Architects are on fire but the designer types are in La-la-land.

The recent issues surrounding the Shergold Report, the Opal Tower and the VCAT decision concerning the fire at the Lacrosse building raise severe questions for Australian architects. These questions are broad but centre around issues concerning architectural education, the pricing of risk, contracts and procurement and most importantly the culture and tenor of architectural practice management. As well and in addition to these issues are broader issues of public policy.

Now of course as some of you will know I sloshed my own way through the Archi-Prac classes and my efforts in the specification class were feeble, and similarly in the cost management class I didn’t really give a toss. Like many architecture students, I was obsessed with design. But of course to be a great designer I also needed that special special pedigree and I also really needed hair. I have written about all that here. All I can say is having the hair and the gendered pedigree to win the competition or network the room doesn’t mean you are the best architect to manage risk.

Where are the voices of designers?

So these days, in my life limited dotage, I have to be content with involving myself in seemingly very mundane matters in the great canon of high architecture such as gender equity, intersectionality, pay and working conditions, public advocacy and policy, risk management and in fact anything to do with management at all. None of these things has anything to do with design? Or do they?

They call themselves designers, but by not discussing what is actually happening in the profession the so-called designers are selling architectural design down the river.

opal-tower-investigation-final-report-2018-02-22_Page_01When I see the pictures of buildings cracked, facades burning or even just sloppy slack BIM style detailing it makes me angry to think that architects might have any part to do with these travesties. As I followed the Opal report and then read the Shergold report, I thought oh wow. This is great for architects we can really use these events to advocate for the importance of our role in the industry, the importance of our professional regulation, and the importance of our education and knowledge. The developers, builders and the building regulators have sidelined us architects for so long. Anyone can call themselves a Project Manager.

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Lacrosse 

But then came the Lacrosse VCAT report. It is a long read, but every architect in the country should read it and reflect. It is a report that raises serious questions about many things concerning architectural design practice, architectural team leadership, and practice management. How architects outsource is another issue? Do architects really understand the fundamentals of risk and reward? High risk leads to high rewards. But, might high rewards also mean there are high risks to manage?

You can make your own judgments about the Lacrosse VCAT determination.

The Shergold report, Opal and then Lacrosse and the “follow up” by the federal Building Ministers forum points to the policy spinelessness of politicians in favour of free markets, the unchecked greed and rent-seeking of developers, and the complexities of risk management for architects. The Building Ministers forum has yet to produce a response to its “joint implementation plan setting out the direction of the proposed reforms” in response to the Shergold report.

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Cover of the Shergold Report 

Novation

For me some of the practice issues that architects need to address include issues around the inherent risks of signing novated contracts and consultant agreements. As well as considering the various power asymmetries in the relationships between architects, contractors and developers; if architects need to act with responsible care and are liable under different contract formats, then we need to be able to exercise our full knowledge forcefully to manage risk in complex situations.

But as well as this, how do we educate architects to manage these risks in a way that delivers excellent design outcomes?

It all makes me wonder why can’t designers engage with the real issues surrounding the profession? Why can’t designers develop theoretical and political approaches steeped in reality? Why don’t designers come and talk at the events to do with gender pay gaps, flexible work and the like? I would really love to hear a designer talk about some of this “practice” and “practice management” stuff instead of the endless word talk like: “new ways of making”, “spatial immersion”, “eco-anything”, “textured materiality”, “bounded boundaries”, “interstitial nooks”, “ design interrogation’’ “cosmopolitan traces”, “new institutionalism”, “distorted geometries”–and anything with the word future in front of it –“Future practice”, “Future identities,” “Future Fucking Futures” and those weird words with trivial capitalisations like “ReCast.” And “Award-winning” is another bit of word soup I hate every time I look at Instagram. Its all like something out of a Rem-Bjarke-Assemblage-Log-Volume dictionary. I forgot to mention the word “Paradox” or Journal’s with names like “ReInflection” or is that “Infection”?

I hear and read all this stuff and then I want to throw up and weep and stab myself in the eye with a biro. It makes me want to speed life up and take cocaine and do heroin mixed with serepax. After those feelings pass all is left is the sense that the profession is on fire, and the designer types are in La-la-land.