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.