Design Entrepreneurship: Getting out of the bog of traditional architectural practice.

We all have our own contradictions. In between railing against the vagaries of the capitalist system and dreaming of living in Constant’s New Babylon, hanging out in Paris with Alice Becker and Debord and having coffee with Tafuri in Dorsoduro, I also have a real job.

But as it happens, there are some people in this world who don’t believe being an academic is a real job. WTF? In Australia, these myths still seem to prevail, especially amongst politicians, and maybe this is why our current federal government does not actually have a working universities policy model. Yet, it is forecast that international education’s (including unis and VET) contribution to export dollars is expected to almost double to in excess of $33 billion by 2025.

A Quiz 

Despite the above prediction I wonder if it would be different if academics all took part-time jobs as coal miners or shock jocks in order to get some policy respect from our politicians. I still get people thinking that as an academic I am:

a) having lots of holidays for 6 months of the year when I don’t teach.

b) always on university funded overseas trips (don’t get me started on this misconception).

c) hanging out with nerdy bespectacled graduate students in my cargo shorts, white socks and Jesus sandals.

d) I am spending my time down the pub drinking and carousing with the non-nerdy graduate students 24-7.

e) researching weird shit about floating cites that seemingly has no benefit for anyone.

Only one of the above is true. Can you guess which one? (Click here to find out? Actually the link to the real answer is here).

Seriously, for academics, the old mantra “publish or perish” is slowly being overtaken by a new mantra of “impact or perish.” I think this mantra also equally applies to architects, especially those struggling to survive in a tribal system, looking for new pathways and modes of practice. Architectural firms also need to create impact if they are to survive.

Design Entrepreneurship is one way to do this and to begin thinking about this. This is because of the following seven factors.

1.Market Size Supports Entrepreneurship

The size of the markets architects operate in suggests we should be more entrepreneurial. According to 2014 IBIS figures the AACA notes how architectural services revenue will grow by 2.6% per annum over the five years to 2019-20, to reach $7.3 billion. (you think someone at the ACA or the AIA would buy the latest IBIS report).  The ABS reports that the overall construction market the seasonally adjusted estimate of total building work done rose 1.3% to $26,695.2m in the December 2016 quarter.

2. The Shift to Research Impact

 As international teaching revenues are forecast to increase in Australia and remain stable I feel graduate schools of architecture have a greater role to play.  But this role should not be simply about producing architectural graduates in order to gain short term revenue for central university coffers. With the rise of new policy initiatives around research impact graduate architecture, and built environment schools, need to foster entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial outcomes.

As defined by my favourite institution the esteemed Australian Research Council (ARC): “Research impact is the demonstrable contribution that research makes to the economy, society, culture, national security, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond contributions to academia.” If that’s the case why doesn’t architectural research, which cuts across so many of the above things, get more funding?

Of course, the ARC being the ARC, we are still waiting to see how this broad policy will shake out and what the measures of impact will be. I would put money in my Ladbrokes betting account that whatever measure the ARC comes up with will actually add another layer of regulation to academics and in fact stifle innovation.

3. The Emergence of Early Stage Exemplars

A significant number of entrepreneurial design initiatives have emerged of late such as: Shacky, Crowdspot, Black AI, Larki and Nudel and STRUDL and of course United Make and AR-MA. All of these start-ups and early stage firms point to different modes of practice now available to architects and all have a design entrepreneurship basis.

4. Strategic Opportunities

The emergence of the above new ventures and start-ups come at a time when many traditional, and tribal, architects themselves are struggling to survive as small businesses.The above conjunction of the above industry segment revenues and research policies suggest there are opportunities available for architects, with architecture schools and professional associations, to exercise their design skills in order to create new opportunities.

There is a strategic opportunity for architecture schools, because of their critical mass, to be a bridge between architects, the engineering and construction industry and the recent crop of digital entrepreneurs, who are often so code and engineering systems orientated, that they do not know a lot about architects or the other allied professions such as landscape architecture, urban design, property and planning. Hence, architecture schools need to both teach and market design entrepreneurship through engagement activities and alumni networks.

Architects are great system integrators and have a better overall understanding of the construction industry than other specialists; this is particularly true in the competitive area of housing. In construction architects are more futures orientated technologically savvy and entrepreneurial than the brutish contractors who rarely think beyond the short-termism of the cheapest price.

5. New Entrepreneurial Pathways

The traditional path to entrepreneurship for architects has been through property development. This is high risk and we all know a few architects who have embarked on this course and who have failed dismally as property markets have turned.  But I also know of a few others who have through good risk management made mega-bucks.

But I think property development opportunities are limited and also highly speculative. Our  architectural associations need to think about creating entrepreneurial pathways based on creating new products, licences, companies, spin-offs start-ups and joint ventures.

6. New Housing Prototypes

I see opportunities in the areas of  alternative housing forms, sustainable and green housing, not to mention the impact on housing as result of the roll out of the NDIS and ageing demographics. Let’s face it unlike our political class architects have been exploring and proposing alternative housing typologies for a long time. That is what they are great at. I foresee opportunities in the emergence of different financing structures, and new ownership structures. Internationally, I see opportunities for architects who pursue design entrepreneurship in South Asian cities in the areas of low-cost housing, urban design, waste and recycling and construction technologies. The UB system is a great example of a commercialisation pathway.

7.The Robots are Coming

Time and space here prevent me from saying more about the design entrepreneurship opportunities in AI, CNC fabrication and the coming world of the robots. If the profession is to survive into the future, we need to build the research and design entrepreneurship infrastructure that will create both opportunities and new pathways of practice.

This is The End: Australian Architecture’s end game.

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.

Tipping point. 

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_Q7_170406Chart 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_Q14_170406Chart 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_Q6_biz-plan_170406 (1)

                      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.

Surviving the Design Studio: How should we teach and research Architectural Practice?

Teaching for our subject Architectural Practice at MSD has started this semester. This year we are trialling a series of hour long Q&A sessions. The first panel session was on inclusiveness in the profession; a pretty big subject that deserves an entire subject or seminar series.  It’s a pity I have to teach all the content in Practice the way that I do. Squeezing anything into the syllabus outside of the accepted accreditation requirements or competency standards is always  a problem. Nonetheless, his year at MSD we are going to have panel sessions on fee cutting, branding, cross-disciplinary collaboration, innovation and risk. The extra content we don’t normally  cover. We will probably finish off the semester with a Q&A panel on diversity, intersectionality and career pathways.

By the time we teach everything else that we need to teach in the Practice subject, in order to meet the accreditation requirements, there is not a lot of time left for the really big issues facing the profession. In many respects the accreditation requirements and Australian competency standards seem to reinforce some of the myths that bedevil architectural discourse and culture. As we touched on in last week’s panel, on diversity and inclusiveness, the guidelines appear to reinforce the notion that the only way to Practice is via traditional practice. I call it the Wilkinson-Eyre model of practice. Yet there are many different ways to be an architect. Yet architecture seems imprisoned by the traditional mythologies of masculine and male creative genius, the pedigrees of client patronage, race and class, as well as the binary split between design creativity and business. All of these things seem to reinforce the idea that practice is not a place where discussions around diversity or inequity should take place (there is a lot to cover and this is why I also teach an elective called Design Activism).

In the olden days, there was subject on Specifications. This is now covered as one lecture in our Architectural Practice subject. In the olden days, there were subjects that addressed contract documentation strategies and workflows. We now cover this in practice in one tiny lecture. The same for Contract Management which is now covered in Practice and yet it should probably be a separate subject. These days I think we all benefit if the teaching of Architectural Practice is seen as being more of a contested area. I have no problem with that. A place where debates around the profession and its relationship to various issues can take place.

Architectural Practice is too often an incredibly contested area in the wrong ways. One of the older binaries that seem to pervade it is that one between the real world and academia. It’s always been oh so easy for practitioners to come to the university and look at the work and say the graduates: can’t do this, or they can’t do that. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions during various accreditation panels. Some architectural employers don’t want graduates that have been taught to think but to simply fit into the cogs of that CAD monkey documentation machine. This is a simplistic binary debate, and it’s a pretty easy criticism to utter, and in the end only diminishes architecture as a profession. The real problem is that some voices are too often silenced or not heard when these simplistic aphorisms get trotted out. For example, the graduates who are paid poorly by practices, work long hours and don’t get paid overtime. Or the people of difference who don’t make the so-called grade at Wilkinson Eyre.

It was suggested to me recently that the architecture curricula was simply about teaching design, technology, history and theory. I thought WTF? As an integrated subject Practice, should be both reflective of the debates in contemporary architecture and give young architects their first insights into a range of things. The strategic management of technology for example. Or knowing how to negotiate or consult with a client or a developer or a marginalised community group for another.  Teaching young architects to write business plans so they can find pathways through financial economics in order to not economically exploit others when they come to direct practices themselves (This week our Q&A style panel in is on fee cutting).

Traditionally, Practice has always taught by male architects who by and large seemed to wear suits and seem to know something about money in a kind of worldly sense (I am one of those; but sometimes I don’t wear the suit). As a subject Practice, was and is, for the most part sequestered from design in graduate architecture schools across the world. It is either often forgotten or seen as something that has nothing to do with either design, technology or even history and theory. It is presumed to be a practical subject that somehow teaches architectural students about the “real world.” But this image of the real world is a shibboleth. This is because I know of few architecture schools, where teaching cross-cultural negotiation skills, or stuff like the darker arts of social media branding, or the banalities of cash flow forecasting is thought about. I know of one architecture school, so notoriously attracted and addicted to its own tiny autonomous discourse, that if you mentioned any of this stuff they would stereotype you as a “non-designer” and relegate you a long way down their coveted pecking order of young and emerging star architects.Of course, as we know from other domains of knowledge, that economics. sociology and the management sciences are fields that are valuable to encounter intellectually.

This forgetting of Practice reinforces the worse mythologies of practice itself. The way we practice architecture needs to be dismantled through more effective ethnographic and empirical research using methods dragged in from other domains. Even in the UK field of Construction Management, as a result of an interest in the sociological and management sciences, there has developed over the last 10 years focused research studies on: technology take-up, sustainability, innovation, immigrant labour flows, as well as the inequities of pre-formed racial and gender identities in construction. By contrast in architecture all we seem to do is something called design research (I am still to figure out what that is) a bit of do-gooder sustainability (despite the fact that we are facing extinction as a species) and a whole lot of technical research using robots, 3D printers and Virtual and Augmented reality.

This focus on the technical only seems to reinforce the new image of the young architect as a kind of sneakerboy guru of Rhino or Grasshopper. Someone, I know went to an international robotics in architecture conference to find it was full of hundreds of blokes with less than a handful of woman represented. Even in the sixties, another time of technological obsession in architecture, figures like Archigram and Reyner Banham had a Boys-and-their-Toys fetish about computers, space ships and industrialised building. Not sure if a lot has changed.

For me it is the historians and architectural theorists who are doing the most interesting research in architecture. These areas, as well as research into practice, more often than not, get squeezed in research funding rounds in favour of technology, sustainability and construction. I think the profession at large needs to think more carefully about what it means to practice, beyond the narrow models, pedigrees and mythologies that have pervaded architectural culture for the last million years. Maybe, thats why in all of this it was good to see three (yes, three!) Catalan architects get the 2017 Pritzker Prize. The question of what practice is, who can practice and who does practice should be reflected in both academic and professional development programs, accreditation guidelines, curricula and syllabi.

But to really teach practice I think we need to teach young architects how to chain themselves to the gate of a coal mine. Or how to work directly with colonised groups. Or how to reflect on their own genders and backgrounds. Architecture school is the place for the messy debates that will hopefully dismantle and decolonise architecture’s current subjectivities, pedigrees, rituals of taste-making and mythologies. Architecture school is the place where the politics of global economics confronts the new and emerging forms and structures of architectural practice itself. Most traditional practice courses have avoided building into their framework these perspectives, and sadly in most architectural schools architectural practice seems to get forgotten. These are the issues that should be central to the teaching of practice. In fact, as architects we should all be teaching these things in our firms and in schools of architecture.





Architecture as Knowledge Design vs. the Low Fee Mentality.

 Architecture is about ideas and what I call Knowledge Design as compared to that oh so icky cult of “DESIGN.”  This is a more developed and modified version of a talk I gave at Denton Corker Marshall my piece at the ACAA website.

Architecture is an endeavour focused on the creation of knowledge. It’s about Knowledge Design as compared to just being about Design. Architecture is about designing processes that create knowledge. I guess, I think that this stem’s from the fact that architecture is essentially about ideas. In the same way that a work of literature or political philosophy is also about ideas.

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Too often we are bamboozled by the architects as salespeople who tell us that architecture is about all sorts of things: architecture is about BIM, architecture is about Green Roof’s or Resilience or Sustainability or Parametrics. Thats all fine, but I think seeing architecture as idea and knowledge driven might help to resist the urge to simplify everything in this so called Post-Truth world.

Architectural knowledge is generated via the design process and then – if you are lucky and get something realised – it is embedded in both built and spatial forms. This knowledge created by architects, and the professional services through which it is delivered, makes architecture valuable to society.

If architects are to prosper as a discipline in the future, they need to make Knowledge Design a central platform of their practice. Recently, I became interested in how UN Studio conducts its own research. They focus this through what they call Knowledge Platforms. In short, each platform is a different area of specialised knowledge – UN Studios explains:

“the objective of the Knowledge Platforms is to distil knowledge from within the practice of architecture in order to propel design thinking and innovation.”

Of course, proposing that knowledge is central to architectural production is a more complex model than simply saying that architects design buildings. This model of practice places ideas and knowledge, rather than the delivered object, at its centre. Yes, this approach is quite different to seeing architecture as simply being about the design of physical buildings (as, unfortunately, too many people do). But, in the digital age the Vitruvian tenet of firmness, commodity and delight is a little bit harder to apply to something as seemingly intangible as knowledge.

For the anti-design types, and anti-elites and anti-intellectuals in our world the intangible always seems to a struggle to understand.

Architects as knowledge workers. 

Seeing architects as knowledge workers is more commensurate with our wide-ranging education, our role as systems integrators, and with the ambiguities of living in a networked global system (a global system now beset by the spectre of nationalism). Moreover, architects are now working in cities saturated by a combination of ‘wicked’ problems such as inequity, incessant conflict and climate change. Cities themselves can no longer be understood as stable entities that, through patronage, architects adorn with the symbols of power. Do we need more Bilbao’s or Dubai Palm’s or ghost town MASDARs?

Notions of future proofing practice should not be about jumping on the latest technology bandwagon or getting excited about the latest procurement method. New developments in both technology and social organisation need to be thought about and strategised by architects. In the future, thinking about architectural services in terms of knowledge will be more and more important. Excellence in architecture has to be about ideas and the design of knowledge and not just about the time and cost, or even zero carbon, outcomes of project delivery. Dare I say it but architects need to abandon the cult of design to do this. I am beginning to wonder if the “design” is a paradigm, or episteme, that actually cripples radical ideas and innovation.

An Upstream Knowledge Future

I am more optimistic about what I call an upstream future for architects. In this future architects will create upstream knowledge that downstream clients, and others in the industry, can utilise. In the upstream future knowledge creation and management is placed at the centre of the practice. In this future architects will be at the centre of creating new knowledge across all aspects of the built environment. After all that is what our long training equips us to do.  This knowledge will enable architects to charge more for their services in markets that have traditionally been beset by price competition, pseudo cartels and the lowest common denominator of service to clients.

In the upstream future each practice will look at advanced methods of collaboration between and across practices. Architects will no longer be bound by traditional practices centred on a ‘name’ or star architect. Much larger collaborations of small practices coming together with effective governance will help architects be more competitive and gain larger commissions. Moreover, architects will collaborate and form knowledge ecosystems with a full range of other consultants with specialist knowledge: engineers, academics, economists, urban planners and even financial analysts.

Research will be the central driver to what I call an upstream knowledge future for architects. Every great practice, no matter how large or small, will have a research plan and function embedded within it.

I was pretty disturbed and amazed when I presented a contracted research proposal to a consortium of architects. The aim of the research was to understand the degree to which architectural design added value to property assets. It was a modest proposal. To get the feedback that the research itself was going to cost too much made me wonder. It made wonder if architects themselves are not able to value research, into our own industry development and its development, then it is little wonder that no one else in our communities and sector put a value on our services.

I guess I am really over the low fee for service mentality. It’s a mentality that is slowly destroying our profession.

This is my last   blog post for the year and I need to recharge. As we are now well and truly in the festive season and I am thinking I shall return in to blog sometime in January.

I started this blog a year ago and I have had over 10,000 views now.  I would like to thank all of you who have bothered to read my posts and indicated support for my efforts in person.  As a result, I am really looking forward to the 2017 blogging year. 


Avoiding architectural extinction: The hazards and joys of interdisciplinary architectural practice and research.

Last week I blogged about branding and I got some comments back saying that it was all about the actual design of the building and “branding” was a superficial concept. Of course, design should be  paramount. In this week’s longer blog  I write about the need for authentic interdisciplinarity in architectural education, research and practice. 

In architecture there has always been a lot of talk about interdisciplinarity. Architecture, both as a field of research knowledge and as it is practiced has always crossed borders. Architectural education at its best gives, to those of us who subscribe to the cult of architecture, both generalist skills and the ability to understand, in detail specific areas of knowledge. Well trained architects are knowledgeable in construction techniques, urban planning, the  sciences (particularly the environmental sciences) and for some mediating cultural difference is essential; not to mention the world of organisational behaviour and science. On a design project architects are expected to make decisions about space planning, function, structure, environmental services, statutory regulations, contracts, construction methods (costs and details), organisational behaviour and heritage issues. In addition, knowledge of aesthetics is important: tectonics, style, methods of visual abstraction and how things look in the finished form (colour, paint, materials). And of course, and uniquely, spatiality. By this latter term I mean how things will appear, and made present, in three dimensions in space.

History of the city

High in my pecking order of things architects need to know about and research is  history. Why? In some way’s history can glue all the diverse archipelago of knowledge that constitutes architecture together; also architecture has its own traditions and histories. Buildings, cities, cultures, people all have history. These histories are all intertwined with architecture. The gradual erasure, of history and theory, in architecture schools is probably one of the most barbaric things to happen to the discipline. Nowadays, who needs history when you have the immediate gratifying moment of architecture in the internet world of dezeen, archdaily or snapchat.

Architects are expected to have knowledge across many domains as well as enough detailed knowledge within different domains to make decisions. The architect must make decisions that are both strategic and detailed and operational.  Some  architects can easily move across the spectrum and between these different scales of decision. But some architects get stuck at the extremes of these two poles. In other words some architects think more towards the “big picture” end of the spectrum and strategic and other architects can only think around the detail end of the spectrum. The best architects are those that can do both, or at least recognise both ends of the spectrum. This is what we might call interdisciplinary thinking.

Of course this kind of interdisciplinary thinking, or the idea of it at least, has its hazards. In higher education I would be rich if I had a few dollars for every time I heard the words interdisciplinary. It is an idea, with its associated mantras, that seems to have been been around forever. When I started architecture school the Yakka overalled, bearded (original hipsters?) greenie architects were always talking about. Well, talking about it between tokes on their spliffs. It was their way to take down a provincial profession centred on the gentleman architect.

Systems theory

I think to some extent the idea of interdisciplinarity it is related to the dream of systems theory. The idea that by understanding the world as a series of systems we can then begin to link together different systems and l of knowledge. The multi-talented Gregory Bateson was a key proponent of this and it has been said of him that “Bateson’s epistemology proposes a ‘communicational world’ based on cybernetics, systems theory, and ecology.” Wow ! Let me write that again: WOW ! In the 1920s, Bertalannfy, the founder of General Systems Theory, was to contrast the mechanistic approach to biological disciplines and he consequently ‘advocated an organismic conception in biology which emphasizes consideration for the organism as a whole or system, and sees the main objective of biological sciences in the discovery of the principles of organization at its various levels.’  (Bertalanffy, General System Theory, 12.). In 1968, he wrote that ‘If someone were to analyse current notions and fashionable catchwords they would find “systems” high on the list. The concept has pervaded all fields of science and penetrated into popular thinking, jargon and mass media’(General System Theory, 3.). It kind of sounds familiar and such sentiments appear to point to the influence of General Systems Theory in architectural discourse. In effect, and arguably without systems thinking, and related concepts we may not have all of the discourse and polemics attached to parametric design.

Higher education and research 

The above dreams of unified and general systems seem to spur on the idea that universities are one place where systems and cross disciplinary thinking can be fostered and encouraged. But, the problem is real collaboration comes together when common platforms of thought are bought together, and in a sense even into conflict, from disparate fields of knowledge (not to mention inclusiveness). For  architectural educators working with educators from other disciplines this generally means: agreeing on a common design processes, understanding different disciplinary conceptions of design, agreeing on hierarchies of knowledge and circumscribing what should be included in any particular curricula or syllabus.

In the architectural education setting this means agreeing on joint learning aims and outcomes. This is not to sound critical of any one university or program. We all want to teach the modes of interdisciplinary thinking as this is important for future graduates. It is not simply about teaching a bit of architecture and then teaching a bit of engineering, or product design or whatever it is side by side each. It’s not simply a matter of offering broad humanities subjects alongside architecture, or just renaming things. Too often this kind of thing ends up being about teaching by committee. where the committee devises the syllabus and the syllabus is a grab bag of topics. I suppose one of the reasons I hate planners is that they are always talking about interdisciplinary perspectives and yet when push comes to shove few of them seem that interested in the aesthetics, spatial considerations and design processes. I would love to run a studio with planners but they never seem to be that interested. As I have written elsewhere few planners seem interested in learning about design thinking.

In this context implementation of truly interdisciplinary teaching and research programs is the key to real success and positioning in the competitive word of the future knowledge economy. Not just packaging up, shuffling subjects, or research topics, around, renaming and then branding these different units.  But effective leadership and implementation is so important if interdisciplinary architectural and research education is of real concern. And this is why the studio is so important in architectural education and research because it is the central, perhaps the only place, for this kind of thinking to take place.

My sad experience in the discipline of architecture is that interdisciplinary research is too often overlooked in favour of research that is narrow and highly specific and technical. Maybe, it’s always been like this I guess. Of course I don’t want to sound like a pompous whiner. But, if you are a generalist, as most architects trained before the millenia are, or a humanities graduate with some ideas of crossing a few different areas, or conducting research on the perimeter, or at the limits of your discipline, you will probably have trouble getting funding. Perhaps this is why architectural research is so underfunded.

Doing it 

Thankfully, in the real world interdisciplinary thinking is embedded in architectural practice itself. In getting projects built architects, engineers, consultants, user groups of different cultures all come together. One of the really key parties in the project mix are the sub contractors. Often, despite their unfashionable high-viz vested ways and penchant for non inclusive language, they are the ones where the information is. My friend, the esteemed professor, of construction management once said that in the future he thought that all the design decisions would be made in the supply chain.  Of course one thing he meant is that it is in the supply chain where real interdisciplinary practice often takes place. That is where  architects conveying the concerns of the clients across a number of dimensions, problem solving with other specialist disciplines, seeking information from both contractors and subcontractors in order to make complex and difficult decisions.

The prospect of extinction. 

architects need to acknowledge the interdisciplinary aspects of architecture in design studio education, research and practice. Otherwise, our profession will become increasingly typecast as a profession of “technical specialists” who draw the design. Otherwise, our work will become increasingly commodified and that’s a recipe for diminishing returns and extinction.



It is what is called swot vac here in our graduate school of architetcure. We are now well and truly in the crazy season and quite a few of my students have gone to ground; hopefully to remerge, like butterflies form a chrysalis, with beautifully imaged projects next week at the studio juries.  

Waiting for the Barbarians: For architects there are no right answers only wicked problems.

This week I discuss the need to acknowledge wicked problems in architecture. 

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Waiting for the Barbarians C.P. Cavafy 

The Wicked Problem 

Most practicing architects subscribe to the idea of the wicked problem. For architects wicked problems exists. Its a aprt of their everyday life. But for the rest of the world they dont. This makes life hard for architects who by virtue of their intense, and a longer than usual, education can see the different dimensions of urban and architectural problems in greater detail. But, the rest of the world wants answers and why not?

A central concept underpinning architecture is the idea of the wicked problem. The wicked problem was first formulated and expounded by Rittel and Webber  in a 1973 paper entitled “Dilemmas in a General Theory Planning.” The paper highlighted that scientific problems are different to wicked problems in which, because of their complexity,  there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers. Rittel and Webber’s paper was a response to the critiques of professions and professional and elitist knowledge that emerged in the wake of 1968 and with the critiques of high modernism.  As they state “The professional’s job was once seen as solving an assortment of problems that appeared to be definable, understandable and consensual.” But they argue that the failure of specialised, or seemingly elitist, professionals or knowledge workers to solve these problems is not the professionals fault. The fault is the type of wicked problems that architects, planners, landscape architects and urban designers are faced with.

As a young architecture student and it was put to us that our future careers would be tied to solving wicked problems. That’s a hard truth to have to tell archietcure stduents today. As most architects will appreciate wicked problems have the following characteristics.

Problems of definition

Wicked problems are not easily defined. When presented with a wicked problem conceptualisation will never capture the dimensions of the entire problem.  To think a wicked problem can be defined may actually make it harder to solve.

Thinking of architecture as something that is about simple problem solving does not really hack it with me. Resolving a brief and then applying this to site conditions with a few sustainability, urban design, (fill in the gap), gestures thrown in and thinking this solves a  problem is mostly fantasy to me.

There are right answers

To think a problem can be definitively solved is a fantasy is because wicked problems never end. They do not have a finite life or a finite boundary. they tend to reverberate long after the project is built. Moreover, wicked problems are such that you don’t actually know when they are solved. As Rittel and Webber state:  “Wicked problems have no stopping rule In solving a chess problem or a mathematical equation, the problem-solver knows when he has done his job. There are criteria that tell when the or a solution has been found. Not so for the wicked problem.” In other words there is no way to test a solution to a wicked problem.

I guess most clients of architects expect answers and expect solutions that are ideal or “correct” propositions. After all that is what they are paying for. Yet architects are often caught having to explain, and indeed educate, clients that in some circumstances there are no ideal answers. There are no true or false answers to wicked problems. Moreover, attempted solutions to such problems exist on a spectrum between less bad and bad. Try explaining that to a client who is paying for your services.

Most architectural projects are the result of unique circumstance. No matter how much architects try there is often little knowledge that is directly transferred from project to project. Like architectural projects Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation.” In architecture it is not possible to employ trial and error. Once the building or the project is complete it is complete.  There is no chance to reflect on its flaws and rebuild it. One way architects try to overcome this is by employing processes of design iteration and prototyping (digital and physical) to try and explore different options and solutions in a given situation. But a lot of clients don’t want to pay for these iterations and they don’t understand why architects can’t get it right the first time. After all, in the client’s mind we are the experts. It’s all too easy for our competitors to offer simplistic and cheaper solutions. Easy answers and trash for cash.

As Rittel and Webber note: “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.” 

For an architect even the smallest budget renovation, a bathroom or perhaps an extra bedroom or living space on a house is a snakepit of complex problems. Planning regulations, limited budgets, service availability alongside client requirements and taste cultures make the renovation or small house one of the most complex things an architect can design. The smaller size of a project does not necessarily imply that the problems are any less or that the architect’s duty to act responsibly is any less.

Teaching and Research 

My students look sad and disoriented when they tell them there are no right answers. They are more employable if the understand this. But,in the realm of architectural education students, who now pay small fortunes to attend university, just want to come to class and know exactly what it is that they need to learn so they can pass. Any attempt to simulate the fluidity and ambiguity of the real world in the lecture theatre is increasingly more difficult and usually fails. As a result I would contend that the managerial emphasis on measures of so-called “teaching quality” is correlated with the drifting downward statistics on graduate employment outcomes. In teaching to “customers” rather than students the employers easily end up saying our graduate students are crap and this gets into the ears of the shock jocks and the populist politicians.

Wicked problems like most architectural projects are fluid and highly ambiguous. The managerialists as well as the shock jocks don’t want to hear this. Increasingly architects, and other domains of professional knowledge in the built environment, are too often derided as being elitist and damaging in that, all too familiar, anti-common sense way.  Federation Square and Southern Cross Station are two recent examples of this tendency. The irrational and global backlash against climate science, and scientists, is perhaps another symptom of this. Brexit and the rise of Trump and his associated policy settings is probably another phenomena associated with this.

In Australia there is a lack of research funding that is  accepted by a political class enticed and seeped in this global culture of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. We are witness to a political class that regularly derides research and evidence based policy. Architectural academics and indeed architects need to counter this by communicating what we are doing more effectively to the public. As architects we need to highlight the everyday wicked problems we are faced with and argue our case with both clients and policy makers. Otherwise, we are just waiting around for the barbarians who are too easily bedazzled by simplistic solutions and so-called right answers.




Getting Jiggy with Research: 6 ways for architects to create upstream knowledge.

Research is vital to architectural practice. So I thought I would rewrite, revise and update some of the practical comments from a previous post from December 2015. 

Research and Development is central to any relationship, engagement or linkage between architecture academia, practitioners and emerging businesses. Perhaps this goes without saying but too often it needs to be spelt out. Numerous architectural websites and brochures are full of statements about how research is valued and prioritised. But sometimes it all seems a little bit too “feel goody” and “mission statement” like for me. Architects need to be specific about their research aspirations.

Most architectural firms are keen to go upstream. By going upstream I mean creating distinct knowledge that helps a firm to get clients and charge more. There are however, I think a few things small firms and teams of architects can do to amplify their research capabilities. Even larger architectural firms would benefit from some of these suggested strategies about research.

1. Actually have a research strategy

Research involves developing knowledge or expertise in a particular area. But this knowledge needs to be integrated across the firm. For that reason it makes sense that an architectural practice would focus their research efforts in a way that aligns with their business strategy (if they have one). If the firm seeks to develop a competitive advantage in health, or facade design, or sustainable design or some aspect of urban design then its research efforts should align with this.

Whilst it is important, it may not be as effective to pursue research, or view research, as simply being about implementing new technologies in the office or figuring out what the next bit of funky software the firm should buy (see no. 2 below). Sometimes the line between these activities and strategic research is blurred. One office I worked for, in the earlier days of CAD, did spend a lot of time researching and understanding the expressive possibilities of CAD design and architectural representation. As CAD developed this gave them a large competitive advantage. Clearly the knowledge and research gained, as CAD systems themselves developed, had strategic benefit to the firm. In any case, I would always push for a line of research in the office that is at least aligned with its current strategies or with its intention to develop new areas of expertise.

Research is not simply about finding out about new materials, or the latest technical thingo, for your latest project and then filing the information into an electronic folder for later reference. Unless, of course you think that the knowledge you gain from the material and technical research process can be used elsewhere. But, I think that is what all architects think: That extra research or knowledge they gain on one project can be used on another. But I am a little sceptical about this as it seems too adhoc. Especially, if the firm does not have a research strategy or its projects are highly customised and different each time.

2. Wacky research is ok.

Of course sometimes architects might do research just for the hell of it (this kind of contradicts the first point above). There is a balancing act between conducting research to improve current capabilities versus working on seemingly new and radical innovations. Getting the balance right is important but sometimes research needs to be wacky. Research is about trial and error and indeed about making mistakes. That is in part what research is about. Buckminster Fuller is a pretty good example of this.

Politicians and shock jocks

Of course if you are a politician or a shock jock or a member of conservative think tank all research has to be somehow “practical” not “obscure” and have some demonstrable value to the tabloid reading public. I guess that’s how politicians and some journalists think. It’s a weird position to take. Because most of the people who espouse this view, especially the political class, have never have never really ever worked in the real world.

For those of us who have worked and struggled with their own business in the real world you understand that you have to undertake research, or take positions, that are risky or may not have an obvious or immediate benefit. But it’s the risky research that’s probably going to give a firm the real disruptive edge in business. Arguably, the obvious less risky thing is the thing everyone else is doing as well.

Firms, universities and individual researchers, gain competitive advantage when they pursue knowledge for its own sake.

3. Create a Research network

As one of my friend’s has done in his practice Architectural firms who prioritise research build an ecosystem of mentors, advisers and experts that they can interact with to debate and test new ideas. Almost all start-up companies will have advisory boards that advise them through the pitfalls and hazards of commercialising an idea and then growing. So why not architects? For architects, networking of course isn’t necessarily always about trying to find new jobs. It can also be about gaining knowledge of what is going on across the domains of knowledge where you practice. At least one person in any practice needs scan the horizon for new ideas or the latest research developments.

Although it is far removed form small architectural practices good example of creating a research network is the Google example. The Google platform is an ecosystem that includes consumers, software innovators, content providers and advertisers. It is a permeable system where outsiders can also become collaborators. Hence, it is not simply a matter of trucking in people or experts to help you solve a problem. It is about creating a network or ecosystem of collaborators who can help a firm to create new knowledge and to also understand what is happening within architectural and urban discourse.

4. Use your staff to create research knowledge.

Another dilemma for architects is how to organise a firm to do research. In the old days all wisdom in the office came from the Master. The so-called Master was not unlike Gary Cooper in the Fountainhead movie. He (sadly, always a he) was usually the architectural designer who by force of ego, class background, cachet of education, or through experience and perseverance.

When I worked for a “Master” in the 1980s as a young architecture student I could do nothing right and you can imagine what this did for my confidence as a designer. He was a truly good architect and in later years proved to be a designer of international note. But, he was also never wrong and always insistently right. Contending with the Master’s wisdom was really not a great career move. It was a little bit like being in a cult. Master’s love acolytes and they of course like acolytes who agree with them. The worst thing a firm can do is to create teams in its own image rather than diverse teams that I would argue are they key to creativity.

Ownership of new conceptual ideas or design processes more often than not is, and should be, shared. It never really resides in the mind of one person no matter how much symbolic capital they may have as a master. As they say at Pixar: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organisational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

This might be why my favourite model of Knowledge Management or is based on the Japanese management theoretician Nonaka whose work points the importance of knowledge as a vital source of competitive advantage, there is little understanding of how organisations actually create and manage knowledge dynamically.” Nonaka and his colleagues understand that knowledge creation in an architectural firm, or any firm for that matter, is a collaborative and iterative process.

5. Collaborate with academics.

Bring academics into your firm’s research ecosystem. The problem is academics are often time poor and hemmed in by teaching commitments and an overly regulated bureaucracy. On the other hand not all academics understand the dynamics of practice or business protocols. But, most academics in architecture schools love to do research. They also like to talk about it. Because of this it is a good idea to contact and foster the participation of academic researchers (like me!) into a practice’s work. Invite them in as critics. Invite them to the firm’s Christmas party. Get them drunk and see what they say. Allow them to participate in planning workshops or esquisses. This will help the academics understand the pressures and time frames of the practice. It will also get them thinking about what you do as a firm and what you can do better. It’s like having your very own free management consultant attached to your firm (sort of).  Before you know it you will become part of some useful collaborative research projects.

6. Teach a studio.

One good way to conduct research and create new knowledge is to teach a studio at an architecture school.

In setting up and running a studio the knowledge created can then help the studio leaders, as practitioners, to position and locate themselves in relation to various policy debates, and emerging programs, as they emerge in urban discourse. This enables a firm that teaches to gain an advantage over its competitors by actively being a part of an ongoing public and policy debates. After all isn’t that what it’s all about.

 I have been pretty sick this week with a cold I caught on the plane from the conference in Manchester that then turned into an excruciating sinus infection. But, this week at my great architecture school and faculty we are launching an entrepreneur’s breakfast. The basic idea is to get the disciplines within our faculty to engage and come into contact with entrepreneurs, founders of start up companies and for academics and higher degree students to have a greater appreciation of innovation systems, business entrepreneurship, the magical and mystical world of venture capital and perhaps more importantly how to manage small businesses so that they grow into more sustainable ones.