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.

Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?

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Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 

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Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?

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Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Surviving the Design Studio: This is the end; the last things before the design crit.

Last week I had the opportunity to see some student crits in my Archi-schools undergraduate program. I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing projects from undergrad students and in my dotage there seems to be nothing more appealing than the prospect of prancing around a crit with the tantalising possibility of letting loose with a few well-chosen design criticism barbs. Thankfully, for all concerned including myself, the projects I saw were pretty good all things considered. It was indeed a pity because I still yearn to employ the darker arts of studio criticism and you can read about a few of them here. But it did remind me that in the last weeks of a studio—or even a design competition–there are lots of things architecture students should be doing.

1. Don’t turn back on your concept. Avoid concept-diarrhea

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Developing a concept beyond the pragmatic is an excellent idea. One of the problems many students have in studio is that by the time they do the research, understand the site, procrastinate, do a few half-hearted sketches, have a look at what Remksy, Herzog and de Neuron, MVRDV or Bjarke spark-a-larkles are doing on Insta, then do some more reading, fool around on the internet, procrastinate some more and its like 3 weeks to go and then the panic sets in. Perhaps it might have been better to do some design sketches in week one?

If at that point you don’t have a concept get one. If you do have a concept, don’t lose faith with it. Don’t replace it with another different concept. Concept replacement is usually seen as being desperate, and a reasonable jury will always sniff out projects based on the last-minute rush to finish. You have to run with it and make it connect to all the different aspects of your building that you need to design.

If you have burnt up all your time, the first thing you need to do is remember the concept and try to fashion and explain it in a way that is not merely about a knee-jerk functional reaction to the clients, the brief the studio outline or the site.

At the end of the day critics, everyone will want to see how you have used your concept or conceptual apparatus to fashion your design. Maybe, summarise your concept in one diagram or image and put this on your final print out.

2. Work on your plan. Avoid DLD (dimension-loss-disease)

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As everyone knows I hate plans, and they sued to bore me senseless when I fancied myself as an archi-school student designer. I was more interested in the developing dynamic volumes and three-dimensional architectural language.

And FFS get your scales and your spatial dimensions correct. There is nothing worse than looking at a plan that is full of empty space or the kitchen benches or door openings that are too big or too small. Another aspect of DLD is that some areas are either much bigger or much smaller than what they are supposed to be.

Print, yes actually print out your plans, and get a friend to check them. I am sorry to tell some people this, but plans are about measurement. One old trick is to actually design into your plans cool bathrooms, laundries, kitchens or storage areas. Yes, get those toilets right. If you can do that the whole plan will have more detail and look more convincing to a jury. Get some level of detail into your plan even if it is only visual.

3. Work on and present your sections. Avoid alt-right-angle-sectioning.

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I cannot stress this enough. Yes, I am a section guy. I love those Siza sections which communicate so much about volumes, light, spatial sequences, and the relationship between spaces. After all, a section is in some ways a plan that has been turned on its side. Good sections are of lines that are articulated, a section is a line that has a profile: steps, nibs, thickenings and thinnings, bumps, protrusions and the whole affair is a contoured and shaped image.

There is not building on the planet that has a right-angle where the exterior walls meet the roof. Just spitting out from a digital model, plans, sections and renders without thinking what they are like in reality is not architecture.

4. How is it to walk around your building and what will you see? Avoid unreal-viewpointing.

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Avoid the impossible angles, screwy scaled views, hot air balloon basket views that no user of your design will actually see. Avoid viewpoint unreality.

The worse thing you can do is front up to the crit and have no idea yourself what your building might be like to walk around. Looking at things in the computer is not the same thing. So, you need to walk through it in your mind and not in your computer. What will you see and what will you encounter? If you can produce and present a series of vignettes and views of what it might be like for someone, perhaps as an actual user of your building,

5. Show the context. Avoid render-plopping

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Please, I beg you, I ask you with all my heart, to show the context. Nothing shows archi-school and computer ignorance more than just plopping on a sheet—and I mean plopping in a scatological sense— render as if it is completely isolated from any surrounding urban, material or physical context.

6. Show the design process. Avoid process-voidance

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Bring along all your sketches, preliminary models, have them ready to show the critics. Stick them into some kind of consistent format. I mean how long does to take to do this?

Physical models are excellent. Even if you are running out of time, it’s still good to do a small, simple scaled physical model even if it is tiny. It’s probably worth at least 5 more marks if not more.

7. Get your project timing right. Avoid timing-desperation.

Of course, all the above things might seem like they are going to slow you down or take up too much time. Better to just stay in the model and keep on doing stuff as that will be quicker. But in fact attending to the above issues either partially and or fully will, in the long run, make for a better design and a set of images at the jury end of the process; it will communicate more about your design to a jury.

If you get too desperate about timing, you will screw everything up and end up at a broken printer. Timing is everything, and you need to plan ahead as to how long things will take to do.

I suppose the above is a kind of plea for the importance of design thinking and its associated crafts. Working on a computer model and then just spitting it out into a presentation—extruded plans, oversaturated renders, no sections, Insta-people collaged into all the views, a completely missing context, isn’t really architecture. It is just crap.

Previous blogs along these lines include the following:

Surviving the Design Studio: How to start making architecture with an actual drawing.

Surviving the Design Studio: How to avoid plan reading blindness

Surviving the Design Studio: 7 things to do to hit the ground running.

Surviving the Design Studio: 6 hacks to develop your crap design quickly.

Surviving the Design Studio: Symptoms and cures of design jury anxiety.

Surviving the Design Studio: Getting through the last days before the submission deadline.

 

 

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Things to do at Architecture School to make sure you get a job when you finish

Lately, I have had the pleasure of hanging out with actual architects in a number of different forums. Inevitably the conversation comes around to the state of architectural education and architectural graduates. This situation may be more the case now because the employment market in my small city is currently buoyant.

To my surprise, a few common themes seemed to emerge in the conversations about graduates. The first is the sense among most architectural employers that recent graduates are less engaged with architectural culture and that there is an expectation amongst them that they will land a job in an office as a “young” and “emerging” designer leading a project team. Amazingly, for whatever reason, young architects think that they will design. Interesting to think some recent graduates think they will be leading project teams. Especially, given the widespread and prevailing dislike of group work by students. But hey, maybe that’s only in the practice class.

Others are under the illusion that they will be working the fablab machines and robots when they make the transition to practice.

I haven’t looked lately, but I am not sure how many offices have robots or are part of prefabricated supply chains. But shit hey; there is nothing wrong with learning how to code for that brave new future that the technology nutters are telling us will happen. With any luck, we might even get a few future Architects who will understand how to interrogate AI algorithms. But as argued below it is all about balance; and if architects can’t learn to manage new technologies, as compared to merely executing the technologies, then we architects will end up being next too useless.

I think making the transition from postgraduate architecture school to a working life in architecture is a pretty hard thing to do. Its not a great sapce to be in even when the employment market is bouyant. So, if you are a graduate student, here a few things you can do now to make the transition easier.

The first rule is balance

Don’t sacrifice all of your subjects for the design trophy. Keep things in balance. Being fixated on design marks actually means nothing once you graduate. Your final year marks are only one thing that architectural employers will take into consideration. What is more important is where you are positioned in your career two years out after graduation. Are you a BIM monkey drone at that point or are you beginning to assume responsibility and leadership in various practices? Do you have a strategy for your career?

You need to focus on the other things if you are to survive in a competitive marketplace: Architectural Practice (of course), History and Theory and Construction (and that doesn’t mean hanging out with the 3D printers). If you don’t know any of those things or pay little attention to them, you may not necessarily learn them in practice. Moreover, it will take an employer longer to teach you those things. As one practitioner said to me “the recent graduates are loss makers” because even though they are enthusiastic about design, they are too slow doing the other things” You need to balance your time and efforts across everything. Don’t get sucked into the design vortex.

Get with the culture

If you are going to think that you are some kind of star designer, then become one properly. Pick the hardest studios to do, expand your design skill base each time you do a studio at architecture school. Become involved in the local culture of your architecture school. Join SONA. Hang out at architectural events and be engaged. Go to the nearest peer awards presentations. Be interested in the latest architectural and urban controversies. Sitting at home on your computer with the Rhino or Revit family catastrophe is one of the most boring things you can do. You might even get off your computer and organise a studio space with your fellow travellers.

By getting involved with architectural culture, you will help to change it.

Build a profile 

Every architectural employer will look at your social media feeds to see how you fit into the culture of their practice. If your Instagram account is full of images with you taking selfies in bathrooms, skulling alcohol out of the red plastic cups, dancing at the toga parties, or latching onto a bong-pipe or vomiting in stretch limos while wearing the hire tuxedo then maybe it is not such a good look. Keep your professional profile separate from your personal one.

You need to build a “professional” profile. There best way to do this is through social media. Choose which avenues will best help you to do this. This engagement can be great as it is your opportunity to show what you are interested in on Instagram or Pinterest or Linked-In.

Get work experience while studying

Yes, sacrifice that precious studio design time and get a job in an architects office while you are studying. And that doesn’t mean getting a job that is some low-rent unpaid exploitative internship. DON’T EVER WORK FOR NOTHING. Most architectural employers enjoy having students around. Usually, they will actually think your quite smart and will be interested in your views on architecture. But that doesn’t mean you will be designing the latest Opera House.  You will learn more about design in an architects office than you might in a graduate school architectural studio. Of course, it depends on the office and the studio. This is why the balance between the two is so important.

 Be enthusiastic about doing stuff

Oh, and be sober at the job interview: Someone I know who was struggling to find a job in the early 90s recession swallowed a whole lot of homemade hallucinogenic cookies. About ten minutes later the phone rang, and the architectural firm asked if he wanted to come in for a job interview later that afternoon. He said sure. The time was just about when the cookies started to take hold. The rest is history, needless to say, he did not get the job.

In the job interview, don’t shove every design thang, every design sketch, every design robotic fab-labster-lobster thing down the throat of the interviewers. It is a mistake to think this approach will make you seem different. It’s not about you. I once got a job by saying that horse racing was in my blood and I liked nothing more than documenting the joinery and urinals in jockey’s rooms. I got another job as a site architect on a correctional centre PPP by saying I was great at anti-vandalism detailing. That was because I convinced them I could think like a sub-criminal teenage vandal.

Be different 

Better to tell the potential employers how much you enjoy doing bathroom and tiling details than saying you are some awesome emerging mini-star designer. Become an expert on the mundane things by being curious about those seemingly ordinary things now. Chances are saying that will spin out the employers out so much, at the interview, you will get the job on that basis alone. To the architectural employers, you will seem different and a cut above everyone else. Once you get that post-graduation job, because of your tile detailing or contract admin knowledge skill set, and do anything attitude, you will eventually have to do just about anything once employed in practice.

You might even get the chance to design a few real bathrooms because you will be the person who has to design and document them. There are some great bathrooms in my city designed by the students and the recent grads. And after all, isn’t designing great bathrooms and toilets what design is all about?

Surviving the Design Studio: How to avoid plan reading blindness

Sometimes I get to tutor, as in actually teach in front of students face to face, and a lot of the time it is fun. Another night in a practice tutorial I held up the three plans and a section of Corbusier’s La Tourette to the students and asked them if they could look at these plans imagine what the building was like in 3 dimensions. Some responded with an educated guess, but most just looked at me blankly. I then held up a trade breakdown of figures for a different project and asked them to imagine what these figures might also suggest about the three dimensionalities of the project.Hence, the seemingly perverse exercise of comparing some photocopied plans of La Tourette with a list of Trade Breakdown figures I suppose I was trying to indicate how “reading” plans are the same as reading a list of figures. More blanko looks.

Plans and Trade Breakdowns

But I then led them through the figures with a close textual reading as historians also do. I told them how you could “read” the trade break-down figures to understand what these say about the buildings final form and the opportunities buried in the figures for getting some design into the project. One student had the insight to ask me, “how might an architect stack up or shape the figures to achieve some design objectives”? Which in the real world, if you are not a so-called architect obsessed with project productivity and optimization, means having further opportunities to design as the delivery process unfolds.

Afterward, I thought about this encounter with the students and begun to worry if they had now lost the ability to read drawings or anything else for that matter. Although, that is a little harsh, and far be it for me to appear to be or seem harsh in my judgments (you only have to look at my last two blogs to see what a paragon of fair-minded generosity I am).

Plan reading blindness

Anyway, I then began to wonder if that is the case, if the students now ensconced in the joys of computers and Instagram had now lost the ability to read plans. And dare I say it, these plans are, what some of us might call “traditional plans” and sections. But reading and interpreting plans and sections and other documents is a critical skill that all architects should possess. If my hypothesis is correct, that architects are no longer teaching, or taught, how to read plans (and I hope it isn’t), it might nonetheless explain why the industry thinks that the skill base of graduates is declining. Is it any wonder if graduates are not learning actually to read, interpret, ponder or wonder about plan drawings.

What an architecture course is not

Same with digital graphics and the other evils of computing. I wonder if the problem is that interpreting or reading a drawing requires an attention span that goes beyond the ten milliseconds it takes to like an Instagram or Zuckerberg post. Then there is the obsession with just making stuff.  Many schools are nowadays obsessed with making stuff. I suppose the highest planet of all this maker-spacey making seems to have been the AA’s DRL lab. That’s all fine and good but making stuff is not the same as learning to interpret drawings. Nor is the obsession with a computer or some other kind of digital graphics. You can’t build an architecture course around digital technologies and prefabricated construction and workshops. This isn’t actually an architecture course!

These algorithmic things are ancillary to architectural design and they always have been. I know you might think I sound like an old curmudgeon and that’s also part of the problem as well. The traditional-new polarity is a misnomer. All because a technique is new, or has a legacy, doesn’t necessarily mean it is either excellent or needs abandoning. Architects and educators have a responsibility to consider how new techniques should constitute and shape architecture. The problem with that proposition is that might mean thinking and arguing about architecture in a theoretical sense. What broad techniques, instruments or ways of thinking should we be encouraging in architectural education and through our industry bodies?

After a while, architects may not even know what a plan is. So here is an exercise that everyone might do to remedy the situation.

A remedy for plan blindness

So, If you an architecture student this is what you need to do. Its kind of like a mindfulness exercise for architects.

1. Find some plans and sections print them out.

2. Look at the plans for about an hour.

3. Lie down and think in your mind what these plans imply about the buildings three-dimensional form and materiality.

4. In your mind walk through the building.

5. Go to sleep.

6. Wake up the next day

7. Go and visit the building and see if it is the same as what you thought.

8. Write a few notes about the experience.

9. Repeat for a different set of plans.

Avoid the urge to skim around the internet or look at your phone while doing the above. It is entirely possible that all of that attention seeking digi distractions are making you a dumb and dumber designer. The problem is you may not even realize you cant read plans.

Architects are living in La-La-Land: Project tyranny and network fantasies 

Traditional logic suggests that architects are focused on project networks rather than projects. But architects we now are witness to a rise of the project network organisation. This new form of organisation has arisen as a result of project complexity requiring greater degrees of specialist knowledge. Such organisations are seen as being the best way in which complex tasks can be achieved by bringing together heterogeneous and diverse skills and knowledge. Project networks are argued to be more flexible and creative.

As soon as project outcomes have been achieved the knowledge network is dismantled and reconfigured for the next project. According to this body of theory projects now embody “temporary systems” and that these systems are “constituted by multiple individual or organisational actors” (see: Whitley, 2006; Manning and Sydow, 2011).

In this context the challenge for architects, is to adapt in a competitive global system that is increasingly flexible and indeterminate. This is a system where the project itself has, in a manner of speaking, disappeared. As a result, architects now face competition from project delivery actors who are better, because of their agility, at project control and management than architects ever were.

Project tyranny and the genius

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ear of an architectural genius 

It is reasonable to ask in this context, if architectural firms are sufficiently flexible, both internally and in their external facing guises, to adapt to the demise of the project. Certainly, architects focus on projects but increasingly utilises and connect to various knowledge networks outside of the firm. This suggests the line between project based organisations and network organisations is in theory at least increasingly blurred. For architects there is still a tension between being project-centric and the idea that projects are themselves temporary systems.

In other research, focused on consulting and knowledge based firms, it is contended that: projects are exclusively customer or client centric, leading to a kind of “project tyranny.” This tyranny does not allow for or easily accept competing, flexible or organisational principles and dynamics.

All of which struck a chord with me because architects seem dangerously focused on the designed project with a capital P and this approach this is linked to the inflexible postures of the creative designer. In combination project centricity with the current culture of design leads to inflexible, archaic work and discriminatory work practices. The tyranny of client centric projects alongside inflexible organisational hierarchies and haphazard infrastructure reigns supreme within many firms.

Network fantasies

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Potteries Thinkbelt Cedric Price 

But for architects there is another danger: the allure of the internet as a distributed technologies. Architects have been obsessed with networks for a long long time. There is a superficial resemblance between the project networks that architects seek to build and the internet technologies that facilitate these networks. In the strategic thinking of some architects these two different types of networks are conflated. This conflation is exacerbated by the optimistic and utopian rhetoric’s that surround the ongoing development of technology in architecture. Every architecture school in Australia has robots, we are getting workshops technologies and software shoved down our throats at every turn. Yet very little of any architectural school’s curricula is devoted to how to manage these technologies. As I was reminded in a recent ACA webinar architects aren’t even taught how to manage projects. Design them: Yes. Manage them: No.

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Cedric Price and the windscreen wiper goggles 

For architects technology networks are seen as a realm of possibility rather than a realm that threatens to limit the agency and range of architects. Emerging technologies may be the architects worst enemy. There emerging bunch of technologies (I won’t name the usual suspects here) are arguably broadening the size of our professional service markets, market geographies and worst of all reducing differences amongst competitors and increasing the proliferation of substitute services. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the internet allows suppliers of knowledge to reach end users more directly. Yet architecture students are frigging around in every studio workshop across the globe with little bits of laser cut timber.

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Collaborative Leadership

On the one hand, architects may survive in a scenario where projects are organised around a temporary teams, enabled by technology, that is both mobile and fluid as it connects and reconnects to different networks. Arguably, it is the architects, organised around teams with good studio based leadership, leadership that is collaborative and inclusive, rather than the old creative design genius style, design leadership needs to be about gathering, configuring and integrating design knowledge, from within and across networks, in order to design and produce through temporary project systems. Not just stamping your ego and whims on a project.

La-la land

In the future survival and competitive advantage will go to those architects, who cling to the notion of the designed project but also recognise the indeterminacy of both projects and networks. As well as this architectural survivors will reject, the fallacies of technology, and its associated hyperbole, and opt for models of collaborative leadership. Anyone else is living in La-la Land

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It has been a hectic week: Architectural Practice at MSD has started up, I have discovered WeChat, my son has started his final year of school, and we have been busy organising our Practice Night for the subject on the 13th of March. Wow !!! we have about 24 practices across Melbourne involved. Thank you so much to those firms who have agreed to participate. It will be quite a night, especially on Social Media. Not only that but the rescheduled Faculty Christmas party is this coming Friday (lets hope I survive it).