Surviving the Design Studio: Why are architects so fucking serious?

I went to an advertising function a few days ago, the Moet was flowing amongst the producers, copywriters and account service people I ran into an ex-architect now working in advertising and he looked me in the eye and exclaimed: why are architects in Melbourne so fucking serious? Good point I thought, and I had to agree as the verbal case was laid out over the champagne. And my agreeance, was not merely politeness because this claim struck me as the truth. So, I thought given the amount of auto-ethnography I had done concerning architects in Melbourne, in one way or another, I thought I would accept the claim and then try and develop a theoretical model around it.

Melbourne Architecture is probably the epi-centre of architectural seriousness. I guess I can’t talk about Sydney but maybe the model developed below can also be generalised to encompass other places.

Serious Architectural Insects 

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The first lot of serious architectural insects I met were at the tail end of the early seventies mud-brick, alternative living, roll your own spliff movement. This time was a kind of cross between the post 68 countercultures, Alastair Knox’s mud-brick houses and the Sunbury rock festival. It was a kind of blues and roots and Whitlam thang. Everyone hated Malcolm Fraser. My shared house flatmates got busted for growing marijuana. At Archi school we had self-assessment, my first project was a long essay on alternative energy sources, my second I learnt how to design in the style of MLTW’s sea-ranch (think, planimetric chamfers). At archi-school our orientation camp was at a monastery where a guy played the bongos and as I listened my head span around and around and mesmerised by the sound I vomited. It was a serious vomit and set the tone for the rest of my architectural education.

 

No need to shed tears of nostalgia for this long lost era. Funnily enough, I think a lot of it is now back in fashion, and the common denominator is and has always been, the seriousness. For the earnest or humanistic architect, the architect without irony wanting to do good in the world, the seriousness is a natural state of being. However, this too often masks a desire for economic gain or a proclamation of egocentric vanity. For seriousness, the parametric architects are the worst and take the cake. Since when was coding a computer to make Bucky Fuller like domes, and their squishy variants, ever considered to be in any way fantastic.

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The cult of the seriousness tars even those Australian architects who appear, on the surface at least, to pursue irony and absurdity. Just have a look at the northern end of Swanston Street in Melbourne. An entire block of very very serious architecture and perhaps it would have been better if WB looked happier. Nowadays all the universities are getting into their very own Archi-serious capital works programs. The serious architectural sensibility too often about branding of one kind or another; the branded pomposity of neoliberal and market-driven clients.

And surely the absurd gymnastics of super serious architecture without whimsy is a terrible and empty thing to behold. Paradoxically, architectural seriousness has always had its darker hues. All this seriousness is serious. But what would I know as I am really really serious too?

But hey these days you would be fooled into thinking seriousness never really exists. This situation is the case if you looked at architects and social media, it all seems light and fluffy, and oh so we don’t need theory we are just doing what we do. Little arches, trellises and meshes. However, even this frivolity seems too serious especially when it is aligned with the torrent of nostalgia around the history of Melbourne architecture. This is too often a history all about the cute little 1950s housing boxes; Boyd in all his Brahmin caste politeness; the sanitised and domestic machines of the Small Homes Service; the little follies and gems of architecture recycled as serious doodoos. In Melbourne, there were lots of serious insect architects in the 1950s: Neil Clerehan, John Mockridge, James Earle, David McGlashan, Peter Jorgenson, Ken Hardcastle, Geoffrey Woodfall, Peter Burns and David Godsell. In posh Toorak, there was Guilford Bell, Rosenthal and Holgar and Holgar. Hit me up with a bit of Mid-Century Modern nostalgia insulin.

So what is the unhappy dynamic driving this seriousness and what is its pathology? Below are a few thoughts towards developing an all too slight model that might explain all of this architectural seriousness.

Insularity

Insularity the idea that nothing exists outside of the autonomous culture of architecture is the first factor. The realm and boundaries of this culture are strictly reinforced. A larger scale of geography often determines the insularity. For example, a Melbourne School or a Sydney school. However, other factors may define the boundaries of each of the clubs, clans tribes and influence networks that each city has; different ideological and theoretical ideas formed at architecture school, and even at secondary schools, may also determine these different clubs and clans and sets within the larger geographic realm.

Jargon

A peculiar language often emerges in the different architectural tribes. The utterances, aphorisms and codes often emanating from these groups often constitutes a private language. As someone remarked to me if you met these people at the dinner table, it’s difficult for an outsider to understand the lingo. Within each group, this language might evolve a little over time. Rarely is there any thought that this way of speaking might be a real bore at dinner.

The group’s jargonistic expressions will ensure that its central tenets will remain stable over time. To the initiated, some of these words and sayings seem to have magical and talismanic powers. To the outsider, this private language is instead of explicit communication and plain English. As many architectural websites attest to plain English is not often pursued. To the outsider. Let alone the client, and this results in an impenetrable language that can only be deciphered if you are in the favoured circle.

Abstract Language 

A key feature of seriousness is a verbal language of abstraction based on logic. As if to say, either reasoning and abstraction confer authority (I prefer the ravings of Artaud any day). Eisenman was good at this as was Colin Rowe and perhaps this way of speaking has its sources in the late 1980s and early days of the American architectural journal Assemblage. In any case, any of the Architectural engagement with continental philosophy since the 1970s has not helped this. Anyone reading this who may have heard Brian Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari’s translator, speak about architecture should know this.

Pecking Order

Within the circle of seriousness, the pecking usually determines who has the most power over language. Many architects will be familiar with the traits of these orders. Pecking orders are primarily determined by pedigree. Class, school of origin, architecture school, or whom you did studios with and the office you may have worked for. Alpha males win out most of the time in these orders. Having independent wealth may also help. Combine both of these attributes and will do better than most. Architects are fascinated by genealogies: Who worked for whom, who can trace their family tree back to a master or a heroic figure. Even I have claims to tracing myself back to Robin Boyd. Ridiculous, I know.

Deification

Within this system, some are architects, or deities, are bestowed with power. This endowment may or may not translate into commissions or a legacy in the canon. Usually, only men are deified, and they can then determine who the enemies are. There are always perceived enemies in the cult of seriousness, and the idolised gods have a number of tactics to relegate you to the enemy camp. We have all be written off by those helicoptered in well-pedigreed leaders who only recognise their own kind. That’s how architecture works I guess.

Maybe the above is because the notion of the enemy has a long history in the creation of modernist architectural history. From CIAM onwards there was always an enemy for modern architects to fight against. Across the globe, in the provincial market-towns of architectural culture making and remaking enemies is a constant sport.

Lack of Fluidity

In this ecosystem of seriousness, architectural experiment and the fluidity that goes with it is often abandoned. This move is in order to maintain power. Creating design knowledge is secondary and expanding the stock of architectural knowledge is secondary to maintaining a status quo. In other words, all of the above, all this seriousness, is not there to enhance the discipline or to create new knowledge and promote an engaged discourse or think about architecture as an evolving and dynamic field of expertise. No, architectural design is posed as something to defend, an inviolable territory of privilege. This defensiveness is, for the most part, a ruse to maintain and enforce power in whatever local architectural culture that power is claimed and employed.

Masculinity

All of these processes emphasise norms of masculinity within the profession. The single architectural voice with all of its mystifications, contrariness, rationalisations and self-importance has no interest in more fluid notions of identity.

This gendered voice seeks influence, authority, power and sometimes a pathetic kind of social notoriety and deification. This voice continually seeks to prescribe and fix its own identity. Perhaps, we have all wanted to be there and have saught this. In contrast, collective notions of design, or architectural theory, that questions fixed identities is belittled or relegated. Consequently, the design process itself is ring-fenced and quarantined in a way that always links it to fixed architectural identities. As a result intersectionality and its attendant approaches are never something that comes into play. Any suggestion by anyone that points out the jargon, mystifications, influence, and deification that result in this seriousness is overlooked and at worse silenced.

The paradox is that architectural whimsy, a lightness of being, has a more significant potential for emotional and political nuance than the strictures of seriousness. And I don’t mean a whimsy devoid of politics. Perhaps all we can hope for an architectural culture that embraces a collective lightness and openness, as much as any other sentiment. But hey, who am I to talk when I am also so serious. But anything is better than vainglorious seriousness and insane pomposity that characterises much of the profession. Architecture as a genuinely collective endeavour and a contested field of knowledge deserves more.

Due to work commitments, I have not been able to get the blog out as much as I would like. I did manage to get to ARCOM in Belfast, and my co-author Loren Adams and we won a prize for the most innovative paper! Read it here if you dare. However, more about that in later blogs. For those of you in my own special identity cult don’t worry too much: I am alive, but only just.