Pavilions and urban pop ups are everywhere in the architecture cult. That’s great I suppose. I recently visited the Serpentine Pavilion’s 2017 summer pavilion designed by Francis Kere. Last year the Serpentine had the big man of Danish architecture Bjarkey. Rem (or is it REM) is doing our latest M Pavilion in my city and I am polite enough to say that I am looking forward to seeing it.
So, it seems that as architects we all love the pavilion popsicles and these days these things are built and then the images, associated lectures, talks and events are distributed out through traditional media and digital media channels. Instagram and our digital feeds are full of this stuff. Pavilions are machines for creating digital content. Within the digital economy each pavilion seems to have a media half-life. But perhaps we can ask are these pavilions simply distractions in an economy where everyone is seeking to grab our attention for a few milliseconds? Are these things really architecture?
With the rise of Trump, and the celebritization of politics, there has been a renewed emphasis on researching the relationship between technology and politics. As some have noted we are in a different kind of economy now. This new economy is primarily focused on distracting our attention. Its kind of fun to think about data analytics and all the wonderful things that architects and urbanists might do with that data. But, perhaps the real question we should be asking as architects is: how does technology translate to the politics of architecture and how does it shape those politics? This is a critical issue that architects need to face and understand. To some extent, if not totally, the political landscape of architecture has already had the Kardashian makeover treatment.
This last week or so I have been teaching Design Activism an intensive subject at MSD, the Melbourne School of Design. As a subject Design Activism explores the dynamics and effectiveness of architecture in relation to the politics of advocacy, activism and protest. It seeks to look at the ways architecture can be linked to politics, spatial practice, critical theory, activism and community development.
This time around in the subject we had a number of invited lecturers who gave the class valuable insights into the mechanics of politics and design activism. Notable amongst our guests in the subject were those who through their own practice propose alternative ways to pursue architecture including:
Dan Doricic from OnOff design collective. A Berlin based network whose experiments examine the contemporary condition in order to question, tune into and to discover new urban realities.
Targol Khoram the president of Architects for Peace a collective seeking sustainable urban development based on social justice, solidarity, respect and peace.
Simona Castricum whose research contributes to our understanding of how architectural typologies are complicit in violence, displacement and erasure through its gendered programs.
Design Activism goes against traditional models of architectural practice normally taught in architecture schools. Media literacy, digital activism, transgressive spatial practices and queer theory is not normally seen as being part of archi-school curriculum. Yet this is what I think we need to teach. This is because the predominant mode of teaching architecture is too often focused on technology, urban techniques and policy “controversies” untethered from the politics of design speculation, aesthetics and lived experience.
During the week, I watched a documentary on L. Ron Hubbard the founder of the Scientology religion. It was fun to read about Ronnie and his Sea Org followers. This also made me think a bit about the architecture cults I have known. At the same time, I was also communicating on social media with someone who thought that, the complete lack of interest, or knowledge, regarding money by architects is bred into young architects at architecture school. This made me think that architecture school was also like a kind of cult thing. Lets face it for many of us architecture school was a cult experience.
My friend argued that at archi-school we learn: it is noble and heroic to “struggle” and “starve” for our vocation; we learnt that we should never “sell-out” to the Money God; and we can only ever be validated through our own architectural integrity. In other words, as my esteemed friend noted, we are taught in architecture school, through the studio system, that the only thing that can validate our existence as individuals is our wonderful designs.
That’s ok if you have decent work or designs that will actually validate your existence. Hard to do if you only ever do bathroom renovations. Most architects seem to struggle to even get one great project designed and built.
My cult memberships
Yes, I also drank that Kool-Aid at architecture school as well. I drank a lot of cultish Kool-Aid there. I suppose the first archi-cult I fell into at architecture school was the Aldo Rossi cult. I wanted to be in a car accident just like him. Then design a cemetery. Then it was the Carlo Scarpa cult. I wanted to live half the year in Venice and the other half in Istanbul. Then, of course, the Corbusian cult. I wanted to start a practice in Chandigarh. For a while I was in love with Michael Graves and I wanted to draw classical figures on yellow trace just like him. I wanted to channel James Stirling and go live in the Florey building in Oxford. For a young architecture student from the outer suburbs, where the consumer consumption roller coaster reigned supreme, all of this Modern and Post-Modern architectural goulash was heady stuff.
At architecture school, I also fell in, as a follower, with a few of the local heroes. I followed around a few of these emerging architectural cult figures until they gave me a job. Then, usually, they sacked me. It was almost like every semester I was in a different studio cult. I was always so desperate to fit in.
The problem is that the norms and forms of cult behaviour ingrained into us as architects means that not only are we architects hopeless at money, but, we are also hopeless at management. As a profession, we need to get out of the ever diminishing and downward spiral of cult behaviour. It’s not healthy because most cults rely on charismatic, leaders, bizarre initiation rituals and secret circles of knowledge. Sounds like Architecture doesnt it?
Usually these cults favour those who will do whatever the cult leader says. These architectural cult leaders often take their cultish and bad behaviour into their firms. Maybe thats why architects are crap at management. Architects need to avoid the cultish behaviour. Because it is actually brutish behaviour. In your current studio, office or project team ask yourself the following questions:
The architectural cult checklist
- Authoritarianism or paternalism without accountability. Only the lead architect or studio leader can make decisions or is empowered to do so.
- No tolerance in the group for critical questions or inquiry. The architect or studio leader only likes the followers who ask the questions that affirm the cult. Followers compete for the leader’s attention.
- No open and transparent disclosure regarding the project or the client etc. Information “leaks” out to the followers. Some followers or team workers get more privileged information than others. Followers spend time second guessing the leader.
- Unreasonable criticism about the broader architectural culture outside of the office or studio. There are enemies and tribes and other architects or styles to envy or hate. A us against them mentality.
- There is no legitimate reason to leave: former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even “evil.” They are never seen or spoken to again. They are seen to have made bad career choices.
- You work lots of overtime and your remuneration is not aligned with the agreements and awards. You do things that effectively subsidise the office. You are literally paying ypur employer to work where you work.
- The charismatic architect who leads you is abusive and may often get angry. The tantrum over “design’ or “aesthetic” issues is all too common.
- You feel that you can never be good enough or you will never get it right.
- The architect or studio leader is always absolutely correct and never wrong.
- The architect or studio leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.
Most architectural teams and studios (and even bigger organisations) will exhibit some of these tendencies to a degree. But, if there are too many of the boxes ticked in the above list, then you are possibly and most likely in cult territory.
Cult’s never really last
Inevitably these cults implode, they are by their nature self-sabotaging, self-destruction of one kind or another, staff turnover is too high (costly), or things don’t get done properly (implementation issues). Usually, the architecture is actually not as good as it could have been with better less cultish management in place.
It is an easy thing to do. Being in a cult as you develop has its place but not forever you as you will end up like Gollum living in the shadow of some minor architectural cult leader
When I left architecture school no wonder I wanted to start my own cult. I wanted to be the cult leader rather than the follower. This of course, caused all sorts of problems. I think at the peak of my cult when I taught and was in practice I may have had, 6 and possibly 7, followers. I was on fire. Just like all good cult leaders.
According to my blog stats, and Google Analytics I now have a few more cult followers than suggested above. So, thank you so much to all of you who follow this blog and watch out for the next blog which will come to you from London as I attend ARCOM 2017 in Cambridge.
The Salon on Standards
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a NSW Registration Board a panel discussion called the Salon on Standards. For those reading this blog from outside of Australia, the national accreditation board, or the AACA, administers the standards of practice. In other words, the knowledge and skill set that architects are required to learn at architetcure schools:
“The Standard describes what is reasonably expected of a person who can demonstrate the standard of skill, care and diligence widely accepted in Australia as a competent professional Architectural practitioner.”
On the panel we all decided that we love the standards and that they are an important element in the setting the territory of what architecture is as a discipline.
Firstly, a few acknowledgments.
Professor Kirsten Orr of UTAS was also on the panel and her history of the AACA has been ably and deftly researched, You can find her paper here. Plus, I also had the pleasure of being on the panel with Melonie Bayl-Smyth a Sydney architect and NSW board member. All of this was ably presided over by registrar Timothy Horton. Byron Kinnaird facilitated the discussion and Professor Gerard Reinmuth of UTS was there and was generous enough to be gracious towards me. As well and as Martin Bryant head of the Architetcure School at UTS
What should we teach ?
So, what do we need to teach in the architectural curriculum? At the panel, I really shot my mouth off and blurted out all the things I think we need to teach architecture students: strategy, finance, research methods, negotiations, innovation and leadership. I may even have said ecology; as compared to that sustainability greenwash policy Kool-Aid we currently make the students drink.
In other words, money, (finance), management, (organisational sciences) and research methods, are mostly what is missing from our standards. These are all the things I think should be taught in architecture school but don’t teach. But then I wondered if we should make greater efforts to teach these things through the design studio rather than via various add-on subjects.
The Primacy of the Design Studio
When I was a wretched student, the people who taught, me were obsessed with design. I think it was partly a reaction to their own training in the dark ages when hard-core pragmatics and necessity ruled the day in the design studios. So, at my Archi-school in those heady post-modern years, it was about being free, it all became about conceptual design and design and design and design and design. It was all about the primacy of the design studio as a place where architectural knowledge is transmitted. As pointed out by Angers Bergstorm, Donald Schon in his seminal work The Reflective Practitioner identified the primacy of the design studio but Schon also argued against a design studio culture cut off and isolated from either practice itself or other knowledge domains.
So maybe Schon is now right and the balance has gone too far the other way. Maybe the Design Studio has so over swamped and taken up space in architectural education for the last 30 million years that it has now become isolationist. Sure, we all love our design studios. We all like to talk about them and use them to reach out to other disciplines and be trans-disciplinary. But are we as trans-disciplinary as we make out? Should other knowledge be inscribed into the competencies we need to learn? Maybe what architects and architectural educators, are really doing too often, is importing knowledge into the studio for quick and easy adaptation. Maybe, this process is too often too token.
I think in the past building types and programmatic typology was seen as the stable point of architectural education. It was thus easy to design an architecture course around types. Architecture schools kinda went like this. In first year, they messed with your mind, in second year you designed a house, then in third housing and then, maybe a school, and then in final year a grand institutional building. I guess in many places this is still how it is done.
But with new technologies alongside the fragmentation of cities into smaller and smaller bits, that can be plugged in to other bits to make money, the typological understanding of buildings and the city no longer seems relevant.
As architects, we are confronted with a never-ending flow of fragmented, variable, disjointed and seemingly disconnected data. In saying all of this, I am not tryng to argue, the old chestnut of, what we teach at Archi-school is too theoretical, or not pragmatic enough, or is not making the instantly graduates “employment ready.”
What I am saying is this, we really need to have this debate as a profession: What is that we should be teaching in the architecture schools? What should we be teaching in our offices as young architects leave universities. I guess if you never learn about money, managing stuff or organisations at Archi-school you don’t often think about the need for career pathways for young architects.
The problem of specialisation
Fragmentation and specialisation within our discipline is a problem when we have to teach design. The problem is everyone in architecture thinks their own specialisation or field is the design studio: The architects with construction knowledge, think their subject is what a design studio should be all about; the architectural historians think their subject what the design studio; the sustainability architects think their subject are what the design studio should be all about; The workshop digital fabricator types think subject are what the design studio should be all about.
But actually, the design studio is a place where all these things are supposed to come together. Not as add-ons, not as a few guests, but a place where different knowledge territories are debated, analysed and then synthesised into the design process. That’s what design studios are about. About getting the balance right. Design is design and should never be beholden to one specialisation.
The Salon on Standards was great. They even took me out for dinner afterwards and I thought that they had developed a great sense of community between the profession the NSW registration board and the school at UTS. We need more of that and now that the Australian Institute of Architects and the Registration boards appear to have parted ways its great to see what the NSW board is doing. It even runs the Sydney Architetcure Festival.
But next time I run a studio, I might just get the students to design something using an Excel Spreadsheet. Maybe some Discounted Cash Flows or some funky Population Ecology Dynamics. Yip, as well as ecology we might even discuss money in the studio. Think what might happen if we actually had architectural graduates who knew how to use Excel as well as the all consuming Revit?
There has been a lot of chat lately about new models of practice. Increasingly, the scavengers and myriad tribes of architects that exist find it difficult to make their practices profitable in the face of intense fee competition and, what some have called, the economics of austerity. I have touched on alternative modes of practice in a few other blogs but I thought I would say a bit more.
No Silver Bullet
Foremostly, I am worried that practitioners think that there is a silver bullet or a simple solution to this issue. That we can wave a magic wand over the structure of their practices and it will all be better. I am worried that practitioners think that if only they had restructured their practice in a different way in the first place things would be easier. Yet, the legal and corporate frameworks for practice are normally quite limited within, and across different countries. There is no one way or legal “switch” that a practitioner can switch on or off if a practice is not profitable or not seeming to get anywhere. Changing the legal or financial structures may not change things. If you are not making money you are not making money.
The traditional models of sole practitioner, partnership or even company model appear to limit what architects can do. Some of the mega-firms, or Transformer firms, as I have denoted them elsewhere, seem more successful. They appear to manage ok, by virtue of being extremely large and having integrated service chains that provide a potential client anything; let’s not think too much about how these large firms might manage their taxation affairs.
For many smaller scavenger and tribal practices there is still the dream of criticality at a local level. Of doing great jobs that people love in your own city, street or neighbourhood. Thinking about this reminded me that in the early 80s Kenneth Frampton argued for a new architectural culture based on critical regionalism. Frampton advocated an architectural culture and discourse that was resistant to what he saw as processes of universalization. Frampton argued that optimising technologies had delimited the ability of architects to create significant urban form. For Frampton, the work of critical regionalism a practice focused on, and grounded in local traditions and inflections, was intended in Frampton’s words to “mediate the impact of universal civilisation.
I think that much of Frampton’s dream has come to imbue much of what we value in Architectural Practice and design. The Pritzker prizes seem to go to regionally inspired and grounded architectural auteurs. In my country a lot has been written about the two main city based “schools” or traditions of work the Sydney School and the Melbourne School. But, I worry that as architects we have been boxed in and swamped by global capital and technologies while we clong to models of practice are focused on the auteur. I think the the dream of critical regionalism is something that perhaps masks the real situation: The continuing commodification of architetcural knowledge.
Exploring new models of practice.
A few years ago, I got my architectural practice students to do business plans for Social Enterprises. In other words, for enterprises that had a social purpose or profit. In my naivety I thought they would love doing it. The idea was to encourage the students to think about how they would use their architectural skills and knowledge to determine the nature of a new social enterprise. It was a way to hopefully get the post-graduate Master’s students to think, yes actually think, about different forms and models of practice.
The better social enterprise plans were encouraging. A number of plans aimed to address gender discrimination. One plan looked at commercializing feminine hygiene products in order to get homeless woman off the streets. Another group targeted the architecture and construction workforce by supplying sustainable personal protective equipment and then investing the profits to advance gender equality in the design and construction workforce. A few projects looked at issues around waste and recycling. For example, one project looked at recovering discarded food and food waste. One of the better social enterprise plans produced by the students was based on putting beehives into social housing estates and then harvesting, marketing and the selling the honey. Thus, employing some of the residents in the estates.
Thinking outside of the box.
But by and large most of the students hated the exercise, my student experience scores that semester tanked, and my academic masters wondered “WTF” I was doing. A practitioner associated with the school asked, “why are you doing business plans at all?” I think the social enterprise plan about the Bees was the one that really drove everyone nuts. Of course, it didn’t really help that I said in the Assignment instructions that: “There are no prescriptions for this assignment. On the basis of the business plan, you will be assessed as to how well your social enterprise will realistically establish itself, survive, and grow.”
So much for getting the students to think out side of the box and deal with high levels of ambiguity. This year we went back to business plans for the straight-down-the-line architectural practices.
Abandoning the old ways
If we are to talk about different forms of practice then I think architects really need to abandon their pre-conceived notions of what practice is. There is no magic solution. We need to use our learned creativity and design thinking skills to embrace new ways of doing business. Not everyone is going to be an architect with a capital A. We need more beekeeping ideas.
A recent exhibition at the CCA, and now travelling, suggests that historically alternative practice doesn’t always have to centre on the single genius. At any point in time architects have always sought to explore new models of practice and escape the constraints that beset them.
Thankfully, there have been those in recent years who have broken out of the old moulds of architectural practice. Collective and collaborative action is a common theme on my short list. Notably, and not in any order, the following spring to mind:
These examples suggest, a wider range of practice, as well as the different ways, that architects might now practice. I am sure there are also other examples and I will add to this list over time. Contact me if you know of anyone. But the final upshot is this: Architects really need to think about these new paths. Because, architects can’t be sure that the old ways are going to work for much longer.
The image on the home page next to this post is a picture of a typical architectural researchers desk. Sadly there are people in this world who dont think architecture has much to do with research. Even I sometimes have trouble convincing people that I am actually doing research.
Yet, in recent practice, architects have argued that architectural design is a research activity in its own right. The research activities of architects include a range of problem solving and design related research activities such as data collection, workshops, internet searching and design drawing. In addition architects also research historic precedents, climatic issues, construction methods, products and materials. Design as research, also points to the emergence of research amongst architects related to the scripting of programmes, 3D digital modelling and prototyping. But is design research simply speculative or generative designing?
I like many other architects agree with the proposition that designing can be research. But this is clearly a problematic proposition.
The design as research culture
Numerous PhDs, design studios, books and even entire courses have been built around the notion of Design as Research. In fact no one really knows how to write it: design research, or is it Design Research, or is it “design as research” ? But the real point is that, many architects regard design processes such as creating sketches, making digital CAD models, building physical models and building prototypes as research. But is that what design research is?
Of course, some have had a go at defining what it is. Dr. Peter Downton at RMIT argued that design is a ‘way of enquiring a way of producing knowledge; this means it is a way of researching.’ In a study of architectural design PhDs Radu asserts: ‘Architectural design is to architecture what research is to science’ and the ‘process of architectural design is close to the process of knowledge creation in the sciences’
No research infrastructure
Across the globe system there is clearly a lack of research infrastructure for architects at a number of levels; research infrastructure doesn’t just mean having big grunty boyo computers. In my country of Australia, research skills are not clearly articulated in the architectural accreditation system. Architects don’t often do formal research methods courses and few graduate schools of architecture offer courses around design research. Notably, my own school does offer such a course. Worse still design research outputs, such as buildings are not counted in research evaluation and publication exercises.
The reality of practice.
In actual practice, I fear that the documentary, formal and methodological structures supporting the organic activities of design research are fragmentary and adhoc. Few practices have formal R&D procedures in place, and few practices have developed procedures for articulating and documenting its original design outcomes. Aside from, practices publishing their projects for peers and marketing. much of the knowledge generated by all of the research in architectural offices remains largely implicit within firms.
Few firms write research reports on the information they collect and yet many often claim that research information is transferred to other projects. These adhoc practices make it difficult to ascertain, and argue, which aspects of architectural research are a contribution to new knowledge.
Research models in practice
As a result, many firms flounder around when it comes to research. A lot have tied their own research models focused around digital design and fabrication. Other firms have focused their research on Sustainability. But simply having and seeming to follow through on this research focus is not enough. A few firms go beyond a simple focus on a strategic research area. Many dream of, or attempt to adopt, research models related to a management consulting. Larger firms are better at this. But this is, more often than not, without the well-worn and templates and proprietary methods that real management consultants have.
Moreover, only a few architects have embraced research models related to patent innovation and product development. I am still struggling to teach graduate archi students what Intellectual Property is.
The research paradox for architects.
The paradox is that many architects often state that research is a part of their design philosophy yet there is often no further articulation of this. Often in practice the organic integration of routine research and design as research activities makes it difficult to identify what is routine design and what is design which creates new knowledge. Establishing the contribution to knowledge of any research endeavour is necessary if it is to be regarded by non-architects as research. I worry that to many architects in practice R&D is about simply placing product and materials information at the back of a project file.
This is not to say that architects do not develop new knowledge or insights as a result of design processes. But, many firms appear to lack the methodological infrastructure, systems or research training needed to support R&D activities. This makes it difficult to isolate and position the research knowledge and innovations arising out of design research. Without these methodological and meta-structures in place it is difficult for architects to argue how design as research makes a contribution to knowledge. It also makes it difficult to position and distinguish new design from previous design research.
The focus on design as research, and its rise in architectural schools, has too often tended to emphasise research related to material issues: drawing, modelling, fabricating and constructing. But further research in the architectural schools could identify to what degree design as research in practices is focused on non-material and context-dependent topics: urban space, gender identities, teamwork, and cross cultural issues. Not to mention history and culture.
Arguably, few other professionals would actively have this broad range of skills and expertise at their disposal. Yet, the role of architects is not often accounted for or encouraged in national innovation systems or construction innovation policies.
All the politicians love a so-called smart and sustainable city. We require initiatives need to examine in the potential role of architectural design as research in national innovation systems. These considerations could lead to policies that highlight the linkages between, design as research arising out of architecture and new technologies, construction, industrial design and manufacturing. But at present the design thinking and research of architects is often subsumed and only seen as a minor element in national innovation, research and educational policies. As architects, we need to build and develop our industry in a way that substantiate, explore and promote the design research agenda to the max.
Just designing, and then making something, and then claiming that this is research will not be enough.
As universities have become global marketing machines in search of students the architecture schools within them, have I think, suffered. Architecture schools are now embedded in corporate entities with slick brands, advertising campaigns, and strategic statements and so-called KPIs. As a result, our architecture schools are now stratified by two classes, or tribes, of knowledge workers.
Tribe 1: Travelling in First Class
University rankings and brands are these days built on reputation usually linked to research outputs and some notion of reputation. There are various ranking regimes and national processes and metrics differ from country to country. The problem is those research outputs, in my country at least, are linked to traditional academic activities. Creative works or anything outside of this doesn’t get a look in. If these works do count they are certainly harder to count. Of course, writing a blog like this accounts for zilch or as we used to say in the bogan suburb: Jack Schitt. Moreover, I always suspect that anything cross-disciplinary, or from the sociological (especially ethnography), or the organisational sciences is viewed with suspicion by athe first tribe.
In many architecture schools the research brownie points mostly go to the historical or technical research (especially around sustainability) and sometimes, but less so, architectural theory gets a look in. There are lots of architectural historians (myself included I guess) and technologists in architecture schools. In regards to the brownie points anything related to design is often put into the too hard basket.
As a result the people who do well in these university systems are not the architects or designers or even the design studio teachers, teaching in the sludge of the undergraduate studios , it is very often the tribe of “traditional” academics. These academics find things to study, they ask research questions which more often than not they answer; they produce papers and they arguably, and demonstrably, contribute to knowledge. Their outputs unlike the design outputs are highly valued and easily counted in university systems.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this tribe and many of the people in it.
A few people might read their papers including other architects. Sometimes members of this tribe will produce books about architects and these are very often great. We all read the books and revere the authors. But in my experience few of these people, because of the enormous effort needed to develop an academic career, can design or even teach in the design studios. Some don’t even want to teach in the studios even though they have devoted their lives to the discourse canons and traditions of architecture. Sadly, a few have been so consumed by this struggle that they have forgotten about architecture; for these, the pedantic practices of textual research is all that matters.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
In the current university systems these are the people who have solid and enduring career paths. They are in many respects the model citizens who benefit from the institutions status and prestige. The good ones go up the food chain. Many of them made into first class when the earlier layers and regimes of metrics and KPIs were easier and softer; less brutal than they are now. It is probably too harsh for me to say that the Dunning Kruger Effect is at play here.
How to identify members of this tribe
So what do these people look like? There is no need to dehumanize them in the above paragraphs. So, what is this tribal first class actually like? I once made contribution to a short film on Boyd. I was a little overweight, stuttering and hardly able to make eye contact with the camera. Uncomfortably, spitting out the words about Boyd and his relationship to Japan with difficulty. The other academics, the first class tribal travellers, casually dressed, smooth talkers, patrician and relaxed as if they had just stepped out of the country club. Turtlenecks and Zegna jackets. It’s hilarious to see the comparison between myself and the others.
Tribe 2: The Underclass
There is however, in the graduate architecture schools and universities across the world, another tribe. These are the people who actually teach in the undergrad and post-grad design studios, are a different class entirely . Mostly, they are sessional staff working on the run, part-timers, emerging practitioners or the handful of academics who can teach design and research. Even these academics are on the run as they juggle design teaching with the traditional research outputs. In many universities these academics are thrashed because they are usually pretty good at teaching and they are constantly faced with working against diminishing resources, pointless organisational makeovers, increasing class sizes and all too lax entry requirements. Some of these people academics are, or were, practitioners, large and small, and many continue to practice and design and build.
Incentives and the Research Quantum
But what this tribe designs and builds or gets published is not often counted in the research quantum. It doesn’t necessarily really help your academic career, or as a sessional practitioner, to produce creative or design research outputs. Firstly, no one in the upper class tribe really knows how to measure creative and design outputs. Worse still I fear that the upper class tribe don’t have an incentive to help the underclass get the Research Quantum points based on design or creative outputs. Why should they? That would undervalue their position. Much easier to cast aspersions on the value of design knowledge because it is hard to quantify and is not technical or textual based research (Even I have been guilty of doing this).
But as with the existence of all underclasses, in organisational contexts, there are contradictions.
One contradiction is that the first class tribe loves the second class tribe when when it comes to the impact metrics and surveys. In my country we have ERA, but this is an incredibly opaque process, which tries to capture impact. I have never been able to figure out the ERA process and how it works. I assume ERA is not that transparent. Conservative governments are always trying to put in place KPI measures of impact but they never quite get there.
These types of impact assessment exercises always help the university or school, but not the design orientated researcher on the ground.
The under class are too busy trying to juggle everything, families, practices, projects and research that doesn’t fit into the neat categories of the upper class tribe.
Every design teacher whether they be in architecture, graphic design, industrial design, landscape or urban design has the dilemma of how to make their research count. How do we convince the first tribe that running a studio, doing competitions, or doing speculative projects designs or making a building contributes to knowledge? Broader research is harder to sell. Even research around industry structure of the profession, architectural innovation, or sociological studies of architectural practice. If its applied research then it’s somehow flakey.
But the first tribe love it when the citizens of the second tribe win awards and accolades. In fact when that happens the first tribe goes nuts and use these to bolster whatever institutional brand they need to bolster.
Consider the architecture school you know best and ask yourself how these two tribes relate. In some schools these two tribes are at war and in others they tolerate each other in a dysfunctional fashion. In some schools one tribe dominates over the other and this leads to all sorts of problems and research imbalances. Some schools are single tribes.
Guess who is making the money?
Oh and I forgot to mention another contradiction: The crazy thing is that it is the design studio teachers who are making the money for the universities and this money subsidises the research of the first tribal class. So at the end of the day it’s not about the knowledge or the discipline of architecture it’s all about the money. Unless resolved by the universities, and profession itself, notions of civility will be abandoned as these two tribes battle it out for resources.
In great architecture schools, it is not just about the money, these two tribes collaborate, debate and have enough respect for each other by seeking to understand the other.
Like Martin Sheen in the above image most architects in Australia are barely surviving. Their heads are just barely above water. Like the Doors song “The End” one must question if the profession is heading down the gurgler as I noted in a previous blog. For those of you reading this in larger practices with lots of awards and institutional work or from the comfort of the large multi-disciplinary practices or consultancies spare a thought for the noble and small architectural firm. The tribal firm, protecting its own local territory and connecting to community, and yet struggling to survive. These firms exist in a highly competitive climate; most do housing , competing with every other wackadoodle price cutting, project manager, builder or huckster, and most are struggling to survive.
Without new industry wide strategies and approaches aligned with effective industry development the long term survival of these firms is not sustainable. We are possibly about to reach a tipping point as baby boomer firm directors retire leading to even less critical mass in the profession. A tipping point and mass extinction.
Chart 1: Outsourcing is widespread
Technology and Disaggregation
A few quotes from the architects who responded to our recent surveys will suffice:
“We see that conventional Architectural Services are not going to be sustainable in the future and are looking at other services and models of practice to survive.”
“Specialist Services, sadly, are a precursor to the the shame of the an industry being eroded by the increasingly acceptable practice of piecemeal delivery”
and this doosey from a practitioner working in the housing market:
That market is highly competitive and the fees were not sustainable and the liability was enormous. The role and respect for architects in those areas has dramatically reduced over the last 15 to 20 years.
In the practice class at MSD this week we had a Q&A panel on documentation. A practitioner who runs a documentation outsourcing company came and spoke. He is at the cutting edge of disaggregated services. He fills the gap for architects who can’t document or administer contracts. Some of the work of this practice is outsourced to documentation factories in South-East Asia. Increasingly technologies such as BIM are driving the commodification of architectural services. Design Development is almost non-existent these days. Ever tried explaining to a client what DD is?
Chart 2: Competition is Intense
Strategy and business plan education
Architectural education at large, alongside the accreditation standards, basically doesn’t give a fuck about anything outside of the box ticking. By this I mean any curriculum or syllabus, that might suggest that architects are more than just a profession of digital building technicians; more than a profession plying commoditized knowledge and processes. The univerisites simply want fee revenue, customer satisfaction and graduate employment outcomes. All of which conspires to corrode our discipline of architecture. Worse still, our own accreditation standards have been built around activities that, are not about analysis, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking or innovation but are about simply “doing it.” Doing the old SD, DD, CD, CA dance is what it’s all about. Thank god those national competency standards still at least cover a knowledge of history and theory. It won’t be long before the university’s replace those aspects of our architectural education with CNC fabrication subjects.
Business planning or strategy specifically tailored to architecture students is scant. Much easier to get the commerce faculty to give them a dose of generic marketing and branding. In response to our survey questions it is obvious many architects do not have business plans and I suspect this is because they are just struggling to get the work at hand done.
Chart 3: Too few business plans
Demographics and Diversity.
Yes, we still need more data and research into the demographics and underlying industry diversity. But the problem here I think is that architects think they are already diverse enough when they clearly are not. This is still a white Anglo-Celtic male dominated profession. This has hampered the profession at large from rejuvenating itself from within. It may be the efforts to rejuvenate the profession by correcting its misalignments with gender, race and class may now be too late.
Check out this great video and then think about the profession you know.
The architectural profession in Australia has had no research infrastructure for some time. As a result, architects have little knowledge about their own industry structure. Profitability, what segments of the market they dominate, various practice financial demographics, and the impact of technology. are all mostly mysteries. In the battle for survival it is always the larger firms that win out in driving industry policy, research and shaping industry structure. The problem is all of our current research on our industry, fostered by the peak bodies and associations, is catch-up research. Very little of it will add to the competitive standing of architects. It’s mostly about understanding how things stand. Not about how architects can get better at innovating.
My own bitter experience suggests that the ARC research system, with few exceptions, has not served us well at all. As far as many architectural researchers are concerned it is a broken system. A few years back myself and two other middle career researchers joined with a small firm to submit an ARC Linkage proposal focused on small practices and BIM. We got excellent peer review reports back. The other researchers thought it was in the bag. One of them even had dream we had got it. But in that round the big money went to a project with eminent and credentialed researchers with a big practice partner focused on health. In the ARC system its much easier to get funding if you have been to an elite uni overseas and sometimes you don’t even need a PhD. Fair enough, that’s how the system works. It would be a better system if it was blind reveiwed. But it’s a system that is killing a profession that needs effective bottom up research as it struggles to survive.
The Perfect Storm
It’s a perfect storm. Of course its easier to think that everything is ok. But everything is not ok. Architects in Australia may be at a tipping point. The profession is in a parlous state and even though I believe architects have much to offer our society and culture it is tragic many ordinary practices are stuck in the constant game of survival.
So what makes a good architecture school? Everyone seems to have an opinion about it. It’s a complex area. Some architects wonder why the graduates of architecture schools are not technically skilled or seem totally useless. A largely baseless and crude accusation that contributes nothing tot he debate. Any attempt to either consult or change the curricula with the professional bodies outside of university is fraught with petty politics. Architectural academics (and most have a foot in the real world) are totally constrained by a wider regulatory regime that both hampers their ability to create knowledge and then does not fully account for that knowledge when it is created.
My life as an architecture student.
There is still no research infrastructure to count, yes actually count for, for architectural designs and projects produced in and alongside the academy. This is scandalous and something that the wider profession needs to address. Every time I collaborate on a project or a competition it is not counted in university research metrics. In contrast it me took me ten years (more by the time I graduated) do my architecture degree. This was a combination part-time work, a year working in a sheet metal factory, self-education through reading, feeling the need to prepare for 6 months before I did the next studio and hanging out with my employer the Master smoking cigarettes. When I wasn’t driving the Mater’s car on errands (or stacking it) we often talked, yes actually talked, about architecture. Thanks to the Whitlam program I was the first in my family to go the university.
Students are forced to pay exorbitant fees and as a result just want to get in and get out. Now more dawdling. No more leisurely processes of self-education. No more long chats about architecture and life, the universe and everything. , any attempt to educate students more deeply beyond the contents of packaged up, templated and accreditated university courses and subject’s is fraught. It’s really different now and some would argue this new environment has corroded our public life.
The contrasting idea is that architecture itself is a comprehensible system, and architecture schools embody a system of education that both shapes and supports the canons and norms of the discipline. It’s the Bauhaus (being a prime example of a systematised education) idea of architectural education.
I have always suspected that a few people around my provincial town (secretly I am one of them as well) are enamoured with the IAUV and the so-called Venice School of architecture. A school that was presided over by the provincial “barbarian” Guiseppe Samona. Think a melange of Rossi’s types and Giorgio Grassi’s realism and Gregotti, a deft nod to the theorist Cacciari & historian Tafuri, and the urban realism of Aymonino. For a Melbourne suburban boy Italian architecture is all pretty intoxicating.
Of course, schools can be seen to be evil. As recently as last year Schoomee (Patrik Schumacher) was pretty pissed writing that:
This turn away from Parametricism is most conspicuous within the former hotbeds of the movement such as the Architectural Association (AA) in London and Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York. Another indication is the general backlash against ‘iconic’ architecture in architectural criticism, and the recent proliferation of a frugal Neo-Rationalism. The anti-icon polemic misunderstands that an architecture that is rigorously developed on the basis of radically new, innovative principles becomes conspicuous by default rather than by intention. Both the anti-icon and NeoRationalist camps fail to recognise that the new societal complexity calls for urban and architectural complexity.
I love reading the stuff Schumaker (spelling?) writes its so kerazy and the above quote pretty much says it all and points to the grip that the “pedigreed” and branded schools have on our disciplines. Schools, whose graduates are them hoovered into the intern machines of the star architects Like his own. Perhaps, Schoomey should start his own Schumaccher school.
There are a few glimmers of hope around the place. On the West Coast. The Free Architecture School is being set up by Peter Zellner and it appears to contest the prevailing and pedigreed paradigms of what architecture schools should be like.”
“Many schools of architecture […] now find themselves mired in various forms of academic cult worship: digital traditionalisms, faux-art fetishisms, silly mannerist dead-ends, philosopher-shaman worship, and other neoconservative returns.”
Zellner argued that a post-studio model of architectural teaching, one which is founded on open conversation, student autonomy and critique, “now seems imperative and necessary” to unshackle students and teachers alike from the master–disciple model of teaching..
Peter Zellner is right. A really great architecture school would be self governing: students would be involved in its processes of decision making and production, it would have no pedigree except for what it night produce at a particular moment in time. It would experiment across the territories that only diversity can engender. It would generate open conversations and ideas that would be debated in civil society. It would be a system that would produce new ideas for the discipline rather than imposing pedagogical strictures or reinforcing pedigrees.
In some ways all of these elements were present, to an extent, at the architecture school I attended. As well as the one I am now at. But we need more than just elements; we need radically different modes of teaching and learning in architecture. To say the least, the neoliberal turn in higher education policy has not really helped architecture. A great architecture school is a crucible for all of the wild and crazy ways of architects and architecture.
This blog explores the nexus between architectural design and strategy. I am thinking there will be more blogs on this subject to follow over the year.
Most architectural practices seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. In Australia most architects are small practitioners, juggling family commitments, trying desperately to maintain work life balance and at the same time running a small business that produces bespoke projects that require innovation, high levels of risk management, advanced negotiation skills not to mention networking and marketing skills. Architects, in between juggling the school drop off or saving for their own mortgages, work hard to add value to their clients, the built environment and society at large. Of course, its much easier, as it is for some in the building industry, to take the low road of cheaper, better faster and easier when it comes to delivering projects. If its cheap and nasty it must be good, right?
Having a strategy, and embedding strategic thinking into practice, a good way to help guide and resolve the dilemmas of practice. A good way to combat the cheap and nasty faction. Recently it was suggested to me by an architect that architects need not learn the finer arts of strategy. It was put to me that some architects never learn it and that it doesn’t really matter. I was pretty surprised by this as we were taught at Business School, regardless of what you think of business schools or biz school education, that strategic management and thinking was the highest form of managerial action.
In classical management theory the classical definitions of strategy are intertwined with notions of competition, military thought and the notion of winning. Mintzberg argued that strategic thinking was a central component of creating innovation and was by its nature intuitive, creative and divergent. Strategic thinking as defined by the managerial theorist Mintzberg argues that strategic thinking is:
“about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. The outcome…is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction”
Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:
“Competitive strategy involves positioning a business to maximize the value of the capabilities that distinguish it from its competitors.”
Of course strategy as a field of thought has moved on since the work of Mintzberg and Porter. This has happened because technology has morphed and remorphed and the interconnected complexities of the global system have seemingly increased. In recent times the discourse of strategic management has reflected this. In strategic management theory and research questions abound: Is strategy formulation something that emerges or is it something that can be designed top down? How can strategy help our institutions with concepts of turbulence and uncertainty? As noted in a recent editorial in the Strategic Management Journal strategy may cover: organisational capabilities, interfirm relationships, knowledge creation and diffusion, innovation, organisational learning, behavioural strategy, technology management, and of course corporate social responsibility.
For architects having an understanding of strategy and strategic thinking is vital. In fact I would argue that it is vital for future architects to study strategy at architecture school, perhaps in the design studio. To suggest that strategic thinking is not a part of architectural education or architects expertise suggests that architecture is simply a bundle of technically orientated skills and processes. A bundle of repetitive actions that require little thought. Actions that can be transferable and imparted to others. This suggests a craft based notion of architecture where skills and knowledge are passed down from so-called master to apprentice. I am not so sure about the craft myths that seem to permeate architecture. The craft myth is hard to shake even when highly advanced design and construction methods are used. The craft metaphor is probably a little bit too formulaic as a concept of architectural knowledge for my liking.
In Australia the competency standards describe the competencies and skills that architects are expected to know. These standards are used in accreditation processes to determine if a particular person is capable of being an architect; or an architecture school is teaching the correct skills or competencies. Interestingly, the standards say little about the need for strategic thinking. They mostly describe what architects do rather than the thinking or conceptual skills they require. They are activity and process based. The standards are really lacking when it comes to issues around concepts of strategy, foresight, risk, project management and financial skills. The weight of the standards are focused on design and documentation. Viewed in detail much less emphasis is given to practice management and project delivery. I mean who needs that stuff? All we need as architects are the skills inherent to the traditional practice life cycle: Sketch design, design development, contract documentation, contract administration ect etc. In fact all we need to know about is Sketch Design. No matter that this lifecycle is increasingly under pressure and fragmented and as result a result of the industries lack of diversity, fee competition, and dis-intermediation.
Strategic thinking and planning has a number of advantages even for those architects lurching from the client to the consultants between picking up the kids from school. Strategic thinking sets a direction, even for the small firm beyond the day to day. A kind of thinking that helps to guide resource allocation when difficult decisions or trade-offs need to be made. It determines how your firm might be different, and I mean really different, to all of the other firms out there. Understanding strategic discourse can help the architect understand clients as they make strategic decisions regarding the future. If the management consultants and gurus can do it, why not architects? We are a lot smarter and more diverse than those guys.
An appreciation of strategic thinking helps to get architects out of the cycle of reacting from practice crisis to practice crisis or seeing architectural design as simplistic, step by step, and linear process of sequential tasks. Seeing design as a narrow technical specialisation is a huge mistake. Strategic thinking is inextricably and broadly linked to design and should be regarded as the highest form of design thinking.
It’s all quiet on the front at my grad school of architecture. A few summer studios are running and there is till 5 weeks to go before classes start. Nonetheless, next week, in the lull I am pre-recording a whole lot of online lectures!