Surviving the Design Studio: Baristas $20.22 per hour vs Architects $29.76 per hour.

Thank you to everyone who supported the RAsP initiative. This applied architectural research would not have got any funding through any existing channels of research funding. I am hoping that it is the first foundation for creating a transparent and well-governed research fund serving the needs of architects. 

With the recent ructions in the Institute of Architects, one can only be reminded of the way the design focused discourse in architecture, has both corrupted and arguably destroyed, the way that architects both govern themselves and practice. The mantra that its all about design has led to an unbalanced design-centric discourse. This discourse has paradoxically diminished design and has done much to damage the profession in Australia, its institutions and the way it practices.

Is the Design focus a good thing? 

The focus on Design has meant that Architects are coming off a low base when it comes to a consideration of general business practice and protocols. As a result, an evident naivety abounds across the Australian profession when it comes to business. This naivety exhibits itself in a few extreme ways. Firstly, either in a direct antagonism towards considering business and management issues. Or secondly, bypassing antagonism, a complete lack of knowledge and a fundamental ignorance of money; alongside the idea that you can just fly in someone with business knowledge and they will fix everything.


The naivety of architects regarding strategic management, business strategy and financial management often leads to poor decision-making. Often architects, get into a bit of a panic and say hey let’s get a business plan together or let’s get someone in with a bit of corporate knowledge to do our marketing. They then make the mistake of employing people who, while they might have business credentials, or appear to be “corporate” have no understanding of the profession its nuances and certainly no understanding of design. I have seen this happen quite a few times. Sometimes architects employ people who are from allied industries, but they still have no idea about design. These examples are all too familiar: The general manager of the large firm that was appointed because she had a background in construction (or worse still law), but no idea about general management in an architectural setting. Or the growing small firm who got in a marketing person they went to school with who also had no understanding of professional service marketing.

Only get in the experts with architectural knowledge

It is naive to think a firm can get ‘corporate’ by getting in people from the corporate world with little or no experience in professional services or architecture. It’s always best to get in consultants with direct knowledge and experience of architecture. Preferably people who have worked in practice previously in some capacity.


The full story has yet to reach my ears about the demise of the CEO of the Australian Institute of Architects. But I suspect that this particular train wreck is a confluence of the above factors. A mismatch of expectations and naivety on the part of all concerned. A naivety about architectural profession on the one hand and perhaps a naivety by architects about policy, advocacy and strategic management on the other. Maybe, if architects knew more about money, they wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. We really need to mentor people in our own profession with both design skills and financial and strategic management skills.

Its all about design 

This discourse that has led to these train wrecks and its associated mantras and aphorisms goes something like “it’s all about design” and any other consideration is secondary or the be disregarded entirely. This disregard leads to the most visible and remarkable naivety.

Within practices, both small and large the so-called design architects more often than not need to be saved from themselves. But often these design architects resent this, and the strictures and limitations placed crying out that money or even common sense management practices are crushing their sensitive souls and egos. I was the same when I was younger. Mostly such lamentations by these designers are an excuse for poor design outcomes. When will the architects who subscribe to this cultish view recognise that a consideration of other discourses outside of architectural design is essential if architects are to survive and prosper?

Selling out 

Of course, in writing this, I will be accused of somehow “selling out” design; which is by and large the general accusation levelled at those of us who hope for a better, smarter, meritocratic and inclusive profession.

Central to any rejuvenation of architectural discourse is a consideration of the organisational sciences including management and finance. The discourse focused on “design”, and its cult-like nature, as an autonomous, and singular practice, within architecture, has damaged the disciplines ability to support itself. To prove the point if there is one area where the design cult– and its insidious culture of business phobic managing up, discrimination and pedigreed favouritism — have destroyed the architectural profession it is in the area of employee wages.

2018 ACA salary survey 

The latest salary survey put out by the ACA and ably put together by the fantastic Gill Matthewson has just come out. As it summarises there is still a gender pay gap and some practices persist in paying under Award minimums. Perhaps the best thing that could happen to the profession is if a few architects were prosecuted for paying less than the award wage.


A Barista or a person with some training (Level 2 – food and beverage attendant grade 2 full time) gets an adult minimum hourly wage: $20.22. But also some get more on average if you look here. Architects get $29.76 an hour if you are registered and a full-time employee. This is not to suggest that the work of a Barista is in any way less worthy than architectural work. But it is to suggest that architectural training could be better served by a profession that took its responsibility for its own well-being.


Woohoo! That’s $9 bucks an hour more than a Barista or a waiting person.  That’s like more than an extra dollar an hour for the combined 7 years (5 years of tertiary study and 2 years of experience) that most architects need to do to register and call themselves architects.

Thank you to everyone who supported the RAsP initiative. This applied architectural research would not have got any funding through any existing channels of research funding. I am hoping that it is the first foundation for creating a transparent and well-governed research fund serving the needs of architects. 

Support RASP: Six Myths about Architectural research and practice.

The June July issue of Architecture Australia dossier section on research in large practice is a must read for any Architect. Research-In-Practice is now a hot topic. About time I reckon.

AA Dossier on Research in Large Practice

The issue is ably edited by Naomi Stead and Sandra Kaji-Ogrady the Architecture Australia dossier raises some serious questions about architectural research in both large and small practices. Sandra Kaji-Ogrady and Naomi Stead point out pursuing the divide between architects in academic and industry will only be detrimental to our profession at large. Its great to see two esteemed academics reaching out to practice in this fashion and credit to Cameron Bruhn of AA for instigating the issue. Of course, I am biased because I have also written something in it.

As a part of the dossier I was invited to the roundtable discussions with the large practices, and these really blew my tiny mind away. Ten large practices were involved in the discussions and I, despite my reputation as a cynic, I was really impressed by the range of different research models that each of these practices has developed and then implemented into their businesses. It was great to see how research and knowledge are actually managed in these practices. Yes, that’s the correct word: managed. In other word’s, the systems and processes in place needed to both create and capture new knowledge. It was perhaps even more interesting to see how the research in these practices then informed firm strategy and competitive advantage.

Heres our RASP pitch

As a result of this experience, I am beginning to wonder if the best research in architecture is now currently be done in the larger practices both here and abroad. Traditionally research, in architecture, has seemingly been the domain of the architectural schools and smaller niche firms dabbling in computers; yet now I wonder if the big practices are being more effective at architectural research than some of our nation’s 18 architecture schools.

The smarter big practices have the grunt and the systems to do effective research. You might ask so what about the rest of the world’s architectural practices (the smaller ones) and what about the architecture schools? Well, that question is best answered by addressing the various myths that seem to be associated with Research-in-Practice.

Myth 1: Architectural design studios teach architects how to do research

Only to a limited extent.

Don’t you hate those studios where all the so-called research is front-loaded at the beginning of the studio? That’s not researching, and its probably not design either, and as a result, quite a few architects are fishing around and talking about the need for architectural research without really understanding what it is. While our architectural education gives us a great way of thinking it does not give us much regarding research methodologies, methods or the rigour to think through the methodological dilemmas proposed by design as research.

Myth 2: Research is only for architecture schools

Not true.

Research orientated to architecture is increasingly difficult to get funding for. I think that the current climate of pandering to research metrics and the labyrinthine ARC funding system across all disciplines in universities is killing architectural research in Architecture schools. These measurement and funding regimes might work well in the biosciences but not in architecture.

Why not?

The metrics favour specialists and not transdisciplinary generalists. Nowadays, it’s all about your citation counts and your h-index. One of my colleagues in a related field has a really great h-index but as far as I can tell the research knowledge produced is pretty mediocre. But hey, who am I to judge this. His work might be seen as being great in future years. On the other hand, I have another colleague who doesn’t receive much credence as their research is considered to be beyond the pale by the successful lovers of research metrics. Again, who am I to judge?

At the moment, the hot topics in the university research sector are arguably transport, health and education. The weird thing these topics are driven by various government funding priorities are the big ticket items, and they reflect various government spending priorities. I think the name of the game for some unis is about picking winners; most innovation economists and start-up types will quickly tell you where that approach leads: to losers and not winners; mediocrity and the squandering of public resources.

Heres our RASP pitch

A play in one act 

But picking winners has a trickle-down effect and to illustrate my point allow me the luxury of being cynical: The other week I was grabbing a quick coffee with a research Biz development person from another faculty and this is what happened.

PR: Architects are great and architectural research is really significant.

BD person: Oh look Professor Super-Research-Metrics-Producer is getting a coffee (joyful tone).

PR: Here is your chai latte.

BD person: See you later! (BD person exits).

They were gone from my space in two seconds. Apparently, my citation count, h-index and funding bucks weren’t up to scratch. I felt deep shame. So much for building a bottom-up research practice, dare I say research business, centred on architecture.

Universities like to pick big winners and get the big teams together. Fair enough. That’s where the money is. Maybe big research teams will be doomed to fail in our discipline.

The hot ticket items these days are AI, Data Analytics and Neuroscience, just mix and match those fields with the big ticket social issues like Population Health, Education, Housing and of course CITIES. The words sustainability, modular and that old favourite density are good words to throw in as well for a bit of detail.

Here are a few mix and match titles for research projects. Population Health Data and Sustainable Cities. Here’s another one, Artificial Intelligence and Modular Housing for Health.

Here it is again

Myth 3: Design is Research

Not always.

Design research is too often vanity research. Architects just need to do design research and it that’s fantastic. Hey, where architects and we are so good! We don’t even need to communicate how good we are! Whip out a few design competitions, do a bit of coding stuff with the fabrication machines, come up with a few new conceptual public space concepts. Everyone knows we are a shit-hot profession. Hey, we earn a bit more money than baristas (or do we?).

No, that is not correct, architects need to do more than just doing it. We need to constantly capture, verify and communicate our research knowledge.

But doing a competition or running a studio, or doing an exhibition at an Architecture School is not quite the same as doing effective research. Hey, many architects don’t even measure or quantify what they do in research. As a result, architects are continually giving away their design knowledge for less than what it’s worth.

Myth 4: Architects are valued for their research knowledge


This follows a bit from the above myth. Developers, property planners, contractors, middle brow council bureaucrats, love to get architects to help them brand their apartments, schools, police stations or those train stations on the bogan periphery. They will tell us that they value our design input. These assorted characters love to make us think we have designed something great (after they have value managed the life out the project). But maybe all we have really done is branded something. Without research, we will never know if this is true or not.

But hey, ask the developers, contractors, or the gatekeepers at the other funding channels for some architectural research money, and they will run a mile.

Myth 5: Practices don’t have enough money to spend on research

No excuse.

Apart from small practices this shouldn’t be an excuse. Research should be an ancillary expense item in practice. It should be budgeted for the same way that marketing or rent or cars are or software licences. Imagine what would happen if every architect did that in some measure.

At the moment many large practices are doing and involved in different types of research. But those large practices that do not build or implement organisational structures, processes or systems concerning research knowledge models will lose competitiveness.

If medium practices are to grow or to compete with large practice’s they need to build some internal research infrastructure. Adhocism or vague project by project notions about what constitutes a research process (for example; just talking to potential clients, or doing a competition) is not quite enough. For medium practices, the danger is that large firms with specialised researchers and field-specific experts who can efficiently use research knowledge–especially if it has been developed in-house–to move downstream to mop up work from medium-sized practices.

Just in case you missed it; Heres our RASP pitch

Myth 6: Research is not practical

When I get a whiff of this kind of sentiment, I think: stab me in the eye with a biro. Research has a direct relationship to policy and advocacy. Targeted and applied research can really help architects get the message out. Research can help position No wonder the Australian Institute of Architects is in such a mess. We are now reaping the benefit of years of research, policy and advocacy neglect.

As pointed out to me recently every other professional group is much better at industry research policy and advocacy. The developers, property types, the contractors, the housing industry, and the engineers are much better at it. Australian architects never seem to get together to have a seat at the research lobby tables.

One more time 

So Here’s the sales pitch.

So put in a few bucks into our RASP crowdfunding campaign. It’s research that will make an impact. Yes, Tom and I are on Vimeo. Superstars in the making. We should each have had a makeover before we filmed. It’s a team effort of course. You can watch it here.

If we can raise the funds, it will be shouting out that research in and around architects and architecture is of real consequence. If we don’t it’s just more struggling to keep ahead of the Barista wages.

Always a bit crap: The Repair exhibit in the Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale.

There is so much at stake in this year’s Australian Pavilion at the 2018 Architecture Biennale that it is really hard to know where to start. What is at stake here is the question of how Australian architecture represents itself to the world. Maybe I am overthinking it, and perhaps the glittering spectacle that is the Architecture Biennale shouldn’t mean so much. And I don’t mean to sound overtly nationalistic — which seems to be a profoundly unfashionable position to some — even as the project of globalism in architecture, is fading and facing a period of uncertainty. But to ask this question, of how a nation-state like Australia with all its layers of race, gender, class and professional apparatus represents its architecture in a global forum is I think necessary.

The concept for the Australian Pavilion is Repair. You can read a bit about it here.

Indeed, the manifesto of Freespace ably curated by Farrell and McNamara in this 2018 Biennale certainly points to the cracks in considering architecture as a global system of centres, peripheries, pedigrees and stars. A great thing about Freespace as a theme and the manifesto that goes with it its focus on the regional and local architectural practices. It is by and large a celebration of the enmeshing of architects with both modernity but also local communities, cultures and the traces of the morphologies of settlements. Such sentiments are aptly conveyed in the Japanese, French and Spanish exhibits.

This all very nice, and this will sound like a kind of spoiler alert: in this age of blandish boosterism and uncritical praise anything even slightly critical risks danger and the silence of the bland boosters and Instagram influencers of contemporary architecture.

The primary criticism of past Australian architecture Biennale’s has been that the official curated theme of the Biennale is always set after the curators for the Australian pavilion have been selected. This time appears to be different, and the curators seem to have connected to the Biennale’s Freespace theme


Always a bit crap  

Nevertheless, as a friend said, the Australian architectural exhibits are always a bit crap. And after visiting this year’s Biennale, my first reaction was yep that’s right.

The Australian Pavilions are always a bit crap, and we could blame the committee structure that seems to exist to promote mediocrity, the Australia Council, the AIA, and of course the usual coterie of pedigreed and “representative” curators. There have been some spectacular failures in this selection process in the past. Why Justine Clarke and Rory Hyde never got their gig a few tears back points to the mediocrity and perhaps small minded political treachery of the selection process. Look, I don’t really know but this is what I suspect. Mostly, the efforts have been mediocre and there have been few stinkers. For some people, like my anonymous friend, this year will seem no different to previous years.

Sometimes it’s easy to see how and why a car crashes. In this particular car crash, it’s hard to know at what point the entire exhibition started to drift off. The sentiments underlining it a fine. The central conceptual idea of Repair, in theory at least is well-meaning, but then it seems to go all wrong. It’s like none of the bits of this exhibition connects or come together as a whole. This is not to say that I want my exhibitions to be big and larger than life themes (for example the British exhibit with its theme of Island). Nor do I expect there is anything wrong with presenting fragments. But in this instance, each fragment seems isolated, and it’s difficult to make the interpretive connection between the different parts of the exhibit.

The Pavilion

The new Australian pavilion seems to be better this time I visited it. It is certainly a building that is not kicking us in the head with some kind of spat out chewing gum masticated and parametric forms. Sure, it’s a little conservative and neat, but it is undoubtedly a vast improvement on the previous pavilion with its monomaniacal focus on all things shed. I think we can all be glad that our collective shame has been erased with its demolition.

The grass is dying  


Yes, the western grassland plants in the exhibit are dying, and no one really knows what this means. Were they intended to die or not? Nonetheless, this is the great sorrow of this exhibit.

Yet, what saves this pavilion are the grasslands themselves. That was a brilliant idea. Their materiality is palpable and as one person said to me it was great to see the spiders crawling over these plants. I don’t know the back story, but I fear that the ambitions of the curators may have been foiled by committee structure and then difficulties of procurement in Italy. A country not known for the efficiency and rationality of its logistical supply chains. To be more generous this was a dangerous experiment which like all such endeavours needed to be perfected and refined. Dealing with anything living is bound to be a problem.

The associated projects

Aside from the grasslands, there are fifteen or sixteen (is it eleven?) architectural projects are featured in this mélange. There eleven projects represented in the entire show are ok. But you wouldn’t think they were even a part of what is exhibited in the pavilion. I stumbled across them in the broadsheet catalogue and apparently each one has its own video. But in the pavilion, annoyingly, you have to wait a long time to see them. It would have been better if the projects were presented in different media. Anything else would have been better. As it is not clear that they are a part of the exhibit at all.


The one movie I saw projected in the space was execrable. An unfortunate combination of interpretative dance, cult yoga pants in a building that looked like an Australian brown brick version of a Jodorowsky set. It was actually the Featherston House (I feel we have now reached peak Boyd) and it all looked a bit too much like people doing River Dance. I presume the other films were better.


By and large, these ancillary projects — and I am not sure if they are meant to be only incidental — do appear to pursue the notion of Repair. Most seem to proclaim their heart on the sleeve greenness and naïve ecological goodness. Of the 15 in the broadsheet, I think three do not deserve to be there. They seem gratuitous and connect nothing, and even detract from, the concept of Repair.


Curatorial Approach

The curators try and bring all of this home by arguing for a transdisciplinary approach regarding architectural practice one that encompasses a broader range of practice the curators argue that:

We don’t have any definitive solutions, but believe there is a role for architecture to actively engage with the repair of the places it is part of, the soil, hydrology, habitat, connections, overland water flow, microorganisms, vegetation and so on, and that this type of repair is critical to enacting other wider types of social, economic and cultural repair.

Consequently, the broader team supporting the curators is impressive: includes architect Paul Memmott, landscape architect Chris Sawyer, landscape architect and urban designer Tim O’Loan, ecologist David Freudenberger, curatorial advisor Catherine Murphy, architect Lance van Maanen and a graduate of architecture Jonathan Ware.

Yes, transdisciplinary knowledge and its practices are mainly lacking in Australian architectural research, strategy organisational practice and design. Landscape architects and urbanists would claim that the ideas presented in this exhibit, are not new, and already form the theoretical background of landscape architecture in Australia and elsewhere. Of course architects, research academics (including myself) love to pay lip service to and generate spin around transdisciplinary ideals. But these days it is not the transdisciplinary architects, or architectural researchers, who are getting the commissions or research funds or all of the research metrics. Design research that most transdisciplinary of practices is still a second-class citizen in many forums.

So, from this perspective the aspirations of the curators are admirable. But paradoxically, the misplaced outcomes of this exhibit suggest how much further architects need to go in pursuing transdisciplinarity as real practice.

The next one

As for me well I am already thinking about the next one. This time I am going to put a pitch in for the gig. I have an idea for a team of architectural misfits. I even have a concept in mind. The space needs to be filled again with the craziness that is the best of Australian architecture. Tight-lipped and po-faced conceptual pieces need to be banished forever (as well as the bad curator portraits that go with them). No more bad conceptual abstractions that can only be used with difficulty.  Plus, the interpretive material really needs to be of a better standard. It’s just rude to make visitors guess, WTF or what on earth, is going on.


I really love the grasslands

I love them because they speak to a lost landscape and country, they make of the other 71 curated exhibitors by the Farrell and McNamara look like earnest, well-meaning self-congratulatory bores. But these grasslands are really different to the self-congratulatory patter of Farrell and McNamara’s presentation of the regional practices of Europe. These wilting and dying grasslands with their ridiculous felt containers point to the need for architects to theorise a new relationship between natural history, ecology and immanent notions of cultural landscapes. Whilst, the idea of Repair, does have much in common with the Freespace manifesto the grasslands themselves point to the triviality of thinking Architecture is all about the cultures and histories of the European City.


Species death

The idea of using the grasslands could have been great. But I think it was hampered by the conceptual regime of Repair combined with the worst techniques and artifices of an abstract curatorial method. I shudder to think of the “Repair” ideas workshop: “hey, what do we mean by Repair” and “let’s try and really understand it deeply” etc etc.  Unfortunately, and too often abstraction and conceptual artifice are somehow seen as being cool. In this case, I feel this worked against the material and the animistic and cultural presence of the grasslands. In response, all these species could do was die.


Seeing the grasslands dying in the pavilion in Venice reminded me of this story of horror. There is a monument in Reading cemetery for a Wotjobaluk boy, who came from the beautifully crafted and managed lands of the Wimmera. He lost his mother and drifted to the muddy metropolis of Melbourne, where he was adopted by an Anglican cleric from Reading and ended up in England where he died in 1852.


The grasslands in this pavilion reminded me of that story, and I think the great moment in the exhibition are the missing indigenous names for these plants. Its subtle and the curators don’t hit you in the face with it. But who knows if they meant to do that or not? After all, what can you do after a genocide, after a crime of crimes, and crimes of extinction? Yes, the curators seem to be saying: we seek to Repair what we will, and we will never mention the horror. Let’s wash it all clean with some new green. For me, and others may disagree, this position is so lacking in rage that it points to an underlying and empty politics.


Yes, the grasslands are the real stars of this exhibit. Their seeds have been dislocated and nurtured, but now they are dying. Spiders are crawling over the grass in a far country. The grasslands, for those who wish to listen to them deeply, are a different kind of city which cannot be ignored. But that lost city has nothing to do with the notion of Repair.