The Folly of the Folly: Architecture and the new age of Trump.

The semester is over and Trump is the prez. So this required a little bit of time to write a more theory driven blog. 

In this new Trumpian age that we find ourselves in we are witness to the rise of the architectural folly. We all love to go to and visit the follies and drink the champagne or suck on Aperol icy poles.  These little follies or pavilions often pop in the parks and cities and galleries. There are few, here and here,over the Southern hemisphere summer in my city of Melbourne. The Serpentine Gallery famously has at least one each year in Kensington Gardens. I wrote about the 2016 folly here.  Tiny houses, tiny cafes, tiny pop-up shops, tiny little renovations, eency weency rooms, instantaneous barista centres, decorative baroque makeovers straight out of the flat packs and lots of public sculpture.

All these follies have become interwoven in our lives via their transmission though social media. These follies have quickly developed there own history in our lives. A history made of Instagram moments, Facebook landscapes and Snapchat curiosities.Our social media channels seem beset with architectural follies. Of course, all of this seems pretty innocent and well-meaning, an effort on the part of architects to create a communal connection via the digital urbanisation of the city. But, perhaps this is all architecture can do these days.

I am wondering if all of this micro-designing is a way to make a space for architecture itself, or any kind of architecture for that matter, given that the two extremes of the modernist project in architecture appear to be exhausted. This certainly seem to be the case in my city where the public and civic traditions of architectural language appears to be caught between two poles. I imagine it may be the same in other rich globalised cities. The first pole is the tradition of minimalism of Mies Van Der Rohe (Farnsworth and the like, the brick country houses) , mixed with its precursive tradition in the functionalism of the Russian Constructivists (but, more Melnikov than Leonidov) and uber functionalists  like Hannes Meyer. In the traditions of my city this pole exhibits itself in private housing; well mannered modernism usually drawing on the traditions of the 1950s. In the area of housing OMA and BIG are its more recent manifestations. In many projects this becomes an elegantly proportioned but try-hard functionalism; a functionalism, whilst seeming to be objectively expressed, is obviously softened by the markets and so called value management; as a result it becomes a functionalism of mediocrity that struggles to make anything strange as the Russian literary formalist Viktor Shklovsky would urge us to do.

The second pole is easier to identify but it is, I fear, no less empty. It is probably best related to the poetics of Corbusier symbols, volumes, lines and shapes and symbols drawn from the animist and natural world or the architectural canon itself.  As Tafuri was to point out in relation to Corbusier’s Algiers project this approach represents a pinnacle of the CIAM avant-garde’s failure to make the intellectual work of architecture mean anything in the face of  capital.As well as Corbusier examples of this pole can be seen in the work of the New York Five, both Saarinen’s, Niemeyer, and all of the concrete brutalist buildings in the world that seem nowadays to choke our feeds. For Tafuri these were games without meaning or content disconnected from the real economics of the capitalist universe. In the hands of better architects this poetics becomes a kind of shamanism pointing to its own absurd emptiness. In the hands of other architects it becomes a chaotic cacophony of empty signs.

The architectural folly or project is usually set in a landscape. This landscape is viewed as either being hostile in which case the architectural responses typically point to fortress like metaphors of protection or a picturesque ruin in the landscape. The folly always disengages with its political context. In fact, context only serves to reinforce the folly’s claims to a romantic and ideal sentiment. But in reality this is an attitude denoted by Tarfuri as “the exaltation of apartness” and this contrived apartness is never a terror of faith. It is always so so certain in its cultural, and dare I say it, colonising groundedness.

As Vidler notes in a commentary on Tschumi’s Parc La Villette

“The folly, is on one, level, genuinely a meaningless object, a reassemblage of once-meaningful terms to make a nonsense out of them.” With no political agenda, no revolutionary aesthetic or social aim, and no historicist nostalgia, the allusion to constructivism becomes a mad shot in the dark that at once cherishes its avant-gardism but comprehends its madness. Analogically, the folly stands for a body already conditioned to the terms of dissemination, fragmentation and interior collapse.”

All too often I see these kinds of projects as fragments in architecture schools. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Iconic shapes representing typological figures. The primitive huts evoking the gables houses of Tessenow nowadays rendered in core ten-steel or Larch and packaged up for TV on Grand Designs. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Or worse still: parametric adornments and crystalline jewels, bridges (prevalent), aorta like tubes, shells, distorted urban blocks and even bits of clothing. Beautiful galleries and institutions also feature as fragments in Westchester like verdant landscapes. Many folly like projects ar etaken as rehabilitated ruins, loving crafted to give life to derelict buildings and all to often these are made whole with pop-up stores and shops. Nothing like a bit of retail therapy in the old warehouse.

The sustainability architects have their own follies. Rather than being concerned with issues of climate justice, their proposals are too often about reinforcing fragmentary rather than radical change across the city. In our digital streams we see glimpses of verdant rooftops, recycled facades, algae vats and mycelium walls and strange eco-machines driven by the wind.

In the work of people like Neil Brenner the diagram itself has become a folly (look at how first nations people are represented in these diagrams). From the Smithson’s onwards the diagram as kind of folly that adorns, decorates and tattoos our proposals. My cynicism urges me to say that every folly these days needs a power point presentation and a Ted Talk with lots of clever diagrams and statistics. Another decorative placebo to offer us the hope that as architects and urban designers we are making a difference and have things under control.


The rush to the folly is I think  because both of aesthetic tendencies streams identified above, junk functionalism and  a kind of poetic bruto symbolism, have been corrupted by the consumptive tendencies of capital. The city has been sped up by the new urban-digital technologies that employ follies for content and feeding the city in order to further fragment it before our eyes. Once adorned with these folly like fragments this new city machine gives the appearance of being the result of intellectual work and critical insight.

It is too easy to think of these fragments and follies as benign. In some ways the folly seems like an escape and a placebo.  This may be because the folly and these urban machine-made fragments are so easily attached to our individual lives via social media. Follies seem innocuous perhaps because the are small. Fragments celebrating an otherness we can grasp and exist in before returning to the world. Some are very tiny trinkets indeed. All architects yearn for their own fragment to go viral. Yet are these follys all we can propose as architects?

Yep, some of these follies are as big as cities. Follies can also exists at other scales as geopolitical instruments. In geopolitics the Israeli wall and the new Mexican wall to be proposed by Trump are follies at the geopolitical scale. I don’t know why but Trump’s Tower seems like a folly fragment embedded in the grid of New York. For some reason I associate it with Saddam Hussein’s monuments in Iraq. Maybe, this is why I think Donald Trump’s victory represents the emergence of a Baathism peculiar to the United States. A secularism that is nationalistic in outlook and against pluralism of any kind. Trump, like others Baathist’s is a populist hell bent on urban modernisation. Yes, in the current interregnum between election and inauguration, it is Trump Tower which is the ultimate folly. A folly gone viral.

Trump Tower is now the most famous building in the world. Perhaps very little of our own architecture will escape the taint of Baathist emptiness. Follies have always been empty and I decry their unthinking appearance in architecture and our cities. For the most part, in architectural discourse follies are cut adrift from theory. Seeing another garden pavilion folly in my digital stream only deepens my emptiness and yearning for a different kind of freedom.

Next week normal transmissions shall resume. 


Architects vs. Project Managers: Rising up against the alien overlords known as Project Managers.

This weeks blog is a bit later as I have been busy writing another piece here. I have also been consumed with Final semester design juries and marking. 

Architecture takes a long time to learn. Designing and organising the construction of buildings is a complex process. As most architects will know even the smallest renovation can involve juggling a complex scenario of client brief, planning and building regulations, site conditions, sustainability issues, construction detailing and logistics, contractor and subcontractor capabilities and of course design itself. This is a much wider range of design and construction knowledge than many project managers are either trained in or know about.

A few times in the past few weeks I have heard my architecture friends bemoan the profession of project managers. Good project managers, like good architects, will be able to make the trade offs, have the foresight and understand the  complexity of managing user requirements. Basically, good project managers understand architecture and design processes. The best project manager I have ever met was one who gained valuable experience in an architect’s office based on community buildings that involved a great deal of community consultation work. She then went on to much larger projects.

I should also say that I share an office with a project management academic. He is great. A kind of rocket scientist who has taught me a great deal about advanced quantitative decision analysis.

But bad project managers are really bad and I mean really bad. Of course some would argue the IT project managers are worse (but that’s another story). But, I worry that all the really bad ones have ended up in construction. One qualification for being a project manager is to be able to do a Gantt chart with unrealisable time outcomes that you can then bludgeon the architects and all the other consultants with. Yes, you don’t need refined or nimble negotiation skills to be a construction project manager. You just need to be a bully. Interestingly, the architects I have heard complain the most about these vermin have been female architects.

Of course I speak from a partisan point of view. This is because I think it is time architects really rebelled and rose up against the alien overlords known as project managers.

Blame the “bloody” architect.

But all too often the architects either individually or as a group are blamed when things go astray. Why is this?  I guess its related to some of the things that surround Trump’s election being elected. In the modern digitally connected world its pretty easy to run a spin campaign with no substance these days. It’s pretty easy to troll the architect, after all architects are dandified dickheads who don’t care about client needs or wishes. I think the star alpha-male architects have contributed a lot to this impression. Hopefully, as new alternative forms of practice emerge and architects are more aggressive in how they brand themselves as a group, these impressions will change.

Why architects are better  

An architect is a highly skilled professional, usually about 7 years of training, including two years of audited and examined experience. Architects are trained to lead projects from start to finish, on time and on budget. If they don’t get this right they can be sued. They are uniquely placed to understand cost pressures in construction supply chains.  Project managers often only have an overview of these things. Architects are trained to understand client and user needs and ensure that a project is feasible from the very beginning. The problem is that all too often Project managers get the architects in too late. They have already decided the wrong approach to the project’s feasibility, strategic design and often ignored risks that an architect, with more on the ground experience and a better overview of client needs as well as the broader context would have picked up.

Project managers love to tell the clients what they want to hear in the early stages of the project. Architects have to tell the truth because they are usually bound by architects registration acts and PI Insurance issues.

Architects are able to communicate. This is what they are trained to do. Architecture is in some ways a liberal arts education and communication across the project team and down the construction supply chain is essential.

Some real PM fuck ups. 

Southern Cross Station a low bid tender price put in by the contractor. When the architects came on board the architects wondered why there was no cost manager on the project. Basically the contractor low balled the price to get the job. All the other tenders for the project were 25% above. Lo and behold the final price was 25% above. The contractor then decided in the media to push the blame on to the architects. You can read about it here and I think this situation really poisoned my view of project managers and contractors. Its a pretty cheap shot to blame the architect all because of public antipathy and punter distrust of design aesthetics.

Federation Square is a case in point. This facility has now served the public of the City of Melbourne admirably. It actually works as a fine public space alongside its public institutions and commercial spaces. It is a building that is a legacy project that will serve the city’s future for many years to come.  Yet at the time the architects were excoriated for trying to uphold standards of construction and design decency for the project. You can read about some of it here. The meddling of politicians in the project and the hacking off of the Western shard was one of the most despicable anti-architecture campaigns I have ever witnessed.

As one of the architects of Federation Square Donald Bates was to note recently on Linked-In, “Project Managers produce negative consequences to projects – to the detriment of clients, to the degradation of quality and legacy and to the interests of the wider public. Very rarely do they bring innovation, intelligence, respect and wisdom to a project.”

Another example: The problems with the $16.2B Commonwealth’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) was not the result of architects. It was the result of project managers stuffing up. You can read all about it here. Schools that managed their own affairs with architects did better than those BER schools managed by Project Managers.

Architects best placed to do the cost trade-offs

The rise of project managers can be attributed to the impression that architects are not suitable to manage projects because they are not sufficiently focused on time and cost outcomes. In a 2011 paper we published which looked at how architects work with Quantity Surveyors we concluded that an important thing that architects contributed to projects, amongst other things, was the ability to make complex finishes and material tradeoffs in the clients favour. You can get the paper here.

In value management and cost reduction exercises it is the architect who is best positioned to uphold and fight for the best materials and finishes for the sake of the project. Architects are uniquely placed to do this because project managers and few other consultants or trades in the building and construction industry have an overview of how it all works.

Project manager’s, by virtue of their training, wouldn’t have a clue about material finishes in either domestic, community or public projects. A quantitative Gantt chart jockey is not going to be the sort of person you should trust with complex decision about your domestic reno,  legacy building or your facility designed to bolster your community. Another case in point is the Harold Holt Pool. You can read about that here. The project manager employed by Stonnington Council on the pool redevelopment really had no idea bout the modernist heritage values associated with the pool. You can read about that here.

In some industry segments client expectations have driven the pressures for unrealistic time frames and low budgets. This has been a significant factor in the continuing use of project managers in the construction and development industry. In the dark dim past it was the architect who managed, organised and supervised the construction process. It was the architect who was the single point of communication. I would argue that Architects are still the best people to lead integrated construction projects This is primarily because of their training architects are supremely placed as system integrators.

For the last 30 years architects have bemoaned the fact that project managers have taken over  their role. Of course it’s easy for project managers to blame the architect. I am sure many architects reading this will have stories about project managers with poor integration skills. A good project manager like the best architects can integrate systems and  make the trade offs. Most of all good project managers should have the foresight to see what is coming down the line. And yes, a good project manager treats you with respect.

Rise up !

So next time, as an architect you are being set-up-to-fail by some low-grade project manager, clutching spreadsheets with no idea about design, construction processes or user requirements call them out. Its time for architects to rise up against their alien project manager overlords. When the clients work that out as well our cities, community institutions and housing will be suitable for the future.

On my planet the students have gone teaching has finished. So, its time to do some research and get ready for semester 1 2017




Surviving the Design Studio: Seeking MSD Architectural Practice Tutors

We are looking for architects with a commitment to architectural education to tutor, guest lecture or join our weekly discussion panels, in Architectural Practice in Semester 1 of 2017. The subject aims to develop a strong connection between MSD MArch students and architectural practice. The tutors are a key part of helping us to make this connection. For many of the students in the class this will be their first introduction to practice.
Using the traditional practice syllabus as a platform the subject covers strategic thinking, emerging forms of collaboration, foresight and forecasting, negotiations, gender issues and knowledge futures.
In 2017 lecture content will be delivered online and via lecture based panel discussions as well as structured tutorial case studies.
Ideally tutors in this subject will be registered architects or practitioners with post registration experience who are currently working in their own practices or as project architects in medium to large firms. It is expected that tutors will meet the challenge of teaching in a cross-cultural and diverse context (perhaps unlike the people in the photo above)
We would also welcome people currently in leadership positions in practice who wish to contribute to the subject either as a tutor or as a guest lecturer and discussion panel member.
Time commitment for tutors is significant and this will be: 11 x 90 minute tutorials plus 4 x 1 hour moderation sessions during the semester. As well as attendance at 2 x 1 hour lecture panel presentations. This is an opportunity to make a direct contribution to current debates about architectural practice.
Tutors will also need to view the online lectures. There is approximately 32 hours of marking during the semester. Tutorials are generally either Monday and Tuesday evenings.
To give students a sense of the reality of practice each tutor will also be responsible for posting “a week in the life of the architect” content to the subjects Instagram account for one week of the semester.
I am happy to talk with you further if you have any further questions about your contribution as tutor to the subject. I look forward to your application as a tutor via the MSD’s Session Staff Recruitment System at the following link.

Paradoxical Design Thinking: How architects can avoid the BIG IDEA is crap trap.

In this week’s blog I resuscitate from my vault an old conference paper which discusses design processes. This came after a conversation with friend about how and why his firm of architects is suffering because they have not won a lot of new work recently. I think this blog might help those architects and other creative orientated firms, stuck in a rut, and seeking to reflect on their creative processes. 

The BIG IDEA syndrome

Trump is full of big ideas like build a wall, lock up HRC and even all those franchising ideas Trump steak, Trump uni, Trump perfume and Trump Vodka. Sadly for some there is a view that creativity and genius is something innate. A secret sauce or recipe that is embedded in our DNA. This sensibility leads to people looking for the one big idea. The BIG IDEA. Dare I say it: the big fucking idea. The secret to the universe or the solution to the particular problem. (Of course as noted in another blog when the problem is “wicked” there may not even be a single solution). Unfortunately, in the many professional cultures, for example architecture, urban design, landscape urbanism and maybe even advertising, the single idea or big idea view reigns supreme. Once you have that idea you, or the team, runs with it. But as Andy Warhol said of Trump he is kind of cheap and I think the same about the Big Idea in architecture. It’s always kind of cheap.

So, what if the one BIG Trumpian idea is crap? How do you avoid the Bad BIG IDEA syndrome (it’s a bit like saying how can America avoid Trump)? If the idea is bad you might lose the competition, the job, the client or the pitch. You might even lose the confidence of your team working on it. You might end up with a design or an end strategy that is so bad that all you can do is polish it a bit (there is a saying for this but I think I can only sustain one profanity per blog post).

Paradoxical Design can save you 

One way to get around this conundrum is to abandon the focus on the one big idea syndrome and always build a portfolio of ideas into your design practice. This is done by deliberately fostering the generation of paradoxical or counter ideas in a project. Ideas that are in opposition to the prevailing project idea. In opposition to the one BIG IDEA. In other words, its great have a few paradoxical, counter or oppositional ideas being pursued at once. Yes, it makes for chaos with contradictory ideas are competing at some point in the project but this is manageable and ensures that you are not locked into a dog of an idea. The counter ideas can help you to test and compare the prevailing idea. Not only that but you can use the paradoxical ideas in other projects in the future.

Design thinking is about constantly generating creative ideas and every project should run with and explore a few ideas in parallel. This is one aspect of design thinking that most, but not all architects, understand and are taught in architecture schools (well some of the time anyway).

Running with a few paradoxical ideas might actually save time and effort (and of course money) in the long run. The problem is that for architects or other creative design professionals changes are often seen as being unwelcome and at odds with sequential project development milestones. Changes are often seen as negative in a productivity sense; or changes contribute to rework during the construction or production process and this adds costs to project risks. Also, there is the perennial problem of how you explain changes to the client.

But, on the other hand creative and generative design is seen to foster innovation and this is at the heart of the design paradox. One way is to ignore this constant paradox but the other way is to embrace Paradoxical Design.

Paradoxical Design and innovation 

In innovation theory a number of notable theorists also suggest that embracing Paradoxical Design means recognising, but also fighting against linear and binary descriptions of the design process. As Winch theorised (sorry to get all academic here) designing can either be characterized as either a conjectural model or a linear model (Winch, 1998). He argues that the linear model is a problem solving approach which involves analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Which is all very well and dandy. But he goes onto argue that the conjectural model, a model which is arguably linked to ker-razzy assed architectural design, is more discontinuous or disruptive. For those of you reading this interested in innovation theories and systems, in Clayton Christensen’s parlance, (the elder-king of innovation academics) conjectural design is what might be termed as exploratory innovation.

In Paradoxical Design, an initial hunch or conjecture is formulated and following this the process then proceeds through a number of iterations. It is through these paradoxical iterations that design knowledge is created; in each iteration conjectures are proposed and then abandoned. The iterations, or the creative idea embodied in each one, are paradoxical because they might be quite different to one another. They may even contradict each other.

A rapid survey of architects

In a rapid survey I did a few years back of architectural firms practices in Australia in a desperate effort to churn out a quick conference paper. I aimed to find out to what degree architects pursue Radical Design vs Incremental Design solutions as design projects progressed. You can find the paper here. Its full of diagrams describing the process I am describing.

To cut a long story short, in the survey I defined Radical Design solutions as: solutions “leading to fundamental rethinking of elements of the project”, “affect the form or conceptual origin”, “change the design concept” or “a change that affects the fundamental design – so great that the concept must be re-assessed or thrown out.

In the survey which had about 70 respondents the term Incremental Design was seen as being “stepwise improvements” or “incremental refinements of an existing idea.” Incremental Design represents linear, logical, and rational design gestures and solutions.

Survey results

28% of the Architects surveyed responded by saying that “Pursuing radical design changes is a part of the practice’s normal design process.” 29% claimed that “In our practice any project the principal designer, designer teams and design architects have the time to pursue new design solutions throughout the project.” More importantly. 42% stated that “continuing to generate both Incremental and Radical design solutions throughout the process helps to identify and highlight new design issues and problems as the design progresses.”

In terms of cost benefits, 21% responded that “Continuing to generate both Radical and Incremental design solutions throughout the process outweighs impacts on project delivery time or cost.” But despite this 72% acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to discard a design solution or sketch design and start the design process again in order to achieve a better project outcome. And 65% agreed that “Creating and then culling both Radical and Incremental successive design solutions in a given project helps to achieve high quality and innovative design.

Design architects are often accused of changing their minds once decisions have been made during the project development and delivery process. Some see this as architects just being all about ker-razzy assed architects. For other professions, even creative ones, paradoxical design is not possible. This is because an investment in design itself is seen as all too costly and wasteful. Let alone running with the wolves of Paradoxical Design. But, on my town we all remember the brouhaha over Federation Square; which turned out great despite the village naysayers decrying its cost and design.Of course it is always cheaper to run with one idea. But, a badly and cheaply designed building or project has many longer term societal costs.

But if you really want to find the creative idea that is so compelling that clients, users and the punters can’t resist it then you are not going to find it just latching onto the first big idea that comes along. Thats part of the paradox I guess. You may only get there by thinking about a set of pradoxical ideas rather than one BIG IDEA.  In any case, thinking about and managing Paradoxical Design processes is a great way to build design knowledge and a portfolio of design ideas in your firm. Paradoxical Design thinking is essential to winning those clients, the big commissions and the awards.

My students in the colliding spaces studio have pretty much finished the semester. thankfully no one imploded. A few even seemed to enjoy it ! But then again as we all know archi-students will say a lot of nice things about their tutors to get a good mark. I am hoping to put their projects up on this site in the next few weeks.