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.