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. 


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