The search for a new model of architectural practice.

Architecture in Australia is currently caught in a vortex of low fees, poor management and business practices as well as traditional hierarchies. Of course, all of this was hinted at in last week’s blog. And a few people wrote to me and said things like:

I have been burned twice by small practice. I have recently moved to a large company where I am paid above award and overtime is minimum (so far). The treatment of my friends and peers in architecture has me livid….

and on to the haphazard way so much of architecture as business is run: even with only two years working in architecture following the years of study, my own experience rings true…

Crawling up the pyramid 

As result, the widespread horrors of practices that are barely numerate and naïve about management and business means that clients and public users are not being served well by architects. I would argue that current and traditional models of practice are no longer viable. It’s time to abandon the old-timey hierarchical model of student, graduate, graduate, architect, associate, senior associate, principal, associate directors and directors. I mean what is that ladder about? It is like a kind of pyramid sales scheme where you pay, with labour and time at the bottom of the pyramid, in the hope that you might eventually move up. It’s a pyramid riven by egos, pedigrees, insecurities, and fiefdoms. Tough luck if you’re in anyway different. Hey, who wants to work with Pinochet’s. 

 

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Design studios work better when the hierarchies are flat. I would argue that instead of focusing on gaining back territory from Project Managers, or questioning Novated Contracts, or pinning hopes on the “collaborative” possibilities of BIM architects need to look at the way they organise and manage themselves.

Assemble as a model 

Assemble, the London based group of collaborators who were awarded the Turner prize in 2016 indicates how legitimacy and authority in a collective logic is made manifest. Assemble is an organisation that is more project network orientated rather than project-centric orientated. Based in London Assemble consists of 18 members working together since 2010. As a Collective, the practice is, of course, interdisciplinary, and the focus of Assemble is to “democratise” architecture and to “activate overlooked spaces” through “community focused” programs. Too many practices acclaim these values and yet their internal cultures are riven by petty rivalries fiefdoms and hierarchies that do not foster the creation of design knowledge.

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Assemble at Venice 2018 
The collective as an alternative model

As a collective Assemble confirms to the logic of having a focus on process and community; the group sees the process as being “interdependent and collaborative”, and its members actively seek to expand their community networks, blurring the line between who has agency,  by “ involving the public both as participant and collaborator.”  The first project by the group in 2010 exemplifies this approach and network focus. This project was the Cineroleum. In this project, employing volunteers, Assemble created a cinema from a disused gas station.

Unlike those practices stuck in the treadmill of client-architect patronage and the crippling hierarchies that go with it. Assemble have not been averse to a kind of entrepreneurship, this is evident for example in the 2014 Yardhouse project in Stratford. This project was an affordable and creative workspace building created by the group. In 2016 Yardhouse was then sold through the in 2016 through the Modern House Estate agency for a reputed cost of 150,000 pounds. Yardhouse was the result of a research process that was described as “strategic design and research project” that analysed the Bow Interchange and Stratford High street in East London. This project resulted in identifying the need for an affordable workspace in the area. The project was funded by London Legacy Development Corporation, Kingspan a construction product manufacturer and Assemble themselves. In 2017 Assemble began working with the Art Academy an independent art school in London which included not only an analysis of physical infrastructure but also a unique collaborative process. Assemble involved itself with the Academy through initial “dinner discussions” that were employed to “inform initial conversations about the redevelopment” as well as a series of “Professional Practice seminars” and a “public programme of talks and debates.”

So what ? 

Assemble’s reach, into community networks, and range, across different project types, is sustained by a governance system within Assemble itself that appears to enhance the group’s ability to quickly form and reform itself to connect into and expand its own networks.  This fluidity and agility allows Assemble to reconfigure itself to conform to project network flows of local capital and micro-finance. The collective nature of Assemble is underscored by the fact that even the exact number of people in the group is in and to some extent ambiguous. The group’s knowledge base is established across different disciplines including architecture, art, design and construction as well as members with educational backgrounds in architecture, philosophy, As Joe Halligan, an Assemble member has noted the group “enjoys working across different fields” and the “title of our role is really flexible.”  Capital flows through Assemble via a model where any money that comes in 50% goes to the collective then 50% goes to the project team.

A better model of practice

Assemble’s a model that is unique and obviously specific to its context. Nonetheless, I would suggest that a collective is nowadays a better model for architectural practice. In contrast to models based on the old outdated hierarchies of management and a client -architect patronage culture. Central to new models of practice is the following:

  • Consensual decision making and governance systems.
  • A recognition that difference and diversity within the collective is important.
  • Non-exploitative work practices.
  • Self-initiated advocacy projects
  • Funding on a project by project basis.
  • Engaged with architectural research.
  • Pro-active in taking up particular projects and advocacy issues.
  • Engaged with various communities and publics.

Email me or contact me here, at Instagram or Twitter, if you are interested in talking about exploring the idea of and then forming an architectural collective in Australia. So far half a dozen people have expressed an interest. I am committed to doing this and it is an endeavour that could, quickly, and easily develop a portfolio of projects. The older models of practice are too slow, not agile enough, and have not served the profession well. We really need to develop new models of architecture in Australia that recognises the need for equity, difference and new ways of thinking about architectural advocacy and public engagement. The old way is no longer working and is killing the profession. I am up for it so send me an email if you are interested.