Design Activism and the Economy of Distraction: Do we need another pavilion?

Pavilions and urban pop ups are everywhere in the architecture cult. That’s great I suppose. I recently visited the Serpentine Pavilion’s 2017 summer pavilion designed by Francis Kere. Last year the Serpentine had the big man of  Danish architecture Bjarkey. Rem (or is it REM) is doing our latest M Pavilion in my city and I am polite enough to say that I am looking forward to seeing it.

So, it seems that as architects we all love the pavilion popsicles and these days these things are built and then the images, associated lectures, talks and events are distributed out through traditional media and digital media channels. Instagram and our digital feeds are full of this stuff. Pavilions are machines for creating digital content. Within the digital economy each pavilion seems to have a media half-life. But perhaps we can ask are these pavilions simply distractions in an economy where everyone is seeking to grab our attention for a few milliseconds? Are these things really architecture?

With the rise of Trump, and the celebritization of politics, there has been a renewed emphasis on researching the relationship between technology and politics. As some have noted we are in a different kind of economy now. This new economy is primarily focused on distracting our attention. Its kind of fun to think about data analytics and all the wonderful things that architects and urbanists might do with that data. But, perhaps the real question we should be asking as architects is: how does technology translate to the politics of architecture and how does it shape those politics? This is a critical issue that architects need to face and understand. To some extent, if not totally, the political landscape of architecture has already had the Kardashian makeover treatment.

This last week or so I have been teaching Design Activism an intensive subject at MSD, the Melbourne School of Design. As a subject Design Activism explores the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the politics of advocacy, activism and protest. It seeks to look at the ways architecture can be linked to politics, spatial practice, critical theory, activism and community development.

This time around in the subject we had a number of invited lecturers who gave the class valuable insights into the mechanics of politics and design activism. Notable amongst our guests in the subject were those who through their own practice propose alternative ways to pursue architecture including:

Dan Doricic from OnOff design collective. A Berlin based network whose experiments examine the contemporary condition in order to question, tune into and to discover new urban realities.

Targol Khoram the president of Architects for Peace a collective seeking sustainable urban development based on social justice, solidarity, respect and peace.

Simona Castricum whose research contributes to our understanding of how architectural typologies are complicit in violence, displacement and erasure through its gendered programs.

Design Activism goes against traditional models of architectural practice normally taught in architecture schools. Media literacy, digital activism, transgressive spatial practices and queer theory is not normally seen as being part of archi-school curriculum. Yet this is what I think we need to teach. This is because the predominant mode of teaching architecture is too often focused on technology, urban techniques and policy “controversies” untethered from the politics of design speculation, aesthetics and lived experience.




Making Sense of Design Research: Five questions

It doesn’t really help if the Design Research debate is polarised between practitioners, bewildered by the fact that their project outcomes are not considered research, and academics, from within and without the discipline, who say that such outcomes are “not real research.” The area is fraught with ambiguity and emotion. This is the same for both the practitioner “just doing it” and the academic trying to fit into university research metrics.

After I blogged about Design Research last time I offered up a few definitions. A few further definitions of Design Research which I came across rang true in this article.  And at the, now infamous, RIBA Research Symposia of 2007 it was reiterated that ‘“Research” for the purpose of the UK’s University Research Assessment Exercise was:

original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design…;

OMG! That sounds like from the above definition that Design Research is in fact actual Research with a capital R! (regular followers will know what I mean: but, sometimes, I really wonder if I am living in a research coal mine).

My ironic tone above is because, some still think Design Research is “not real research.” When I hear such things, I think architects are actually on the right track in order to elicit such doctrinaire reactions. So here are few quick ideas, and by no means definitive, for how practitioners, might strengthen, that most dangerous, impure and evil of things, Design Research.

1. Consider how the research fills or pursue a gap in architectural knowledge?

Ok, just going out and designing something is not really Design Research unless you can show or demonstrate that you are seeking new knowledge. Perhaps, you are seeking to develop a new fabrication technique, or designing a building type that other people have not designed before, or designing an existing building typology with a different design approach.

But to do all this you have to know what knowledge has been previously created. What are the relevant design contexts, projects, or techniques being the reference points for this new design project? What new ideas are you trying to test or explore? How is this new Design Research positioned in relation to the canon of architectural knowledge that already exists?

2. Develop a catalogue of projects which the Design Research can refer to.

It follows from above that you need to have a catalogue of either, the projects you have done before, or projects you are interested in. This information can come in different formats: In books, (yes, strange but true), or in some kind of data storage. This information could also be in your brain. But, it’s probably best if it is explicit rather than tacit.

One practice I know produces an in-house research books or file for each new project in the office. This contains a range of things.

3. Develop a Design Research methodology.

A methodology is not a method. Don’t be confused. Understand this and everyone will think you are a Design Research guru.

Methodology was once described to me as, the arguments for the way, or manner, that the research is being pursued. This is the same for Design Research. Why is the Design Research being pursued or approached in a particular manner?

What kinds of design activities or processes are involved in the design investigation and research? For example, is it master planning, or spatial planning or is it something about materials or light or maybe it’s something about form making and coding.

You need to be able to argue, and think about, why the particular type of design processes you have chosen is appropriate to what you are trying to investigate. The resulting argument is your methodology.

3. Are new methods of designing or making involved?

This is probably an easy question to answer. But, that is perhaps the problem. Just getting out the robots or 3D printer and making something anew doesn’t make it Design Research.

All too often is it easy to be seduced by the technologies of making. It is all too easy to think that, superficial objectness or aesthetic funkiness alone means that what you are doing is in fact Design Research. All because you are designing something new (and oh-so-organic and diatomic) doesn’t necessarily mean that the thought behind it is new.

Are there steps in the process that make it unique? For example, employing or developing, anew plug-in, a new algorithm, a new geometric regime, unique patterns of design iteration.

Is the design research exploring a new or existing technology and its relationship to design process itself? How is the technology, shaping or changing the way that architects design?

Taken together how do the different methods employed in the Design Research support the methodology?

4. Does it develop or add to new theories of architectural design?

Architects should ask does the design research, or the design itself, build or develop a new theory of how architecture is made?

With fellow students, I once went to a presentation by an architect of a large and prominent downtown high-rise office building. We asked the architect how he came to make the forms he was proposing. He stated these had come about as result of “whatever just came into his head.” We were aghast.

The mysticism associated with so-called “intuitive” design has often led to the situation where any theoretical scrutiny of architectural design is greeted with ignorance, and even hostility. For some architect’s theory is always going to be bullshit.

As architects, no matter the type of work we do we have responsible to develop theories that explain and argue the general relevance of what we are doing. Is there a body of theory around your firm’s design practices?

Testing theory and building new theories is an essential part of the outcome any ongoing research. As Design Research generates new design solutions how does it help to formulate guide, or determine a theoretical framework.

5. Finally, has Design Knowledge been added to?

This is the key question. Can the architect argue that new Design Knowledge has been created? How strong is this argument? Do the foundations of this argument simply rest on intuitive designing. Or is there a logical substance to the argument based on a clear aim to fill a knowledge gap, sound documentation, a supporting methodology, established or unique methods and a new theoretical framework?

Understanding and promoting Design Research in architecture as a discipline is essential to the disciplines viability. For architect’s attitudes to Design Research need to be clearer and less contaminated by the twin evils of academic prejudice, about what research is, and the theory free zone of intuitive alpha-male designing.








Mental Health, Burnout and Architects: Starting the conversation

RUOK day has come around again in my peripheral part of the global architectural galaxy. Recently, I met an architect who was having a few really bad weeks in her practice. She said it was the worst time she had ever had in practice. After a series of particularly gruesome negotiations and risk management issues she decided to take, what is known as, a mental health day.

Survey Invite for Architecture Students

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a widespread issue regarding mental health the both for practitioners and students. If you are an Architecture student reading this you might like to complete our survey.  We are investigating how undergraduate and postgraduate students’ experiences of psychological wellbeing and distress relate to other aspects of their university experiences. Understanding these relationships is important for supporting students to develop strategies that enhance their wellbeing and overcome experiences of distress. The survey link is here.

The Stress Factors Practicing Architects Face 

No matter how hard architects try to manage risk it doesn’t take much in practice, for things to go awry. In the last year I have been witness to some of these things:

  • A builder who misrepresents his financial position because he is not getting paid on another project.
  • A  bullying project manager who can’t make decisions on prestigious government project and then blames everyone else for time delays
  • A client who moves in and then vociferously complains about every detail despite extensive prior consultation.
  • The bad advice from the product manufacturer combined with sloppy installation resulting in the necessity to replace all the floor coverings.
  • Every minor planning ambiguity or skirmish that architects have to deal with.

All of the above situations is enough to put extreme pressure and stress on any architect, regardless of how experienced they may be. Running and directing an architectural practice can be gruelling. No matter how big or small your architectural practice, or even if you are a student of architecture being an architect can take a real toll on your mental health.

Speaking from my own personal experience burnout is common factor amongst architects and academics.  I came to the conclusion that the “grin and bear” it school of working, doesn’t really help anyone. It is too easy to sweep a culture of out of balance work practices under the carpet. Run for the exit if you here your overlords telling you to “man up” or just “just grin and bear it” or it “is what it is” when unreasonable work expectations are made and you start to burn out.

Contributing Factors

In some practices staff are subject to long hours, relatively low pay, entrenched cultures of discrimination and worse still bullying. To what extent are these issues systemic? I guess, no one really knows as there have been few studies looking at these issues and the mental health outcome of architects (there is a PhD there for someone). Some of the contributing factors in regards to mental health and architects as noted by RIBA recently are:

  • Lower pay relative to other professions
  • A culture of long hours
  • Adhoc career pathways
  • Gender and other forms of discrimination.
  • “Boom’ and “Bust” workflows
  • High personal investment in the actual work
  • Lack of union protection
  • And a working environment where HR support is not a part of the working landscape

This is not to say that every architectural practice is exhibits all of the above attributes. But architecture is hard enough any way so why make it worse?


But, it also needs to be said that all of the above is relevant to those architecture students and architects who experience discrimination as a result of their sexuality, gender identity or ethnic differences. (You can read some of my thoughts on this here). Thankfully there are more, although not enough, community support groups for these people than there where in the past.  My previous blog on some of these issues can be found here.

For me personally, that many of the problems, is because of an entrenched culture that gives primacy to the architects as singular genius with loyal followers. Slowly but surely, architects are waking up to how much this has damaged our profession. Anyway here a few points for your consideration:

1. A Few Online Resources.

There are lots of online resources these days so here are a few.

In my country RUOK day is coming up and this can be found here.

There are plenty of online resources in Australia Usually a good place to start. Some of the resources again the ACA is on top of things here.

The AIA in Victoria currently has a health in the workplace module.

Tim Horton’s the NSW registrar’s article about this is also worth reading here.

2. You are not invincible.

We all need help sometime. For younger architects, it is easy to think you are invincible. But like everyone else life events, for example grief, can easily take their toll. So, don’t be afraid to seek help from a trained psychologist or counsellor.

In Australia, you can start to find someone who might be able to help at this link. There are also plenty of places where you can go to for immediate and urgent help such as Lifeline if you are having an immediate personal crisis.

3. Getting a coach or mentor.

As architects, we need all the help we can get. No matter what kind of practice you lead or are in it is really important to develop your own support groups or find yourself some mentors further up the food chain. One great group is EMAGN and also the young architects group in Victoria. There are also various groups for small practitioners around.

If you are in a position of leadership, or decision-making is crucial in There is also a lot to be said for getting a career coach. Leadership and Decision Making is not taught in architecture schools so executive coaching may help you develop and fill the gaps. The best design leaders are the ones that are reflective and can evolve.

4. Take a Mental Health day

Yep, just go for it. Turn the smart-phone off. Get out and party, or shop, or as suggested by the blog image go for a spin down the freeway. Go for the Yoga thing. Sleep in or hang out with the Baristas. Do nothing. Go to Burning Man 2018 as my friend did in 2017.

Sacrificing your mental health for architecture does not really help anyone. As a local, regional and global community of architects we will be stronger if we start to have this conversation. As a profession, no matter our roles or where we are situated, not talking about this stuff is toxic to architectural culture.

Surviving the Design Studio: Why architects need to pursue failure.

When architects fail they usually seem to fail big time. The tabloid media loves to jump on that large, or prestigious, or prominent architectural project that blew the budget, or leaked, or fell down or little fragments of it fell off into someone’s batch brew. I am sure we can all think of something like that. Then of course there are the Foxy news tabloids aligned with the small minded burghers who declare a building is “ugly.”

Of course, not all of these so-called headline failures are the actual fault of the architects. More often than not it is the people driven by the cheaper, faster and crappier mantra who love to blame architects.

For the most part architects spend their life trying not to fail. There is a lot of pressure on architects to get it right. As system integrators, perhaps the pre-eminent system integrators in the AEC industry, we are often too busy connecting, juggling and generally trying to avoid the fails. Think of all of the things we architects need to consider, adjust and integrate: planning, regulations, contracts and the whims of client.

But, one of the things we should remember is the necessity of failure. Architects need failure to innovate and failure is an essential factor in both design, and dare I say it research and development.

Radical design innovation or new design research knowledge, knowledge that questions the status quo, doesn’t come about by playing it safe.

  1. Good architects know when to fail.

Designers know when they need to explore the, deliberately bad or ugly and even less optimal option. They know when to be deliberately perverse. They know that by relaxing the process of their own design logic they can produce a design option that is less optimal. They can learn from this. Great architects now when a less optimal design option or design pathway can help the further iteration of the next design option.

There might even be aspects to the deliberately perverse or failed design option that could be salvaged. It might even be really amazing.

  1. Beware of architects who never fail.

For these architects, everything is a relentless pursuit of the ‘perfect” solution. This is because everything the bad designer does, every gesture, flourish and design utterance is perfect. These are the sorts of architects who will have you sitting around watching their every flourish of the pencil.

  1. Architectural design is not about controlling every step.

Architectural design is not about getting it right all the time. An overt focus on a design logics of correct sequencing and conceptual ideation ultimately leads to boredom. Sure, we all need to think straight as designers, but making that the only goal of the design process leads to a cult of academicism with little room to advance.

By generating failed design solutions, you will have, for comparison and analysis, more elements in that design portfolio part of your brain. The aim is to build a bank, even if it is only tacit info in your own brain. Your design brain should be full of design practices, approaches, methods, norms and concepts.

A less than optimal design approach, design element, or design solution may not be suitable for one project, but could be well suited to another project. It might even prompt a few more ideas.

The kind of failure I am describing, encourages the development of a range of design solutions.

  1. Design Research should not always need a “purpose” or be of some instrumental use.

This goes for any type of research actually. But, design research is a risky enterprise. It wouldn’t be research if we already knew the answers or the outcomes. Often as architects we are so intent on making the trade-offs we need to make in the design process that we forget about the notion of disruptive designing.

Sometimes we need to pushback against the clients, the planners, and the contractors. This may mean that we are in a situation where we risk failure. But unless we do this our design research and the resulting innovations may be little more than orthodoxies. The same old same old.

Radical design research and design innovation risks and then manages the potential of failure.

  1. If you are always getting it right as a designer then rethink.

Pursuing failure avoids design hubris. There is always the post-rationalization impulse as a designer, the confidence to never admit a mistake, to always have a reason; but you don’t always need a reason.

It’s possible that impeccable design logic, you learnt at that architecture school, may be preventing you from pursuing your design research to its maximum limit. As suggested above, Design logic may actually impede you and tie you up in critical negative knots to the point where you are unable to do anything.

You may just be re-problematizing the same problems. Or worse still, just trying to impress the underlings in your studio.

  1. Speculate
  • Do a competition.
  • Target an area of interest and design a theoretical project.
  • Design something totally wacky.
  • Try and design a crap project.
  • Find a weird location or site and propose something for it.
  • Invent a new building type. Or at least try to.
  • Deliberately screw up that parametric model.

Paradoxically, pursuing design failure means that architects will fail less. It means we are pushing back, testing the limits and boundaries of our discipline. It might give your practice an edge in the future. It means that the design knowledge we produce is not simply packaged up and then commoditized. Instead it is knowledge whose limits and effectiveness has been tested with the blow torch of failure.