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.

Surviving the Design Studio: In 2019 make models and be happy.

I went to a lot of parties over December, and this is why I have been a little blog tardy. Well, 2019 is here, in fact, it is already February, and I am finally coming out of my summer slumber. Last week I was in Singapore and maybe being in an actual high-density city that has been planned, actually designed, and regulated without being anal-retentive insane, as compared to the free-for-all mediocrity of Australian cities jogged me out of my vacation fog. Rhetorical question: how did Singapore get to be so good and our cities get to be so bad?

For those of you who might be interested last year’s blog stats were certainly encouraging to me. 40 blogs 41,000 or more views and over 22,000 visitors. Thank you so much to everyone who has bothered to look at this blog.

And I indeed wonder if words still matter to architects. I say this because the more critical pieces of architectural criticism, such as my views of the Venice Biennale, I wrote were less popular than those kick-in-the head “why are architects such dumbass” posts. For example, the most popular blog last year was this one whereas my review of Australian Pavilion Venice was hardly read (maybe just as well). Is this a symptom of the penchant for architects for self-loathing and laceration than considered critique?

Anyway, welcome to 2019 and there are a few issues that I think I will probably pursue this year. I think if you keep your eye on each one of these as they unfold in our discipline you probably be ahead of the game in 2019.

The continuing demise of the architect’s role in Australia

There have been a few bright spots on this topic in recent weeks. But this has mostly been the result of the need to respond to tragic circumstances. With the Opal debacle and Neo200 façade fire its good to see architects stepping into the debate. Yes, the unregulated price competition driven slack-arse corner-cutting architect-hating developer and contracting industry has now taken a few hits. Opal has been a big one and thankfully the ACA and even the AIA have seen these events as a way to promote and advocate the necessity of using architects. If you are really keen you can read the Shergold report here.

Climate Change

Clearly, another Australian election issue and it is easy to only point to how conservative politics, both here and elsewhere, have chosen to contest this issue through a cocktail of contrariness, self-absorbed plain speaking and tabloid rationality masking a self-destructive insanity. What more can you say?

But, given the facts and catastrophic prospects of a 2 degree or more warming world, how will architects themselves deal with the prospect of humanities extinction. As we head down this path, will the response be just a bit more “business as usual” rhetoric of community, warm fuzziness, do-gooder resilience and potted pop-ups sustainability “interventions.” Sure, I am annoyed that people in numerous organisations across the architectural sector have built careers on this tripe. I think the architectural response needs to be more radical. So for me a question this year is this: When will the tipping point come when architects start to take to the barricades and seriously reconfigure the discipline to change the current path?

The coming NSW state election, as well as the Australian Federal Election, might even highlight some of these issues. But as with most elections these days, anything single issue might or might not arise out of the woodpile of politics.

Intersectionality

Yes. There it is I said it. And being a CIS white middle-aged male of privilege, who am I to speak for the voices that we really need to hear speak and allow to speak? How can we better achieve this? Maybe, All I want for Christmas this 2019 year is to see a design studio, somewhere in one of the many architecture schools in Australia, maybe just one, that addresses issues of intersectionality in relation to urbanism and our cities. I guess it’s easier to avoid the theory that goes with the intersectional territory and to speculate about all that middle brow and bourgeois housing.

Anti-Master

When will architects stop sucking up to the so-called masters, abandon the star system of privilege and canon formation and work collectively? Without putting too much of an excellent point on it, we have had another revered old crock in our midst recently pushing the same old same shamanistic lines (no prizes for guessing who). Then I hear Glen Murcutt is getting the next M Pavilion gig. The awful thing is the money these stars get is money that could be better spent going towards younger practitioners or funding people to curate great architetcural exhibitions.

The Academic-Industry interface.

Always a rich source of interest for a blogger like me. Now that the universities and architecture schools have been hollowed out with neo-liberal research metrics this interface will always be of interest. On the industry side architects still, need to get their heads around research. Sure, maybe the design as research mantra has gone off the boil. But just doing it, just thinking by fronting up to the studio and doing design and doing enough of or playing with the computers in the office to make stuff is somehow RESEARCH.

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Architects are suckers for all of the big technology future buzzwords. Coding, Coding, Coding, Coding, these words too often hide masculinist tropes, and in fact, if you say the word coding often enough in a design studio one will think you are a real man. every . Architects really need to get it together on this stuff. Why are all the technology types in architecture predominantly men? Sadly, the strategic management of technology in practice leaves a lot to be devised. Too many architects think they are up to speed if they buy a few BIM licences or mutter the word coding or talk about scripts. Architects really need to stop thinking about these things as words to spin and actually try and understand technology and software development in a more concrete way.

Be Happy and Make Models

So for those of you who think I am too cynical, please think again. Here is a scrap of niceness for you. I am thinking in 2019 everyone needs to make more models. Yep. More models and models and models we need to abandon drawings of whatever kind and make more models. Models can make us happy. We would all be happier as architects and researchers (don’t get me started on research models). Think of what the world would be like without architectural models. A very sad place. It would be dismal. Models are so much fun and easily instagrammable. I fear the only place models are made these days is in the architecture schools and that in the world of practice the model has already gone the way of Briefing, DD and CA and just about everything else. Time to rebel and stick the physical models up your client’s arses.

And in some ways, this is what this blog will be about in 2019. If we are going to slow this drift into chaos in these pre-apocalyptic times, we architects might as well go down kicking and screaming by making models.

The same old mistakes: Emerging practices, the cult of timidity, underpayment and overwork.

Last week, two things happened related to early stage architectural practices. Firstly, it was related to me how a young architect had started working with a larger practice because she was sick and tired of the overworking, underpaid and disorganised nature of the seemingly emerging practice that she was in. A practice that might be described as a social media icon. I then went to the Architeam Awards, and it was great. This is my favourite tribe of architects. Of course, as everyone knows I am positively biased towards Architeam after the RASP project.

Architeam Awards

It was a great party, and for those who know me I am trying to party as much as possible during this end of year architectural season, and it makes the AIA awards seem like a dreary and pompous affair with the alcohol. The Architeam awards are a fun, less formal and more casual party where everyone gets to mix and actually talk. No long drunken monologues form the small coterie of architects who get the awards all the time. Architeam is a diverse organisation with its base in the architectural community. It is a cooperative governed by a diverse elected board. This year there were six judges for all the awards categories, perhaps a better system than what the AIA does.

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As my favourite professor once said to me, “just tell the practice students it’s all about the money.” As a small practitioner or any kind of practitioner for that manner, it is much cheaper to be involved in the Architeam awards than the AIA awards. They even have a Youtube clip by Bowerbird to help architects prepare their award for the mass media.

One of the more exciting awards was for the Contribution & Innovation Category.  This Award is to recognise contribution and innovation to architecture beyond the design and production of buildings.

Commendations were jointly awarded to 4 entries in the Contribution and Innovation category: Accessibility in the Built Environment by Visionary (now that I am actually disabled I think Mary Anne Jackson is excellent): New Architects Melbourne (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne (NAM); Sydney Architecture Walks by Eoghan Lewis; and Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne – all contributed greatly to Australian Architecture in a variety of innovative ways.

It was great to see Our City Our Square campaign by Citizens for Melbourne get an award as well as (NAM) by New Architects Melbourne. I am not sure either of these groups would get an award in the AIA system.

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Emerging Architects and Politics?

But lest you think this blog is just an Architeam love fest: one of the more interesting comments made to me by a winner on the evening is that “young architects are not interested in community advocacy and politics” and seemingly uninterested in being engaged in public advocacy.

Both of these tales, made me wonder if our young early-stage practices are making the same mistakes like those made in the past.

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Mistake One: Not speaking out (plus mistake 1A misuse of social media)

A disengagement with urban and local politics motivated by the fear of not getting work if a particular practice or a group takes a position or a stand. Let me be savage and cynical, I am over the wishy-washy view of architecture with its comb-over of good intentions: sustainability, saccharine placemaking and a residue hipster style social media presence.

For some, it’s all about the emojis and the insta-likes. Oh, gee whiz, I just posted another exotic image of a long-lost fragment of brutalism. Let’s see some insta-images from architectural influencers that mess with people’s heads rather than saccharine gumpf (mistake 1A). I am over the mild-mannered, but a little bit quirky, modernism; you know a little bit Eamesy, the limed wash joineries, the laminated timber tables, the affectation of funny windows, the micro snapshots of architectural ephemera, and the cult of vibrant youth studio pictures. It looks all so perfect, but is it? How can it be perfect when everyone is getting overworked and underpaid.

It goes without saying that architects will not add value to public debates, or achieve a policy presence unless the emerging networks of young architects are more militant. Policy advocacy and militancy are sorely needed in the profession.

I don’t know what it is about the AIA that makes them so weak. Others would use harsher terms. Sure, I know lots of people on the various chapter councils. Many are excellent and notable architects. But maybe it’s something to do with governance, the lack of leadership and management capabilities, or the spineless devotion to not rocking the boat. Meanwhile, all of the other interest groups in our broader industry have no compunction in pushing their own agendas.

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Mistake Two: The same old same old of traditional practice. 

Small and newly formed practices have a chance to make it different. Practice culture is set in the first year of practice. Sure, small scavenger practices are all desperate to get jobs and survive. But overwork is not going to get you there. Have a business and marketing strategy and shit have an actual business plan. Get your practice organised with a few basic systems at the beginning of the practice. Basic business accounting systems, contact databases, timesheets and actual strategy.

Think about how you will manage staff and outline some goals. Pick up on a few managerial skills. Learn how to collaborate with others. Go and network and coffee with other people who are not architects even if that means not getting desperate about cutting your fees for that next miserable job. Talk to some of the marketing consultants who know the profession well. And for fuck’s sake don’t underpay, or overwork, your female staff members compared to your male staff.

All of this is about building your small practice infrastructure and capabilities ahead of time. Instead of falling into a miasma of panic, desperation and making it up as you go along.

The design studio cult of overwork, underpaying staff, long hours, bidding for low fees, should not be a part of the culture of newly emerging practices. Starting a practice is an opportunity to change this and set a new culture and explore new ways of doing architecture. The firm’s that do this now, without following the path of traditional practice culture, will be the ones that will survive and prosper in the future.

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Getting back into it 

If I was to start practice now, rather than when we did in the early to mid-90s, I would probably do it all differently, everything has changed, but its like we keep making the same mistakes.

Yep, even I would be up for starting a small practice and this time around I am thinking of a ground-up tribe of practitioners working collaboratively, with great governance, considered strategy and an activist architectural politics. Not only do we need ground-up professional organisations but we also need ground-up and community-based practices.

Let me know if you are up for it. I reckon a collaborative group of six to twelve architects (plus a few poets or painters or performance artists) would be enough to keep everyone employed and well as enough to quickly kick ass. The time of the traditional practice is over.

 

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.