How to be a Parametric Revolutionary and pretend you are saving the planet.  

There was a time when I was right into suing new technologies to do things. I was enamoured with various techniques of reprographics and representation. I was right into all of the architectural making machines of the late 80s. I loved the bromide machine, the dyeline (I loved the smell of the ammonia), Pantone paper, reverse bromides and of course that greatest of all devices the PHOTOCOPIER.

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Of course, I had no illusions about using these technologies to save the world. It didn’t need saving then, but it did need fucking up. At that time, in my tiny architectural brain, the principal means to achieve this was through the critical commentary enabled by collage. As a result, my modus operandi was the comic. And it was always fun to see the grand poo-poo-bah of my architecture school totally flip whenever he saw my seemingly insane comics.

Nowadays, all of the old reprographic techniques that I had some expertise in have disappeared. Even the long studio nights in dimly lit rooms where we suffered under the light of oh so long architectural slide shows have gone.

All of the above has been replaced with graphical interfaces, Kuka robots, 3D printers and non-existent supply chain drones. For some, these new technologies will save us from climate catastrophe. Why will these things save us? Because, apparently through these technologies and processes, we are going to save the world by producing less waste and emitting less carbon. Sadly, I don’t believe that.

However, if you believe in simple fixes and bad architectural science, and you want to get onto the parametric revolutionary bandwagon, then jump on board; and you might then enjoy the ride with all of its naïvety, good intentions and the curious know-all vanity that goes with those intentions. So, what follows is all you need to do to be a Parametric revolutionary.

 1. Talk about revolution 

Yep, that’s right the revolution is going to happen. It’s a technological revolution and its coming tomorrow. And all you have to do to partake in it is to learn how to code and make stuff. You don’t have to think about revolutionary politics or even think about the sophisticated software development cycles of the tech giants. Nup, all you have to say is that a ‘revolution’ is on its way. Even better put another word in front of the word revolution.

2. Talk about the planet.

Yep, talk about the planet as if it’s something you can fix and engineer with some new really cool technologies. Geo-engineering maybe? Floating cities? Beautiful little orange tables and nick-nacks made with robots and ‘new’ materials?

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3. Use some fabulous words.

Here are a few: prototypical, performative, materiality, speculative, trajectory, distributed, integrated, deployment, customised, networks, generative, elasticity, composite, non-linearity and of course the word that makes me think of an abattoir’s conveyor belt: machinic.

Wow, that word, ‘machinic’, really sums it up. Its diction is so precise when it comes out of the mouth in speech. It sounds like its got a bit of philosophy behind it ( Deleuze and Guattari) and it implies an ability to control things. To control elements in an objective, rational and seemingly engineered way, to control shit that might otherwise get out of control.

4. Chuck in some systems theory. 

Yes, mention the word systems a lot as it will give the impression that a wholistic, organic and multi-layered approach is being pursued. Add the word systems after other words. For example, ‘Foam systems’ is one thing I read recently. But hey, what was actually meant by this was making stuff with polyethylene styrofoam.

But all the systems theory in the world doesn’t help us untangle the complexities of our current modes of carbon production and rampant carbon emissions. Just saying the word systems doesn’t account for a complex understanding of ecological science or a dismantling of anthropocentrism.

In the 1920s, even Bertalannfy, the founder of General Systems Theory, was to contrast the mechanistic, or machinic, approach to biological disciplines and he consequently advocated:

 ‘an organismic conception in biology which emphasises consideration for the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principles of organisation at its various levels.’

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5. Sustainable

How many times have we heard that word? Don’t you love it? As a word, sustainable has certainly been misused.

But for the Parametric Revolutionaries, it can be used to make it all seem ok. It doesn’t matter that all of this technology and verbiage is half-arsed because it is ‘sustainable’

6. Argue for the holiness of BIM.

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Invoke the sacred name of BIM. But ignore its dreary and banal impact on our suburbs and cities.

Our suburbs are becoming multi-residential BIM libraries. We all know the look. It’s a charcoal grey orthogonally articulated off-site concrete panel kind of architecture. Streets jammed with buildings with lots of frames and framing, volumetric blocks, rectangular slit windows, little black steel window reveals and striated timber slats on steel frames that you know are going to fall apart in a year and glazed balconies you could vape on.

7. Stop talking about architects as architects. 

So old hat to even call ourselves architects. Lest call architects: building engineers, design technologists or better still superusers.

8. Be Male 

Yes, much harder to be a Parametric Revolutionary if your female or non-binary. The parametric revolution is a predominantly male discourse and hey where would we be without all those Zuckerberg dudes in the Silicon Valley incubators.

As I write in my forthcoming book, in the back office of every Warlord or star architect, there is the ‘BIM guy.’ Who is more often than not rubbing shoulders and linked to the other guys making the new generation of AI armaments.

Parametricism is like Pornography 

The entire Parametric discourse the obsession with revolutionary fever, the big dick geo-solutions, the spitting diction of parametric words, the fleshy appeals to organic systems, the feigned softness of sustainability, the eroticism of BIM, the fetishised names and power of remotely operated drones all evoke the technologies, genres, scenes, scripts, words and objectification that we might find in pornography.

There are too many parallels. But that’s ok because all of the new materials and technologies are just around the corner and it’s all going to be ok. When the planet warms by two or maybe three or even four degrees, the Parametric Revolutionaries can hose it down with parametric spunk and that will save us from extinction.

No Future (god save the queen): Is architecture a viable future career path?

 I walked past the above placard the other day at my architecture school and thought; yes, that is pretty spot on. But regardless of the climate emergency, it also made me think about architectural career paths. 

 

There are several theories advanced about architectural career paths. The traditional career path is arguably no longer sustainable. Given the lack of industry research into career trajectories of people who have graduated as architects, the alternatives and different pathways are murky, and I suspect no-one really knows what is going in.

Blah-blah-blah 

 After my second post-graduate degree (my first was in urban design), I was never going back to architecture. After five years or so years of practice in the Keating years, I was over it. Sure. We could have kept going but it wasn’t just that the remuneration was too low it was the fact that the other incentives and potential rewards were also few and far between.

At that point, I even struggled to get a sessional teaching job at my old architecture school. You might ask why not? (and I am sure some of you older colleagues reading this have extremely selective memories or have chosen to forget). My truth to power antics never really went down that well. It’s probably career-limiting to call out soft corruption and the inequities of provincial star-lord favouritism. Even worse to get a few petitions going. 

In any case, it was awesome to get out of the small architecture bubble I had existed in for almost twenty years. Some of my esteemed peers are still in it and have never really left it. A few have even had more predictable career paths. But, I weep for them. In contrast, my career path has been more exciting, chaotic and haphazard (I love my job). But, there was no way I was ever going to ‘selected’ to be an associate or tracked to be a principal in a big practice. 

 So what are the options for those who graduate from architecture schools in Australia? 

 Graduate, get registered and then go into practice. 

 One question: Why would you do it? Your design education probably hasn’t equipped you for business. Apart from a grab-bag of graphic skills it perhaps hasn’t provided you for branding, marketing, networking and sales—yes let’s be blunt, and use the word sales, because that’s what it is. It will probably take you maybe ten years to have sustainable cash flow business. This time might be quicker if you are smart and good at strategy, leadership, negotiations and operational tactics. The time might be faster still if you start with more than three people.

 Of course, if you want any life balance, want to have children or afford a mortgage, then it’s a tough gig. Architectural practice is about the hardest thing you will ever do, and no-one will reward you for it. 

Graduate, get registered and work in a sizeable self-sustaining office. 

 This may be a good option. Providing you don’t get typecast or stereotyped as the BIM guy or the interiors girl, model-maker or the office hipster barista. Ask if your office has a graduate program or leadership mentoring or focused in-house CPD. What about a design mentoring program for those hotshots who think they can Pinterest design as soon as they graduate.

Contract to Contract. 

If you love hanging out with recruiters and like being a kind of lone wolf expert, this might be ok. But contract work, including the expatriate kind, relies on a strong national or global economy. To do it, you will need enough experience to convince a recruiter that you have some kind of special knowledge of expertise.

 Something else. 

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Yes, not everyone who graduates from an architecture school wants to be an architect. But architects are trained in a unique way of thinking that no other discipline has. Architects can make great CEO’s general managers and policy leaders. Architects generally make better than average politicians.

The chilled options: beats, beans, beards craft beer, or furniture making.

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 A variation of the above point. 

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  Adding on some ancillary qualifications

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I know lots of great people who have gone into Project Management. But maybe we should encourage more of this. But hey, don’t we architects hate project managers? Add on another related degree like property or construction management or landscape architecture is probably a good idea. An architect with a follow on Quantity Surveying degree? Now, that would really do my head in.

 The Academia option

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The less said about this option, the better. Let’s say it’s a pathway akin to getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

The start-up option. 

 One of my favourite options. Start your own non-architectural biz, or perhaps slightly related, business from scratch. But you will need lots of help and mentoring from others to do this because what you learnt in architecture school has probably not fully prepared you for the wonderful world of start-ups.

Climate emergency activist 

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Yes !!!! We should all be this and call out the green-washers and business as usual types. 

Architecture is at a tipping point. Is it still a viable career? 

 As with recruiting procedures, the career development processes and infrastructure in architectural firms are, for the most part, pretty crap. If the Australian Institute of Architects were serious about industry reform and advancing the cause of architecture, it would get rid of the awards system. 

This move would force individual firms to get serious about their branding and marketing, break the stranglehold of the star architects and save a whole lot of money on those futile award entries.

Yes, to reiterate, one of the best things the Australian Institute of Architects could do if it were serious about inclusivity would be to scrap the awards system entirely. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? 

The award system only perpetuates the existing ecologies of privilege, mythologies and stereotypes that have been so damaging to the architectural industry. Developing the careers of young architects once they graduate should be a priority for the whole profession. Instead of spending all that money on futile award’s submissions, architects could spend it on the most critical thing in their offices: The talent.

 

“If you have a go you will get a go”: Architectural recruiting practices.

In my part of the architectural woods, there has been a lot of movement alerting architects to many issues around labour practices. Indeed, Parlour and the Architecture Lobby are actively working to bring attention to poor labour practices in architectural practice. One neglected area of this conversation is how architects recruit staff. Of course, not all architects are crap at this, but I would argue there are some widespread recruiting practices in practice that are unfortunate.

I have a friend who has applied for 140 architectural jobs since graduating. His crime? Hard to know what the problem is. He is personable, highly intelligent, he already has a degree in planning and had the motivation to do a Masters of Architecture in his 40s. Oh fuck, did I say the 40s? He is now in that not so fantastic position of being a graduate with minimal architectural experience — an older person in that difficult zone between graduation and registration.

For international students, I would suggest the situation is even more difficult. I cannot begin to write about that here. From what people have been telling me, it is all too painful and damming.

Few architects are trained in Human Resource capabilities. For many practices, the worst thing that can happen is that the design architects get hold of the recruiting process. Imagine being in a room full of critical negative designers who think a BIM is the greatest thing since Salada crackers. But if you are looking for a job in an architectural firm this is precisely some of the things you may be confronted with.

The pressure cooker ambush

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The firm asks you to come in for the interview. When you arrive, they ask you to “do a BIM software test” as a part of the recruiting process. You were not expecting this. You are ambushed! You have 45 minutes to do a complex drawing (like the one above). You are told that at some point during this time someone will come in and ask you impromptu questions. Your tormentor’s also want to “debrief’ after the test. In the debrief they ask you if you like Heatherwick.

The Revit sinkhole

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A variation on the pressure cooker. You have three hours to do the computer test rather than 45 minutes. They say take as much time as you like. You find yourself on a crap windows machine with a few digital files to deal with. Nothing works, and then you realise this is a kind of weird REVIT test. But the libraries don’t work, and the machine keeps crashing. It’s a REVIT sinkhole. One of the architect correctional officers slowly paces the room as you try and make sense of things. There is no debrief, and they say that they will get back to you, but they never do.

The take-home exam

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This selection process is a variation on the pressure cooker above. You get an email 12 hours before the interview asking to do a design exercise. The exercise is to design using sketches, In Design and Revit a 90 unit multi-residential development on a site in the outer suburbs. You are told you must establish design principles, siting principles, draw some typical unit floor plans and sketch a hero shot. At the\end, you need to stand up in front of the design directors and explain your “concept.” They ask you critical negative questions, and one of them starts asking you about stair tread and riser heights.

The innocent face of recruitment

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You are over 45 with lots of experience. You have just been made redundant. You apply for a job through a recruiting company. You go in to meet the firm’s recruiter who finished a marketing degree straight after VCE. Their previous role was in events management. You check out their Instagram profile, and they are doing Mezcal shots with their friends at a mango vape bar. In-person they look very “corporate”. They dismissively glance at your portfolio and tell you are over-qualified for the role. You never hear back. This cycle repeats every time you go to a recruiting agency. Some people say the recruiters only recruit in their own youthful mezcal shot vaping image.

The misplaced role

You apply for a project architect’s role for a large medium-density residential design project. You get to the interview, and they tell you it’s a hospital design role. They ask you for examples of your hospital work. Luckily you have this type of experience and send it to them. They respond by email and say they will get back to you in a week. You never hear back despite repeated calls over the following six weeks.

The money machine future

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It’s a high-level role, and in the interview, the directors ask if you are confident enough to bring in $6M in fees in the next year. They quiz you about your school networks and contacts. It all goes pear-shaped when you tell them what school you went to. A year later the firm goes into liquidation.

The form filling-in-thing

Often you have to fill in forms. Often these forms are incredibly generic, and you wonder what the point of them is that a civil conversation cannot establish. If you get a form that has a field for your hobbies, I think it’s best to answer this in the affirmative and fill it in by writing Crystal Meth or something like that.

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Don’t mention the baby

The interview was going well, and the interviewers then get the fact that you and your partner have just had a second baby. You mention how you would like to get home at a reasonable hour. You are having another child with your partner. They quickly shut down the interview saying “we don’t think you would fit in with the culture of our firm.”

The old promise

We will contact you say the recruiters, the HR people and the architects who interviewed you. But they never do.

The hunger games

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What can be said? This is the group interview. It privileges the pushiest, show-offs and best-dressed candidates. These candidates may or may not be a good fit for the office. Of course, this kind of process will favour the candidates who are more like the architects doing the recruiting. It is an opportunity for them to see more people that they can “select” with the filter of their own unconscious biases. If you are shy, without English as a first language, mature age or just normal without being a pushy sociopath, this process will exclude you

There is a lot more I could say about all of this. Selecting the best people suitable for your office is a complicated business decision. You may not always get it right. But I am sure most of the above practices aren’t going to help you get it right or help your bottom line. We talk a lot about the demographics of diversity in architecture but maybe its’ time to start talking about the mechanisms that foster and discourage diversity.

Happy to hear more about this issue.

 

So who needs architectural theory? It’s mostly rubbish isn’t it?

A colleague from an Architecture School in another University said to me that the current crop of students had no interest in learning history or theory. Maybe the new generations of architecture students don’t like to read. Perhaps these students have no desire for books and archival research. Maybe the centre of the student’s limited architectural universe is that of Dezeen, ArchDaily and all those brutalist schemes on Instagram.

As one Sydney colleague reported to me:

Start of design for some new low-rise apartments in North Sydney. The instruction from the directors was for 4 recent grads to come to the next meeting with any first thoughts, generative form-making or at least some intentions. Of the four on arrived with a sketch (educated in another country), the other three raided Insta/Pinterest for their latest favourites, tabled images only and talked about marketing aspirations for the building.

It can be argued that the relationship between theory and architecture has been broken. Theory is not about critique or the construction of new ideas that support, explain and confirm our architectural endeavours. It’s about consumption.

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For example, I tried to rev some of my students up the other day with a shortish discussion about the Architect Philip Johnson, his problematic fascism and the camp subversion of the hetero-normative and corporate American dream. But they just looked at me like I was some kind of eccentric and irrelevant idiot.

I guess those students would rather watch Madmen. I think, I wasn’t talking about those zinc-clad googly gables you see on Grand Designs. Or Bajrke’s latest scheme to save the whole world, and New York City, from global warming.

I thought WTF maybe all they want to learn are the software programs rather than history and theory. I guess if you don’t learn history and theory in your Architecture school, you are easily seduced by techno-utilitarianism. As well as falling prey to the combination of architectural and urban fantasies mixed in with the propaganda of software vendors.

Without theory, you will be oblivious to architecture’s relation to politics.

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Yes, design methods and digital practices are political. The ‘Paraguru’s’ as a friend of mine calls them, have by and large forgotten this. If they ever remembered it in the first place. The paradox is if architecture is merely a useful vocation, then why aren’t architects better at managing their businesses.

Without theory, architecture is just spin.

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Without some theoretical underpinning or narrative, architectural work will easily get lost in the overriding swamp of consumption. It may look good on Insta, a few arches a bit of funky brickwork a few parametric gestures, but without a theoretical position it’s just an empty shell. There is an image-politic even on Instagram and without theory how would you usefully interpret this constant flow of content. Or is it just base judgements of taste, profiling and bias? How would you try and figure out anything without some contestable and argued theory?

Without theory, there is no danger. 

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So why is history and theory so difficult for students or architects to swallow? Might it mean you have to read some stuff? Such things seem too far removed from the cult of design. Could also mean you have to use your brain to try and figure out how to judge precedents and identify various controversies in history. I guess it’s easy to go with the flow of architectural pragmatic architectural production.

Theory, of course, has its dangers. For the practising architect fully embedded in circuits of capital, they don’t really like being told their work is lacking in some way. In Australia many years ago we had a magazine called Transition it was a site where theoretical debates in architecture could play out. It was and still is a site of conflict, in the end, it was killed off by an unfortunate combination of misogyny, cronyism and an ego-centricity that did not need any theory—particularly not feminist theory.

But isn’t that the point? The point of architectural theory is to offer a perspective that enables architectural design knowledge to be assessed in order to create new design knowledge.

Without theory history is just description. 

Yep, we can catalogue, describe and profile the canon of modernist, post-modern and parametric architecture in all sorts of different ways. But without some critical theory, all these efforts become simply evaluative description at best. One brand of pedantic scholarship that seems to thrive these days always seeks to recast historical narratives without questioning the prevailing paradigms of history or the social conditions of architectural production. In these monolithic accounts of architectural history there will always be an invisible ‘other’ an invisible entity; the intern, the invisible female partner, the BIM slaves in the back room of the practice or the actual workers and users of the building. Power asymmetries are rarely discussed in these accounts. We never hear about the webs of finance that corrupted and gave rise to the building’s genesis. These normative, and on appearance oh so seemingly reasonable narratives, of the architectural canon, are crazy because of what they exclude.

So What?

 Of course, I hate that kind of theory that is seemingly apolitical and moored in the fashions of continental philosophy. Try listening to a philosopher talk about architecture and then try listening to an architect mix it up with a bit of philosophy. Try listening to one of those long dry dialogically argued talks by so-called architectural theoreticians.

FFS the house is burning down, and for architects, we are mired in a quagmire of abstract theory that has no idea about practice, the production of space and the real lives of people. Let alone, any engagement with the extinction politics of the climate crisis beyond good intentions.

Theory is essential to practitioners and practice. And I don’t mean the utterances of the shamanistic shamans that inhabit the elite schools. Without architectural theory, we will never be able to explain and argue the collective worth of our discipline to others.

 

 

The Final Act of the Lacrosse Building Opera

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When something catastrophic goes wrong, there are usually smaller incremental events leading up to the devastating event. However, the aggregation of small events may point to systemic problems.

The current Australian architectural landscape continues to be turmoil. One component of this turmoil is the result of the VCAT determination regarding the Lacrosse building. Even the state Premier Daniel Andrews has been talking about it.

For smaller practitioners, as a result of the flammable cladding issue, PI premiums may rise 20-30%. Many of these small practitioners would only dream of the $3.9 Million in fees, as stated in the VCAT report, that the architects signed up for in June 2007 on Lacrosse. For larger practices who are carrying more risk, it could be even more.

It’s incredible that when Jean-Francois went to have a smoke on a balcony, that he would set in train a series of events, that would have long-lasting ramifications for Australian architects.

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VCAT, Predator and Bucky’s Tensegrity. 

As the VCAT report notes, this was around 7 and half years after the first design meeting concerning the Lacrosse project was held on May 2007. As the VCAT ruling states the architect:

“described the design intent at around this time as comprising two towers with a futuristic visual appeal incorporating design features such as tensegrity screens. The intention was that the buildings have “a focus on technology” and to be perceived as being buildings for the future.

In the architects Lacrosse media kit, (if still available online) the architects describe the influences that shaped the scheme:

“influences as diverse as Predator, ancient urban design, origami and the natural world could come together to create this response, but like all of our projects, the answer lies with process rather than design.

 

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 Lot’s of great concepts in the above quote and to think all these things are integrated with the process. The practice responsible for the scheme emerged from a particular scene and context centred on RMIT Architecture school in the early 2000s. What else could there except concepts and process. You undoubtedly didn’t need theory. This was a social milieux that in architectural terms combined a fashionable social elitism with sound-byte concepts and digital techniques.

Getting it on with the Developers. 

The architects of Lacrosse were selected to exhibit their work at Venice in the 2008 Abundant Exhibition. Around this time there were quite a few articles by notable architectural critics, in the Australian Architectural press about the Lacrosse architects. Only a very few critics, in these predominantly puff pieces, made an effort to assess this work in relation to critical theory or any sense of ambivalence. Most critics seemed to praise the architect’s engagement with developers and celebrated the architectural language of the architect’s facades in several projects. After all, it was all about the facade.

If architects couldn’t do much else, because of developer constraints, at least they could do the facades. Right? This was conceptual architecture with a capital C. Architecture formed in the furnace of a seemingly talented, fashionable and pedigreed circle. The facade concepts of this architecture would shine through the developer and contractor dross. Architects were now going to serve up a shit load of funky facade architecture to the developers. Architects were going to force-feed the developers with architectural ideas and concepts and black polo-necked glamour. In one interview in Architecture Australia, the architects of Lacrosse stated that:

 “our architecture is read in the round. The effect of the building as one moves through it, as one walks around it, is composited and layered. It is not a hero shot, it is cinematic architecture.” 

A Visit to Lacrosse

Yet, when we cross the railyards over Latrobe street Melbourne and look at the Lacrosse building, it seems more like it has been designed as four elevations. Plus, I am clueless as I don’t really get the whole predator thing. There is a bit of shape to the plan, particularly at the south end with an extruded curve a pattern of randomly placed windows that suggested some kind of architectural artifice. The gap between the East and West slabs doesn’t look like a ravine, or an ancient urban design (inspired by that Northern Summer trip to Petra?). These slabs look more like an effort to cram two slab blocks together and get as many units in. Of course, the architect has typically no choice but to maximise the number of units.

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This two slab plan has been extruded and placed onto a black podium. And maybe that is the “Predator” bit. As a compositional or tectonic unit, the podium has been butchered by various pragmatic additions. It’s hard to know which of these bits are either intentional or unintentional or added later.

The idea of triangular tensegrity is I think far removed from Buckminster Fuller’s original tensegrity concept. The tensegrity screen, if we can call it that, is little more than a hollow decoration, an additive melange of aluminium and mesh that veils what is underneath a pretty ordinary building. I am not sure what Buckminster Fuller would think of this.

Some of these parts of the tensegrity screen simply collide landing at the endpoints of balconies and vertical panels. There is no elegance in the construction detailing. Being ignorant of such matter, I have no idea how the screen works in terms of sun-shading or heat loading. There is no sense in any way that the triangular screens may have interacted or given some sense of meagre humanity to the inhabitants of this building. When Jean-Francois went out for a fag if he was looking at the tensegrity screen, he probably didn’t have an architectural epiphany.

I love architectural irony because, in situations like this, it can help save the architect and turn a bad situation into a better one. But, there is no sense of irony in the use of the materials in this developer-driven context. There is no joyous sense of craft when one material meets another. There is not even the most limited sense of material play with different light, shade, texture, construction jointing or colour. I don’t want to start sounding like some kind of Carlo Scarpa inspired sap here. There is no struggle with how these materials might be bought together and might work in any kind of light. This is a kit of product-parts-approach strung together in the hope the marketers will get the job done and sell the product.

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Given the location of the building as it faces back to the grid of the city, the opportunity to mirror and comment on that grid is lost, this façade just looks at us blankly as we walk over the Latrobe street bridge. It’s like the building is saying there is nothing to see here, so just move along.

When I look at Lacrosse now, I wonder what went wrong with all the glistening hope and ambition of the fashionable scene and milieux that gave birth to it. The idea that architects could have concepts, mix it up with developers, and do something. Perhaps, the fire exemplifies the broader failure of a particular kind of architectural culture. This is the failure of a system to engage with the necessity of creating an authentic public language of architecture.

Where did it all go so wrong?

I never want to sound overly strident in my observations, but how did, we as architects, sacrifice our sense of materials? When did we debate all of this loss, this loss of control over construction technique? When did we debate or theorise this not seeing, this blindness in the gap between the money, developers and the aesthetics of architecture?

What we see here is the result of a socio-cultural system that produces, not merely a specific building failure. But also a systems crash of architectural production in relation to architectural theory, aesthetic knowledge, patronage, publication and provincial celebrity. We can hardly blame the architects of this building for all of that.

When will architects stop seeing the vacuity of conceptual spin, stop seeing the ways to use materials is more than just product deployment and smeared on curtain wall systems. Hey, hit me up with some more super tall CTBUH Carbon monuments.

If I had the opportunity to write the Lacrosse opera, I would call it The Jean-Francois balcony smoking scene, would be the final act of an opera centred on architectural vanity and hubris. We are all responsible for that and perhaps we should not be too harsh in our blame.

JAcques

Some naughty things you just won’t see at any Architecture School

I got a few responses to the blog last week about architecture schools so I thought I would write a bit more about it. After last week’s blog it made me think about the kind’s of subjects I would like to see in architecture schools.

The broken compact 

When we start to think about what should be taught in Archi-Schools is it still worth thinking about or muttering that age-old question that still seems to get exclaimed by a particular class of architects: “Why don’t they teach them anything useful in Architecture School?” As some of you may know, from reading last week’s in the gutter blog—and a few people did pull me up for using the word twerking– my view about the demise of architecture schools is related to a particular managerialism that has broken the compact between the architecture school’s as communities of practice and architectural practitioners. It’s all about the KPIs these days student income, research funding and research metrics.

Someone said to me that in their architecture school, the managers—who used to be architectural academics until their souls were sucked out—send out emails to everyone saying here are your KPIs; and they just the same KPIs that have been thrown down to them from on high.

The Architecture School as a Community of Practice 

When I was at architectural school, 5,000 million years ago, there were no KPIs, and we were told it didn’t matter how long we took to be at architecture school as long as we left the school having learnt something. I took the ten-year option (the original course was 3 years plus 3 years part-time) someone else I know took the 12-year option. Most took the 8-year option. Nowadays it’s just a quick 5 years.

It was all about developing a unique culture of practice unique to the social milieu and place that the school was situated in. It was about creating and developing a school of architecture; a culture with its own norms, rituals, debates, conversations and narratives of practice. Admittedly the culture that was developed around the school I went to (no prizes for guessing which one) had its own petty rivalries, brutalities, misogynies and power asymmetries. But the outcome was a local architectural culture, centred on a school, that made a contribution to Australian architecture. And yes please: it would be great to critique the darker histories associated with that culture, beyond the hero worship or the slavishness to the “concept,” and examine its various histories in terms of the winners and losers (all the winners seem to have done is plaster the city in green chewing gum, weird hexagons and secret masculinist symbols). But at least it was a culture that could, and can be, be critiqued and was not some banal machine for producing mediocre ideas about our cities for the consumption of architects and clients who don’t want to feel guilty~guilt that will only increase as things keep going as they are (hey, hit me up with another ‘urban futures’ exciting smart city conference).

One arena of thought about architectural education is to think about it in terms of higher level policy issues around the regulation and compliance of the profession. That is a question that always leads to a narrative around the role of the ACCA and the competency standards. Fair enough and perhaps we do need different measures and perhaps we should ask how do we police the providers? Another discussion is emerging around what architects can learn in the pathway years between graduation and architectural registration. Perhaps the pathway should be more structured? Then you can also end up thinking about the scarcity of in-house graduate programmes in practices across the profession (more on that next week maybe).

Syllabus Innovation

But the other area is curriculum and syllabus innovation. Academics, as well as sessional practitioners, are really good at this kind of stuff. Now for some schools developing new subjects just burns up resources and the standard line from many university managers is “why would you do that?” I remember once when a university manager said: “why would you do that” when we suggested maybe we could have a bit of cheese and dips at student function to explain a course. Why change or reform anything? Ok, so I thought rather than getting all bitter and twisted about the dips, I thought I would have a bit of fun and think about the sorts of subjects I would like to see at an architecture school.

A few studio ideas you won’t see in your architecture school:

Intersectional Spaces and Urbanism

It’s incredible to me that no one has actually bothered to look at queer spaces and histories in relation to Urban Space in our cities. A city where queer voices are heard and have power through urbanism. That’s an entirely different and inclusive power dynamic.

Abject Algorithms

I know this sounds contrary. All those parametric facades tricked up by architects working with so-called specialist engineers and facadey experts look, how shall we say it,  oh so sanitised. Algorithmic wet wipes on the modular facades to assuage our carbon emissions guilt. I am pretty interested in how we can deconstruct all of that and look at facades and parametric patterns as conduits of waste matter and the execrable. How did the algorithm become he captive of the shiny luxury good designers? Is it possible to fashion a new politics of form out of the arrogance of star-architect facade algorithms?

Studio Extinction.

I am quite fond of the Extinction Rebellion group. Need I say more, and so I guess I am wondering how architecture is going to respond to the degradation of the earth.

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Outsider Housing

Slums, informal settlements, homeless, squatters, temporary structures, migrant housing, nomad housing meets Ferdinand Cheval and Nek Chand. First nations and frontier housing. The new frontiers being where the trees are being slashed. Of course, I have to get a little dig in and say: When I hear the words affordable housing I usually want to vomit. (maybe someone can do a graph charting “affordable” housing research vs. generational mortgage capabilities).

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Some Subjects you won’t see at your nearby Architecture School:

Design Leadership

Negotiations, theories of leadership, teams and teamwork. How gendered stereotypes of leadership operate. There is a humungous amount of research around leadership, teams and organisations in the social sciences. Architects should maybe try: just a little bit, and engage with this.

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Construction Detailing

This could be such a fun subject. I am thinking water, I am thinking flashings, I am thinking gutters, automotive gaskets, fixings and joints of all kinds. a kind of erotica and poetics of co at ruction details. Who actually knows what Construction Detailing is any more? A subject dealing with the dark and almost lost art of construction details would be great. Imagine having a BIM apparatchik in your office who ACTUALLY knew how to detail.

Consulting for architects

I am kind of thinking something like talking strategic design, and design thinking meets Mckinsey, Bain, BCG and the what was DEGW. The subject would introduce students to the smoke and mirrors hype, knowledge instruments and templates of the management consultants. We architects should be able to develop our own regimes; why should all the consultants get all of the fun. And the money.

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Strategic IT and Architecture

Yep, and I am not talking about just learning those dull software programs. Strategic IT management, Innovation theory, Data Analytics. I mean how do you manage software and think critically about it when you are making software decisions. How do you handle data, how do you collect data, how will architects do data analytics (could be a separate subject) in the future. What are the cycles and loops of innovation in the techno-sphere that architects should learn about? Oh fuck, it would be a subject where architects think about technology, you know like strategically, rather than just lapping it up like it’s some kind of addictive drug.

Of course, I am also thinking of a few seemingly kooky history and theory subjects. But I will keep those ideas up my sleeve as I don’t want to give too much away at the moment. Syllabus Innovation isn’t a bad way to think about our Archi-schools schools: from the bottom up rather than from the KPI top down. The problem with the latter approach is that subject delivery always becomes more important than subject content. I can’t wait to be told my online lectures have low production values.

Its all About The Money: What makes a great Architecture School?

So what makes a great architecture school? Or maybe a better question might be how would you design an architecture school for this day and age. I was prompted to think this because in Australia the ERA research excellence rankings have just come out. These rankings indicate that few of our Archi schools in Australia are “well” above world standard.

The rankings measure research outputs in these terms.

  • 5 Well above world standard
  • 4 Above world standard
  • 3 At world standard
  • 2 Below world standard
  • 1 Well below world standard

In this ERA round, 5 Archi schools got 4 (Above world standard), 8 Archi schools got 3 (At world standard) and 1 school got 2 (Below world standard).

But on that basis I think Australian architecture schools are doing pretty well giving the universities have been ripping them off for the past 10 years or so, pumping them full of students, exploiting their full-time and sessional academics and giving next to nothing back for research or research training (sorry to sound so strident this week but its easier when I am writing in a hurry).

Yes, no one school in Australia got 5 (Well above world standard). So we all know how much I love metrics but hey WTF? ERA is kind of saying that of 22 Architecture schools in Australia none are well above world standard? Are we all “above world standard” and no higher and WTF is “world standard” for an architecture school anyway? I think all that ERA does is point to the poverty and the managerial disgrace of these kinds of metrics and ranking systems. Not to mention the time and resources spent, by academics, preparing an ERA application.

I would also argue that our ERA rankings in the discipline would be better if our architecture schools were better managed by university executives (I might even develop my own ranking survey around this). Most don’t have a clue what design studio is. Yes, let’s repeat that: most managerial types—across the different schools I know of–have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care.

Its all about the research numbers or the money.

I reckon I could even do a Get Krackin style of TV comedy about design studios in architecture schools.

 

So my ideas for a world class plus architecture school would be:

Design Studios

Design studios are the core of any architecture school. They are highly sensitive to changes in the external environment supporting them. Such as class sizes or contact hours. You can’t learn architecture in 3 contact hours. Nor can you teach a studio with 18 students. Or spoil a studio with clueless teaching, cronyism, bias or worse still a paucity of prudent, decent and insightful design criticism, there goes your architecture school down the drain. But most managerial types—across different schools I know have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care (there is that theme again).

Culture

I have written about this elsewhere. The best way to build a culture and a sense of community around an architecture school might be to have year cohort system (and an active studio system). You can’t create an architecture school culture through managerialism–sorry if this is starting to sound like a bit of theme. You won’t do it with a checklist, or a policy, nor will you do it with school prizes, nor lots of overseas studios and nor those MOFO male twerking celebrity architects coming to visit when the provincials do all the bowing and ring kissing. I have ruined my own career by never being interested in all the fawning over the celebrities. (last week we had a few visiting dignitaries, and it was like watching fawning flies on a meat carcass).

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Safety Zone Debates 

Yup, we need to do more than the above, and that is the mix where practitioners, academics and actual students can mix and in engage in the same milieu. Lots of panels are great, lots of questions, debates and discussions are even better. Debates and discussions about real issues. Debates where every voice is heard, and this is so important for the culture of an architecture school. Debates where it’s not just a macho title bout. We need to make safe spaces to have these conversations.

Of course, if the academics are too busy with their so-called “careers” and gaming their research metrics ( don’t get me started on this subject), then they will never engage in the culture of an architecture school. Even if some academics can’t design teach their way out of a wet paper bag, then it would be nice to see them at the debates, exhibitions and talks.

Diversity

Need I say more than merely using the D word. Or do I have to spell it out? I have written a bit about it here. If you want an excellent Architecture school the more diverse its constituents, the better. Homogeneous and monocultural schools just lead to the most appalling power asymmetries within their confines and then later on in the profession.

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Curricula

I have observed three different approaches across all the Archi schools in Australia.

The diverse curriculum school — as distinct from a school with diversity– the “design” school, and the focused curriculum school (oh so boring). The diverse school can be great as it will allow different lines of design research and approaches to emerge. It might even enable synergies to happen between different domains of design knowledge. Which is all ok provide the school with the diverse curriculum is structured well. But it is not great if it is usually managed in an ad-hoc fashion, all the bits of curricular just kicking around in a rubbish bin. To be great schools, these types of schools need active, attentive and balanced leadership.

Then there are the Archi Schools focused on a single-digit idiocy, of a technical trick, brand attribute or singular focus: sustainability, materials science, fab-labbing, urban design and of course parametrics. I am not actually sure these types of archi schools are actually schools of architecture. I am sorry, but I am too much of a generalist to stomach these types of schools.

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Of course, in some schools, everyone is a designer or aspires to be one. Committed to the concept and the holy idea or “process.” This tendency doesn’t really help dismantle the celebrity cult. And this sensibility always ends up sounding like the contrary argument. It’s a philosophy or approach that might have been current 20 years ago. But increasingly, design as an autonomous field to be protected, is a head-in-the-sand issue. It’s appallingly apolitical because it is a viewpoint that continually fends off anything from outside the discipline: politics, management, technology, and of course any kind of theory. With a little bit of intellectual generosity, rather than the old hokey-pokey designer smoke and mirrors, these schools can be great.

So that’s it, and I am always amazed how different schools fall into some of the various traps mentioned up. But the real point I am trying to make is that: architecture schools are a microcosm of the profession, and if we really want to change Architecture going into the future then we really need to change the schools as well. This is so important.

Bring on the revolution then we can all get fives in the ERA rankings.