing it rather than talking it up. 

Hate: Minimal drawings or diagrams on the wall or the screen and then a long, long intimate description of the concept, what the design will be like and the student’s semester narrative. It’s really annoying when this style of presentation is repeated each week with little or no design development.

Like: Students who talk succinctly and have  drawings  on the wall that describe the current state of their projects development.

10. Students who know architectural history. 

Hate: Students who look at you blankly when you mention famous 20th C architect, 21st C architect or iconic project’s constructed in the last 10 years. As tutors in the modern era we need to respect our students as “customers.” But it is pretty hard to know what to say, apart from a non customer-centric  profanity, when the occasional student does not know who Corbusier (let alone Terragni or Libera) is. The crazy thing is most students at architecture school do history but there are still some who don’t really get it.

Like: Student’s who know something of architectural history and read actual architecture books as well as following architectural discourse on social media.


Mostly, as design tutors we want to be generous, we want to help people, we want everyone to do well and produce great projects. We want great students in our studios, we want to teach  in the best way that best prepares architecture students for the real world. Moreover, tutors want all their students to be resilient, successful and great architects. Sadly, in the managerialised and “customer” orientated university the above is getting harder and harder to do.

I have survived the week back after the teaching break, recovered from my painful sinus infection and now my MSD MArch students have about three weeks to get their projects complete. Yesterday in the studio we had  sustainabilty, structural and mechanical consultants from AURECON come in and enage with the stduents designs. It was a great session. 

Getting Jiggy with Research: 6 ways for architects to create upstream knowledge.

Research is vital to architectural practice. So I thought I would rewrite, revise and update some of the practical comments from a previous post from December 2015. 

Research and Development is central to any relationship, engagement or linkage between architecture academia, practitioners and emerging businesses. Perhaps this goes without saying but too often it needs to be spelt out. Numerous architectural websites and brochures are full of statements about how research is valued and prioritised. But sometimes it all seems a little bit too “feel goody” and “mission statement” like for me. Architects need to be specific about their research aspirations.

Most architectural firms are keen to go upstream. By going upstream I mean creating distinct knowledge that helps a firm to get clients and charge more. There are however, I think a few things small firms and teams of architects can do to amplify their research capabilities. Even larger architectural firms would benefit from some of these suggested strategies about research.

1. Actually have a research strategy

Research involves developing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. But this knowledge needs to be integrated across the firm. For that reason it makes sense that an architectural practice would focus their research efforts in a way that aligns with their business strategy (if they have one). If the firm seeks to develop a competitive advantage in health, or facade design, or sustainable design or some aspect of urban design then its research efforts should align with this.

Whilst it is important, it may not be as effective to pursue research, or view research, as simply being about implementing new technologies in the office or figuring out what the next bit of funky software the firm should buy (see no. 2 below). Sometimes the line between these activities and strategic research is blurred. One office I worked for, in the earlier days of CAD, did spend a lot of time researching and understanding the expressive possibilities of CAD design and architectural representation. As CAD developed this gave them a large competitive advantage. Clearly the knowledge and research gained, as CAD systems themselves developed, had strategic benefit to the firm. In any case, I would always push for a line of research in the office that is at least aligned with its current strategies or with its intention to develop new areas of expertise.

Research is not simply about finding out about new materials, or the latest technical thingo, for your latest project and then filing the information into an electronic folder for later reference. Unless, of course you think that the knowledge you gain from the material and technical research process can be used elsewhere. But, I think that is what all architects think: That extra research or knowledge they gain on one project can be used on another. But I am a little sceptical about this as it seems too adhoc. Especially, if the firm does not have a research strategy or its projects are highly customised and different each time.

2. Wacky research is ok.

Of course sometimes architects might do research just for the hell of it (this kind of contradicts the first point above). There is a balancing act between conducting research to improve current capabilities versus working on seemingly new and radical innovations. Getting the balance right is important but sometimes research needs to be wacky. Research is about trial and error and indeed about making mistakes. That is in part what research is about. Buckminster Fuller is a pretty good example of this.

Politicians and shock jocks

Of course if you are a politician or a shock jock or a member of conservative think tank all research has to be somehow “practical” not “obscure” and have some demonstrable value to the tabloid reading public. I guess that’s how politicians and some journalists think. It’s a weird position to take. Because most of the people who espouse this view, especially the political class, have never have never really ever worked in the real world.

For those of us who have worked and struggled with their own business in the real world you understand that you have to undertake research, or take positions, that are risky or may not have an obvious or immediate benefit. But it’s the risky research that’s probably going to give a firm the real disruptive edge in business. Arguably, the obvious less risky thing is the thing everyone else is doing as well.

Firms, universities and individual researchers, gain competitive advantage when they pursue knowledge for its own sake.

3. Create a Research network

As one of my friend’s has done in his practice Architectural firms who prioritise research build an ecosystem of mentors, advisers and experts that they can interact with to debate and test new ideas. Almost all start-up companies will have advisory boards that advise them through the pitfalls and hazards of commercialising an idea and then growing. So why not architects? For architects, networking of course isn’t necessarily always about trying to find new jobs. It can also be about gaining knowledge of what is going on across the domains of knowledge where you practice. At least one person in any practice needs scan the horizon for new ideas or the latest research developments.

Although it is far removed form small architectural practices good example of creating a research network is the Google example. The Google platform is an ecosystem that includes consumers, software innovators, content providers and advertisers. It is a permeable system where outsiders can also become collaborators. Hence, it is not simply a matter of trucking in people or experts to help you solve a problem. It is about creating a network or ecosystem of collaborators who can help a firm to create new knowledge and to also understand what is happening within architectural and urban discourse.

4. Use your staff to create research knowledge.

Another dilemma for architects is how to organise a firm to do research. In the old days all wisdom in the office came from the Master. The so-called Master was not unlike Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead movie. He (sadly, always a he) was usually the architectural designer who by force of ego, class background, cachet of education, or through experience and perseverance.

When I worked for a “Master” in the 1980s as a young architecture student I could do nothing right and you can imagine what this did for my confidence as a designer. He was a truly good architect and in later years proved to be a designer of international note. But, he was also never wrong and always insistently right. Contending with the Master’s wisdom was really not a great career move. It was a little bit like being in a cult. Master’s love acolytes and they of course like acolytes who agree with them. The worst thing a firm can do is to create teams in its own image rather than diverse teams that I would argue are they key to creativity.

Ownership of new conceptual ideas or design processes more often than not is, and should be, shared. It never really resides in the mind of one person no matter how much symbolic capital they may have as a master. As they say at Pixar: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

This might be why my favourite model of Knowledge Management or is based on the Japanese management theoretician Nonaka whose work points the importance of knowledge as a vital source of competitive advantage, there is little understanding of how organisations actually create and manage knowledge dynamically.” Nonaka and his colleagues understand that knowledge creation in an architectural firm, or any firm for that matter, is a collaborative and iterative process.

5. Collaborate with academics.

Bring academics into your firm’s research ecosystem. The problem is academics are often time poor and hemmed in by teaching commitments and an overly regulated bureaucracy. On the other hand not all academics understand the dynamics of practice or business protocols. But, most academics in architecture schools love to do research. They also like to talk about it. Because of this it is a good idea to contact and foster the participation of academic researchers (like me!) into a practice’s work. Invite them in as critics. Invite them to the firm’s Christmas party. Get them drunk and see what they say. Allow them to participate in planning workshops or esquisses. This will help the academics understand the pressures and time frames of the practice. It will also get them thinking about what you do as a firm and what you can do better. It’s like having your very own free management consultant attached to your firm (sort of).  Before you know it you will become part of some useful collaborative research projects.

6. Teach a studio.

One good way to conduct research and create new knowledge is to teach a studio at an architecture school.

In setting up and running a studio the knowledge created can then help the studio leaders, as practitioners, to position and locate themselves in relation to various policy debates, and emerging programs, as they emerge in urban discourse. This enables a firm that teaches to gain an advantage over its competitors by actively being a part of an ongoing public and policy debates. After all isn’t that what it’s all about.

 I have been pretty sick this week with a cold I caught on the plane from the conference in Manchester that then turned into an excruciating sinus infection. But, this week at my great architecture school and faculty we are launching an entrepreneur’s breakfast. The basic idea is to get the disciplines within our faculty to engage and come into contact with entrepreneurs, founders of start up companies and for academics and higher degree students to have a greater appreciation of innovation systems, business entrepreneurship, the magical and mystical world of venture capital and perhaps more importantly how to manage small businesses so that they grow into more sustainable ones.