Surviving the Design Studio: How to avoid plan reading blindness

Sometimes I get to tutor, as in actually teach in front of students face to face, and a lot of the time it is fun. Another night in a practice tutorial I held up the three plans and a section of Corbusier’s La Tourette to the students and asked them if they could look at these plans imagine what the building was like in 3 dimensions. Some responded with an educated guess, but most just looked at me blankly. I then held up a trade breakdown of figures for a different project and asked them to imagine what these figures might also suggest about the three dimensionalities of the project.Hence, the seemingly perverse exercise of comparing some photocopied plans of La Tourette with a list of Trade Breakdown figures I suppose I was trying to indicate how “reading” plans are the same as reading a list of figures. More blanko looks.

Plans and Trade Breakdowns

But I then led them through the figures with a close textual reading as historians also do. I told them how you could “read” the trade break-down figures to understand what these say about the buildings final form and the opportunities buried in the figures for getting some design into the project. One student had the insight to ask me, “how might an architect stack up or shape the figures to achieve some design objectives”? Which in the real world, if you are not a so-called architect obsessed with project productivity and optimization, means having further opportunities to design as the delivery process unfolds.

Afterward, I thought about this encounter with the students and begun to worry if they had now lost the ability to read drawings or anything else for that matter. Although, that is a little harsh, and far be it for me to appear to be or seem harsh in my judgments (you only have to look at my last two blogs to see what a paragon of fair-minded generosity I am).

Plan reading blindness

Anyway, I then began to wonder if that is the case, if the students now ensconced in the joys of computers and Instagram had now lost the ability to read plans. And dare I say it, these plans are, what some of us might call “traditional plans” and sections. But reading and interpreting plans and sections and other documents is a critical skill that all architects should possess. If my hypothesis is correct, that architects are no longer teaching, or taught, how to read plans (and I hope it isn’t), it might nonetheless explain why the industry thinks that the skill base of graduates is declining. Is it any wonder if graduates are not learning actually to read, interpret, ponder or wonder about plan drawings.

What an architecture course is not

Same with digital graphics and the other evils of computing. I wonder if the problem is that interpreting or reading a drawing requires an attention span that goes beyond the ten milliseconds it takes to like an Instagram or Zuckerberg post. Then there is the obsession with just making stuff.  Many schools are nowadays obsessed with making stuff. I suppose the highest planet of all this maker-spacey making seems to have been the AA’s DRL lab. That’s all fine and good but making stuff is not the same as learning to interpret drawings. Nor is the obsession with a computer or some other kind of digital graphics. You can’t build an architecture course around digital technologies and prefabricated construction and workshops. This isn’t actually an architecture course!

These algorithmic things are ancillary to architectural design and they always have been. I know you might think I sound like an old curmudgeon and that’s also part of the problem as well. The traditional-new polarity is a misnomer. All because a technique is new, or has a legacy, doesn’t necessarily mean it is either excellent or needs abandoning. Architects and educators have a responsibility to consider how new techniques should constitute and shape architecture. The problem with that proposition is that might mean thinking and arguing about architecture in a theoretical sense. What broad techniques, instruments or ways of thinking should we be encouraging in architectural education and through our industry bodies?

After a while, architects may not even know what a plan is. So here is an exercise that everyone might do to remedy the situation.

A remedy for plan blindness

So, If you an architecture student this is what you need to do. Its kind of like a mindfulness exercise for architects.

1. Find some plans and sections print them out.

2. Look at the plans for about an hour.

3. Lie down and think in your mind what these plans imply about the buildings three-dimensional form and materiality.

4. In your mind walk through the building.

5. Go to sleep.

6. Wake up the next day

7. Go and visit the building and see if it is the same as what you thought.

8. Write a few notes about the experience.

9. Repeat for a different set of plans.

Avoid the urge to skim around the internet or look at your phone while doing the above. It is entirely possible that all of that attention seeking digi distractions are making you a dumb and dumber designer. The problem is you may not even realize you cant read plans.

The Other Housing Crisis: Australian architects “breaking” the new pristine ground.

For Architects the individual house, house renovations and housing are a central concern. Housing is a source of income for many architects and many architects appear to believe that, despite the emotionally charged nature of domestic clients and the strictures of planning regulations, housing can still be the site of experiment. A recent publication that I came across is entitled : “Twenty-one Australian Architects Breaking New Ground” the book is edited by “acclaimed architectural and design editor Karen McCartney – author of the popular Iconic Australian Houses series and Superhouse. 

The blurb attached to the book describes the book in these terms.

The stylish cloth bound tome takes a comprehensive look at 21 Australian architectural practices that are leading the way today. The fabulously photographed volume is an exciting design journey which introduces readers to the cutting-edge architects currently working in Australia and discusses their design philosophy and inspiration alongside examples of their work. 

As a young architecture student the gag reflex probably would have kicked in when I read the blurb. I think I thought the word “cutting edge” was particularly galling. What exact edge are we actually cutting here? For me it conjures up images of ritual scarifications and Tattoo removal. These days I tend not to choke as much.

Cutting edge and emerging 

Along with that, the thing I really hate about this book is the way the architects are depicted in the photos. Who can blame them for getting the publicity and being published? But, the book claims to go behind the scenes to tell us what it is really like. But we don’t see any architect mum’s juggling the kids between child care or male over fifty architects struggling in their little home offices and wondering how they will survive when they have no superannuation. The crude emphasis on the iconic object has helped to create a global system of architecture that is overly bound to a clustering of architectural brands around educational pedigrees, patterns of discrimination and privilege, “cutting edge” architecture and “emerging” architects; a cult of architecture more interested in the fashionable pictures of architects than any real critical debate.

A short history of the architect man-tribes

When I look at the projects in this book I kind of wonder if anything is changed at all for Architects since the 1950s, or maybe it’s worse and contemporary architects are pretending otherwise.  I wonder if we are still in that oh-so-nice 1950s version of Australian cities when the children of the depression era parents moved to the suburbs. Perhaps, thanks to Robin Boyd from the 1950s onwards my city of Australia was full of Architects fighting the Ugliness. In Melbourne, an epi-centre of the fight, there has always been architect men like Boyd: tastemakers and shepherds of modernism. The houses in the streets, and the post-war suburbs in the city, were full of these fighting-Ugliness architects. All of them Boyd’s, or mini-Boyds of one kind or another and all Anglo male: Neil Clerehan, John Mockridge, James Earle, David McGlashan, Peter Jorgenson, Ken Hardcastle, Geoffrey Woodfall, Peter Burns and David Godsell. In Toorak there was Guilford Bell, David Rosenthal, Holgar and Holgar, Theodore Berman and Reg Grouse. Many of these names were later to become holy names in the architectural histories of the city; talismans of nostalgia and reverence.

Alongside these above there were émigré architects such as, Harry Ernest, Anatole Kagan, Mordechai Benshemesh (a name perhaps too long to be revered), Theodore Berman, Kurt Popper, Joshua and Mary Pila, and of course Dr. Ernest Fooks; they plied their trade and tried to forget the camps. Then there were the Whitlam men who sought to meld architecture to a socialist idea of community. Kevin Borland, Max May, Daryl Jackson and Evan Walker and Graeme Gunn. Borland was arguably the most adept architect of the Whitlam men. Borland’s idea of community broadened the dissemination of architectural ideas through his work for Preshill, New Gordon House and his concepts for Clyde Cameron College. Arguably, The 70s were the last golden age of architecture a time when the man-tribe architects were still in the procurement mix and could meld together notions of community in the suburbs.

Housing as a contested site

Housing is a realm of conflict and contestation related to gender, class and race in Australian society. Yet architects and historians seem oblivious to this. Too often architectural theory and history celebrates the nostalgia for past glories of Australian housing with little thought. I think you all know the regime, the glorification of mid-century architecture and those fascinating little gems and idiosyncratic curiosities, hidden in our suburbs. Usually attached to one of the man-tribe talismanic names notated above. Too much honorific salvage history and not enough theoretical history, methinks, has led to this particular situation. Little wonder we get contemporary publications like this.

Refugee housing 

In Australia we have arguably created a machine that regurgitates an architectural history that repeats the tropes of a mannered male modernism, a patrician and pedigreed modernism of the 1950s. This current tome seems to perpetuate that. In this swampland of nostalgia no-one really hears any one screaming about homelessness, affordable housing or radical sustainability in the face of catastrophic climate change. Perhaps a greater insight into our social history and housing might be a better thing like my friend doing the PhD on refugee housing in Australia. I don’t think Belle are going to cover that.

The tragedy is that the housing architects of Australia’s past, as suggested above, still seemed to cling to a modicum of architectural theory and still sought to speak about social conditions and culture. Boyd was obsessed with explicating theories of modernism through his work as he slowly sought to build his own framework of theory and practice. The houses of Borland in the 1970s, Gunn’s Merchant Builders work also seemed to engage with the social.  Looking at this book I am not sure if this is the case now. I guess we have Nightingale, not published here, but is that really enough?


This book is full of a whole lot of tastemakers fighting the ugliness with modernism. So many contemporary architects focused on appeasing and expressing the lifestyle of their clients through the glories of big windows, minimalist detailing ala Scarpa and the well-worn tropes of modernism; there are obviously no social contradictions to express in this housing market. Perhaps housing, the bourgeois house in particular, is a bit of pop-up folly-like fun. After all why should the house be anything else ? Cut loose from theory and memory why shouldn’t it just be about the fun of architecture.

I could go through each of the projects published in this tome and put them through a sieve to see if any of them elevate themselves beyond the marvels of a great details and minimalist modernism. There are probably a few projects in this lot that escape the ennui that a disengagement with architectural theory brings.

The worst crime, in this cutting edge publication– and perhaps crime is too soft a word–is that many of the houses, revel and glorify in landscape, with no acknowledgement of the real history of country.  One of the houses published in this book, and I am too polite to name it, reeks of this. The house is named after a French explorer and situated in a place where the worst of the settler crimes of genocide were committed. Yet these architects blithely state that within the house there is “a  black interior” providing “relief from the blisteringly bright light” As Mark Mckenna writes in his recent Quarterly Essay Australian’s have avoided the bright light of a real history. Casey Brown Architecture in Sydney seems to win the prize for colonising the landscape with the biggest range and riffs on the settler shed. Can us architects please get over this sheddy stuff ?

As for the projects, you won’t find any irony in this lot. The white walls and big windows and quirky details have washed the irony out. There is a lot of Paris in the 1920s with a little mix of Ibiza and the Greek Isles. There is a truckload of “old and new conversations” and that’s about as theoretical as it gets. Once you are cut loose from architectural theory you can really have some fun.

Image making and oblivion

Everyone is pretty serious in the publicity shots. Stutchberry (not sure how he is “emerging”) is there with his hair. Millsy is there with his boyish charm and who can blame him for his Facebook adverts; and there is whole lot of pictures of architects with, don’t fuck with us architects looks on their faces, because we are so serious. White shirts, black cardigans, jackets and designer glasses; we are about to go to a wedding in our expensive trainers. A few smug smiles from some. Why architects perpetuate these images and tropes with their hints of understated and aristocratic luxury never ceases to amaze me. It’s like going into Vittorio de Sica’s movie the Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Like the aristocratic Finzi-Continis oblivious to Nazi storm about to descend on them and Australian architects are similarly oblivious but its not the Nazis.

This book screams: hey come and spend your dollars with us and archiects will make you feel good. No need to worry about the vapours of indigenous genocide still rising from the landscape: Let’s just build a luxury home and pretend its a settler shed.

Project Kulcha vs. Design Knowledge Kulcha: What type of Practice are you in ?

I hate the word HR, especially the HR people who give the impression of impartially managing the protocols but are really just doing what they are being told by the organisational power brokers. Yes, I am bitter and twisted but architects deserve better. Favouritism, recruiting-in-your-own-image, gender discrimination and of course age discrimination (try and get a job in architecture when you are over 50) does not make for an innovative meritocracy. Throw in a bit of class based stereotyping and profiling. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fostering of acolyte cults and the sleazy disease of managing up; which all too often seems to work for some; eventually these people are caught out; usually not before the practice or organisation has been irretrievable damaged.

Open systems of governance and inclusive collaboration in design studios and architectural firms is where architects should be at. It is not rocket science but why is it so hard to examples of.

As someone said to me recently:

“Design leadership is not simply about putting the smartest people into the design studio and then telling them everything they do is “not quite right”, a “little bit wrong”, or their work has “no credibility” or doesn’t actually “count” or “amount” too much. All of which is a recipe for resentment and low organisational morale.

All these practices are too often rife in architecture and eventually they all impact on a firm’s ability, and the capabilities of the profession at large, to retain a competitive advantage or do great architecture.  There is some hope as in Australia, The Association of Consulting Architects Australia (why didn’t the AIA do this sooner I hear you ask?) has a lot of material here for those of you interested in developing a productive workplace.

And of course there is the elephant in the room. The bullying and sexual harassment that goes with poor workplace cultures. Australian Architecture has yet to have its big Weinstein #MeToo moment. But this is certainly an issue bubbling away in the pressure cooker of architectural firms in Australia as margins remain under pressure and the sector is forecast to not grow in the next year or so.

One theory that seems to accelerate this bundle of syndromes and horrific work practices in architectural firms is what I call the Project Culture mindset.

In the schizo, Project Culture mode, many architectural practices swing between, a project culture that is about processes of delivery, as well as time and cost outcomes and a project culture that is excessively focused on the “design”. Over determined reporting, pedantic detailing in documentation (as if that’s the only thing that counts), IT and quality systems that slow rather than speed, are all aspects of this type of culture. Combined with rigid organisational hierarchies and they are also an aspect of this type of culture. Feeding into the firm’s hierarchy is often the ill-informed practices mentioned above.

Project Culture. Managing projects to ensure: Design Knowledge Culture. Designing in order to:
Compliance Create new norms of compliance
Avoidance negligence Have foresight in relation to negligence.
Avoidance risk Testing the boundary conditions of risk.
Efficient time and cost outcomes Have time and cost outcomes that maximise Design Knowledge.
Managing relationships Managing relationships in way that creates Design Knowledge.
Operations Maximise the operational creation and delivery of Design Knowledge.
Qualitative Value Management Link Design Knowledge to Value.
Quantitative Cost Management Develop pockets of Design Knowledge within Value Management Agendas.
Managing staff through rule based incentives and metrics. Managing staff so they create Design Knowledge.

The Project Culture Firm

A firm with a project culture orientation will concentrate on the following types of knowledge:

Yes, this is the stuff the design architects are always pushing against. Within the project culture firm conflict between the design architects and the project architects, and so-called business architects is incessant and cyclical and often counterproductive. It’s a cycle that is really very boring. But it is also a cycle that is unnecessary and it is best typified by the large, and conservative, practice that wants to “beef” up its design credentials: Enter the new design director ( or recent grads), on the promise of being able to have design agency, who end up doing little and being frustrated by resistance from an entrenched project culture. This happens all too often. I guess its one way to exploit the design talent.

But what is also scary is that this list, as well as sounding all too familiar, looks so much like the competencies that architects learn or an Architectural Practice subject syllabus. But there is not a lot in there about, what I call, the real and authentic issues, of leadership and culture. Being a good project architect, or administrator, or a great managing upper, does not necessarily mean you are a good leader. We also need to decouple the design genius types out of our ideas of leadership as well: Being a good designer does not mean you are a good leader. It might just mean in all these cases you are a common garden variety arsehole (apologies for using the A word, at least I used lower case) who is incapable of building through leadership an inclusive Design Knowledge culture in a firm.

The Design Knowledge Culture Firm

A firm with an orientation towards a Design Knowledge culture is more interested in generating Design Knowledge or even other forms of construction orientated knowledge. This is a similar argument to that proposed by Flora Samuel, a recent visitor to MSD, argues this—although a little naively– as well in her latest book Why Architects Matter. Samuel argues that knowledge architects are concerned with “developing systems and processes the profession needs to subsist, not buildings.” Great, but I think there may be more to it than just getting out the Post Occupancy Evaluation and Quality Systems checklists. Nonetheless, the book is certainly worth a look even if it is still stuck in a project culture.

Within a Design Knowledge culture there is no conflict between the design architects and the project architects and so-called business architects. There is no territoriality or regimes of pettiness and power. All staff, with different roles, are incentivized and working towards creating knowledge; Design Knowledge speaks for itself.

Design Leadership 

In this ideal knowledge orientated practice Design Leadership is used to set the culture of the firm. This is the first role of leaders. But sadly, project orientated culture has a real grip on the profession and it is currently the predominant mode of developing leadership and culture. But architects now need to shift to the new models of leadership, unfettered by project pedantry, if they are to avoid the sludge of mediocrity and irrelevance.

Design Genius is not Design Leadership: Avoiding the cult of architectural design secrecy

Design Leadership requires the ability to be open and transparent about the way ideas and design knowledge is conceived, transmitted and fostered in the organisation. One thing that seems to hamper research across the field of architecture is a culture of secrecy. There are patches of this culture all across the topography of architecture. It manifests itself in a number of ways and at a number of levels. It might be the directors in a larger firm afraid of sharing information that is seen to have some competitive advantage. After all, if the cabal shares the premises of a firm’s competitive advantage that might mean exposing that knowledge as inconsequential. It could be the project architect who hangs on to project information and does not share it with others in the team. Better to keep them guessing or in the dark. It is easier not to explain anything. Or it could be the so-called design architect who refuses to reveal the sources or the inspiration of his conceptual ideas. After all, someone might steal those ideas and claim them as their own.


All of these shenanigans of secret knowledge, tacit and unspoken communication and preciousness are corrosive to developing an architectural culture that maximises design knowledge. The covens of design managerialism and secrecy, the power tripping of withheld project information, and the egotistical horrors of pathetic design ideas made more important by being locked in the head of the design architect. All of these attitudes make it very difficult to conduct research within the profession.

I am not really sure where this culture begins. Of course, the curricula and studio systems of the architecture schools as usual, can be blamed. Few subjects are devoted to leadership and organisational governance in architecture school curricula. No wonder the profession is struggling to maintain itself.

In these systems, without the right studio leadership, individual competition can be vain, petty and subject to the vagaries and whims of favouritism. We have all been in studios where we will never make the favoured circle. Design Leadership is not about simply reinforcing and replicating your own theoretical position or the way you were taught architecture. Nor is Design Leadership is not about positioning a design within systems of parochial politics in order to gain influence. It is not about designing in a way that positions you for a commission or a peer award.

To reiterate, Design Leadership is about maximising design knowledge in the most efficient, effective and brutal way possible. After all when the rubber hits the road and the project is besieged by clients, value managers, and contractors the design ideas need to survive the journey.

The continued glorification of the design genius, which I have written about elsewhere, only leads to a situation where the profession is riven by localised mystery cults. Each genius, whatever their stature, surrounded by acolytes along with initiation ceremonies, encouraged rivalries, different circles of access and knowledge. It all starts to sound like Trump’s White House. Better to be an outsider than in the cult. So here a four principles to creating a culture of Design Leadership in your practice.

  1. Make design processes visible

Design leaders have clear processes in place. These processes are visible, transparent and communicable. Design leaders understand design processes and how these processes work through team environments. Design Leadership requires generating design knowledge and ideas through clearly communicated actions and gestures. By doing this everyone in the team can pursue, develop and contribute to the design.


  1. Don’t hide design knowledge.

Hiding design information only creates islands of territorial power. The role of Design Leadership is to constantly posit design knowledge into the public sphere. Of course this sphere may the realm of the project team or it may be the consultant team. from different groups or individuals within the organisation It is not about hiding things away. If design are ideas are hidden they are not fully tested and may then crumble at the first sign of value management.

  1. Make designing inclusive.

Design Leadership does not require the trappings of a cult. It does not exclude or set boundaries around who can be in and out of the team. A collaborative team open to a range of design views is better than a team subservient to a single design view. Effective design leaders mentor and foster their team members. They do this is in order to make individual team members better designers.

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  1. Create space for design.

Good design leaders are bale to create safe havens for the most extreme and seemingly kookiest of design ideas. This is because, Design Leadership requires teams that ask questions rather than teams that simply reiterate like-minded principles. Excellence in Design Leadership nurtures and fosters this questioning. Everyone should feel safe to ask the dumb questions in the design team.

  1. Creates more ideas than can be used.

This is the measure of great Design Leadership. Having a cauldron of ideas constantly generated and replenished as the project proceeds. Design Leadership means both generating and then managing design ideas as they proceed. Design Leadership means having the luxury to pick, choose and give life to the best of architectural design knowledge.

Architects need to change the way they approach Design Leadership and their own organisational structures. Architects need to more effectively manage their own pool of talent. What architect wants to sit in front of a computer second guessing what needs to be done? Worse still, is sitting in front of a computer knowing whatever you do is never going to be quite right, because you weren’t initiated into the favoured circle.

Now back after a brief Easter Break !