Surviving the Design Studio: Bridging the gap between architecture school and practice.

This is a blog for that curious class of humans known as the graduate of architecture or almost graduate. The architectural graduate is often not quite a student and not quite an actual architect. In some ways it is an unenviable position to be in especially if you are a graduate without a lot of experience in architectural offices. But, getting on the ideal job treadmill of putting together a portfolio and sending out a thousand over designed CVs via  your very own mass marketing campaign may not necessarily get you that job.

I write  as a person with considerable experience as an architecture student and graduate. I was an architecture student for so long that by the time I graduated the 70s had morphed into the 90s (by the time I registered it was the 2000s). Here are some tips, along with some hints for architectural employers, that will help you make the transition to practice regardless of where you are in the food chain.

1. Learning continues

Yes. It is wrong to think that an architecture school can teach everything a graduate should know. No-one should ever thing this.

I know this is going to sound harsh but you will not be made a design director or made an associate on the day after you graduate. There will still be a lot you will need to learn in terms of the mechanics of practice and design processes in different offices. Architecture as a discourse and as a field of knowledge is complex. What you have learnt in architecture school is an introduction to this discipline. You need to keep learning and thus I would suggest you do this by joining your local chapter of architects, networking and  getting started on any professional development courses that interest you.

Or, you could do what I did and do another degree. Architectural practice is about life long learning.

2. Get a range of experience

Following, on from the above its always a good idea to update your skills. Yes, I know you may have just spent a small fortune and made sacrifices or just partayed your way through architecture school without learning much. But if you are serious about bridging the gap you will need to upgrade your skills: constantly.

Just having  BIM skills and expertise in one bit of software and nothing else in terms of digital skills is not going to get you a job. If it does your employment mobility will be limited and you will be relegated to CAD monkey status. Learn a few programs and some coding well and you will be more versatile in what you can do in an office. Hopefully, you will have left architecture school with more than a few software programs under your belt.

But apart from software, there is also the great dilemma of the architecture student about to enter the employment market and this is what size and type of firm should you work for. Big firms have better conditions but you may get stuck documenting or worse still doing design development for the rest of your life. Small firms offer better experience but come with the hazards of less job security and practice volatility. Arguably in small firms you can learn more and be closer to the actual decision making processes in the firm.

I started in very small firms and had the dubious distinction of working for the best and the worst architects in my town.

3. Work on competitions

If you can’t get a job, or it is taking time, or it is the holidays then I suggest you work on competitions. Collaborate with your friends; do the competitions as if you might win them. You never know you might actually win something. At the least you might get published or pick up a few new design and decision making skills. You can also publish your competitions through social media.

4. Don’t work for people who treat you poorly

This is aka don’t work for a-hole’s rule. Don’t work for people, who underpay and overwork. Don’t accept someone else’s  managerial disorganisation, misogyny or fee cutting.  Make yourself aware and be aware of your rights. Support Parlour. Familiarise yourself with the Fair Work Act and the architect’s awards.

5. Be curious about the business

This is one of the most important things an architectural graduate can do. An employer is more likely to employ someone who is trying to understand, and has some insight, into how the business works. Architectural practice is one of the hardest things anyone can embark on. Competition is fierce and the lead times for getting a practice to a point of viability are long. What is your employers, or potential employers perspective? What is their strategy, what kind of practice are they, where do they get their client’s from? How do they market themselves and how do they make money?

6. Figure out the firm’s design processes

In approaching a firm or working in one ask yourself: Who does the designing and how is it actually done? Is it a collaborative effort or is it done by a single person? Is it simply driven by pragmatics, budgets and client concerns? Or does it have some kind of strategic intent? Do your employers, or potentials, actually design and if so what can you learn from them?

7. Visit the sites (virtual and real)

This is another way of doing your homework. Who has the best website and social media presence amongst the architects you like or are interested in working for? But you also get your head out of social media, or the spinning BIM model, and go and look at buildings in the flesh. Make your own assessments of them. Think about what you would have done if you designed the building.

8. Don’t send out CVS that are over designed

Don’t write your CV like a bad business plan. I have seen a lot of these. The logo is designed in 3 colours, the fonts are all over the place, there are pictures of the obligatory final thesis project. Bad renders. Pictures in the back of the portfolio of your hobby travel photos with the DSLR camera. A lot of philosophy in the covering letter about design and sustainability and how creative you are.

Most employers will base their hiring decisions on what you have previously done in the workplace rather than what you are like as an existential being.

Besides an employer, even amongst the best architects, wants is not someone to question the meaning of life, or get precious over designing the partitions, when all they want you to do is document the toilets. As the master once said to me “for god’s Raisbeck this bathroom reno is not fucking Eisenman’s House X.” When I worked for the master he was always saying stuff like that to me and it wasn’t long before I got replaced.

9. Hang out with real architects 

Yes, real architects, and I don’t mean star architects or award winners. Find your own mentors. Hang out with the meanest most experienced badass architects you can find. The ones with 100s of years of contract admin or small renovation documentation experience. Hang out with the female architects juggling small practice and family life and about to have children. Hang out with the practitioners who have been working in the back of the big office for 10 years or have been working on the one project for as many years. Hang out with the architects doing it tough in the outer suburbs where the punters think all architects are rich wankers. Hang out with the architects ekeing out a living on schools or hospitals or community centres. Hang out with the “young” practices who are still considered to be “young” after 10 or 12 years in practice. Hang out out with your grad schools alumni. Hang out with moi.

Finally, a few words to the architects who employ our recent students and graduates. 

Firstly. Thank you so much. For the profession good mentoring of architectural students and graduates is essential to it’s future.

Most firms will welcome graduates and students knocking on their doors. The better firm’s in the profession provide there young graduates with programmed and well thought out ongoing education. The competitive firms in the profession also provide and foster an inclusive workplace. The best firms mentor inclusively. Winning awards is one thing but the better firms give back to the profession through effective and inclusive mentoring.

In contrast to the better firms the old catch cry of “what do they teach at archi-school these days” always makes me want to retch and throw up. Usually the elements of the architectural profession that declaim this are those elements who think that a good architectural education is about teaching young architects technical skills and nothing else. Of course, entire architecture schools have been designed around teaching the competencies and then conveniently forget to teach the students how to design or to think. Digital techniques, construction techniques that’s all you get. To suggest that architecture grad schools are somehow too theoretical or concentrate too much on history and don’t teach students real world skills is simplistic, naive and anti-intellectual. It doesn’t really do the profession as a whole any favours.

Many students have worked hard and made enormous sacrifices to graduate. Of course for some architects having an architecture student in your practice is like your worst nightmare. For some architects it might actually mean they have to think about having management skills rather than lurching from fee cutting crisis to fee cutting crisis. Architecture students are not cheap labour or whipping posts for either misogynist views or failed careers and egos.

A few years back I want to the annual architectural chapter awards. For the usual reasons I hadn’t been for quite a few years. The usual reason’s being my own embarrassment and the desire to adopt a low profile after my previous awards night episodes;  everytime I go I unavoidably get too drunk, and then ill, or I ended up having a fight about Eisenman and House X with the master. Or shamefully avoid him because I accidently dropped and smashed the model so many years before. Then there was the awards night I staggered and knocked the waiter at the Hilton and two dozen glasses of dessert wine landed on the public works architect’s toupee. It was really sticky and I had to pay for the dry cleaning.

But on a better awards night I had an epiphany when I realised the entire room was almost entirely full of recent graduates or newly registered architects. The brightest and the best of the recent graduates were there and it gave me hope for the profession’s future.


The Zaha Grandparent Test: Turning your design into a great visual presentation.

A colleague told me her final year Masters design students asked her what the format requirements were for the final submission. What is the template they asked? She told them, as they were all doing individual projects, there were no right answers. There was no template. They were horrified and disturbed.

She suggested  that they each needed to design their own layout and graphics for their project. Of course, as all experienced architects know, by the end of architecture school students should know that there are no rights answers. Full stop.

Of course, such stories make me wonder about the power of computers to seduce young minds. Yes, I know this sounds cynical. But the computer is a highly controlled software environment ruled by algorithms producing another set of rules, graphical user interfaces and templates that are stable and static. Unfortunately, outside of this pleasant world of the rule regulated shimmering screen there are no rules. So here are a few ideas about making that design shine on the printed page or on some other digital platform. At the end of the day, or studio, your work needs to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test.

Drawings are read 

In the real world people “read” drawings. What do I mean? It is not like reading a book; nor, is it like watching  a television; or like looking at the screen of a mobile device.

The key to a great visual presentation is to understand that reading drawings or digital models is about getting inside the head of the person, or people who will look at our drawings and digital images. It is like a novelist who writes words in order to evoke images, sensations and thoughts in the person reading the book. Your drawings and visual images are “read” in this sense. If you do not prepare your presentation with this in mind you will fail to communicate your project ideas.

Approach it from the viewpoint of creating memorable images for your audience. What are the images that you need to produce that your audience of critics or clients will never forget? In other words create images they will think about even when they are fiddling around on their favourite app on their mobile phone.


Layout is crucial 

When I look at architectural drawings or images on the wall. I don’t often read the text. I want to look at the images and get a sense of what the project is like. The layout of the drawings in the pdfs. or on the posters on the wall need to tell a story; in other words a narrative needs to be created that guides a “reader’s”, in other words a critic’s, “eye” through your architectural or urban design. In two dimensions either digital or physical you will need to describe and guide this “eye” through a three dimensional project.

What the project is like as a spatial entity, object or series of spaces is important. The spatiality of the design may need to be described and explained at different scales. At a urban scale in relation to a city or neighbourhood. How it is approached is important. At the scale of the street or its immediate neighbourhood. Entry conditions should be described. How do you enter the building and what are the spaces you first encounter when you are in it? What will a person see as they move through the building? What is it like at the scale of rooms? One way to do this is to organise your layout around these different scales or even the circulation routes around and through the building.

Layout is crucial to convey all this. It should not contain too much text as people want to see what the design is like. Too much text is confusing. Give your layout a heirarchy. Consider which information is more or less important. Structure it so that supporting diagrams, text and research information is adjunct to describe the spatiality of the building.

It is no good having one big aerial fly through or overall image if you then do not show the other spatial aspects of the project.

Always test your layouts with mock-ups and then refine them. Physically print them and pin them to a wall and then stand back and see what it is like. A bad layout has usually been done in one hit.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_4You don’t have to show everything. 

A good layout is a sequence of well organised images that convey a story and give an overall impression of the design. You do not have to draw everything. Tutors or critics who insist that you draw everything or you need to consider every detail are pedants. In the dark days of the 1970s I visited the architecture school up the road from my architecture school. I remember coming to the final year pinup and seeing sheets and sheets of plans, elevations, roof plans and sections. Every internal elevation, every external elevation and numerous sections. Line after line after black and white line of two dimensional drawings. There were even a few details. By the time the students had done all of these there was then no time to do any 3 dimensional drawings. The whole enterprise was as boring as batshit.

Drawing everything is a waste of time. Draw and translate into other media your digital models the  aspects and qualities about your design that are the most important. Architectural design communication is not about naive realism or trying to representing reality. You are not a failure if you haven’t drawn every elevation. In fact you can convey more about a design by just producing sections. After all plans are really sections anyway.

Only draw and present those images that convey the spatial, emotional or material narrative of your proposal.


Design with the end image in mind 

Smart architects, at some point in the design process, plan their images, drawings and layouts ahead of time. They then put more design effort into those aspects of the building that will be presented and end up as images for others to view. In other words they start to design with the end visual product or presentation in mind.

Once you have a design up and running its always important to think that this will be presented and then work backwards from that. The worst presentations are those that desperately pop out at the end of the digital design process and get slapped around in Photoshop and slopped into InDesign.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_1Avoid excessive realism.

It’s not about copying reality. If your were going to represent your design as reality then you would build it at one to one scale. But, creating architectural images, particularly in the early stage of a project (sketch design),  and representing your design is not about making it real. It is not about filling in the dots with material likenesses, textures or colours of the real thing.

Yes, the sky is blue and bricks are red and concrete is a kind of grey. But that doesn’t mean we have to make everything look like its kind of real. Usually it just leads to really bad visual images that are oversaturated with colour and that reek of naivety. Drawings are not real, (look at Zaha Hadid’s early work for example), digital images are not real, 3d printed physical modes are not the real thing. So why try and pretend they are real? The best and most powerful architectural images are those that recognise this fact. Your images are representations and translations of your design. They are not the real thing and as such your images should represent the essential ideas of your design in the very manner in which it is presented.

Understand your media

We don’t all have Oculus VR set ups. So in the meantime we have to be able to translate our models from the computer to other formats. Sometimes these formats are actually physical. In the past we had a limited range of formats to translate or describe our projects in. Mostly just pens and pencils a and ink and limited range of reprographic techniques. I was an expert on reprographic techniques and using pantone for colour on drawings.

Today the techniques are different. Today with the proliferation of different platforms, software  and mobile computing your project may end up in a powerpoint, in a .pdf file, as a poster on a wall, on a web page or in the screen of an ipad or mobile phone. Its a good idea to remember which media you are translating or representing your design in.

Finally, the Zaha Grandparent test

Your images need to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test. Put your grandparents in front of your final Zaha like outputs and see what they say. They should both be able to understand what you have done and also be blown away as well. All of the above survival tips are another way of saying that to a large extent architecture is about image making. Of course how these images become a material reality is the topic of another blog. If not a few thousand blogs. Again, there are no right answers and after all isn’t that what architecture is all about.

(The images are from Rachel Jones MSD MArch thesis from 2011.) 


Was Robin Boyd on Acid? The multimedia Space Tube at Expo 70.

Robin Boyd’s Space Tube, designed for the Australian pavilion at Expo 70, was a commission that came at a time when Boyd’s practice was struggling to make ends meet. From mid-1968 through to Boyd’s death in October 1971, his practice consisted of mainly residential houses and some more speculative projects. Amongst these projects, the Expo 70 commission was one of Boyd’s more significant commissions because of his use of multi media.

For todays architect’s multi-media technology is ubiquitous and Expos in the 21st century are mostly hyped up trade shows. Expo 70, the site of the Space Tube, in Osaka Japan, was the culmination of the 1960s neo avant-gardes dreams for architecture aligned with futuristic and universal values. Expo 70 crystallised the experiments of the 1960s neo Futurist avant-garde even more so than the previous Expo 67 in Montreal; this was perhaps because of the influence of the Metabolists who were directly involved with the planning of the many of the exhibits at Expo 70. (1)


Original sketch of the Space Tube from the Boyd Archive at the SLV

In general media coverage and most publicity photos, Boyd’s space tube is generally overlooked in preference to the “coathanger” structure of the Australian pavilion designed by the Government architect James McCormick. The Space Tube gained very little publicity from either the architectural press of the time or historians since. This is surprising given that it is one of Boyd’s most significant later commissions. The cost of the project, in 1970 Australian Dollars, was then estimated to be $700,000 and Boyd’s fee for the work was to be $75,000 (2 ). More importantly, it was a commission which was actually completed; of the 28 or so commissions that Boyd received from 1968 until his death, 7 were domestic commissions and 13 were speculative schemes. (3)


As the Australian Expo 70 exhibits architect Boyd was responsible for the planning and circulation of the interior exhibition area, principally within the space tube. Boyd, in consultation with the Commonwealth Government committee overseeing the project, proposed that the exhibit would have four subject themes: “Man, Man and Nature, Man and the Man Made, Man and Man”. It was intended that these themes would divide the space tube or tunnel into four parts, which would then contain 19 exhibits (4). In notes for an early press release, Boyd makes note of these display boxes, which were to be built in Australia before being shipped to Japan, to be “simply bolted on and plugged into the power supply.”

The experience for the visitor within the tube itself was designed as a sequence of experiences controlled through movement. Boyd’s intention was that the motion should be barely noticeable. According to Boyd, “[t]he function of the moving platforms is not to excite or even to relieve the feet. Their main function is to give control.”(5). Through this use of multi-media technology, the architect was able to control the flow of visitors through the space, and hence “present a sequence of exhibits, knowing that the visitor can view them only in that sequence.” After leaving the first crush space and stepping onto the travelator, the visitor was presented with a view of the entire tube for the first time. As the opening of each display was inset from the tube surface and arranged at a right angle to the axis of movement, all that could be seen was a series of bright lights and colours shining onto the visitors ahead.

In the final scheme there were 20 displays or subject areas in all. Each display or subject area was comprised of up to four display boxes, arranged radially around the tube. The visitor was moved past the displays by means of twin moving travelators which positioned the visitor’s eye level roughly in the centre axis of the tube. The travelators were supported from below by a minimum of structure, to allow an unimpeded view in all directions from the moving platform. The tube itself was made from “Gunnite”, a form of shot concrete on mesh reinforcing which created a thin shell. Attention was paid to the finish of the tube, with construction drawings stipulating a smooth, uniform finish on the outside surface and a matt black “acoustic surface” on the inside. The tube’s status as a design object was as important for Boyd as its role in presenting a view of Australian society.


Boyd was also responsible for the design of what was termed “technamation effects”. This was a multi-media technique achieved by projecting from two or more lights or projectors onto a polarised screen. As the viewer moved past the display, the screen would shimmer and ripple with colour and light. These effects were incorporated in a variety of ways into six of the display boxes. The best example is exhibit 17C, ‘Night City’. A model of a city block in exaggerated perspective was fitted on top of the polarised screen. Beneath the screen were six projectors mounted in opposing directions, creating the illusion of night traffic through moving red and white lights. What was otherwise a quite simple and almost dull model was in this way enlivened through animation. However, instead of a moving image or mechanical device, it was the viewer in motion which brought these displays to life. Visitors within the Space Tube were thus tangled in a complex set of visual relationships. The layout of the displays, in particular their height and angle in relation to the visitor, was one method used to control and organise these views. For example, the displays mounted horizontally (in the cardinal arrangement referred to above) made use of the level horizon line to suggest an equivalence between the visitor’s gaze and the subject matter. For instance, in exhibit 13C ‘Repco Brabham’, a cutaway model of a Formula 1 racing car is surrounded by a projection screen showing the car driving around a track. The view is arranged so that the visitor watches the track from just behind the car as Brabham makes his lap.

In contrast, the displays mounted at 45° to the horizontal present a more varied set of views. The displays below the walkway, such as 2C, 2D, 6C and 6D, present stylised views of the abyss – the mine, soil and what Boyd referred to as “the beasts in the pit”.(6) The circular frame of the display openings emphasise the detached and special view, appearing to be the viewfinder of an enormous microscope in exhibits 2C, ‘Some of the Body’s Microscopic Enemies’ and 2D, ‘Defence Cells Emerging from a Lymph Node’. The displays above the walkway more often include images of authority figures as part of their design. For instance, in exhibits 2A, ‘Immunology’ and 2B, ‘Organ Transplants’, circular screens were included which displayed projections of Gustav Nossal and Macfarlane Burnett, respectively. These images literally and figuratively look down on the visitor, countering the visitor’s gaze. These two displays include another recurring motif of Boyd’s design, the life-size transparent acrylic mannequin. A toy called “The Visible Man” and a teaching aid developed at the University of Michigan called “TAM” inspired Boyd (7). Both were human figures created with a transparent skin which revealed the organs inside. Boyd’s use of figures and bodies seems more scientific and anatomical than overtly erotic; however the experience for the visitor was doubtlessly voyeuristic (8).

Boyd was also central to the design and production of all the film, visual sequences and sound effects. He specified in detail the subject matter of each sequence, and personally chose the images used for each slide and film sequence. Though concentrated in the final displays, visual and multimedia effects were used throughout the tube as the central element of most displays. This was probably one of the largest and most extensive Australian multimedia projects of its time. In Boyd’s own words the purpose of the displays was to “capture the eye and the ear with light and colour and movement with music and sounds with 28 movie projectors and 46 synchronised slide projectors with hundreds of fluorescent tubes and 200 incandescent lamps.” (9). Circular screens were incorporated into most of the displays. Some of these screen arrangements were highly complex – for instance, exhibit 7B ‘Asian Aid’ was composed of six circular screens at the end of tubes housing a slide projector, each of which slid forward into the main space to reveal captions and subsidiary information printed on the side of each tube. Exhibit 3 ‘Tennis’ was made up of two projection screens facing one another across the tube, showing two players – Lesley Hunt and Yvonne Goolagong – playing a game above the visitor’s heads. Exhibit 17A ‘Ballet’ made use of moving screens, variable focal lengths and multiple projections to create a complex sequence of images (10). Sound effects were synchronised to visual cues for most of images, all of which were described and stipulated by Boyd. The Australian composer George Dreyfus was responsible for composing four variations of the pavilion theme, which were played at equal intervals along the tube.

The motion of the viewer through the tube constantly reinforced the logic of inevitability and progress within the subject matter of the exhibition material, and vice versa. For example, in Exhibit 20, the ‘abstract colour image’ designed in association with J.S. Ostoja-Kotkowski, was intended to literally be the “light at the end of the tunnel… visible all the time that the visitor is in the tube”(11). In effect, it was also a visual echo of the kaleidoscopic sun of first exhibit. From the very beginning, the Space Tube was thus a passage from a red/yellow stylised contemporary sun to a blue/green argon laser ray abstract future, toward “an absolutely explosive visual phantasmagoria in 3-D ” (12).

Of course this all makes me wonder if Boyd had at some stage taken LSD. Boyd’s thematic explorations certainly mark him as an architect of his time. But the design for the Space Tube does hint at the media driven technological future architects now find themselves immersed in (13). The degree to which contemporary architects have the same control over, or experiment with, new media technologies as Boyd did  is debatable. Boyd may not have actually taken acid. But it would be nice if we could direct such an accusation at contemporary Australian architects a bit more often.

This is an edited version of a conference paper co-authored with Simon Wollan.Peter Raisbeck And Simon Wollan Boyd As “Bower Bird”: Robin Boyd’s Space Tube And The Global Avant-Garde. SAHANZ 2003. 


1. For details of Expo 70 in architectural magazines see the entire issues of: Architectural Design June 1970 especially p 271 for comment on the Australian pavilion and Japan Architect 1970 Vol 45 N0. 5/6-164 see especially Koichi Sone, Sei Oyuki, and Yuji Morioka, “Moving Walkways and Urban Traffic” as well as p. 69 for a comment on Kikutake’s Expo tower.

2. Fee agreement for the project was signed on the 22nd of October 1968; to be paid in monthly instalments as the work proceeded. For this fee, Boyd’s brief was to design the Space Tube and its display cases in a way which would depict Australian life and industry to a primarily Japanese audience. The Commission also extended to producing and managing the construction of designs for the merchandising which was to be associated with the exhibit. Refer to Box 104, GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

3. His most significant civic architectural commissions during this time were Churchill House, exhibition designs for the Australian Chancery in Washington and the ”First 200 years exhibition” in the foyer of Harry Seidler’s Australia Square building.

4. In the original proposal the exhibits were numbered from 1 to 19 with the following subject titles and in the following order: origins of humanity, the battle against disease, science of the mind, enjoyment of life, Australian invention in agricultural technology, Soil and Water, Exploring and preserving resources, Exploring the Universe, utilization of Polar Regions, Transportation, Modern Living, Urbanisation, Automation, Language and Literature, Communications, Fine Arts, Lively Arts, Australia-Japan Relations, The Film. Refer to Box 104, GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

5. Robin Boyd, “Australia at Expo 70 for Walkabout” , undated text, Box 103 (c), GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

6. Letter from Boyd to Prof. G. Nossal, 11 July, 1968. Box 103 (a) GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

7. Letter from Boyd to J.P. Tyrer (Acrylic Industries), 7 October, 1968. Box 103 (a) GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

8. Further work, which is outside of the scope of this paper, is required to fully establish how Boyd fetishised these figures as objects, and the more general effects of the technological gaze within his designs.

9. Robin Boyd, “Australia at Expo 70 for Walkabout”, undated text, Box 103 (c), GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

10. First, a film loop showing dancer’s legs was projected onto the front screen, nearest the opening to the tube. Next, an image from a slide projector appears small and out of focus on a screen behind. As this screen moved forward the image enlarged and came into focus, before again going out of focus and diminishing in brightness. From the visitor’s point of view the slide image passes through the film image, literally deepening the visual field of the screen. Refer to Box 100/3, GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

11. Letter from Boyd to J.S. Ostoja-Kotkowski, 16 July, 1968. Box 103 (b) GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

12. Letter from Boyd to J.S. Ostoja-Kotkowski, 9 October, 1968. Box 103 (b) GRB Archive, State Library of Victoria.

13. This compression of time and consequent distortion of space also appeared in individual exhibits. For instance, exhibit 13D ‘Shipbuilding’, displayed a model of a ship growing from blueprints to steel structure to dry-dock construction to finished bow steaming steadily ahead through a technamation wave. However, instead of showing each ship in sequence, each stage occurs on a portion of a single hull, giving the sense that the ship is impatiently sailing through time into the future. That this exhibit is the only one mounted directly below the visitor, between the two travelators, ensured that this movement was aligned with that of the viewer.

Design Leadership & Architects: the myth of the SGDL (Singular Design Genius Leader).

In architecture the model of the Singular Genius Design Leader (SGDL) is hard to shift.  In theory, the SGDL has great ideas that are then pursued through force of will and strength of personality. Think Corb, Mies or FLW and then in more recent times Rem, Daniel L and maybe even Frank G. Here in the provinces, far from the East Coast and British breeding grounds of architectural pedigree, we have our own versions of the SGDL. What surprises me more than anything is that ticking all the right boxes as a SGDL doesn’t neccessarily mean a client gets a great designer or a better project design. SGDL’s, do not always come with good ideation or design skills. In Melbourne a city of four million people we have had a few spectacular architectural disasters as a result. That says a lot about the provincial conservatism, and dare I say it incompetence, of clients.

An SGDL who simply throws their minions a few sketches, after a few moments thought, and expects it to be great architecture doesn’t really hack it with me. A SGDL who micro-manages every detail is also a danger to clients; as is a SGDL whose ego is linked to having contrary opinions; cant abide having employees with diverse opinions; worse still a SGDL who doesn’t really get diversity.

Design leadership is more nuanced  than the SGDL archetype suggests. Simply exerting your will on acolytes or riding waves of celebrity across social media doesn’t make you a great architect. Thank god there are architects around who have completely rejected the SGDL model. Mostly these, by and large, younger architects continually generate ideas, have the insight to sift through ideas rather than latching onto one and have the skills to negotiate their way through the complex process of making architecture. They believe in diversity, collaboration and are comfortable with ambiguity. So for those of you brave souls who have abandoned the SGDL model here are a few of my own thoughts about design leadership.

Idea generation 

Idea generation is important. Design leadership is about both generating and then managing conceptual design ideas. This is not simply a matter of hurling out one or two idea’s from the ego. Most exploratory or generative design activities take place in the early stages of a design process and design leadership is about encouraging and fostering the development of these ideas once they begin to exist in various media.

An essential task of design leadership is to allow a team and other collaborators to explore, structure, critique and if necessary kill off ideas as they are generated. For example, design leadership is about encouraging their collaborative teams to use the conceptual and sketch design phases to  generate new subsidiary design solutions in order to advance the design to the next stage.

Design leadership is also, I think about collaborating in order to make the above process happen as quickly as possible.

Seeking paradox 

Design leadership is about deliberately seek to foster highly paradoxical processes within their firms in order to create new design knowledge. To achieve this great design leaders employ their team to continuing to simultaneously generate both radical and incremental design solutions throughout the design process.  In other words, design leadership is about continually questioning and reconsidering design knowledge at the point that it  is being created. More importantly good design leaders can pursue in parallel seeming paradoxical ideas at different scales. For example, whilst a detailed construction solution is being developed the conceptual structure of the project may be reconsidered. Even though a design concept might be settled, encouraging new design solutions or exploring the design itself, at different scales, in order to seek new concepts and solutions is important.

Hence, design leadership is about managing concurrently and in parallel. Architects can learn a lot from concurrent engineering.

Tolerating a culture of chaos 

Effective design leaders can generate mess and then tolerate the implications of this. Bad design leaders close down chaos and neaten everything up. Design leadership is about tolerating and being comfortable with a level of chaos. Design is not a linear sequence. Good design leadership means being able to cope with ambiguity. Being able to know where the design and its myriad lines of development are at any one point. Knowing who is exploring what in the design team. Perhaps the solution isn’t set in stone, perhaps some new lines of design research are running in parallel, perhaps some information is yet to be ascertained. In some ways good design leadership is about trying to destroy the very ideas that have emerged as a result of collaboration.

The problem with the SGDL model is that too often design ideas go untested and their limitations are not fully explored. Too often in the SGDL model the monolithic concept reigns supreme and it is never tested. Our cities are riddled with too many of these only line architectural concepts. Moreover, design innovation does not happen in a climate where the culture is focused on correcting deviations, minimising risk, imposing rules, ticking boxes and placating the clients or managers further up the food chain. Just ask Steve Jobs.

By deliberately fostering or generating messy ideas or seemingly chaotic expressions of those ideas a good design leader can quickly generate and then test a portfolio of ideas.

Designing with governance in mind. 

Despite the chaos and ambiguity in the design process design leadership is also about governance. Design leadership is about concerning itself with creating a decision support framework to guide design governance, workflows and the adoption of the design by others. This is one principal tasks of design leadership. To create and manage and mileux where design decisions can be made. The implementation and development of a conceptual idea means a team’s  IT tools, infrastructure, technical skills, workflows and even business processes must also be managed. But, all too often, it is unfortunately common that SGDL’s rarely care that much about such things.

Organisational project and team design processes should not be dictated via a top down strategic management approaches. The top down approach is the only mode of the SGDL. Alternatively, generative and exploratory design actions that emerge out of a well led design team are key drivers of design innovation. Good design leaders make the decision where the information is.

Sadly, the old ways still abound and this is to the detriment of the profession as a whole.

The Next Commodities Boom: Defetishising Australian cities policy.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is suprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced minisiterial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, wholisitic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.


Against the porn of lifestyle houses: four houses to dream about when you design a house.

The first house I designed was in second semester of second year and I didn’t really now what I was doing. How could you? Thankfully, thanks to my tutor I was slowly led through the process of how to design something as complex as a house. My tutor (who is now a colleague) wisely got me to look at numerous examples of houses, the AJ metric handbooks, and I did look a lot at all the houses that won awards for a few years in the magazine Progressive Architecture. I examined house plans. I spent a lot of time at home measuring things. How high was a bench, how wide was a door, how deep was a cupboard? What where the dimensions of a bed and how much room was needed to navigate around it. Of course in first year the time I was inspired by the work of MLTW and Sea Ranch, I liked the flow of the forms as they cascaded down the hill on the coast of California it seemed a far cry form the flat gable and hip tiled suburb I grew up in.

These days there is a lot of what I call house porn which seems to be incessantly streamed across social media. Big windows, a bit of cedar, white walls, long linear kitchens, minimal kind of Mediterranean bathrooms. These houses seem to be perfect and idealised settings for bourgeois lifestyles devoid of reflection, memory or dare I say it melancholy. Watching the reality television shows, either the cooking ones ( I am partial to MKR), or even the building and renovation ones, I get the impression that houses are simply containers for, and expressions of, lifestyle and nothing more.

Lifestyle houses are always different. They are always filled with “features” and customised to the whims of their clients. They both brand the owners identity, and help to form that identity. I am tired of seeing houses planned around an open spatiality, linear vistas leading to large windows; more and more the bourgeois house looks like a real estate marketing brochure. More and more I fear architects succumbing to this as the exemplar. In a way great houses are difficult and monstrously empty creatures. As an antidote to this I try and describe my impressions of four houses below which, for me at least, avoid the lifestyle paradigm.

Villa La Roche

The American architect John Hejduk in his book Mask of Medusa relates how he set up an exhibition in Corbusier’s Villa La Roche in Paris. The power of his prose is compelling but as he was hammering in nails to set up his 1972 exhibition to the house he remarkably found red dust coming out of the white walls. He states:

Villa La Roche is house with other qualities beyond the simple white cubed functionalism that we assign to works in the twenties. It is a house where the functional elements  suggest other uses such as some kind of dark religious ceremony or ritual. Hedjuk was convinced that the house was used by english spiritualists who came to the continent for ceremonies in the 1920s. He argued that the houses main sitting room was configured like a church. It suggests that houses must always refer to something like this, that functional elements have double readings, and that every house must have its own kind of  alchemy.

Ottolenghi House

This is another house that has always fascinated me, and whilst I have visited quite of few of scraps works in Venice and the great theatrical Castelvecchio in Verona an like many people who have visited Scarpa’s work in Venice I have yet to get the opportunity to visit this house.

Scarpa was quoted as saying I am “A man of Byzantium who came to Venice by way of Greece.” Again this is a house, like Villa-La Roche, suggests places outside of itself. The rusticated columns made of discs of stone and concrete are both monumental and yet made of a series of fragments suggesting ruins. The travertine floor, and the ponds which adjoin the house, as well as evoking the Venetian lagoon, are reminiscent of Scarpa’s influence in the gardens of the East. As a result of its compositional fragmentation, the house is also like Venice in other ways, itself constructed from fragments of plunder from the Levantine world.

The house is buried and Scarpa uses this as a means to introduce light into the interior spaces of the house in an extremely controlled way. This is done via a compositional incision on one side of the house. This incision is not unlike a Venetian street or Calle. Whilst no where near the Venetian lagoon the house still evokes this city. The combined effects of fragmented plan, entrance with adjoining ponds, the steps up and changes in level, and the dividing fireplace with its intense hard-plastered blue all suggest that this is a city within a house. It is the idea that the house can itself be a city

Villa Muller

Adolf Loos designed and built many houses. But Villa Muller is probably the best of these, perhaps because it is well documented, and perhaps because Hejduk (him again) wrote such beautiful words around it. The window grills with there hint of the orient, the exquisite Delft tiles at the entrance, the stone that adorns the house. More alarmingly, their are pictures of Loos in the house with his bride in his final years racked by Syphilis. It sits in a suburb on the outskirts of Prague overlooking that city.

There is nothing automatic or unconscious about this house. Every gesture of composition is tightly planned:  this is a house that is seems to defer canonical notions of style. Is it modernist or is it a classical building. A tomb perhaps? I have been to the house but never inside. I suspect it is one of those houses that desire impels you to enter and experience. But, once inside, the desire only heightens as you realise you are in an empty tomb.

Villa Malaparte

Probably one of the great Villas of the 20th Century it is on the isle of Capri not far from Tiberius’s Villa where he ruled the empire. The villa is famous for  a number of reasons, design by Libera, who aside from Terragni, was probably the  best of the Italian fascist architects and its owner  Curzio Malaparte at first a fascist sympathiser and later a communist his most famous novel was Kaputt written in 1944. The novel is one of the few novels to authentically describe the banality of evil. It located at Capo Massullo, on the Isle of Capri. It was the central location in Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mepris. The cinematic version, as compared to the house in reality,  gives evokes arcane rituals across ancient landscapes. It is a place where the limestone crags and shards of Capri meet the horizons of the Tyrrenhenian sea. Somehow in my mind Villa Malaparte seems to evoke all of these intertwined aspects of both the 20th C and antiquity.

All of the above houses evoke and suggest other places and indeed states of being. They are not overly saturated with light, reduced to nothing through minimalism, mock joined to the landscape or overly inscribed with parametric techniques. In some way each of these houses suggest that the house is still a site of poetry, a site where archetypal forms, memories and historical associations merge. These days the house is too often seen as lifestyle porn. A home for Kardashian luxury sometimes with a little bit of materiality  and craft thrown in to demonstrate authenticity.

The architectural tradition of the Australian house leaves a lot to be desired. The appeals to unifying landscape and environment, touch the earth lightly lifestyles, well meaning sustainabiltiy and the mannered stylistic traditions of the 20th C are all to noisy for my liking. As Hejduk suggests, in his foreword to the little book I have on Villa Muller it is the tone of the house which the architect must determine before anything else. The house is a setting for the theatre of life. Simultaneously, a place of where desire, loss and dreaming mingles. A house is ideally a place of silence that respects country rather than one that fills over country’s destruction with an endless stream of features. Better to speak into the void.