Mr. Turnbull all I want for Christmas is a Cities Policy.

For those of you tired of Christmas day gluttony and Hannukah frivolities this blog post from earlier in 2016  is worth reposting. Not much has happened since its publication in the policy arena. Of course the absence of policy only reinforces the idea that the The Australian city is 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 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 surprising 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 ministerial 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, holistic 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.

Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Online Culture, Universities and the Architecture School.

This post was first published in January 2016. I had such a great time at the Six Degrees end of season party (snapshot of what I did at the party above; smoking and petty vandalism inflicted on a strawberry). It was in their new office a few days ago and it reminded of what I had written here. 

Bowie is dead and this made me think about the rock and roll life style. I just thought great maybe I should listen a bit to his Berlin trilogy of albums and ponder the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. Questions rang in my head. Why couldn’t I be more like Bowie? Is 69 the new 27 0r 28? Naturally, these thoughts made me think about my experiences at architecture school 30 years ago. Then I saw an article in the Harvard Business Review which argued that developing a organisational culture is critical if an organisation or enterprise is to be successful. In my grieving Bowie mind it all seemed to link up and this got me thinking about the context I work in and how the issue of culture is currently playing itself out in Architecture schools and more broadly universities via social media. 

All Australian Universities, and not just architecture schools,  appear to suffer from the malaise I describe below. A uncertain policy environment does not help. Why make positive and strategic policy decisions when it’s so much easier to measure stuff. 

Teaching and research academics, like myself are increasingly regulated, measured and administered. I concur with the article in the HBR that play is an important part of developing a organisational culture. Organisations that are constantly monitored, managed and measured end up being crap organisations with a transactional culture of individuals incentivised to blame, use carrot sticks on each other and amass brownie points rather than contributing to a collective culture of ideas (Or as the HBR article summarises it more politely, “emotional and economic pressure combined with inertia” erode motivation). Organisational culture is all too often managed out of the equation. I once had to explain to a university manager why it was a good idea to buy a few dips and have a few bottles of wine for cohort function for new architecture students. They kept saying: “why would you bother to do that?”

The reputation of a school like the AA in Bedford Square London is famously said to be built around its bar. The architecture school I attended, which will remain nameless here, quickly built its reputation as one of the best architecture schools in Australia on similiar factors. Firstly, it developed a culture around the rituals of the end of semester drinking fest, opening night parties and long alcohol soaked dinners with local architects. It became a hot bed of gossip and trivial scandal. It appointed a Head of Department who appeared to want to do nothing more than party with the local architects and put on great parties for the students. Of course as a young graduate teaching at the place I took all of this ethic on wholeheartedly. This was until I got into trouble for standing in front of a group of prospective students and their prim parents and said that attending architecture school was all about sex and drugs and rock and roll.
It was a highly effective strategy by the HOD. 

All of this activity, quickly drew in practitioners, decision makers, graduates and students. It wasn’t too long before the discussions, debates, controversies, and alliances engendered by this activity resulted in the school being seen as the centre of the known architectural universe. The parties were the places where the business was done: where the school’s students formed their career networks, where recent graduates found jobs and where industry did deals. It became a culture where architectural ideas were promulgated and debated and this culture inevitably became associated with the school itself. Quickly the school gained an international reputation as a place to be. The product’s of the school’s vibrant culture became associated with the schools brand and this contributed to the school’s reputation. A reputation which it still holds today 30 years after its formation. Building a culture within any tertiary program adds to the student experience, helps to foster links with industry and position a school as a place of disciplinary leadership.

As an architectural academic who now works at a university I am conscious of the technological differences between today and when I was taught. The web and social media now reign supreme. Building a culture in an architecture school, or in any university cohort for that matter is now very different. All of the activities of student experience are often programmed and managed via web interfaces. Relationships to industry are fostered by industry nights and public lectures managed though online ticketing. Alumni are managed via databases and contact software. 

Web pages abound for every graduate architecture school in Australia but when I look at these many seem to be stale and lacking in interactivity. Few, if at all any, seem to contribute to building an online culture or a community of interest around a school. Yet, it seems that social media, in addition to the parties, is one critical way that a school or university department could build its reputation as a place of intellectual excitement and controversy. Digital content needs to be actively produced, and social media should be used to both foster and connect students to the events and architectural culture of the school.

Building online cultures

So along with having more cocktail parties, exhibition openings, public seminars and lectures. I offer the following suggestions:
Forget print. Develop a digital platform and a governing architecture for this platform. All faculties should have a sub-Dean responsible for digital policy and delivery. Other organisations in the Industry have digital CEOs.

1. Build a community of influence centred the school. Get recent and distinguished alumni, members of industry and students themselves to influence and write short pieces or blogs on issues of interest to both student and industry (my friends at Parlour have been able to do this very cleverly with few resources).

2. Tweet and Instagram and Snapchat all the time. One way to do this is to get a different academic, distinguished alumni, student or staff member to take on this role each week.

3. Connect social media to real time events. Use the real time social media channels such as Tweet and Instagram and Snapchat (and I forgot to mention Tumblr). Use these to follow and stay in touch with exhibitions, events and the student lifecycle.

4. Communicate to cohort segments via the most ubiquitous platforms such as Facebook. 

5. Publish the selected work of every studio each semester on the web.

6. Use a central web page that directs and connects to all of the other digital points of connection.

7. Forget the corporate branding and get the web graphics right. The best design schools have the best graphics. Change the look every two to three years.

8. Publish multimedia and rich content on the web: simulations of projects, cartoons, interviews with architects and architectural presentations and guest lectures.

9. Send out a monthly newsletter to all alumni who want it. Use it as away to get alumni to contact each other.

Too often universities and the managers see a digital platform as a way to market the school rather than as a means to build a culture. Filling web pages with pictures of the brightest looking students and recent graduates doesn’t really do it for me. Too often the managerial class sees regulation and administrative rules as the solution to everything. As noted in the HBR article by Lindsay McGregor “A great culture is not easy to build — it’s why high performing cultures are such a powerful competitive advantage.” As universities move to, and impose, online modes of teaching it would be a tragedy if the old ways and culture of the architecture school was erased.

Architecture as Knowledge Design vs. the Low Fee Mentality.

 Architecture is about ideas and what I call Knowledge Design as compared to that oh so icky cult of “DESIGN.”  This is a more developed and modified version of a talk I gave at Denton Corker Marshall my piece at the ACAA website.

Architecture is an endeavour focused on the creation of knowledge. It’s about Knowledge Design as compared to just being about Design. Architecture is about designing processes that create knowledge. I guess, I think that this stem’s from the fact that architecture is essentially about ideas. In the same way that a work of literature or political philosophy is also about ideas.

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Too often we are bamboozled by the architects as salespeople who tell us that architecture is about all sorts of things: architecture is about BIM, architecture is about Green Roof’s or Resilience or Sustainability or Parametrics. Thats all fine, but I think seeing architecture as idea and knowledge driven might help to resist the urge to simplify everything in this so called Post-Truth world.

Architectural knowledge is generated via the design process and then – if you are lucky and get something realised – it is embedded in both built and spatial forms. This knowledge created by architects, and the professional services through which it is delivered, makes architecture valuable to society.

If architects are to prosper as a discipline in the future, they need to make Knowledge Design a central platform of their practice. Recently, I became interested in how UN Studio conducts its own research. They focus this through what they call Knowledge Platforms. In short, each platform is a different area of specialised knowledge – UN Studios explains:

“the objective of the Knowledge Platforms is to distil knowledge from within the practice of architecture in order to propel design thinking and innovation.”

Of course, proposing that knowledge is central to architectural production is a more complex model than simply saying that architects design buildings. This model of practice places ideas and knowledge, rather than the delivered object, at its centre. Yes, this approach is quite different to seeing architecture as simply being about the design of physical buildings (as, unfortunately, too many people do). But, in the digital age the Vitruvian tenet of firmness, commodity and delight is a little bit harder to apply to something as seemingly intangible as knowledge.

For the anti-design types, and anti-elites and anti-intellectuals in our world the intangible always seems to a struggle to understand.

Architects as knowledge workers. 

Seeing architects as knowledge workers is more commensurate with our wide-ranging education, our role as systems integrators, and with the ambiguities of living in a networked global system (a global system now beset by the spectre of nationalism). Moreover, architects are now working in cities saturated by a combination of ‘wicked’ problems such as inequity, incessant conflict and climate change. Cities themselves can no longer be understood as stable entities that, through patronage, architects adorn with the symbols of power. Do we need more Bilbao’s or Dubai Palm’s or ghost town MASDARs?

Notions of future proofing practice should not be about jumping on the latest technology bandwagon or getting excited about the latest procurement method. New developments in both technology and social organisation need to be thought about and strategised by architects. In the future, thinking about architectural services in terms of knowledge will be more and more important. Excellence in architecture has to be about ideas and the design of knowledge and not just about the time and cost, or even zero carbon, outcomes of project delivery. Dare I say it but architects need to abandon the cult of design to do this. I am beginning to wonder if the “design” is a paradigm, or episteme, that actually cripples radical ideas and innovation.

An Upstream Knowledge Future

I am more optimistic about what I call an upstream future for architects. In this future architects will create upstream knowledge that downstream clients, and others in the industry, can utilise. In the upstream future knowledge creation and management is placed at the centre of the practice. In this future architects will be at the centre of creating new knowledge across all aspects of the built environment. After all that is what our long training equips us to do.  This knowledge will enable architects to charge more for their services in markets that have traditionally been beset by price competition, pseudo cartels and the lowest common denominator of service to clients.

In the upstream future each practice will look at advanced methods of collaboration between and across practices. Architects will no longer be bound by traditional practices centred on a ‘name’ or star architect. Much larger collaborations of small practices coming together with effective governance will help architects be more competitive and gain larger commissions. Moreover, architects will collaborate and form knowledge ecosystems with a full range of other consultants with specialist knowledge: engineers, academics, economists, urban planners and even financial analysts.

Research will be the central driver to what I call an upstream knowledge future for architects. Every great practice, no matter how large or small, will have a research plan and function embedded within it.

I was pretty disturbed and amazed when I presented a contracted research proposal to a consortium of architects. The aim of the research was to understand the degree to which architectural design added value to property assets. It was a modest proposal. To get the feedback that the research itself was going to cost too much made me wonder. It made wonder if architects themselves are not able to value research, into our own industry development and its development, then it is little wonder that no one else in our communities and sector put a value on our services.

I guess I am really over the low fee for service mentality. It’s a mentality that is slowly destroying our profession.

This is my last   blog post for the year and I need to recharge. As we are now well and truly in the festive season and I am thinking I shall return in to blog sometime in January.

I started this blog a year ago and I have had over 10,000 views now.  I would like to thank all of you who have bothered to read my posts and indicated support for my efforts in person.  As a result, I am really looking forward to the 2017 blogging year. 


Vale: Peter Corrigan 1941 to 2016

The great architectural partnership of Edmond and Corrigan is now no longer. I have just heard the news that the Australian architect Peter Corrigan has died at his home in North Carlton. With his death a dream of Australian architecture slips away from us. This was not any old dream. It was foremostly, I think, a dream about Australia. It was about what Australia could be like as a nation of architects and artists and whose institutions served a social democracy of intelligence, difference and equality. This was not a dream of architecture justified by simple images, crude pragmatism, slick technologies, theoretical masques or private beliefs. Corrigan’s architecture and his vivid set designs were for everyone here in this country: the punters and the toffs and perhaps even the racehorses.

It was a dream Australian architects could take their place in their world with our own rightful predilections, language, traditions and canon; a critical canon of projects that suited our economic circumstances and both the optimisms and failures of our social democratic institutions. The work of Peter Corrigan was at times simultaneously mysterious, cryptic and complex. It was work that proclaimed architecture as an intellectual and artistic pursuit of the highest order in both our cities and our suburbs.

This was an architecture that drew on a broad range of eclectic sources Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Aalto and Venturi. In his set designs I think he liked Schwitters and George Grosz. Sometimes it was really hard to know what the sources of his work was. This was not the polite yet experimental modernism of Boyd or Grounds, nor was it the chamfered slip form slush of Borland, Gunn, Jackson and Walker or John Andrews. This architecture was different. Really fucking different. So much so that some doubted it was architecture at all.  It was completely different to anything that has been done before or since. A cacophony of images and instinctual impulses thrown together but organised via exquisitely expressionistic and evocative plans.

The projects were in places like: Monbulk, Mortlake, Sale, South Belgrave, Dandenong, Wheelers Hill, Frankston and of course Keysborough. Suburbs and towns where architecture was and is virtually extinct these days. The buildings in these places weren’t luxurious commissions. These were projects that were a kind of poor theatre of Grotowksi and Brecht translated to architecture and we might now wonder if Corrigan wanted  Australia to be a kind of Antipodean Weimar.

So many architects I know hated Corrigan. These haters were the gentleman architects, the straighteners and wowser architects the ones who were lucky enough to get the jobs. Corrigan always had his avid supporters and detractors. The now superannuated bureaucrats were afraid of him. At architecture school, and in his office, he generously protected students who had obvious promise, but needed time to develop. Under his wing a few of my friends did his studio quite a few times. Once grown, he would eventually let them go into the world.

As a young architecture student I was only brave enough to do his studio once. He was fierce to those he thought were upstarts and generous to those of us who shared his zeal. His studio, which he taught with Jason Pickford, expanded my brain a lot. It was the very best that a liberal education in Architecture could offer at that time. He had a library and taught us to read. I was told to read Patrick White’s Voss and he told me to go to the Pram Factory where we saw his set design for Bold Tales starring the actor Tim Conigrave who ended the show naked amongst Corrigan’s set of building rubble and a small statue of Michelangelo’s David. It was a long time before I understood what I had seen.  His sets for Barrie Kosky’s operas and the Peter King plays were mesmerising. This was an architectural education that no longer exists in these current days of mindless managerialism and student experience scoring.

My memory has probably distorted my all too brief glimpses of Corrigan. I am sure there are others who have other memories and will rightfully claim more. Nevertheless, mine are brief but vivid. I remember him arguing with Peter Eisenman in the Gossard building about critical regionalism. When he came back from Harvard he gave a drunken lecture and showed 6 million slides of Saarinen’s Cranbrook. At the height of Post Modernism he told us that abstraction “still had legs” and to “keep an eye” on a relatively young architect then called Libeskind. I didn’t believe him. There was also the time when Corrigan and Stanley Tigerman did a drunken studio crit at Melbourne Uni excoriating the University students and praising each RMIT student as pure genius. It was a great and conniving set up. I can see a very young Corrigan and Jason P wearing woolly jumpers and smoking pipes in the Clyde as architecture students in 1961. I was too young to be there so I have no idea how I got that image into my head. I once heard him tell a student “you can’t put a fucking sound shell there” and he was right, but that student never came back to studio. One day in the studio he went on and on about the Japanese architect Maki. Another time I saw him in the Standard Hotel in Fitzroy drinking Shiraz with water and hanging out with Jack Hibberd. I remember the night Keating came to open Building 8 at RMIT and I felt that architecture had finally arrived in this country.

Even though, I was so hopeless as student, he was always generous and encouraging. Many people owe their lives to him. He once terrified me when he pointed at me and beckoned, I thought I was done for, instead in that kind of seductive Australian New England like accent he had, and he said it with a slow emphasis on every syllable: “ I want you to go downstairs and get me one of those big round sticky buns with jam and cream.” I was pretty relieved it wasn’t worse than that, and maybe he said it like that, because he thought I was dim, because in those days I didn’t talk much.

At architecture school I wanted to be him when I grew up.

He had a kind of Irish Catholic disposition and all that went with it. But, he was one of the few Melbourne architects to actually, yes actually, be in practice with a formidable woman. In some ways he always seemed to me most like the American author John Cheever with all his proclivities. A brilliant exponent of his art but a radical larrikin thrown into the middle class and high art. An outsider looking for an architectural home in the suburbs. A kind of Australian Cheever who would mention crazy Louis Kahn in the same breath as he would mention Henry Lawson, Joan Sutherland or Phar Lap. I always wondered what he had done at Johnson Burgee in New York during the Whitlam years.

All the fire stations and houses are amazing; and one hot day, with my friends Dean and Catherine we went to visit the Athan house in Monbulk as it neared its completion. We got lost, and hurt our shins, clambering over it’s unfinished joists. We found a labrynthine house of mystery; a suburban castle with an interior city within it. Nothing like the pornography of glazed box houses that I find in my social media feeds these days. Peter’s expressionism always seemed to touch on the ethereal and a kind sacred secularism at some point.

As with all great architects there are always lost opportunities. I think Edmond and Corrigan’s 1985 project for the State Library and Museum was one of them. It is tragic Edmond and Corrigan were not the architects of the City Square, Stockman’s Hall of Fame, or Parliament House or even the Geee. Yes, if Edmond and Corrigan had been the architects of the MCG we would all now be living in a much richer nation. A nation with significantly more cultural dignity than it has now.