Architectural Strategy and Firm Survival during a Global Pandemic.

WTF was that? A total train wreck. Many architects by now will be working at home and projects would have disappeared overnight. For some firms, there will be huge, and sudden, gaps in their portfolio of projects. For other firms who have lost a few jobs, kept a few and who might maybe get a few new ones, the future is highly uncertain, and project fee revenues are being decimated.

The following thoughts apply to anyone in the architect universe. This includes practitioners in small and large firms, solo firms and even people just struggling to manage their career after being made redundant.

Architects of a certain age will be accustomed to boom-bust cycles; for the most part, it is the nature of the business. The sequences of boom-bust will be familiar to those firm’s who have in the past cycled through external economic downturns, shocks, changes in their markets or merely the vagaries of clueless clients. But hey, here we all are again, and the global pandemic is a bitter kick-in-the head-mofo.

The last crash in 2009 was not as severe as this one. But it also wiped out projects, the money behind those projects and various firms evaporated quickly. In some ways, the GFC was scarier because no one knew what was happening with the flows and circuits of capital in an opaque global financial system. Depending on your country, the information around the COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps more transparent, and we all know what we need to do to stay safe. But fuck this has been a quick slide into the trough and how will you survive until the upswing. So what should you do, if you want your practice (no matter its size) to survive and you want to figure out what to do next. What are the strategic moves you need to make next?

Don’t Panic

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Whatever you do, don’t panic. Panic leads to anxiety and fear has a sequential path; anxiety, then indecision and then to leadership and firm paralysis. Rather than panic, architects will need to analyse and then determine the scale, range and timing of actions required across different parts of their firms. This type of thinking requires thinking that can range across different organisational (e.g. marketing and finance) and project workflows. Thinking related to general management is critical. If all you have been is a design creative, or a client grappling suit or an arse-licking yes person, then you need to think outside the box.

Cash flow 

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The sharks may be circling but cash is still king and cash flow is central to firm survival. You better work out how to extend your debts and call in what is owed to you. Maybe after this, architects will figure out how vital cash flow forecasting is. Near-term and medium-term issues of cash management are critical. Strategic and operational decisions at the bottom of the trough can’t be isolated from cash flow information.

Game and Scenario Planning 

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The external pandemic shock will completely upend the competitive landscape for architectural services. I would not be thinking that it is going to business as usual after this. The fabric of global trade, supply chains and knowledge creation will be completely reset. While architecture itself, all too annoyingly, seems to exhibit a never-changing industry structure the markets architects compete in and provide services to will never be the same again.

For this reason, architects will need to propose, identify, rehearse and game-plan future scenarios for the markets they work in. Just being intuitive in your small practice is not going to help your game-planning. Game planning needs to be comprehensive and systematic. No matter how large or small your practice is, not doing this will limit your resilience coming out of the trough.

More than ever, architects will need to understand clients perspectives and client markets. Sure, everyone is pandemic fucked. But architects need to understand the dimensions of the uncertainties that their clients and potential clients are dealing with.

Reinvention 

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Developing greater foresight will help a firm to reinvent and reconfigure itself. Things won’t be going back to Business As Usual. Architects need to see this as an opportunity to do things differently. Nothing should be considered sacred in terms of reinvention. Decision-making norms, firm culture, organisational structures, operational steps and knowledge creation should all be open questions. The firms that can select and then reconfigure things quickly and confidently will do better in the new environment on the other side. Surprisingly, it may be a good time to innovate, and yeah make your firm more inclusive.

Back from the dead

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Making the return to new operational regimes will be difficult. Prioritising, sequencing and especially timing decisions will be critical. For any architectural practice returning to a “new normal” of operations will centre on two issues. Firstly, and foremostly, staff. How will you rehire and retrain people? What are the operational contingencies relating to the knowledge and experience you need to put back into place?

For example, if you got rid of your research, business development or marketing staff as the pandemic hit to save money, you won’t get back as quickly as possible. These are the very people, or initiatives, you should keep. Not every firm will survive this, so it is better to be back from the dead with your marketing functions intact ready to take advantage of new market spaces. Better to have a few new research ideas up your sleeve.

Secondly, if you have spent your life being an IT cheapskate, then coming back from the dead will be harder. Robust IT infrastructure enabling new forms of working and collaboration will be inevitable in the new landscape.

Finally

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If you were ignorant enough to slash and burn your staff, to throw them unceremoniously out of the bus, as the pandemic hit, you might arguably have trashed your brand. Even when an entire project cohort can’t be sustained, the smart firms downsize architects with civility and then carefully and incrementally.

Resilient firms will still maintain relationships with their staff. Not surprisingly, the Architects Lobby is keen to learn about the experiences of architectural workers in this climate, and I recommend their survey, which can be found here.

Oh, and don’t forget all of the resources around managing through this time at the Architect’s Consulting Association to be found here.

When architects come out of this, the architect universe will be kind of the same but also very very different.

 

Rebranding the Architectural Firm: a brand framework for architects.

This week I spoke at the M-Pavilion and I got a little carried away talking about branding in relation to the Apple Store and Federation Square in Melbourne controversy. I will write more about that in coming weeks. But in the meantime, here is my first take at thinking about branding and architects.

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Intro

In the wonderful world of digital advertising. The subject, tone and style of a campaign needs to be delivered to a customer within the first 9 seconds of a digital advertisement. But architectural branding is a different kind of beast. Architectural services are not a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), like a Mars, Bar, or a product that requires a simple pay wave transaction. Branding and the elements that constitute an architectural brand are a little more complicated.

The Problem: How to change your architectural brand

The lead times in running an architectural practice are quite long. Sometimes it may take a practice up to 10 years to achieve stable and less volatile income stream. But in my experience the branding of a firm is often set very quickly within the first few years.

Late last year a friend of mine said there were two types of larger architectural practices those with “family” brands and those with “corporate” brands. She wondered how do you change an architectural brand once it has been established? This made me think about what the elements of branding is for an architectural firms. Once that branding is set how might you then change it? In other words how do you change the branding of a firm that has been going for 10 years or more.

The Elements of Architectural Branding 

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In my framework the three elements that make up an architectural brand are Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Delivery and Knowledge Style.

This is because I think a Knowledge Management approach is the best way to approach thinking about branding in architectural firms. Forget about the focus on designed objects. It is better to think about:

  • What design knowledge is being created?
  • Then, how is that design knowledge then delivered to clients and others?
  • Finally, and in doing the above, how is that design knowledge expressed in terms of an expression or style?

Knowledge Creation: What knowledge is created

You can see from the diagram that elements of this include the kind of architectural types your firm works, on or the size or scale of projects, the regions that you work in and create knowledge about, or the different kinds of expertise your firm is known for.

This may also be a proportion or mix of different elements.

Knowledge Pathways: How is knowledge delivered? 

 How you deliver this knowledge also contributes to your brand. Is your firm only interested in time or cost outcomes. Or maybe your firm is focused don generating concepts or iconic architecture. Or maybe it’s just about getting awards.

Knowledge Expression: How is knowledge expressed?  

 How your brand is expressed is also another aspect of this framework. Part of this is how an architectural firm creates knowledge that helps to brand its own clients.

  • Is it focused on informal styles where the firm does not have to structure the expression or aesthetics of design knowledge.
  • Or is design knowledge expressed somewhere in between. This is when the firm employs a mix of formal and informal signifiers and design knowledge to help brand groups or communities.
  • Or is the style of the brand, what I have termed high style, where the firm is focused on Iconic Symbolic Capital at a National or International Level? Where design knowledge is highly structure and bound by aesthetics.

Family vs. Corporate brands. 

Family brands are common in architectural practice. These are architectural firms that employ or hope to employ family members as leaders within the firm.

This has a number of advantages:

  • The value created by hard won financial stability over a long period of time stays within the firm.
  • Personal networks and connections vital to business can be maintained.
  • Succession problems are easily solved
  • Directors have more control, and incentive, over design decisions rather than giving these design decisions to managers.
  • In practice a “family” architectural brand might have this kind of mix.

The corporate branded architecture firm is different:

  • The brand may not be determined by a name associated with familiar and long standing networks or particular design approach.
  • Corporate style architects rely on the portfolio of projects within the firm.
  • The project portfolio, as whole then partly determines how the form is branded.
  • Managers, including designers, have more incentives to get projects which in turn determine the brand.

 Rebranding: the all important question. 

So if you need to change your brand or even rebrand your firm you can then look at this framework and decide which things you need to shift to achieve this. For example, a family brand wanting to be a corporate brand can see which elements to change.

In other words, the framework helps architects to decide which elements to change or transform and it also suggests that changing or rebranding necessitates changing more than just one element. Many architects fall into the trap of getting in a few new designers and fresh design ideas in the hope this will change the brand or how the firm is perceived. Or they think they can do it by, going after a new types of projects they havent done before, or by developing new types expertise.

It doesn’t really work like that because too often the other elements in the mix are not changed.

This is the first real post of 2018 and I would like to thank those of you who read and visited the site over January. Quite a few of the greatest hits posts from previous years were more popular than when they were first posted! The site has had a bit of a makeover and I am hoping to renovate it a little more in coming weeks.

What are we to make of the Apple Flagship Store at Federation Square?

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Earlier in the year I went to an exhibition at the Design Museum in London about the influence of Californian design on the whole world. One of the original Apples built by Steve and the Woz was in the exhibition. It was great to see how primitive it seemed, then I kind of forgot about Apple for a bit. Even though, I was surgically attached to my my iPhone 7 plus. Apple design is so clever and I was living the Apple dream without even noticing.

But, then a few days ago there was an eruption of outrage in my social media feeds. OMG!!! Apple were knocking down a big chunk of Federation Square to replace it with an Apple store and the Koorie Heritage Trust (will the new Apple building acknowledge country?) has to move. Apple are building a flagship store on that most loved of Melbourne sites Federation Square. Thankfully, the Koorie Heritage trust, or at least that is what we are told, is moving across the way, to the Alfred Deakin Building, on the other side of Federation Square.

So Apple is going to take over Federation Square. Another bit of creeping and insidious privatisation of public space in the city. The outrage on Twitter was incessant.

So, what about all of the other moments in the history and memory of the city when public space has been eroded and privatised in the city? As the Melbourne architect Stuart Harrison famously once said: try riding your skateboard down the so-called lanes of the QV development. It’s not long before the low paid security guard tells you it is private land and turfs you out.

Of course, it would be easy for me to say horror, outrage and sacrilege and jump onto Twitter etc. But then again Professor Donald Bates, whom readers should note that I work with at the Melbourne School of Design, one of the original designers of Federation square, is in support of the Apple proposal. Donald Bates stated:

The design of Apple Fed Square is necessarily of a different and distinct architectural vocabulary. We would abhor a faux-LAB Architecture design, replete with triangles and shifted geometries. The Foster Associates design is simple, pure and of its own aesthetic. Its success will lie in how it maximises the civic nature of Fed Square to form a tight connection with events and activities, bringing an engaging program of debates and discussions, as well as offering a new vista onto the Yarra River.

So given this argument, perhaps we need to think through the issues and fault lines at play here. So, let’s not jump onto the Trumpian cycle of social media Outrage vs. Outrage. Evil Apple versus People who love Fed Square (now).  So, without taking an immediate position of media Outrage here are a few questions to consider:

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Q: Why are the political hacks suddenly interested in Architecture and Urbanism ? 

Suddenly all the politicians got interested in Architecture, Apple and Federation Square. The collision of place branding and technology tends to get them out of the woodwork. It was an unlikely cohort, Adam Bandt (the Greens), Jeff Kennett (neoliberal liberal) and even Senator Derryn Hinch (independent centrist crusader) had something to say about it.

James Norman in the Guardian wrote as if the store was going to destroy Fed Square as we know it. His bio states the he is “a Melbourne-based writer and author of the book, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.” Obviously someone with a deep and abiding interest and knowledge in architecture and urbanism.

The Sun Herald was probably the worst. 

I just wish these people would be more interested in architecture and urbanism when it matters. I don’t see this motley bunch saying much about the lack of affordable housing or the crap towers now adorning our city. Nor do this group seem to do much every time a bit of our 1960s or 70s modernist or brutalist heritage gets knocked over in the name of development.

A: It’s like a brand collision, a car crash of the big brands:  Melbourne, Fed Square, Crazy Architecture, and the biggest brand of all APPLE. Thats enough to get the political opportunists, who I am sure hope, to build their own little brands by being a part of the ecology of outrage. 

Q. Why don’t we have politicians who can talk more with more nuance when it comes to issues concerning public space or new projects?

This question is, I admit a particular bugbear of mine, and of course a number of state politicians jumped in with the hyperbole in defense of the project:

“The tourism minister, John Eren, said the store would bring millions more visitors to Victoria and breathe new life into Federation Square.”

The trade minister, Philip Dalidakis, said the deal “reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as the undisputed tech capital of Australia and creates hundreds of ongoing jobs in the process.”

I draw your attention to some of the above phrases that were probably dreamed up by their junior advisors and spin doctors: “millions more visitors”,“breathe new life” (Fed Square wasn’t dead), “undisputed tech capital”, “hundreds of ongoing jobs” (all casual retail).

A: Because they are ignorant when it comes to architecture. 

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Q. We all live in the Apple economy now, so why be hypocritical?

Every now and then I ask my architecture students if they have Samsung or Apple phones. They all say Apple. So what is wrong with the Apple building given that most architects in town own Apple phones, perhaps we have turned a blind eye to Apples cross-border taxation arrangements or who makes actually makes the stuff. So given this blindness then what is now wrong with the having an Apple store at Federation Square. Is it any different to crafting your architectural or personal brand and career through Instagram on your iPhone ?

A. Apple’s success is its ubiquitous invisibility. Are we not, already as architects, totally embedded in the Apple economy? Do we not love Apple because of its design ethos?

Q: At what point, prior to its completion, do we judge the Foster and Partners design?

I am not sure about the Foster and Partners design. The design looks like one of those things old star architects, and their interns do, when they have run out of ideas. Just put together a bit of minimalist, and proportioned to an inch of its life, faux classicism with some smoochy and luxurious materials. Design it like a temple and make it “disappear” with transparency via glazing. A lawyer friend said it looked like a pagoda. Maybe, thats the easy way to build next to an already significant architectural building. There is an example of this type of thing here. It is not an unknown design strategy.

But maybe this design is actually a piss-take on Apple. Who knows? If Phillip Johnson was alive and had proposed it, that might be so. Also, and arguably, maybe Denton Corker Marshall could have done a better job than Foster and Partners. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of the building itself, the increased amenity seems likely, but lets wait and see how the thing actually pans out when it is built. I probably won’t be able to tell until it is built. It could be great, or pretty good, but I would prefer to wait and see in this instance.

A: Maybe when it is built. 

Q: Is urbanism just all about the brand now

It is unfortunate, if not outrageous, that we need an Apple Store to financially support a civic space like Federation Square. We need one of the biggest brands in the world to support the biggest and most important civic space in the city.

Architecture is a global system and brands circulate in that system, in Melbourne in many respects, Federation Square ushered in the idea of the iconic building as a global brand and nowadays, it’s all about the brand. The central Melbourne grid is now part of a property market, if it hadn’t always been, firmly embedded within the circuitry of global capital. This is evidenced by the privatisation of public assets, the commercialisation of public facilities, the private management of public spaces, developer driven regulatory frameworks and the product design of property assets.

A: Yes, and architects need to recognise and counter this. 

Q: Do Australian architects have the theoretical instruments and maturity to cope with global competition? 

Lord Foster and Partners is coming to town; and globalisation has always meant that architects like Foster would come to town. The winning design of Federation Square by Lab Studio Architects was announced in July 1997 and completed in 2002. It was a shock to the Melbourne system as Lab Architecture was not part of the Melbourne’s entrenched architectural networks of architecture schools and various tribal cliques.

Lab had a new way of practicing, that seemed to rankle with the entrenched networks, a way that seemed to say that architects were advocates, equal partners with policy and decision makers. The contractors hated this approach. Lab never got another job in the town again.

My worry is that architects and urbanists in Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, have not developed the theoretical instruments, advocacy skills or research and industry infrastructure to contend with the worst excesses of branded architecture in the global system.

A: I don’t think they do. 

Q: What should have happened? 

A1: The better solution would have been to have given Donald Bates and Lab Architecture the job

At least that way Melbourne could have been absolutely sure we weren’t getting a ironic piss-take building or more than a techno temple for the international tourists. Maybe I would have liked more of that crazy triangle stuff and space frame stuff or something new  from Lab. Even the punters and the bogans love Fed Square now. Lab Architecture would have done a great job.

A2: A design competition would also have been a great idea.

If Apple’s, and all the Silicon Valley rhetoric about disruptive innovation is real, then a design competition would have been the way to go. I might have won that one. But that would have provoked even more outrage.

Architects and urbanists need to avoid the hypocrisies of piling outrage onto outrage. What we really need is better theoretical instruments to build our own capacities as advocates of architecture. Maybe then we can get better at theorising, recognising, and avoiding, the really schlocky outputs of corporate capitalism.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. Again, Thank you all for supporting the blog in 2017.

Surviving the Design Studio: Architects have the best Christmas parties.

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Now that the festive season is just about upon us I thought it might be good to be less serious, after some very, and all too serious recent posts, and to reflect on why the architectural profession is such a great a great thing to be a part of.

Architects have the best parties 

One of the main reasons people are so desperate to do architecture is because architects are the best at doing parties. In comparison the parties at my business school were never as good as the parties at my old architecture school. I have been to numerous  birthday parties (recently hosted a great 75th) , christenings, pre-wedding parties, weddings (including a few of my own), engagements, parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties and exhibition openings as well as other various events in genteel polite society.

I know to my friends on  the outside I look like a boring middle-aged academic. But actually on the inside I am really a wild party animal. Once I realised this in my late teens I vowed to have a big party at each decade milestone. After a three of these so-called milestone partays I thought it was better for the entire city not to continue. I know this sounds a little narcissistic, but a Raisbeck birthday party usually has reverberations that go beyond the immediate event.

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I have not been to my Faculty Christmas for 5 years after a kind of self-imposed exile. Maybe its only 4, but I can’t really remember a lot about the last one I went to, I vaguely remember going to the party, maybe it was at the ARM Recital centre, or maybe it was ACCA, or the Abbotsford Convent, and then I remember the bar on the Yarra, and I don’t remember much after the tram-ride. Unfortunately, just when I was about to venture back to the Faculty festive party this year, it was cancelled because of the prospect of dangerously bad weather. The whole city was shut down.

If architecture is dangerous then architectural parties are potentially very dangerous. We should all worry about what we do at the end of season partays. Any personal information revealed at a party, and distributed across social media, may be of interest one day to the HR types, who seem as young as my teenage son these days, or  promotion and interview panels, who, we are led to believe, scour the interwebs for details of our past lives, just to make sure we are not crazed alcoholic or drug infested maniacs. Not to mention the local and judgemental village gossips that every organisation seems to have in its nooks and crannies. I am constantly amazed at the antics of the Kardashian generation on Instagram and Snapchat and I fear that when they are my age they will regret all those terrible bathroom selfies.

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I better get back to the point.

Engineering parties are not great, still a lot of shorts and white sock action. Quantity Surveyors have not been known to kick their heels up and the conversation soon goes stale. They tend to choose wine and food that is prudent but not lavish. Think, smoked oysters (lavish) wrapped in slivers of bacon (prudent). Planners and parties don’t really mix as these can get argumentative if you attend as an architect. They will usually have a healthy selection of celery sticks, carrots and dried apricots. Its amazing to watch them dip the dried apricots into the little containers of hummus. They are planners after all.  Builders and sub-contractor parties are really a no-go-zone for architects; best not to say why. Let’s just say they are yet to discover craft beers and so they only drink beer from brown glass stubbies.  Plus, you wont get in with any black and without a fluoro hi-vis vest. Its amazing what they will do to each other at the end of an evening when they are drunk. Thats exactly when you should try and get them to tender. Its incredible to think, you have to virtually bribe them to get them to tender on any architecture project under 0.5M$. The parties of Project Managers are not much better. There is a lot of kabana sausage bits, pineapple and yummy glaced cherries (PMs love shiny cheap things) on skewers sitting alongside buckets of Costco dips. They always forget the crackers and the party never starts on time. Then they blame the architect.

Whatever why you look at it: Architects have the best parties.

Avoid Lawyer Parties. 

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In my experience the worst parties are the ones where there are too many lawyers. The worst thing about the Lawyers is that they also try and dress fashionably. But, then they always get it a little bit wrong (except the lawyers who are my actual friends).  We should give them style lessons. But then they will probably sue us anyway.

They all get down one end of the room and talk about the law. Then their actual partners are, usually sort of down the other end of the room, and if you tell any of the partners you are an architect they will say things to you like:

“oh, so your an architect, how interesting.”

“oh, my partner wanted to be an architect but he became a lawyer instead.”

“oh, our architect (insert name of appalling fee cutting architect) has just finished our Georgian style renovation, do you know them?”

“oh, I went to school with an architect, do you know them?”

“oh, we have a garage extension that needs doing what do you think?”

“oh, what do you think of the Opera House?”

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Its better if we only go to architect only parties as they are more fun. As you should be able to discern from the attached images here. This particular party was a great exercise in brand building. It really makes you want to do business with this office.

For those architects averse to parties, my advice is to loosen up, if you want to build your brand the best thing you can do is have a great end of season party. Invite me along. I will be one of the last to leave. After all is said and done there is nothing like having fun and partying to the max as architecture goes down the gurgler in Australian public life.

Architects & Badass Clients: The perennial moral question?

There has always been a debate in architecture about patronage and politics. The central question of this debate, which I am sure many architects are familiar with, is should architects work for those with no morals? This becomes a dilemma and does it really matter who architects work for as long as they make good, or even great, architecture?

The bad and sometimes evil clients.

All architects have had clients we don’t like, or we don’t particularly want to work for, or we are worried that they will rip us off by not paying. We refused a client once because he looked like Catweazle. But what happens when the client is a demagogue or a war criminal?

Usually, when this debate gets going, the old hero icons of modern architecture get trotted out: Gropius and Mies and the Nazi and the Reichsbank competition. Le Corbusier and Vichy, and the break up with his Marxist cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Phillip Johnson, that most subversive of architects and the actual Nazis. For a brief moment, in the late 20s the constructivist worker architects and artists had the same problem, should they work for Stalin? However, by 1932 it was too late for them and most were killed in the Terror or went to the Gulag’s.

Tessenow and Speer and Krier 

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Inevitably this argument cycles around to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, the gargantuan and ham fisted classicist and pioneer of modern managerialism. Speer was no Plecnik or Lutyens. As an architecture student Speer was reputedly thrown out of Poelzig’s studio and then ended up in Heinrich Tessenow’s studio. What would have happened to Speer if he had stayed with the early expressionistic Poelzig who later embraced New Objectivity rather than the classically orientated Tessenow.  As most know, Speer was later to be admired so much by Leon Krier, who published the monograph on Speer, once Krier himself escaped the clutches of James Stirling. In the 1980s as students we once interviewed Tadao Ando through a Japanese translator and asked him what he thought of Krier, the response in Japanese, was opaque, long winded and incomprehensible and surprisingly animated. However, in this perplexing outburst there was one word that we could discern through the rush of Japanese: Fascist. Yes, Ando thought Leon Krier was a fascist. As Paul Davies has noted Giorgio Grassi would rehabilitate Tessenow; and Leon Krier, Speer.

 Patrik Comes to Town

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Hot on the heels of Rem Koolhaas, all of this history, came back to me when we had a new star architect visitor these weeks past. Yes, in my small city on the architectural periphery, it was none other than Patrik Schumacher. Suddenly, my Archienemy Instagram social media feeds were full of people I know doing selfies with Patrik. Rather than going all out I chose to get a photo of his ear. He even spoke at Rem and David G’s MPavilion, which I am yet to visit, with the Victorian State Government Architect.

Perhaps I was a little jealous, I asked myself, I was not invited to the Pavilion, nor was I invited to the jury sessions where Patrik appeared. Had I through some character flaw and self-sabotage avoided the great man and celebrity. Had they read all the bad stuff I had written in the obscure conference papers about Parametricism. I had already avoided the Remmy Koolhaas festival when he came. Should I have lurched into Patrik’s field of vision to get a selfie? I did at least manage to get a picture of his ear.

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Patrik and the Mayfair Development

Regular readers of the blog will recall Patrik’s statements about Aravena winning the big Pritzker prize in an earlier blog.

“I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his ‘half a good house’ developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation.”

ZHA architecture, in  which Patrik is a partner leads, has also designed a “vase” shaped tower in my city intended to be housed by the Mandarin Oriental hotel. In Brisbane ZHA has also designed a  “champagne flute” tower development. Nothing like a metaphor to motivate the sales team.

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Chin-chin in Brisvegas.

The Mayfair 

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More interestingly, there is also the Mayfair sited on a prominent corner on St Kilda Road, for those not familiar with Melbourne this is the boulevard leading into the cities central grid. The developers UEM Sunrise are employing the ZHA brand to sell the apartments off. This one has the soft flowing curvy butterfly metaphor attached to it. Apparently, the design is based on the “Lorenz attractor – a mathematical set of equations that, when plotted, resemble a figure eight or butterfly.”

There is also great Zaha Hadid exhibition associated with the sale of units in the development and the website is pretty slick. All the apartments look great on the inside and are full of well designed and exquisitely fabricated ZHA designed wall finishes, furniture and fittings.

Bris-Vegas?

Amongst all the signature suite excitement of the interior there is the exterior. In contrast to the interior, the exterior does seem a bit, how shall I say it, Bris Vegas with its predominant horizontal blades and glazed balconies. Perhaps, the Mayfair, and other luxury apartment types in general, are more about the exquisite luxury interiors and less  to do with the exterior. I am not sure how the facade might contribute to a high density urban civilisation?

Perhaps this is the danger the architectural fascination with CNC fabrication and digitally enabled supply chains. Perhaps, all we will get to do as architects in the future, are the luxury interiors: the product marketing types and planners will design the exteriors.

Maybe we are already at the point where we are no longer architects but in fact strategic product designers and marketers. Architecture is a key element in the marketing material for Mayfair:

“Mayfair is unmistakably Zaha Hadid. A mastery of scientific precision and artistic integrity, its soft, organic form pays tribute to St Kilda Road’s leafy streetscape, and the context within which it exists.”

I don’t really know what to say about the “soft organic form” line.

The local connections

With such international collaborations there is always a local architectural connection.  With the apartments on St Kilda road, branded as the Mayfair, it is that notable firm of high rise apartment architects Elenberg Fraser.With the ZHA Mandarin Oriental tower it is Plus Architecture. On face value across the liveable city of Melbourne these two firms, Plus and Elenberg Fraser, seem to have cornered the market for apartments design. Interestingly Plus’s 4248 scheme looks a bit like the ZHA Mayfair. These are architects who seem happy to surf the real estate free market. No doubt  in doing so they are ensuring their fee for service regimes are commensurate with the excellent plan-façade combos they are producing.

Follow the money

Of course, in the modern age all architects immersed in the free market no longer need worry about the Nazis or Stalinists to work for or fight against. Arguably, it is the kleptocrats and big sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and Panama Paper style investors who provide the juice for the luxury housing fragmenting our cities.

The Mayfair development is being developed by UEM Sunrise. UEM Sunrise is wholly-owned by Khazanah, an investment holding arm of the Malaysian Government. A few years back the sovereign wealth find of the Malaysian government was the subject of a financial investigation. You can follow this here and even search for Khazanah and UEM Sunrise at the Panama Papers. You can also read about some the advanced urban civilisation stuff Malaysia has done for Palm Oil and Penan people.

It would be monstrous to suggest that the architects, or anyone else associated with these current projects, are in any way implicated in illicit financial flows of capital. But the point is that we are all connected in this new digital age via 6 virtual degrees of separation. The landscape in this new global system no longer resembles the past.  The old empires and their classical icons have gone and it is the oscillations of distributed capital propelled through conduits of digital finance that now shape the monumental vistas.

Subversion 

Spare a thought for the other architects, more distant from luxury housing and the celebrity system of architetcure. The local architects who ponder the vicissitudes of the NDIS roll out, informal settlements and the possibilties of producing new housing types driving by financial structures that enable a range of demographics, typologies and ownership.

Perhaps it will always be a perennial question for architects: Does it matter who we work for and who our patrons are? Does it matter where the money comes from? But, maybe the even greater sin for architects is not so much where the money comes from, or the issues around patronage, but whether or not the project is simply trash for cash.

Lets hope that there is a subversive sentiment somewhere in that approach.

Architectural Branding: Architectural Identities and the Digital Super Hero Syndrome.

The individual architect and small architectural firm is constantly searching for strategies that help identity formation. Sometimes it takes a long time to form our own identities as architects and find our own voices. This was certainly my experience, the particular architectural education I received did not seem to have the aim developing independent architectural voices. There were too many hierarchies, cults and cliques, rivalries, intellectual fashions, egotistical role models, star-sycophancy and small minded tribal dogmas at the time in the culture of the school I went to. Given my own personal dilemmas all of this only confused me as a I also sought my own architectural identity through my own methods of self-education. It took me a long time, but eventually I became more or less comfortable in my own skin as an architect

For many architects identity formation is seen as a central mode of survival. For some architect seems easier, and may be either as an individual, an auteur or as an architect with a brand name is more effective, and I say this without bitterness, a pedigreed and branded architecture school, seems to help. Yes, in this day and age its all about the brand.

Fluid Identities

However, rather than ebbing stable, identity, which underpins branding, is largely socially constructed and fluid. In work at Delft by Marina Bos-de Vos and Leentje Volker (2017) studying the strategic management of architectural firms the establish how articulating how professional aspects of identity enable and constrain practitioners to shape and be shaped by their strategic actions and decisions. They conclude that a construction of identity in architectural firms is at odds with the need to develop new business models of practice. Alvesson, an organisational sociologist defines how identities “are constituted, negotiated, reproduced, and threatened in social interaction, in the form of narratives, and also in material practices”.

Architectural identities are constructed and shaped as a result of the social and cultural contexts that architects find themselves in. For the small firm architect the mission to survive in a unstable and chaotic environment leads to creating an architectural self that contributes to both sense-making in this environment as well as the attempt to make, maintain, construct and consolidate an identity that provides a stable reference point. As noted Bos-de Vos and Leentje Volker note “Identity work links individual agency with the broader social context (Kreiner and Murphy, 2016).”

Brand dilemmas

All architects face the dilemmas of branding an identity in a shifting landscape and social context; and in the current digital age, with its cycles of outrage, and pervasive media, identity is more than ever important. Or, at least that is what we are told. Architects are told to market ourselves, brand ourselves, and to get our social media acts together and to expand out networks. But the danger, in all of this marketing and branding advice, is that it is all too easy to latch onto the nearest template, figure or pre-existing identity that comes to hand. Our profession is a swamp of firms specialising in sustainability and housing with very little differentiation between each firm.

For many architects identity formation is often refined to a few prevailing stable identities and reference points.  This is a consequence of the economic context in which these architects find themselves within the disciplinary discourse of architecture. With the convergence of new design and construction technologies, social media and the celebritization of politics in the media a new identity has in the architectural firmament has emerged: The Digital Super Hero. The idea of an archetypal hero has shifted from the stereotype of the heroic modern auteur, as exemplified in Anne Rand’s Fountainhead novel, and played by Gary Cooper in George Cukor’s movie, to a new kind of identity. This new figure, which nonetheless retains many of the personality layers of the heroic modern auteur, has come about as media and digital technologies have transformed the global system of architecture.

Turbo-Man-Jingle-all-the-Way-Schwarzenegger-c

Numerous star-architects, both global and local, seem to exemplify this new stereotype. It is a predominantly, if not solely, masculine stereotype. For the small architect, beset by volatile macroeconomics and diminishing returns, the promise of and role of the superhero is seductive. This particular identity pervades much of architectural discourse, and it is perhaps more technological, and less ideologically bound to a style, than the early moderns.

Patrik Schumacher  with all of his bluster is an example. Alongside the digital super-hero identity goes a rhetoric masks and mystifies the real socio-material conditions of architectural practice. In other words, for the small architect the idea of the digital superhero helps to mask a real situation, the commodification of architectural knowledge, by providing a convenient and easily mythology to either aspire to or cling to.

PatrikSchumacher_TomWiscombe

Two Digital Super Heros 

Digital Masculinities

These arguments around identity and its social construction, have shifting biases, As Martin Hultman notes in his study of “Ecomodern Masculinities” (think Arnie Schwarzenegger and Al Gore) gender configurations are important in shaping the “planning of sustainable cities, taking part in climate negotiations and as top managers in global companies, and working as designers geo-engineering planetary solutions for environmental problems.” The same configurations, as identified by Hultman in relation to climate change, are also evident in the way in which technology, both parametric and BIM, have come to be incorporated in architectural discourse, practice and firm workflows.

Digital-technical masculinities easily, and perhaps all too easily, applies to the existence of this new kind of digital superhero in architecture; who, through a immersive engagement and devil’s pact with future technologies, will eventually overcome the volatile economics situation that most small firms are subject to.

In Hultman’s own words “Masculinities are understood as always-in-the-making and part of material semiotic antagonistic discourses, which are an embodied nature of knowledge, materiality and meaning.” This sounds very familiar to me: The digital super hero is always in a state of “always-in-the-making” ; both a part of and producing embodied and material technical discourses; always antagonistic to traditional workflows and other perceived enemies.

General advice

The construction of the architectural identity, too often than not as a reactive response to the need to survive economically should be regarded as being problematic and contested rather than being seen as a singular, holistic and a stable domain. Architects have always been vulnerable to vagaries of fame and not immune to the digital celebrity, influencer and thought leader. As a small firm steer clear of the prevailing fashions and the obvious. Don’t opt for easy, or naïve, off the-shelf-ideas branding. Strategic branding for the longer term of a practice is a difficult issue. Your brand needs to be both authentic and memorable; It also needs to burn a hole in the brains of those who have no regard for design.

Finally, and perhaps this goes without saying, but it keeps needing to be said, that the identities that we privilege in architectural discourse need to be more inclusive of difference. The recognition of collaborative practice is perhaps one way forward. Simply recognisi Read more

Surviving the Design Studio: On NOT Seeing REM when he is in town.

Rem Koolhaas is in my small city on the outer edges of the global architectural galaxy and his upcoming lecture at MSD is so popular I can’t get a ticket. Thankfully, there is a live stream. Not that I tried that hard to get a ticket, but now I feel a bit guilty, shouldn’t I be hanging out and rubbing shoulders with the celebrity architects like REM? Last night REM opened the M Pavilion and my Facebook and Instagram feeds were suddenly full of Rem, the pavilion and his partner in crime. I missed out on seeing Ai Wei Wei in person at our National Gallery last year and it was like everyone I knew had a selfie with him.

Hopefully, NOT being seen, in the same big M Pavilion or in the same lecture theatre as REM would not kill my own cult like status as a blogger or researcher interested in the socio-material practices and histories of architects . For a moment I thought that, given that I am increasingly keen on ethnographic studies and sociological perspectives on the architectural profession, maybe I could do a kind of ethnographic study, of trying to meet the big star architect who comes to town. But I am thinking it’s now too late to do that.

I told myself to forget the angst, envy and the hand wringing and to calm down about not seeing HIM. Not seeing REM in person wasnt the end of the  world. Besides, I was just coming off a teaching intensive, needed to get a few research projects actually running and worse still: it is the school holidays, and I feel I have to keep an eye on the teenager, lest he indulge in anti-social activities whilst he is waiting for his enlistment papers from the ADF.

I took a few  a few deep breaths and began to think about the tropes and characteristic images that we seem to follow in our feeds, and give authority to in our profession as architects. I began to wonder if we were stuck I some kind of media cycle which has a recurring narrative when a global brand comes to town.  This loose assertion of course is based on my own experience and when I was a student, in the 80s, we had this thing called the International Lecture Series it was great and we saw lectures by amongst others: Eisenman, Ito, Hasegawa, Stern, Shinohara, Prix, Cook and even Graves. After seeing so many I figured out that the general order of events for the star architects visit goes something like this:

  1. Arrival.
  2. Public Lecture.
  3. Dinner with notables.
  4. Visit to see architects buildings.
  5. Round table seminar.
  6. Studio Crit
  7. Everyone goes home.

There was usually some kind of controversy with each visit either a salacious scandal (leg propositions under the table) or clash of egos between global shark and provincial fish (It’s also good to make sure your star does not get run over).

But of course bodies, and gestures and fashion is a big part of the star’s visit. What are they wearing? How thin are they? Is it Comme de Garcons, or the last gasp of Marithe and Francois Girbaud, or Gucci shoes? Thinking all this, made me think about the recurring images and tropes or architects that seem to appear in our feeds in this media age of Trump. In order to promote media literacy here are here are a few recurring images for your amusement:

1.The architect at the drawing board 

TV series the Brady Bunch really set the tone for a whole lot of misconceptions and myths in popular culture about architects.

brady_den_16

2. The architect as rock star 

FLW and RW

 

3. Architect as James Bond 

DC and PS

4. Looking right at you architect visionaries and composers 

MB, DC and PC.

5. The olden days architectural project meeting

Brady Bunch, Corbusier at UN, FLW and NASA Engineers for comparison.

6. Project meeting’s now

BIM meeting, “inclusive” meeting and normal meeting.

7. Architects all over it 

Bjarke and WorldCraft

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Most of us who can’t see REM are maybe  too busy at this time of year with the kids in the school holidays to see him. But if I did go and see REM, and yes I am going to look at the live feed, it would be great if he came to town wearing an an outfit like Leigh Bowery below. Or at the least a special royal and kingly crown, as Philip Johnson, that most subversive of architects, managed to pull off. Maybe then, I might take the global system of our discipline more seriously.

09-Fergus_Greer_Leigh_Bowery_Session_III_Look_11__August_1990__From_the_series_Leigh_Bowery_Looks