Tribes, Warlords and Transformers: Which architectural practice are you?

After the last post, which focused on Australian Architects, I thought I would expand some of this apocalyptic thinking to the global system of architecture. Arguably, architecture is at an end because of the commodification of the services that architects provide. But the effect of neoliberal policies and market competition is more insidious than that. I think that this global system has also come to condition the very types of practices that operate within it. In the late 20th Century the heroic architect of the 20s morphed into the star architect of the late 90s and the early 2000s. But I think we also have some new practice types.

The Three Types: Tribes, Warlords, and Transformers. 

I have named the three types of practices as Tribes, Warlords and Transformers. These practices are conditioned by a survivalist mentality that accounts for architectural competition in the global system. Architects are desperately trying to survive as their knowledge and workflows are being simultaneously digitized and commoditized.  The work of Sklair, examining star architects and the work of McNeill which looks at the political and cultural economy of globalization and cities. No doubt there are others.

This impetus of market survival is evident as a result of global flows of capital pertaining to: neo-liberal policies, service disaggregation and fee for service competition. Despite its allure and heroic mythology in architectural traditions architects have in reality abandoned the old binary logic of Creative vs. Suit. In this global system there are recognizably three types of architectural firms:


Tribes are small community based and local practices. Their territories are local. These firms create a design knowledge ecosystem around their own local field of practice. These are small firms which develop linkages both within their teams and the communities that surround them. These firms inwardly focused and are bottom-up in they way they create design knowledge. They are collaborative and community orientated. Whilst a single designer may dominate these tribes the emphasis is on consultation. As many of these firms feel they are struggling to survive these Tribes will sometimes form together to make bigger firms.

Examples: Assemble Studio, RCR, Grupo Toma in my town we have Architecture Architecture and our very own Assemble.


Warlords: Warlords are best exemplified by the so-called star architects. Their territories are media channels. They dominate both national and global systems. These firms create a knowledge ecosystem around themselves that is dominated by a single, style, aesthetic ideology or person. These firms create design knowledge on a project by project basis. However, the creation of design knowledge is secondary as the firm seeks legitimacy through media hits. They are focused on winning prestigious commissions and often create conflict in order to win media presence.  They are intent on creating seminal projects that build their reputation in the architectural canon.

Examples: Schumacher, in my town we have you know who, Aravena (star or tribe?) and of course the older generation of people like Gehry and the remnants of the New York Five like Meier and there is of course Rem (but I think OMA is a Transformer)


Are large multi-disciplinary and networked mega-firms firms that work within the global system and often across borders. These firms are predatory. They need to be to survive. Their Territories constantly captured, expanded and rebuilt. They resolves conflict in order to govern. In these firms design, knowledge, systems and governance are integrated. These firms create highly specialised design knowledge which is integrated into their own systems.  As a result these firms are large enough to anticipate, create, design and deliver large mega-projects such as urban infrastructure and cities; whether or not we need these urban products. These firms are intent on building projects that enable the firm to be continually self-sustaining. They transform as they their constituent networks ebb and flow. They are often surrounded by tribal firms that act as a Remora fish.

Examples: RMJM, Arup and Aurecon. So whats BIG, tribe, Warlord, Transformer or Mega-firm? Probably a hybrid tribe-star on the way to becoming a Transformer) Some firms are hybrids and we can see  them changing  from one type to another.

Its all about the Brand 

Certainly, an overarching institutional logic of survivalism is arguably the result of a number of factors. The changes since the 1970s in professional status as a result of neoliberal policies leading to trans-national and market competition. The loss of traditional services to other disciplines and subsequent disaggregation of full fee-for-service regimes. The rise of new technologies alongside new procurement systems have also led to the commodification of design activities and knowledge.

In this system design knowledge has been confused with branding. So I guess Tafuri, and perhaps even Guy Debord, may have been right about the intellectual work of architects after all.