Surviving the Design Studio: Architectural Practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem.

For some practicing architects, there is the prevalent fantasy that they are valued for their knowledge. In this utopian world architects, with their unique generalist knowledge alongside an ability to drill down and easily grasp disciplinary detail, are employed just like management consultants. In this scenario, all the practicing architect has to do, rather than slaving over CAD drawings, is to sit back and relax and dispense valuable knowledge to the clients. In fact, in this oh so wonderful scenario, architects get paid lots of money for it. But maybe this is dream, is the dream of a discipline slowly losing its currency, moribund by the fact that architects are hung up by the building delivery paradigm.

The best way to get anywhere near this dream is to operate an architectural practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem or DKE.

Ecosystems as a model, and a theoretical view, of practice are well known and prevalent in the world of big software development. For example, Google’s ecosystem has been described in the following diagram from HBRgoogle-designed-for-innovation-24-638

Some business commentators have even argued that Apple is no longer a hardware or a software company but an ecosystem. In construction management Chris Harty and Jennifer Whyte discuss what they call ecologies of practice. One of my favourite sociologists is the Bronfenbrenner who has developed Ecological Systems Theory. Bronfenbrenner’s theory contributes to our understanding of individuals in organisational contexts. Check it out if you are interested.

Thinking of the practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge is a much better way to conceive of and create new architectural theory, new modes of architectural education, and practice management. So what does the above mean for the practicing architect? For me organising a practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge implies the following:

It’s all about the idea and not the building

 A practice needs to be organised around the generation of knowledge. In other words ideas. The design of buildings are a by-product of these ideas. For a start this means that the practice must embrace research, research and development and even in some cases strive to produce innovative intellectual property. Dare I say it, Intellectual Property that might even be commercialised. This will mean that architects need to better understand and even be taught the dark arts of entrepreneurial pathways, innovation systems and associate policy contexts.

What is important for practices is not so much the creation or delivery of buildings, or representations of those buildings for that matter, but the creation of design knowledge. Managing the Design Knowledge Ecosystem is about constantly creating new ideas and managing a system that is in flux. Knowledge ecosystems can take on a life of their own and architects need to be comfortable with the ambiguity this can create.

Leadership 

Within practices new decision-making process and modes of leadership will be required. In the past, far too often knowledge was centred on a single designer or figure within the practice. Too often this knowledge was by its nature was tacit and for the most part hidden. Knowledge transparency is the key to creating better designs; designs that have been subject to rigorous process of design testing and re-testing. In the future leadership in the best practices will be those that are able to harness in an inclusive way all the members of a diverse team. The best leaders will be those with an intimate knowledge of design processes and different modes of designing. These leaders will understand that

Diversity

The purpose of having a diverse team within a practice is not simply about giving people opportunity. Although that is really important. Practices that recruit in their own image or through existing intern networks (really, how many interns from Columbia or the AA can you get?) may miss the opportunity to create teams that spit out a range of ideas and perspectives. The Management Consultants are the same and possibly worse. Worse because consulting is an industry that constantly espouses its creativity. But, whenever I get in a room for management consultants I usually shrivel up from the stench of conformist boredom (harsh I know). Diverse teams, is about having team members with contradictory and diverse perceptual, and conceptual thinking skills. It’s also about having diverse age groups and backgrounds. Tell that tot he management consultants.  To put it cruelly who needs a team entirely composed of “big Picture” people or only the under 30s.

Boundaries

Building a robust knowledge ecosystem, means not limiting information to the closed boundaries of the firm. In the design knowledge ecosystem, clients, consultants, product suppliers, sub-contractors, manufacturers and yes even academics may form a part of the way a firm gathers, produces and sifts through design knowledge. This is not dissimilar to what the software developers do.

Hybrid practices

One of the problems of the current system of architectural production is that the focus on the built object has been aligned with the digitisation of design processes and workflows. And whilst the delivered object is physical, hopes for its efficient realisation has increasingly led to the myth that this realisation is entirely reliant on the virtual processes. In the design knowledge ecosystem is an immanent system where both digital objects and practices are seen to be equal with the physical. As Harty and Whyte designate the real practices of the firm are hybrid practices.

The tyranny of the commission

I suspect that for some architects the idea of a Design Knowledge Ecosystem goes against everything they were taught at architecture school. At architecture school, many of us were inculcated with the idea that architecture was ONLY about designing buildings. I think a pedagogical approach focused on building design is far too narrow an objective. This unduly puts the focus onto gaining, and then delivering, an elusive built commission. This leads to the physical object, or building, rather than the knowledge or ideas embedded in that object, being debated. Don’t get me wrong as I am the first to argue that architecture’s presence, as well as architectural aesthetics, is an important component of architectural debate (As I say in the studio, “is if it looks good then it is good”). But what interest me more than anything else is the link between architectural aesthetics and ideas. It is the ideas that architects create through design knowledge ecosystems that gives rise to the ideas that are of most interest to me. Not necessarily the completed building itself.

However, the crude emphasis on the built and completed object has helped to create a global system of architecture that is overly bound to educational pedigrees, the clustering of architectural brands around star architects, a discriminatory intern system and worst of all a clustering of theory around crude ideologies focused on the latest delivery technology. I thought we had gotten rid of those, banal notions, of a historical zeitgeist driven by technology in our discipline and discourse.  Since when was architecture just, and only, about technology: in particular delivery technologies like CAD, BIM, the gymnastics of coding and CNC fabrication? Of course the contractors and the Project Managers will flip out when they hear it’s not about the building. But maybe that’s the point of the exercise.

So, next time someone tries to tell you it’s all about: getting actual stuff built, the big brand star architect or some new technology run for the exit. It’s time for architects to stop being content with both a local and global system of practice that is entirely inflexible and increasingly redundant.



Categories: architectural practice, business strategy, surviving the design studio

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