Business Suits vs. Designers: Why architectural practice is going down the gurgler.

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This was another popular blog post from the last year or so. Many readers contacted me to comment on the post. Most were in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in it. Re-reading it now, I am more emphatic in my thinking, and wonder how does a profession or a domain of knowledge expect to survive? Especially, if it gives no priority to educating its best and brightest about economics, finance, business strategy and management.  

Down the gurgler is Australian slang for: down the plug hole; something has failed; wasted (as effort, money, etc.); ruined, destroyed. 

Before you read this you may be interested in the:

SURVIVING THE DESIGN STUDIO: 2018 ARCHITECTS GLOBAL RESEARCH SURVEY. 

At the 2106 ARCOM conference I attended I met a few other researchers working in the area of architectural services. One was from Western Australia and the other was from Delft. Delft is one of the largest and well regarded architecture schools in Europe. At Delft my friends there have a large EU research project looking at the nature of architectural services and their value. Whilst standing at our conference having a cup of tea one of them mused that architecture seemed to have a global ideology. I asked “What do you mean?” thinking that perhaps the counter is that architecture is something that is pretty much formed by what Kenneth Frampton called critical regionalism.

The great divide 

She went on to discuss that no matter where you went in the world in architecture there was always an insanely stupid divide between the creative designer’s and the so called “business” people of architecture. At her architecture school the “in-crowd” of design professors turn there nose up and reject the so called “business side” of architecture. I agreed and then thought more about it. This divide is contributing to the demise of the profession. It prevents big practices from integrating knowledge and going upstream; it cripples small practices because they often do not have the business skills needed to make them sustainable.

It’s not real until it’s real syndrome

This divisive refrain has often been driven home to me in the architectural practice classes I teach at MSD. Every semester students question why we would do business plans in the class as part of the syllabus. Of course, when I talk to practitioners and I tell them we teach business planning in the class at MSD they say that’s awesome. When I tell they students this they don’t really care and they don’t really get it until they themselves become practitioners. Even when I say: “you will be more employable if you understand this stuff”, they still don’t seem to get it. It might be the it’s not real until it’s real syndrome.

The “practice” lecturer syndrome 

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How “design” architects see “business” architects

Also, as the so-called “practice” lecturer I constantly, get the impression, that  in some way I am written me off as some kind of accounting value managing drone who hates architectural design because I have an MBA. Yet, I love Debord and Deleuze and Guattari and late Foucault just as much as the next theoretically inclined architect.

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D & G 

Of course, in other fields it is different. For example, in advertising, the dark heart of capitalism itself, the collaborative tensions between the creatives, the so called suits and the production people are acknowledged and managed well. Agencies still manage to produce great work that moves people and contributes to brand survival in the spectacle.

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“Design” architect complete with mandatory jacket. 

What exactly is the business side of architecture? 

Thinking about it I am actually not sure what is meant by this. It is such a vague term and ideological prejudice. Does it mean you just want architects to make money (don’t we all want this?) Does it mean if you are “pro-business” you just do what aesthetically ignorant clients do? Does it mean you hate design and design processes? But just maybe actually, paying attention to the “business side” means architects need to pay attention to the following: Diversity,  in our team structures, strategic positioning, innovation systems, knowledge management processes, technology implementation and how we respond to emerging forms of procurement.

Oh and there is that that other area of academic and professional study that is often ignored in architecture schools, and missing from our competency standards, also relegated to the “business” side: Leadership.

Long hours, price cutting and other structural problems of the profession 

As the Sydney architect Clinton Cole eloquently argues, amongst other things, the profession is beset by a number of structural problems that impact on its well-being and competitiveness. He cites the “hugely entrenched cultural tendency to perform long hours” combined with truckloads of unpaid overtime, anomalies in charge out rates (Charging staff out at 40 hours per week but working more than this). As Clinton points out these practices disadvantage women in the profession. Or anyone else, for that matter, seeking a reasonable work life balance.

Oh and I forgot to mention  the other structural problems such as fee competition (the persistent rumours about large practice cartels price fixing low fees) and the push in some quarters, even by some so called-architects themselves, to deregulate the word architect.

The need for industry research 

Industry development backed by evidenced based research is the key to help architects  argue their case. But, as far as I can tell the AIA has had no real research function for years. The Government Architect’s across Australia are also generally deficient in this regard. So it’s great to see the Association of Consulting Architects taking up this mantle and filling some of the basic research gaps with the fine work of Gill Mathewson.

As suggested above, there is a whole range of research areas, that architects could collectively pursue for the benefit of the public, policy makers and even their clients.

7 tips for bridging the divide despite the horror of small practice

Lets face it in small practice organising and scheduling time, managing cash flow, preparing marketing materials is extremely boring. But it is stuff that needs to be done. In larger firms, let alone any firm for that matter, strategic thinking, marketing and branding, HR and management policies that promote diversity and creativity are vital. So if you are a small or solo practice in the outer suburbs or inner suburbs of a large city. What do you do? How do you avoid the quagmire of overwork, high stress and the feeling that you are always reacting from crisis to crisis.

In my experience the following things are all definitely worth considering to bridge the divide.

  1. Don’t cut your fees just to get the job.
  2. Have a business plan even if it is only two pages long.
  3. Calculate charge out rates that allow for fair work hours and profit. Stick to them.
  4. Work on your business systems.
  5. Take the time to constantly market the value of design.
  6. Do what Google does and don’t work for half a day a week. Just think or meditate.
  7. Do some research that will help strengthen your knowledge base.

Unless a practice considers acting on the above 7 points it will always struggle.

Design value and design fees are positively correlated

Of course I fear, that if you mention business systems to one of those big name alpha-male architects  that adorn the global system of architecture they look at you as if you some kind of pariah. They always leave it to someone else. As a result our profession is getting killed. It struggles to argue to clients why there is a direct relationship between design fees and design value. It struggles to shake off the overall prejudices that the broader public have about architects. More importantly, it is currently struggling to compete with other professions that claim to offer similar services.

The business-creative divide and corresponding global ideology has crippled architecture and threatens to hasten its further demise as a domain of knowledge. As a result the viability of architecture as an profession is increasingly at stake. Unless the divide is bridged we remain a naive profession full of poetic and narcissistic dreamers who are rapidly losing ground.

The destruction of our 1960s and 1970s Architectural Heritage: The demise of Robin Boyd

Dr. Christine Phillips from RMIT and I recently presented a paper on Robin Boyd at SAHANZ 2017. SAHANZ is the 34th Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. This year it was around the theme of Quotation, Quotation:  What Does History Have in Store for Architecture Today? For the conference we chose to focus on the Australian Architect Robin Boyd; over a series of previous SAHANZ papers we have sought to demythologise Boyd’s work by a close examination of the Boyd archive at the State Library of Victoria.

What follows are excerpts from our paper alongside a call to arms, as we increasingly find our architectural heritage from the 1960s and 1970s slowly being destroyed.

At the conference, we were able to duck out and visit two notable Boyd buildings. The Zoology Building at the Australian National University competed in 1961 and Churchill House on Northbourne Avenue, completed after Boyd’s death in 1971. The Zoology building is finely constructed and Spartan modernist building within it is a characteristic Boyd courtyard.Taken together both of these works indicate how Boyd himself changed over the tumultuous 1960s.

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Zoology Building 

The research for this paper adopted a framework focused on a discursive analysis of Boyd’s journal articles and books of the 1960s to his death in 1971. We chronologically mapped and matched his writings to his public building projects during and across this time period.  The analysis revealed how Boyd’s works and writings from 1960-1967 depict a relatively consistent commitment to a universal modernism tempered through a regional lense. This is exemplified in the earlier Zoology building.  On the other hand, Boyd’s later writings and works from 1968 through to his death in 1971, diverge into a less coherent and fragmented body of work. This is arguably evident in the later Churchill House.

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Churchill House 

This trajectory illustrates the degree to which Boyd’s Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s, his last works arguably expressing a crisis and bewilderment in Boyd’s own thoughts about modernist architecture. This also echoes the degree to which Modernist Universalism changed over the course of the 1960s as it entered into Post-Modernist tendencies.

In a number of later projects Boyd appears to produce conceptual designs which highlight the iconicity of quoted fragments rather than trying to produce an integrated concept. Neptune’s Fishbowl is a good example. It is a project that appears to indicate an abandonment of the principles espoused by Boyd earlier in the decade. This was an iconic geodesic dome reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller, but via it’s use of integrated advertising signage it also appears to allude to the iconicity of Venturi, Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas published after Boyd’s death in 1972.

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Churchill House designed in 1968 and 1969 also appears to show Boyd’s experimental bent and abandonment of an integrated and universal modernism. Again, this plays on a dichotomy of forms but there appears to be no effort to integrate or reconcile these forms together.  Each façade has a different compositional treatment and the building is not a whole, like the earlier zoology building, but composed as series of fragments.

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Churchill House Detail 

The sloping glass box which sat on top of the original Churchill has been destroyed. It is only a matter of time before either of these fine buildings face demolition. As with the Sirius building in the Sydney and Kevin Borland’s Harold Holt Pool, not to mention the imminent destruction of Robin Hood Gardens in London, these buildings face mindless destruction.

This destruction is ironic given this is a time when the curiosities of Brutalism and other architectural moments and experiments exemplifying the 1960s and 1970s are rushing through our social media feeds. What we need to understand about these buildings is that they represent an era, if not the very last era, when architecture and architects still mattered. This heritage is now slowly being destroyed.

For those of you interested the French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen’s keynote at the Conference was delivered on 6 July 2017, introduced by Gevork Hartoonian. Its a great lecture and can be found here. 

In Praise of Drawing: Six design things you cannot do in a computer.

Digital computing has destroyed essential elements of architectural design. Digital software is killing our architecture schools and the profession. When I read about Schooomaker (king of the market processes) or the other dudes in the parametric digital tribe my eyes start to glaze over when I hear the same old stream of consciousness about how the, fill-in-the-word-space-with-a-Zeitgeist-word, is going to change fucking everything. This Zeitgeist word is sometimes computers, robots, VR, AI, AR, smart infrastructure, 3D printing or some alliance of technology with ecological systems. But then, when I look at the productive design work spat out by the adherents of the digital tendency, in the words of the former FBI chief George Comey, “I feel mildly nauseous.”

Limited learning

At the level of design practice the digital impetus has wrought much damage in our schools of architecture. A focus on digital practice has limited the range of what emerging architects learn. This has been compounded by the ongoing development of  performance metrics related to financial outputs in our university sector. Much easier to teach a narrow version of architecture via digital computing and then dazzle everyone by pretending the design outputs are great. Usually, and on closer inspection, these outputs too often seem to be riffs on the orthogonal frame with plug-in boxes: straight jacketed versions of Cookie’s Plug-In-City with none of the fun. Too often the allure of the computer limits an understanding and practice of the design process.

Craft Beer

So let’s raise a unique and handmade crafted beer to the old ways: to sketching, drawing, to typology and composition, and to a more mindful consideration of ecologies than just making stuff look like bones, or aortas, or slimy mucus with aerated bubbles. The best architects draw on all available media to design. and here is my list of 6 design things you can do better outside of a computer.

1. You can annotate

You can actually write words on a drawing. Its true. You can use words like “maybe” if you don’t really want to do something. You can add room names, colours, and even thoughts (yes, actual thoughts) about the design’s next iteration. A great thing to annotate on a drawing is to denote different design options and iterations. Even better you can write numbers on drawings. Annotations can help bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a design.

2. You can diagram quickly 

Architects love diagrams. They help to structure concepts and help you bridge the gap between a conceptual arrangement, or relationship, and an emerging form or figure. A flow chart, a graph, a complex social structure, a landscape or a site can be quickly mapped and diagrammed on a bit of paper. The smaller the better (joke).

Design diagrams can help you to remember what the fuck you are doing. Digital deisgn gives the impression that the designer is in control. But design is really about exploring the limts of control. It is about always skirting the line between the chaotic “what the fuck am I doing” and a stable and controlled order.

3. You can scribble and smash things up 

Yip, smashing up your digital model in parts is limited by the software. Digital software just whispers in your ear and urges you to extend and grow things. But with a small drawing you can easily and quickly smash something up into its constituent parts or fragments. You can scribble and cross things out. You can erase things. You can do this in a sketch to test and then see what something might be made of.

There is no point producing prototypes if they aren’t dissected and smashed up. Drawing allows you to draw prototype after prototype after prototype. The problem with digital and CNC computing is that the resultant prototype are too often the result of a linear and step-wise series. With sketches you can do the prototype first and then work back from there.

4. You can stick your head into the models

There is nothing like the joy of a physical model you can hold up to your eye, stick your head into and even place your whole body into. With a physical model we can easily and very quickly apprehend the design from different scales and perspectives. We can get both in and out of the physical model.

Will  VR be the same and supplant the physical model? I doubt it. This is because, we can easily get inside a VR environment, but I am not so about viewing a VR environment from afar or at different distance or scale. Moreover,  physical model’s models, depending on the material they are made from, have an abstracted presence that conveys information that may not be communicated through VR.

5. You can really get fuzzy

There is a tyranny of precision inherent in digital practice. Design precision is not something architects should necessarily value all the time. But with a sketch or drawing you can draw two, three or four or more lines over or near an initial single line. Linework in preliminary sketches and drawings are iterative and help the designer explore the tolerances and limits of a design in a given context.

Its fun to  put icky bits of paper over a sketch, and through further drawing change the design, ever so slightly.

6. You can colour in a lot

Colors are evocative. But, I fear the digital tribes have no need for the evocation of memory or tone. This because, colour is actually a real thing and there are a lot of colours in the world. More colors in a box of Derwent’s than there are on a colour wheel or pallete in a computer. It’s great to color code sketches to denote and then explore different tones, spaces, materials, or functions. Maybe in the digital world we forgot that real colours, like real fragrances,  are actually derived from the natural world.

Spin me around and around

How did architecture become a race to spin the model around and around, to zoom in and out, How did it become such a stylistic cliché and banal mix of Frei Otto structures, Darcy Thompson geometries, Penrose tiling and fractal geometries that look like unconvincing Origami. This stuff was boring in the late 50s and early 60s and it is still boring now.

The digital tendency masks the social constructs of architectural production and privileged taste-making. Whenever, I see the parametric polemics I always think of the original Futurists Manifesto. For a few minutes, Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists, were the brightest stars in the architectural firmament. The digital tendency is worryingly a re-enchantment of the Futurist trope: an impetus that seeks to legitimise itself with a universal history, and then simultaneously populate our shimmering screens with new figurative angels and demons. A polemic with an underlying passion for imagined enemies and the technologies of war (e.g. Drones).

Despite its claims to the opposite, the digital tendency abhors ecological memory and masks this loss with a belief in a universalising human agency. The digital is the contemporary engine of the Anthropocene.

For some of us architecture is still, and should be, a generalist pursuit. By this I mean that, it is a field of knowledge that spans between disciplines as well as media. But the worst of the digital tendency is rapidly turning it into the domain of techno-nerds with no memory for politics. After all, who needs politics when you can convince yourself that the parametric gesture, through its common and seemingly literal organic images, will bind the human species to nature. This unifying concept has always been a little paradoxical because it has facilitated the project of modernity in its orgiastic destruction of the earth.

So given all of the above, what’s wrong with designing outside of the computer?

 

 

 

Vale: Peter Corrigan 1941 to 2016

The great architectural partnership of Edmond and Corrigan is now no longer. I have just heard the news that the Australian architect Peter Corrigan has died at his home in North Carlton. With his death a dream of Australian architecture slips away from us. This was not any old dream. It was foremostly, I think, a dream about Australia. It was about what Australia could be like as a nation of architects and artists and whose institutions served a social democracy of intelligence, difference and equality. This was not a dream of architecture justified by simple images, crude pragmatism, slick technologies, theoretical masques or private beliefs. Corrigan’s architecture and his vivid set designs were for everyone here in this country: the punters and the toffs and perhaps even the racehorses.

It was a dream Australian architects could take their place in their world with our own rightful predilections, language, traditions and canon; a critical canon of projects that suited our economic circumstances and both the optimisms and failures of our social democratic institutions. The work of Peter Corrigan was at times simultaneously mysterious, cryptic and complex. It was work that proclaimed architecture as an intellectual and artistic pursuit of the highest order in both our cities and our suburbs.

This was an architecture that drew on a broad range of eclectic sources Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Aalto and Venturi. In his set designs I think he liked Schwitters and George Grosz. Sometimes it was really hard to know what the sources of his work was. This was not the polite yet experimental modernism of Boyd or Grounds, nor was it the chamfered slip form slush of Borland, Gunn, Jackson and Walker or John Andrews. This architecture was different. Really fucking different. So much so that some doubted it was architecture at all.  It was completely different to anything that has been done before or since. A cacophony of images and instinctual impulses thrown together but organised via exquisitely expressionistic and evocative plans.

The projects were in places like: Monbulk, Mortlake, Sale, South Belgrave, Dandenong, Wheelers Hill, Frankston and of course Keysborough. Suburbs and towns where architecture was and is virtually extinct these days. The buildings in these places weren’t luxurious commissions. These were projects that were a kind of poor theatre of Grotowksi and Brecht translated to architecture and we might now wonder if Corrigan wanted  Australia to be a kind of Antipodean Weimar.

So many architects I know hated Corrigan. These haters were the gentleman architects, the straighteners and wowser architects the ones who were lucky enough to get the jobs. Corrigan always had his avid supporters and detractors. The now superannuated bureaucrats were afraid of him. At architecture school, and in his office, he generously protected students who had obvious promise, but needed time to develop. Under his wing a few of my friends did his studio quite a few times. Once grown, he would eventually let them go into the world.

As a young architecture student I was only brave enough to do his studio once. He was fierce to those he thought were upstarts and generous to those of us who shared his zeal. His studio, which he taught with Jason Pickford, expanded my brain a lot. It was the very best that a liberal education in Architecture could offer at that time. He had a library and taught us to read. I was told to read Patrick White’s Voss and he told me to go to the Pram Factory where we saw his set design for Bold Tales starring the actor Tim Conigrave who ended the show naked amongst Corrigan’s set of building rubble and a small statue of Michelangelo’s David. It was a long time before I understood what I had seen.  His sets for Barrie Kosky’s operas and the Peter King plays were mesmerising. This was an architectural education that no longer exists in these current days of mindless managerialism and student experience scoring.

My memory has probably distorted my all too brief glimpses of Corrigan. I am sure there are others who have other memories and will rightfully claim more. Nevertheless, mine are brief but vivid. I remember him arguing with Peter Eisenman in the Gossard building about critical regionalism. When he came back from Harvard he gave a drunken lecture and showed 6 million slides of Saarinen’s Cranbrook. At the height of Post Modernism he told us that abstraction “still had legs” and to “keep an eye” on a relatively young architect then called Libeskind. I didn’t believe him. There was also the time when Corrigan and Stanley Tigerman did a drunken studio crit at Melbourne Uni excoriating the University students and praising each RMIT student as pure genius. It was a great and conniving set up. I can see a very young Corrigan and Jason P wearing woolly jumpers and smoking pipes in the Clyde as architecture students in 1961. I was too young to be there so I have no idea how I got that image into my head. I once heard him tell a student “you can’t put a fucking sound shell there” and he was right, but that student never came back to studio. One day in the studio he went on and on about the Japanese architect Maki. Another time I saw him in the Standard Hotel in Fitzroy drinking Shiraz with water and hanging out with Jack Hibberd. I remember the night Keating came to open Building 8 at RMIT and I felt that architecture had finally arrived in this country.

Even though, I was so hopeless as student, he was always generous and encouraging. Many people owe their lives to him. He once terrified me when he pointed at me and beckoned, I thought I was done for, instead in that kind of seductive Australian New England like accent he had, and he said it with a slow emphasis on every syllable: “ I want you to go downstairs and get me one of those big round sticky buns with jam and cream.” I was pretty relieved it wasn’t worse than that, and maybe he said it like that, because he thought I was dim, because in those days I didn’t talk much.

At architecture school I wanted to be him when I grew up.

He had a kind of Irish Catholic disposition and all that went with it. But, he was one of the few Melbourne architects to actually, yes actually, be in practice with a formidable woman. In some ways he always seemed to me most like the American author John Cheever with all his proclivities. A brilliant exponent of his art but a radical larrikin thrown into the middle class and high art. An outsider looking for an architectural home in the suburbs. A kind of Australian Cheever who would mention crazy Louis Kahn in the same breath as he would mention Henry Lawson, Joan Sutherland or Phar Lap. I always wondered what he had done at Johnson Burgee in New York during the Whitlam years.

All the fire stations and houses are amazing; and one hot day, with my friends Dean and Catherine we went to visit the Athan house in Monbulk as it neared its completion. We got lost, and hurt our shins, clambering over it’s unfinished joists. We found a labrynthine house of mystery; a suburban castle with an interior city within it. Nothing like the pornography of glazed box houses that I find in my social media feeds these days. Peter’s expressionism always seemed to touch on the ethereal and a kind sacred secularism at some point.

As with all great architects there are always lost opportunities. I think Edmond and Corrigan’s 1985 project for the State Library and Museum was one of them. It is tragic Edmond and Corrigan were not the architects of the City Square, Stockman’s Hall of Fame, or Parliament House or even the Geee. Yes, if Edmond and Corrigan had been the architects of the MCG we would all now be living in a much richer nation. A nation with significantly more cultural dignity than it has now.

The Folly of the Folly: Architecture and the new age of Trump.

The semester is over and Trump is the prez. So this required a little bit of time to write a more theory driven blog. 

In this new Trumpian age that we find ourselves in we are witness to the rise of the architectural folly. We all love to go to and visit the follies and drink the champagne or suck on Aperol icy poles.  These little follies or pavilions often pop in the parks and cities and galleries. There are few, here and here,over the Southern hemisphere summer in my city of Melbourne. The Serpentine Gallery famously has at least one each year in Kensington Gardens. I wrote about the 2016 folly here.  Tiny houses, tiny cafes, tiny pop-up shops, tiny little renovations, eency weency rooms, instantaneous barista centres, decorative baroque makeovers straight out of the flat packs and lots of public sculpture.

All these follies have become interwoven in our lives via their transmission though social media. These follies have quickly developed there own history in our lives. A history made of Instagram moments, Facebook landscapes and Snapchat curiosities.Our social media channels seem beset with architectural follies. Of course, all of this seems pretty innocent and well-meaning, an effort on the part of architects to create a communal connection via the digital urbanisation of the city. But, perhaps this is all architecture can do these days.

I am wondering if all of this micro-designing is a way to make a space for architecture itself, or any kind of architecture for that matter, given that the two extremes of the modernist project in architecture appear to be exhausted. This certainly seem to be the case in my city where the public and civic traditions of architectural language appears to be caught between two poles. I imagine it may be the same in other rich globalised cities. The first pole is the tradition of minimalism of Mies Van Der Rohe (Farnsworth and the like, the brick country houses) , mixed with its precursive tradition in the functionalism of the Russian Constructivists (but, more Melnikov than Leonidov) and uber functionalists  like Hannes Meyer. In the traditions of my city this pole exhibits itself in private housing; well mannered modernism usually drawing on the traditions of the 1950s. In the area of housing OMA and BIG are its more recent manifestations. In many projects this becomes an elegantly proportioned but try-hard functionalism; a functionalism, whilst seeming to be objectively expressed, is obviously softened by the markets and so called value management; as a result it becomes a functionalism of mediocrity that struggles to make anything strange as the Russian literary formalist Viktor Shklovsky would urge us to do.

The second pole is easier to identify but it is, I fear, no less empty. It is probably best related to the poetics of Corbusier symbols, volumes, lines and shapes and symbols drawn from the animist and natural world or the architectural canon itself.  As Tafuri was to point out in relation to Corbusier’s Algiers project this approach represents a pinnacle of the CIAM avant-garde’s failure to make the intellectual work of architecture mean anything in the face of  capital.As well as Corbusier examples of this pole can be seen in the work of the New York Five, both Saarinen’s, Niemeyer, and all of the concrete brutalist buildings in the world that seem nowadays to choke our feeds. For Tafuri these were games without meaning or content disconnected from the real economics of the capitalist universe. In the hands of better architects this poetics becomes a kind of shamanism pointing to its own absurd emptiness. In the hands of other architects it becomes a chaotic cacophony of empty signs.

The architectural folly or project is usually set in a landscape. This landscape is viewed as either being hostile in which case the architectural responses typically point to fortress like metaphors of protection or a picturesque ruin in the landscape. The folly always disengages with its political context. In fact, context only serves to reinforce the folly’s claims to a romantic and ideal sentiment. But in reality this is an attitude denoted by Tarfuri as “the exaltation of apartness” and this contrived apartness is never a terror of faith. It is always so so certain in its cultural, and dare I say it, colonising groundedness.

As Vidler notes in a commentary on Tschumi’s Parc La Villette

“The folly, is on one, level, genuinely a meaningless object, a reassemblage of once-meaningful terms to make a nonsense out of them.” With no political agenda, no revolutionary aesthetic or social aim, and no historicist nostalgia, the allusion to constructivism becomes a mad shot in the dark that at once cherishes its avant-gardism but comprehends its madness. Analogically, the folly stands for a body already conditioned to the terms of dissemination, fragmentation and interior collapse.”

All too often I see these kinds of projects as fragments in architecture schools. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Iconic shapes representing typological figures. The primitive huts evoking the gables houses of Tessenow nowadays rendered in core ten-steel or Larch and packaged up for TV on Grand Designs. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Or worse still: parametric adornments and crystalline jewels, bridges (prevalent), aorta like tubes, shells, distorted urban blocks and even bits of clothing. Beautiful galleries and institutions also feature as fragments in Westchester like verdant landscapes. Many folly like projects ar etaken as rehabilitated ruins, loving crafted to give life to derelict buildings and all to often these are made whole with pop-up stores and shops. Nothing like a bit of retail therapy in the old warehouse.

The sustainability architects have their own follies. Rather than being concerned with issues of climate justice, their proposals are too often about reinforcing fragmentary rather than radical change across the city. In our digital streams we see glimpses of verdant rooftops, recycled facades, algae vats and mycelium walls and strange eco-machines driven by the wind.

In the work of people like Neil Brenner the diagram itself has become a folly (look at how first nations people are represented in these diagrams). From the Smithson’s onwards the diagram as kind of folly that adorns, decorates and tattoos our proposals. My cynicism urges me to say that every folly these days needs a power point presentation and a Ted Talk with lots of clever diagrams and statistics. Another decorative placebo to offer us the hope that as architects and urban designers we are making a difference and have things under control.

 

The rush to the folly is I think  because both of aesthetic tendencies streams identified above, junk functionalism and  a kind of poetic bruto symbolism, have been corrupted by the consumptive tendencies of capital. The city has been sped up by the new urban-digital technologies that employ follies for content and feeding the city in order to further fragment it before our eyes. Once adorned with these folly like fragments this new city machine gives the appearance of being the result of intellectual work and critical insight.

It is too easy to think of these fragments and follies as benign. In some ways the folly seems like an escape and a placebo.  This may be because the folly and these urban machine-made fragments are so easily attached to our individual lives via social media. Follies seem innocuous perhaps because the are small. Fragments celebrating an otherness we can grasp and exist in before returning to the world. Some are very tiny trinkets indeed. All architects yearn for their own fragment to go viral. Yet are these follys all we can propose as architects?

Yep, some of these follies are as big as cities. Follies can also exists at other scales as geopolitical instruments. In geopolitics the Israeli wall and the new Mexican wall to be proposed by Trump are follies at the geopolitical scale. I don’t know why but Trump’s Tower seems like a folly fragment embedded in the grid of New York. For some reason I associate it with Saddam Hussein’s monuments in Iraq. Maybe, this is why I think Donald Trump’s victory represents the emergence of a Baathism peculiar to the United States. A secularism that is nationalistic in outlook and against pluralism of any kind. Trump, like others Baathist’s is a populist hell bent on urban modernisation. Yes, in the current interregnum between election and inauguration, it is Trump Tower which is the ultimate folly. A folly gone viral.

Trump Tower is now the most famous building in the world. Perhaps very little of our own architecture will escape the taint of Baathist emptiness. Follies have always been empty and I decry their unthinking appearance in architecture and our cities. For the most part, in architectural discourse follies are cut adrift from theory. Seeing another garden pavilion folly in my digital stream only deepens my emptiness and yearning for a different kind of freedom.

Next week normal transmissions shall resume. 

 

Architects vs. Project Managers: Rising up against the alien overlords known as Project Managers.

This weeks blog is a bit later as I have been busy writing another piece here. I have also been consumed with Final semester design juries and marking. 

Architecture takes a long time to learn. Designing and organising the construction of buildings is a complex process. As most architects will know even the smallest renovation can involve juggling a complex scenario of client brief, planning and building regulations, site conditions, sustainability issues, construction detailing and logistics, contractor and subcontractor capabilities and of course design itself. This is a much wider range of design and construction knowledge than many project managers are either trained in or know about.

A few times in the past few weeks I have heard my architecture friends bemoan the profession of project managers. Good project managers, like good architects, will be able to make the trade offs, have the foresight and understand the  complexity of managing user requirements. Basically, good project managers understand architecture and design processes. The best project manager I have ever met was one who gained valuable experience in an architect’s office based on community buildings that involved a great deal of community consultation work. She then went on to much larger projects.

I should also say that I share an office with a project management academic. He is great. A kind of rocket scientist who has taught me a great deal about advanced quantitative decision analysis.

But bad project managers are really bad and I mean really bad. Of course some would argue the IT project managers are worse (but that’s another story). But, I worry that all the really bad ones have ended up in construction. One qualification for being a project manager is to be able to do a Gantt chart with unrealisable time outcomes that you can then bludgeon the architects and all the other consultants with. Yes, you don’t need refined or nimble negotiation skills to be a construction project manager. You just need to be a bully. Interestingly, the architects I have heard complain the most about these vermin have been female architects.

Of course I speak from a partisan point of view. This is because I think it is time architects really rebelled and rose up against the alien overlords known as project managers.

Blame the “bloody” architect.

But all too often the architects either individually or as a group are blamed when things go astray. Why is this?  I guess its related to some of the things that surround Trump’s election being elected. In the modern digitally connected world its pretty easy to run a spin campaign with no substance these days. It’s pretty easy to troll the architect, after all architects are dandified dickheads who don’t care about client needs or wishes. I think the star alpha-male architects have contributed a lot to this impression. Hopefully, as new alternative forms of practice emerge and architects are more aggressive in how they brand themselves as a group, these impressions will change.

Why architects are better  

An architect is a highly skilled professional, usually about 7 years of training, including two years of audited and examined experience. Architects are trained to lead projects from start to finish, on time and on budget. If they don’t get this right they can be sued. They are uniquely placed to understand cost pressures in construction supply chains.  Project managers often only have an overview of these things. Architects are trained to understand client and user needs and ensure that a project is feasible from the very beginning. The problem is that all too often Project managers get the architects in too late. They have already decided the wrong approach to the project’s feasibility, strategic design and often ignored risks that an architect, with more on the ground experience and a better overview of client needs as well as the broader context would have picked up.

Project managers love to tell the clients what they want to hear in the early stages of the project. Architects have to tell the truth because they are usually bound by architects registration acts and PI Insurance issues.

Architects are able to communicate. This is what they are trained to do. Architecture is in some ways a liberal arts education and communication across the project team and down the construction supply chain is essential.

Some real PM fuck ups. 

Southern Cross Station a low bid tender price put in by the contractor. When the architects came on board the architects wondered why there was no cost manager on the project. Basically the contractor low balled the price to get the job. All the other tenders for the project were 25% above. Lo and behold the final price was 25% above. The contractor then decided in the media to push the blame on to the architects. You can read about it here and I think this situation really poisoned my view of project managers and contractors. Its a pretty cheap shot to blame the architect all because of public antipathy and punter distrust of design aesthetics.

Federation Square is a case in point. This facility has now served the public of the City of Melbourne admirably. It actually works as a fine public space alongside its public institutions and commercial spaces. It is a building that is a legacy project that will serve the city’s future for many years to come.  Yet at the time the architects were excoriated for trying to uphold standards of construction and design decency for the project. You can read about some of it here. The meddling of politicians in the project and the hacking off of the Western shard was one of the most despicable anti-architecture campaigns I have ever witnessed.

As one of the architects of Federation Square Donald Bates was to note recently on Linked-In, “Project Managers produce negative consequences to projects – to the detriment of clients, to the degradation of quality and legacy and to the interests of the wider public. Very rarely do they bring innovation, intelligence, respect and wisdom to a project.”

Another example: The problems with the $16.2B Commonwealth’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) was not the result of architects. It was the result of project managers stuffing up. You can read all about it here. Schools that managed their own affairs with architects did better than those BER schools managed by Project Managers.

Architects best placed to do the cost trade-offs

The rise of project managers can be attributed to the impression that architects are not suitable to manage projects because they are not sufficiently focused on time and cost outcomes. In a 2011 paper we published which looked at how architects work with Quantity Surveyors we concluded that an important thing that architects contributed to projects, amongst other things, was the ability to make complex finishes and material tradeoffs in the clients favour. You can get the paper here.

In value management and cost reduction exercises it is the architect who is best positioned to uphold and fight for the best materials and finishes for the sake of the project. Architects are uniquely placed to do this because project managers and few other consultants or trades in the building and construction industry have an overview of how it all works.

Project manager’s, by virtue of their training, wouldn’t have a clue about material finishes in either domestic, community or public projects. A quantitative Gantt chart jockey is not going to be the sort of person you should trust with complex decision about your domestic reno,  legacy building or your facility designed to bolster your community. Another case in point is the Harold Holt Pool. You can read about that here. The project manager employed by Stonnington Council on the pool redevelopment really had no idea bout the modernist heritage values associated with the pool. You can read about that here.

In some industry segments client expectations have driven the pressures for unrealistic time frames and low budgets. This has been a significant factor in the continuing use of project managers in the construction and development industry. In the dark dim past it was the architect who managed, organised and supervised the construction process. It was the architect who was the single point of communication. I would argue that Architects are still the best people to lead integrated construction projects This is primarily because of their training architects are supremely placed as system integrators.

For the last 30 years architects have bemoaned the fact that project managers have taken over  their role. Of course it’s easy for project managers to blame the architect. I am sure many architects reading this will have stories about project managers with poor integration skills. A good project manager like the best architects can integrate systems and  make the trade offs. Most of all good project managers should have the foresight to see what is coming down the line. And yes, a good project manager treats you with respect.

Rise up !

So next time, as an architect you are being set-up-to-fail by some low-grade project manager, clutching spreadsheets with no idea about design, construction processes or user requirements call them out. Its time for architects to rise up against their alien project manager overlords. When the clients work that out as well our cities, community institutions and housing will be suitable for the future.

On my planet the students have gone teaching has finished. So, its time to do some research and get ready for semester 1 2017

 

 

 

Loathing the the bow-tied, botoxed yellow traced architect dandy: In search of a new brand strategy for Australian architecture.

This week I consider the necessity of taking a more spohisticated approach to branding the architectural profession.

Recently a friend told me the story of visiting an eminent architect on the weekend in his specially designed holiday house. My friend was visiting with her partner, and another friend, a  wealthy philanthropist who potentially had oodles of money to spend on architecture and architects. To my friend’s horror the party of visitors found the eminent architect reclining in his Eamesy Carlo Mollino chairy chaise lounge thing and casually doing a few Sunday afternoon sketches with, of all things, charcoal sticks and yellow trace. He was even wearing a bow tie for god’s sake (I can’t even tie one of those) and my friend swore she could see signs of Botox on his brow. The contrived nature of this scene, he had been warned that th emoney was coming to visit, shocked both my friend, and the philanthropist, who afterwards felt no desire to commission anything with someone so flirtatiously pretentious.

The architecture brand, and the branded architect, is bedevilled by superficial gestures that seem to play up on a broader notion of the architect as a kind of creative genius with yellow trace. Whenever I go out to dinner and meet bankers, lawyers, managing consultants, doctors or medical specialists (especially the anesthetists) they all say, “oh so you are an architect” and then “that’s SOOOO interesting” and then the punch line ” I always wanted to be an architect.” I hate that so much. But usually, like most architects I just grit my teeth and try to smile. However, we really should stop putting up with this shit and tell people what we really do. And then charge them lots of moolah for it.

But, my own pet hates aside, the above situations do raise the question of branding. How should architects brand themselves and their services? Should we rely on the old tropes of the creative dandy with the yellow trace? Or should the profession seek to brand and promote itself in entirely new ways? Ways that address the global commodification of space, the rapid evolution of social media and the  disconnection of community experienced by various publics.

Interestingly Assemble, who won the 2015 Turner prize, are a collective that suggest how changes in contemporary practice require architects to think about branding. Firstly assemble is not one (one genius), or two (one male genius plus one “business” type) or even three architects (one genius, one “business” type and one “networker”). We all know about these tropes and its great that Assemble has 18 members and it proclaims to “work across the fields of art, architecture and design.” More interestingly Assemble claim to “involve the public as both participant and collaborator in the ongoing realisation of the work.”

This is a really different model of practice and it is one that suggests a different approach to branding the architectural firm (if you want to call it that) rather than one just based on a name or a cult of aesthetic dandyism and pretentious yellow tracings.  Powerful brands for architectural firms are those that connect with the public (not only the clients) that they serve. To do this requires a firm strategy that connects a strong narrative to the firm’s public as well as its potential clients. Just having some superficial and funky graphics, and a bow tie, and a cool geographical name is not really enough these days.

The big star brands in global architecture such as OMA, ZHA, Gehry, Fosters and Rogers are really good at branding. They all have a story to tell. Their brands are built on being able to control, market and amplify themselves through various communication channels and media. In these instances, these firms are more well known, and better branded, than much larger firms such as HOK or Gensler or AECOM who gain more revenue in dollar terms than the celebrity architectural brands. These days only a few Australian architectural firms make the global rankings published each year by Building Design magazine. Hence, there is no reason why any firm for that matter can seem much more potent than what it is via effective branding and control over different and emerging media channels.

In strategic management theory effective branding is way to position a firm in relation to its competitors. Derived from firm strategy it should guide and be the template for communicating the firms’ core services, client and user experience and social media interactions. It should also guide and be integrated with a firm’s working culture. Too often the connection between and the perception of the architects brand and the internal working culture of the office is in conflict.

In some ways architects are rooted and based the local architectural culture and traditions of their own city. An effective and well through out brand can enable, even a small firm, to look much bigger than it is. As someone recently asked me what are the attributes of Australia’s architectural brand in the global system and how does this compare to the branding of Danish, French, English or Italian architects. Is the global brand of Australian architecture simply perceived through the lense of Murcutt sheds, The Opera House or maybe its all about swimming pools?

Whenever, as architects, we go to the Venice Architectural Biennale why do we so admire the Nordic pavilion and the Nordic architects represented in it. Why can’t Australian’s just exhibit the work of a few architects, or focus on a few themes, in our pavilion instead of having some kind of generic free for all where every firm, or mediocre idea, gets a guernsey?

Other professions, such as the lawyers and the accountants, have done a better job of promoting themselves to the public. Architects have done little to do craft brand strategy’s in any collective sense and it shows. As a global brand architect’s need to do more work to promote Australian architecture as a place of architectural experiment with its own unique cities, landscape, canon and traditions. I guess I am sick of seeing architecture being seen as some kind of washed out and generic supermarket brand.

It’s time architects collectively realised that branding is not just about a the old tropes, a few cool names, a bit of funky graphics, bow ties and yellow trace. After all is said and done its really about the narrative.

The crazy season is upon us in the small corner of my universe known as the graduate architecture school.  The students have two weeks to go and quite a few of them already started sleeping in the atrium.