The Architect’s office: Gleaners and waste pickers in a scrapyard.

In many respects the architect’s office resembles a scrap yard and the organisational pattern that emerges from the activities and material artefacts in the office is the idea that an architect is a gleaner. Or in other words, a kind of waste picker of knowledge. I will explain more about what I mean below. I came to this conclusion after conducting an ethnographic study of two small architect’s offices, sharing the same office space, in Melbourne and the full write up of the study was presented at the ARCOM conference in 2016 and can be found here.

In the Agnes Varda film The Gleaners and I (2000) a gleaner is a person who hunts for food, knick-knacks, and thrown away or discarded items. Similarly, as I observed this office I began to think that an architect is a person who collects together, or gleans, data and information from various sources in order to create and generate design knowledge.

Often the knowledge we architects salvage, find, assemble, test, reassemble and put together, or glean, is not valued by the other people we work with in the design supply chain. Design knowledge is often viewed as being of no use. For builders, developers, sometimes consultants, tradespeople or other workers all wanting to make a buck along supply chains the knowledge architects value is seen as being as. Design knowledge related to history, urban theory, sociological perspectives, spatiality, aesthetics and nuanced construction processes are is seen as being wasteful.

With the rise of digital software and BIM work practices the architect’s office is increasingly, and should be seen as, a knowledge intensive digital workplace. Dare, I say a KIDW. Digital technologies are blurring the line between physical and virtual work practices both within and outside of the firm. Internally, physical and virtual workflows are now to a degree interconnected. Externally, architects are now digitally connected to various stakeholders including clients, builders, consultants and sub-contractors.

Given this context, and from my perspective, the study was a quick way to explore the myth of seamless integration, between our digital models and the physical world, that the technology proponents and software vendors seem to push down our throats as architects all the time: all the time and all the time.  I worry that it sometimes makes us architects feel a sense of self-loathing, because we are not “real” architects unless we have, and are, using and immersed in the latest and newest technologies.

As an ethnographic observer in the office, this initial thought of gleaning, was related to how the material artefacts in the office reminded me of the scrapyard and waste pickers I had met in Monterrey Mexico. We can think of the architect is a waste picker of construction and building knowledge for two reasons. Firstly, the material artefacts and tools in the office seeming organised across the space of the office in an extremely ad hoc fashion. Secondly, the office contained 12 substantial physical bins. This space was full of physical artefacts and in no way paperless or entirely digital.

The sources from which the architects glean information from are varied and diverse. An architect may glean information from the computer or from the Internet; the architect may also glean information from the digital models that are created in the computer. Hence much the information that is embedded and inscribed into the architect’s digital models in this office comes from a diverse and extensive range of sources including: personal knowledge as expressed through hand gestures and vocalization; information gathered and gleaned via communication devices, paper documents and all manner of physical materials including scale models, material samples, drawings, printed materials books and videotapes.

A predominant metaphor that appears to dominate the discursive practices and sale pitches of software vendors is that of the library. This in sharp contrast to the conceptual model observed here. That the broader milieu of knowledge used to design a building is a scrapyard and that architects using techniques of gleaning via performance narratives to create design knowledge. Architects fashion knowledge out of chaos.

However, BIM and digital software proponents presume that the projects or indeed the world is a library that can be categorised and that the design of project can be done by drawing or data mining this catalogue. This is a metaphor that certainly supports industrialised building and automated design processes. Many of the objects that are in BIM libraries are building components that have been manufactured by building component companies. The prevailing metaphors in used association with BIM and the Industry Foundation Classes all suggest a high degree of ordering and structure.

If the digital realm is one of structure and order then it is the architect who uses his skills of gleaning to bring order to this digital realm. If the architect’s office was to be understood as library then much of the material in the office would be catalogued and filed in particular formats. However, this is not often the case because too much of the materials and tools used to create design knowledge within the office are simply not catalogued. The library metaphor does not account for the way that material is bought together through narratives that may rely on the architects sketching, vocal communication or gestures. Data entry and information transfer via framing and the translation of things into common scales or media was a predominant activity in the office.

To reiterate, gleaning is an activity that includes materials (both physical and digital), gestures, rituals and suggest that architects create designs, and fashion design knowledge, out of a chaos data and information.

This process of gleaning in order to produce design knowledge also suggests that current models of knowledge management and models of IT management in architectural practices should be revised. These models need to account for the rituals performed in the office and the material culture contained within it. In other words, the super duper digital model of the architect’s office does not allow for the many rituals, narratives and inflections when architects design.

This suggests that more comprehensive and nuanced models of how architect’s offices generate design knowledge should be developed. No more dumb-ass technological utopias. Maybe then we can make better architecture with the technologies at hand and stop feeling ashamed about not being on the latest technology bandwagon.

I am just back from a short holiday and hoping to head to the SAHANZ conference over the next few days where I am presenting 2 co-authored papers. I would like to thank all of you who have supported and read the blog this past 18 months. So far, this year I have had as many visitors to this blog as I received for all of last year. I would encourage you to follow me here and at the other social media channels.