Surviving the Design Studio: When you choose the wrong design studio and you realise you are just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you.

The title of this blog was my life in every design studio. Anyway, I thought it was time to write something a little more positive and less cynical than in recent weeks. It’s been Design Week in Melbourne this week, and there have been lots of great events, and I would encourage all of you to go along to some of these before it finishes. I will be at this one on Sunday, and it should be an excellent opportunity to have a collaborative discussion about how architects can improve their working conditions and begin to think about labour practices in the profession.

But hey, let’s take it easy this week and talk a bit about design studios and design studio  teaching. Specifically, what should you do if you get that sinking feeling you are in the wrong design studio.

The Wrong Archi-School?

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Image: Simona Castricum 

So, you think you are in the wrong studio. And firstly, and you need to check this, you may actually be at the wrong graduate school of architecture, and if that is the case, it could be worth looking at the latest QS ranking list and seeing where your school falls. Some schools are better than others, and yes arguably the rating methodology is flawed. To say the least.

The ethos and the culture of your current school may not suit you. Especially, if you are different in some way and this clashes with the two extremes of Archi-school’s. These extremes are those with a prevailing cult mentality or those with a lacklustre culture of design mediocrity. I know of one new school of architecture where everyone has been narrowly recruited in the image of the head of school (cult). I think it is relatively predictable that without diversity in the academic cohort the school is doomed from the start (IMHO).

Another friend of mine is teaching at another Archi-school where the students seem to be so lacking in motivation; they are always late for class, and they never turn up on time for studio (lacklustre). Something is seriously wrong with that.

Ok, so let’s assume you are in the right architecture school for you but for whatever reason a few weeks into the semester you realise you are in the WRONG studio.

The Wrong Studio?

This may sound strange, but the best thing you can do when you are in this situation is to stay in the studio. I will try and explain why I think this is the case in more detail below. Firstly, there may be different reasons for thinking that you are in the wrong studio, and some of these reasons require more substantive actions than others.

Dud studio project

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Firstly, despite the lustre and appearance of the studio at the beginning or at the studio presentation, you might realise that it’s a not very interesting project. The site is banal, the brief is simplistic or the tutors love to dampen everything down with prosaic pragmatism.

If the project seems more comfortable than what you have done before, then that is obviously an excellent opportunity to think of ways to make it more complicated and to engage with your tutors at a deeper level. Try and understand the project and understand where your tutor wants to take it. Most tutors will have expectations about what they want from the studio. They don’t expect every student project to be super great, in the sense of looking fabulous at the end of the studio. Most tutors know that there will be people with a range of skills in their studios. But if you can understand what your tutors are passionate about and what ideas they might particularly want to develop in the studio then you can certainly use these to develop your project further. In tandem with your tutors you can help your them explore, to the max, the best ideas for the project even if the studio project seems dull.

Studio project beyond your skill set

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Of course, if you think the project is too hard for you and that’s the reason why you are in the wrong studio. A legitimate reason for this will be if your skills are not up to scratch or they are undeveloped (The bad reason is that you are just lazy). An excellent way to deal with this is to be very analytical about what skills you have and what skills you need going forward (some ideas on how to do this here).

A good design tutor will help you develop your skills and confidence. They will give you the space to do this. Having done your own skills analysis you will then need to figure out which skills you want to work on. Don’t be a dumbass and say: I just want to learn Revit or Rhino. You need to think about the range of skills you need. A good idea is to let your tutor know what it is you think you want to learn. Don’t make your tutors second guess what that is. Too often tutors don’t ask or just try and figure it as the studio proceeds. It’s not until the end of the semester that they actually work out what it is you needed to learn. Another related issue to this is your learning style, and it’s always good to figure this out and let your tutor know how you like to learn.

You realise that your tutor or tutors are a little bit crazy

Yep, this can happen, and it’s more likely to occur in schools where there is a cult mentality or a lack of oversight when tutors are chosen. Ok, don’t panic. Try and look on the humorous side of the situation. Take it easy, as the bad thing about this is that you probably are going to get contradictory messages from the tutors. And they will probably be inconsistent in either the value they put on your work, the advice they give you and even worse the respect they have for you. If you get caught up in the craziness you will end up being on an emotional roller coaster.

I think the best you can do in this situation is to gather around you a group of support critics and friends who can provide you with consistent design advice as you negotiate your way through this. If you can do that and you can gather enough support around yourself, then you should be all right. But it’s a bit like doing two studios at once, as you will need to meet with your friends each week and tell them what your crazy tutors have told you and try and work out your own design priorities. Two studios are better than one and if you survive you will be better off. Best not to worry too much about your marks in that situation.

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No studio friends?

You might find your friends aren’t in the studio. Really? My advice is to find some new friends and quick. Having no friends in the studio is an opportunity to make new friends and especially if the studio involves group work. Too often architecture students are crap at group work, and too often design tutors, even those tutors who insist on group work don’t give students any hints or ideas about how to do the group work.

There are a few fundamental rules of group work that everyone should know. Like assigning roles at the start and understanding everyone’s different working styles and maybe even working out common methods of contact. I guess I worry that architects and Archi students are hopeless at organising teams and teamwork.

The research syndrome.

Most studio participants don’t mind this. Hey, procrastination can’t be all bad. You can put off the hard stuff (actually designing) and talk and drink filtered coffee almost all semester. But it is essential not to go down this path at Archi-School. This used to drive me crazy, and it has a couple of different variants. Basically, it’s when the studio spends like 80% of the time talking and researching and talking and researching and talking and researching and never any ACTUAL designing. If you get stuck in this kind of studio vortex, don’t be sucked in. The sooner you start developing and generating your own design propositions the better. The idea that you have to wait for all available information and ruminate over it before you design the best way to never learn anything about design.

You realise you just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you

Look you don’t have to be. And sometimes it’s hard when your tutors are vainglorious, discriminatory or they excessively foster others through obvious and not so obvious favouritism. But hey that’s architecture, and it’s something we all need to negotiate. But these things are also what we all really need to call out: the self-serving ambition, petty rivalries, profiling, bias and cronyism that is endemic in architecture schools and studios. If you feel bullied or discriminated against get help to call it out.

But again, getting yourself through this morass means you need lots of support, especially if you’re the only intersectional person in the studio and you feel like you have to hide in a corner when everyone else in there seems like they are in some kind of club or a clique. But shit who wants to be in that club anyway.

Make your own club as this is always better.

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In the global architectural system, architecture as a domain of knowledge practice is continuously being eroded, and so many architects have blindly accepted the celebritization (is that a word?) of our discourse. The elite clubs, the secret meetings, and unspoken smarmy clubby masculinities and handshakes. The few stars and the many. Why do we swallow it so readily? Why do our architecture schools mirror that stuff?

For me, celebratory and absurdist vitriol is one way to dismantle all of that. Someone asked me after I told them I was in the process of writing a book if it would be as vitriolic as the blog? I thought that was hilarious (I am just waiting for someone in my small village to say I am flaming down in a bitter and twisted way). However, for regular readers I am sure you will appreciate that the vitriolic tone has been pretty consistent over time. I like to describe this tone and voice as one of celebratory vitriol. After all what else can you do?

Finding your place 

If you get really desperate, you can find your voice in the studio via design tactics of irony, collage, mimicry and absurdity. Take a look at PJ’s work. Is it critique or homage to corporate capitalism. As soon you stop thinking that your mediocre tutors, in their many little mini-celebrity club guises, no longer have power over your design you will actually begin to design. For some of us we are never going to be in the club, we are never going to win the awards or the Archi-School prizes, or hang out with the celebrity architects. We will never have that Archi-pedigree. The architectural celebrities aren’t as fun as the real celebrities and they will only wipe their feet on you anyway, and the pedigreed types will never change the profession. After all, why would they?

Don’t Panic

Above all, and firstly, when you don’t like the design studio, you are in don’t panic. In architecture we don’t always like our clients or the projects we get dealt with and learning how to deal with these things as result of these factors is something we can learn when we hate our design studio.

But more importantly, the best tutors are the ones that will respect you regardless of how you look or your background. The best tutors are the ones who will not have favourites, and they will help you find your voice. These are the design tutors who have respect not only for you but for the future of architecture as well.

Updated March 21 

Are Architects Oblivious to Employee Suffering? The four syndromes.

Are architects oblivious to suffering when it comes to work practices and workflows in their firm’s and studios? Are employee well-being and flexible work-life balance practices ingrained in the way that architects manage and organise their offices? Paid maternity and paternity leave might be a case in point. I am not so sure how well architects are getting across these issues in Australia; maybe, just maybe, architects are getting there a bit?

However, I am prompted to write about this because of a few recent stories, from the front-lines of architectural practice. I have framed them in the form of syndromes as many of them seem to persist in studio culture. If you witness all four of these syndromes in your workplace maybe it’s time to get out. To help I have tried to offer a few counter suggestions of how you might act if you are faced with these kinds of syndromes.

At a broader level Negotiations is indeed something I would like to see taught more of in Architecture schools. The best design architect I worked with, who shall remain nameless, was also great at negotiations: pragmatic, modest, yet tough when required with an innate sense of negotiation timing.

How else do you get real architecture and great designs built? By being a prima-donna-baby? Certainly not by thinking your design is great and you don’t need to negotiate. Or worse still imposing your giant design ego on the design process without a clue about negotiating.

S1 Silence when we forget to pay you.

Yep, a middle-sized practice that forgets; to pay its employees for a month. Pays monthly then very little or no communications with the staff for an extended period (WTF, like 3 weeks). Eventually, practice leaders say there is a stuff up with their accounting system and tax payments, and as a result, the staff weren’t paid.

Apparently, the real reason the practice itself has not been paid is a result of poor agreements with clients and an inability to manage cash flow. I think more architects should use debt collectors.

Counter with: No-money No-workee. Try and say that and you will be surprised how good it makes you feel. And you can easily find another job. Besides, why work for arseholes who don’t pay their staff or their architects.

S2 The rubber band syndrome

If you are competent, you will get piled on with lots and lots of work. Until you snap. The project work keeps coming. You keep saying yes. You put your heart and soul into that work because, unlike your supervisors, you are ethical. They will keep piling on the work until you break. It’s a tactic of bullies. Eventually, all the responsibility, the extra hours, the so-called “all-nighters” will make you snap. At its best, you might just get angry with someone at its worse you will have a mental breakdown or worse still an aneurysm (Perhaps we need to ask just how many How many architectural employers will cover your sick pay after the snap).

After you snap, your employers will blame YOU the victim. Believe me, I know.

Usually, people have worked outside of the award or their employment contracts, if they exist, and the best situation in this instance is to make sure you have good legal advice when signing employment contracts.

Counter with: Post-Snap always good to get a bit of legal advice and a legal letter to your employers outlining the situation. Call out the bullies, and that will usually get you out of being blamed as a victim. But, maybe not.

S3 Fruit and Veg Market syndrome

This syndrome is particularly devious and fundamentally manipulative. But it is very very prevalent. I once saw an architect I worked for at the Vic Market in Melbourne. He was shopping for fruit and vegetables and going from stall to stall, picking up each individual fruit and mango, examining it and then putting it down. Eventually, after a few stalls, he selected the Mango he wanted. This was the mango that seemed just right: for the moment. But he had picked up and tried and examined a lot of mangos along the way.

When I saw this, it dawned on me that this was how this person treated staff. Pick them up and pick them out from the other mangos, give them an attractive job a role or position, turn them around and about, and then as soon as the mango picker has extracted some worth its time to discard.

Don’t be a MANGO in the hands of a fickle and clueless director or manager. I am never going to fall for that one again.

Counter with: When you get picked as the Mango make sure your rules of engagement—and exit mechanisms–are discussed, outlined and clearly written down.

S4 Drip Feed Syndrome

This one is about incentives and many of you reading this blog will realise just how familiar it is. Too often potential clients and even real clients employ this on architects themselves with a promise of future work or benefits. Your employers are unable to offer the correct wages for your knowledge and skills so they will provide you with incentives here are a few of the more common ones.

•We will make you an associate.

• We will give you a great project to work on.

• We will provide you with more experience.

• We will give you a permanent job.

• We will actually pay you.

Drip, Drip Drip and Drip.

Counter with: Point out and highlight the drip each time you get a drip. And try and negotiate for real and authentic incentives in exchange for measurable outcomes.

All of the above syndromes have implications for the employee. For the person who is not in a position of authority or power. The student, the recent graduate, the intersectional employee or even the really experienced older architect. Many architectural employees have invested 5 to 7 years of education, and more years, in architecture to only then be caught up in a global, yes global, system of callous disregard. Usually, a disregard associated with the teeth-gritting masculinities of the pedigreed architectural tough guys.

In each of the above syndromes, the well-being of the employee involved tends to be ignored. I wonder what it is in the design studio system that breeds such callousness? I wonder what it is about the system of pedigrees and architectural stars that also produces such callousness? What is it about the architecture schools, especially those run by architects, that seem to replicate these syndromes within them?

So two questions remain: Are the most successful architects the ones who are best at exploiting the talent? And are the most successful architects the ones that can exploit the talent while being oblivious to the suffering and well-being of the architectural talent they exploit. All I can say is architects need better skills and managing the people in their firms and across their institutions.

On a positive note we should all be more like Cardi B.

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

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

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

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

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

The continuing demise of the architect’s role in Australia

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

Climate Change

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

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

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

Intersectionality

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

Anti-Master

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

The Academic-Industry interface.

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

Big- Data-Robots-3D-Scanning-Drones-Next-Gen-Digi-AI.

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

Be Happy and Make Models

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

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

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.

ArchiTeam Funding Research for Architects in Small Practice.

Small architectural practice is one of the hardest things you do in life. Sometimes it feels like the rewards are few and far between. Even the most modest house or house renovation can take years to design and see built. Small practices contribute much to Australian cities, small practices believe in design, the elegance of details and, more often than not, the hopes of local communities. The influence and impact of small practice is everywhere in our cities and suburbs. In our cities, small practice architects are an integral part of heritage and planning debates, the business of architectural education as well as the construction and property industry. However, small architects have not been served well by existing avenues of research funding in the field.

RAsP invite

The RASP launch is just before the MSDx exhibition which will give you a great idea of the range and depth of the many fabulous design studios at MSD.

The voice of the architect

In small projects, no matter what they are it is often the voice of the architect who stands up for planning and regulatory approval, common sense and sustainability. It is the architect who pushes back against the excesses of those only concerned with crude measures of time and cost. A generosity of spirit has always been an attribute of small practice. As a result, most architects at the end of their careers have accumulated those lines and wrinkles that only the careworn seem to gather.

The voices of architects both individually and collectively are often unheard or dismissed. Mostly these perceptions come from a distracted public unversed in design and more powerful lobby groups. Architects themselves worry and wring their hands about this and wonder how it could be better. We need research to combat all of this.

In conjunction with ArchiTeam and MSD, we are hoping to crowdfund a research project that examines the value that architects add to the property. It is unlikely that this project would gain funding in any other way. We are hoping to get around $25,000 for the project.

This initiative is a unique approach to research funding for small practices, and ArchiTeam is hoping to create an ongoing research fund for small practice. ArchiTeam have branded this initiative as RASP an acronym for Research for Architects in Small Practice. Building a research fund of this kind will send a strong message that small practice based architects need to be acknowledged and counted for in the design of our future cities.

The proposal

The research project aims to measure if architect-designed houses and house renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne inner city housing market. The precise wording of the research question is “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?”

In concise terms, the research will involve a descriptive, comparative quantitative analysis of two data pools. One pool will be based on sale data from architect-designed houses, and the other will contain sale data from non-architect designed houses. The data from each of these pools will be aggregated, analysed and compared. Descriptive statistics, as well as correlation and regression analysis, will be employed to compare the two pools. Email me if you have any questions about how we will do it. A research contract is in place the crowdfunding amount will go into a fund administered by MSD and ArchiTeam cooperative. The money will principally fund research associate time and data costs.

ArchiTeam 

For regular blog readers who do not know ArchiTeam was founded in 1991. ArchiTeam Cooperative is a membership association for Australian architects working in small, medium and emerging practices. ArchiTeam is democratically run by members, for members. Every member is encouraged to play an active part in shaping the organisation. With over 800+ members, it is the leading dedicated voice of Australia’s small architectural practices. This research proposal is unique and specific to the profession of architecture and small practices. It positions ArchiTeam as both a sponsor and a leader in applied architectural research in Australia.

You are welcome to come along to our celebratory launch night and the details are below. Justin Madden of Arup, Rosemary Ross of ArchiTeam and myself will be speaking. The RASP crowdfunding button will then go live !

RAsP invite

The RASP launch is just before the MSDx exhibition which will give you a great idea of the range and depth of the many fabulous design studios at MSD. Hundreds of projects will be displayed throughout the building during the exhibition, from 22 June to 6 July. If read this blog and see me there come and say hello.

 

Big Data and Architects Part 2: Getting ready for Hackable urbanism

This week I have been visiting quite a few crits and jury sessions at my graduate architecture school. After last week’s post every time the students saw me coming they appeared to panic. Nonetheless, I sat in the back of most of the crits and listened. It was great.

The experience, of looking at countless analytical diagrams, did make me think about the impact of big data on urban strategy and urban design techniques. Then I bumped into the poster near the lifts. It’s great the AA is coming for a summer break to MSD, our winter break, and our MSD grad school is having lots of great speakers. All the details are here, and I would encourage people to go along.

Sadly, I won’t be around to indulge in this fest as I will be in the northern hemisphere hanging out with what’s left of the Architecture Biennale after its Vernissage partay trashing. Even so, the poster got me thinking about architects and the technology thing yet again. As regular readers of this blog know I am over the whole parametric hoo-ha. Maybe it’s just the culture that goes with parametrics in architecture that I dislike.

However, what concerns me is that with all the obsession with new gadgets and technologies architects have arguably relegated the logistics of informatics to a forgotten territory. The new architect-as-maker paradigm has turned design aesthetics into a construction supply chain wet dream; a meta-narrative of commercial innovation; a fantasy that we architects can be like subbies (sub-contractors) and tradies.  An architectural focus on the technology of gimmicks, the making stuff, is one thing but what about data analytics? (My previous post on big data and practice can be found here).

Technology management and strategy is not something that is taught at architecture school, and I am wondering how the design studio and architects in general will, and should respond to the mass of data and information now coming down the pipeline. So to help, and to prove I am not a complete IT atavistic type here are a few clues to help you get your head around so-called big data.

Redundant Instruments

In engineering and manufacturing, policy types are starting to talk Industry 4.0. However, for architects hunkered down in the maker-space construction supply chains it’s like we are doing all the bits but not the strategy that goes with it. However, the broader question should be: Are all the old polarities of architectural and urban design technique relevant? Typology, functional zoning, densification, “activation” and the like. A lot of the architect’s toolkit of urban analytics appears to be related to the Smithson’s notions of diagramming, and while I would be the first to point to the importance of these legacies, the new digital technologies are swamping these approaches and techniques of urban analysis.

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However, cities are no longer the economic engines of American industry or post-war reconstruction. It was these types of post-1945 cities that the Smithson’s and the other post CIAM architects employed their toolkit of pencils, butter paper sketches, ideograms and collages to analyse.

With the rise of policy concepts like Industry 4.0 and the so-called internet-of-things (which always makes me think of this) architects and urbanist are now facing a different set of conditions.

Data analytics is a design issue

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How do architects design with data? Even the interns at Hadid’s are beginning to experiment with the Internet of things in workplace design. A few people have started to discuss the idea of data augmented design. However, most of the current work in this field appears to be focused on transport planning and logistics.

Perhaps the first step for architects is to begin to understand the basics of IT infrastructure. Hey, where does all that data go? As physical entities, Data Warehousing appears to exist on the periphery and in the cracks of cities. Where does all that go and who is responsible for data security. In the wake of Cambridge Analytica how is public and urban data captured, stored, secured and surveilled? What are the physical interfaces between this hidden ecology and the servers that it all resides in?

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 As Lev Manovich and Agustin Indaco, argue analysing social media posts can yield much information about the built environment.

Data is big really big

That’s why it is called big data. With the onslaught of digitisation, every action generates and spits out data. There is social media of course but once the Internet of Things kicks in it will probably get bigger. Plus it is not just about physical objects spitting out information. There is all the data collected from social media and google apps.

AURIN which is a data provider to researchers have over Over 3500 datasets from 98 sources cover disciplines including demography, property and housing, transport, health, energy and water.

Agency and the Hackable city

It’s pretty easy to mouth off about It’s pretty easy to leave it to the experts. However, in doing so architects risk losing ground unless we can integrate our ways of spatial thinking with these  The size and scale of new data sets and the skills needed to analyse these sets is not something architects should avoid if they are to be serious about tackling the urban design of future cities and settlements.

The hackable city project in the Netherlands posits that there are opportunities for

“platforms offer for modes of collaborative city making that empower (hyper)local stakeholders in an open and democratic society.”

Such sentiments may sound naïve, but they a are better than blind ignorance of the network of platforms that now consume and shape our cities.

Big Data is about decision making

Tools like SPSS and Matlab are ways architects can start to develop some of these things.  But, hey we don’t even do excel at architecture school. Moreover, our idea of research methods is stuff about “creativity” and “design as research”. But maybe what we need are skills in topics including decision-making under uncertainty, optimal location allocation of resources, decision trees, linear programming, Monte Carlo simulations. Not to mention, linear and nonlinear regression, parametric classification techniques and model selection. Then there are methods like Neural Networks and AHP (you can read my paper on AHP here).

Predictive analytics

A lot of the work on predictive analytics in architecture and urban design appears to be centred on transport planning, pedestrian networks and agent and swarm-based modelling. Another development is the push for what has been called citizen design science. This is the idea that new technologies and data can be employed to help citizens to provide input and feedback into urban design and planning processes. I kind of like the idea of “crowdsourcing” opinions. I also wonder how that might work in the context of informal settlements. Predictive analytics would also be of benefit to Post Occupancy Evaluation techniques which architects are now increasingly returning to understand what the heck they are doing.

In understanding the dynamics of urban flexibility and reconstruction the idea of the hackable city and the idea of citizens agency. Such techniques might help architects and planners to abandon the old notions of analysis based on functional zoning and urban circulation.

 Data Visualisation

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Data Visualisation is where architects can go a bit crazy and really excel (excuse the pun).  We all love a good diagram. Data visualisation is not about going down to the VR lab and hanging out in a VR hospital word or classroom to see what it is like. Is VR and AR really where it’s at for the future of architectural design? I think other technologies for gathering user data will be more critical than gimmicks.

In fact, I would rather hang out in a VR network diagram or graph. Data Visualisation would be like the Smithson’s diagrams on steroids. No, actually it would be more like meeting Alison and Peter Smithson in their little home the Upper Lawn Pavilion and giving them a few lines of coke and then seeing what happens on the butter paper.

Rising and Falling Stars: Australian vs. Global architectural firms

This last week or so at my graduate school of architecture the students were lining up for selfies with Bjarke when he came as a part of the Beulah International competition. It was quite a commotion. Initially, I wanted to puke, there was a lot of black, and I mean a lot. Black tees, black jackets and black horn-rimmed glasses. Everyone looked liked gangsters on a Eurovision set. Most people who read this blog know how jealous I am of Bjarke’s hairstyle.

After my initial revulsion, I calmed down and realised that Bjarke was here for the Beulah International competition to design a mixed-use high rise complex on Southbank in my City of Melbourne. For Beulah quite a few of the local firms got together with the stars.

Beulah Competition: The Local-Star Match-Ups 

  • Bjarke Ingels Group with Fender Katsalidis Architects
  • Coop Himmelblau with Architectus
  • Mad Architects with Elenberg Fraser
  • MVRDV with Woods Bagot
  • Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Conrad Gargett
  • UN Studio with Cox Architecture

In December the South Australian government announced the shortlist for the Adelaide Contemporary Art gallery. This list was as follows:

  • Adjaye Associates (UK) and BVN with Steensen Varming, McGregor Coxall, Barbara Flynn and Yvonne Koolmatrie
  • Bjarke Ingels Group (Denmark) and JPE Design Studio with United Natures, Arketype and BuildSurv
  • David Chipperfield Architects (UK) and SJB Architects with Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture and Arup
  • Diller Scofidio and Renfro (USA) and Woods Bagot with Oculus, Pentagram, Katnich Dodd, Rider Levett Bucknall, Arup, WSP, Deloitte, Kaldor Public Art Projects, Klynton Wanganeen, James Sanders, Dustin Yellin, Right Angle Studio and Garry Stewart
  • Hassell and SO-IL (USA) with Fabio Ongarato Design, Mosbach Paysagistes and Fiona Hall
  • Khai Liew, Office of Ryue Nishizawa (Japan) and Durbach Block Jaggers (Australia) with Masako Yamazaki, Mark Richardson, Arup and Irma Boom

Rant Free Zone

Firstly, I will try and avoid a rant about how much I hate the star system and the paucity of risk-taking on the part of our institutional decision makers. Yes, it was great to see some emerging practices and voices in the Adelaide lineups and a focus on indigenous narratives for some of these teams. As time goes on, I think this focus will increasingly have to be a consideration for public commissions. But what does the overall inclusion of so many stars say about architecture in Australia? Have we lost our nerve?

Local Grunt with Super Star Strategy

In strategic terms what do these collaborations say about global competition, competitive advantage and the branding of architects in Australia and Australian architecture as a brand across the globe.

What struck me was that there is no single stand-alone Australian architect in this bunch. In both of these competitions, the short-listed firms are Australian architects aligned with the so-called star architects. Now far be it for me to preach some kind of little Aussie battler nationalist bias. But it is nonetheless vital to ask a few more questions about this situation:

As a strategy is it wise for local architectural firms in Australia to collaborate with these so-called stars architects? The old aphorism is that the local partner brings along well needed local expertise and on the ground knowledge. In other words, the international star designs and the local, seemingly domestic, partner implements.

Are Australian architects the documentation drudges of the global system? In these competitions have the Australian firms, in these collaborations, become global lackeys. The so-called second rate “drafties” of the global system? But is it really as simple as this? And in an increasingly media driven international marketplace for architectural services perhaps this strategic rationale is only partially valid.

Outsourcing 

In this context, one could argue that the Australian firms might provide the local technical grunt. This is in line with the overall trend towards the global outsourcing of documentation services. Across the global system, privatisation policies, and shareholder value practices have led to a situation where there has been a rise in outsourcing for architectural and building documentation.

The rise of digital technologies and the labour rates in the so-called global south have led to an increase in digital outsourcing for documentation. The late Bharat Dave in his own work noted the rise of offshoring architectural services which began in the late 90. Outsourcing has coalesced in places where there is an ICT infrastructure aligned with skilled workforces and low labour costs. Dave noted in 2010 a situation, that is now commonplace, where designs in one country are modelled in another, documented in yet another and then fabricated in another. It is not hard to concur with his conclusion that this situation necessitates the need for the “reconfiguration of practice in the long term.” ⁠

This situation has only accelerated in recent years, and it is perhaps naïve to think that the reconfiguration of practice is solely about the outsourcing and subsequent commodification of the services, such as technical documentation that designers seem to loathe in the first place.

The problem with partial services 

In these matchups, local architectural firms ruled by economic survival might find some comfort in being more easily able to modify the range of services they provide; being able to provide the technical grunt. Yet this flexibility poses a dilemma: to be more profitable, these firms need to offer a complete range of services. But as a result of changes in technology, partial services are less profitable and also readily supplied by non-architectural competitors. Consequently, many middle-ranking and larger firms have no choice but to provide limited or partial services despite the fact that this only encourages, and leads to, further disintermediation, and commodification in their markets. Providing partial services may be unsustainable in the longer term. For the local collaborating firms it might be a vicious cycle.

Mapping Strategy 

There is another issue that these two competitions point to, and that is the role of the internet and media to shape perceptions and the branding of architects. The following strategy diagrams map media impacts of the collaborations in these two competitions. I charted media hits (as measured by Google) of the stars against the reach of the local firms (number of Australian plus Internationaloffices of the local partner). I will let you make your own analysis of what all this means. My take is that clearly for some offices the match-ups appear to be ad-hoc and without any strategic intent. For other practices, the diagram shows who might gain or lose from the collaboration.

Slide1

Clearly, it also suggests who might win these competitions if this was the only criteria. It also shows which local firms may be using the collaboration to either extend their range or extend their brand by being attached to a star architect.

Slide1

For many Australian architects or any firm on the periphery of the global media starchitect system, such collaborations are perhaps necessary.  Since the early 2000s if not before, architects are no longer grounded in a particular office or geographical location. Competition amongst architects is global in the intense global competition for architectural services, arguably Australian firms need to extract value from networks and systems of patronage no matter how distant they may be. The star architects are better able to do this because they operate from larger economic centres.

Commodification of Design 

In any case, this all points to the ongoing commodification of design services. Perhaps the local/star matchups, point to the dumbing down of design into seductively drawn products with market signals that scream out “star-designer.” This is regardless of the fact that these designer products, seem to retain a threadbare relationship to what might have formerly been regarded as a traditional design process. Many of these designer products, indicate no interest in the memory of city or any sense of freedom and politics to be found in local communities.

Taken together, Australian firms need a renewed emphasis on strategic thinking, better management, a recognition of the media landscape, and internal research to gain competitive advantage. Otherwise, Australian firms will be doomed to be secondary actors, and lackeys, swilling around in the global system of architecture.