New Paths of Architectural Practice: Not everyone is going to be an architect with a capital A.

There has been a lot of chat lately about new models of practice. Increasingly, the scavengers and myriad tribes of architects that exist find it difficult to make their practices profitable in the face of intense fee competition and, what some have called, the economics of austerity. I have touched on alternative modes of practice in a few other blogs but I thought I would say a bit more.

No Silver Bullet

Foremostly, I am worried that practitioners think that there is a silver bullet or a simple solution to this issue. That we can wave a magic wand over the structure of their practices and it will all be better. I am worried that practitioners think that if only they had restructured their practice in a different way in the first place things would be easier. Yet, the legal and corporate frameworks for practice are normally quite limited within, and across different countries. There is no one way or legal “switch” that a practitioner can switch on or off if a practice is not profitable or not seeming to get anywhere. Changing the legal or financial structures may not change things. If you are not making money you are not making money.

The traditional models of sole practitioner, partnership or even company model appear to limit what architects can do. Some of the mega-firms, or Transformer firms, as I have denoted them elsewhere, seem more successful. They appear to manage ok, by virtue of being extremely large and having integrated service chains that provide a potential client anything; let’s not think too much about how these large firms might manage their taxation affairs.

Critical Regionalism

For many smaller scavenger and tribal practices there is still the dream of criticality at a local level. Of doing great jobs that people love in your own city, street or neighbourhood. Thinking about this reminded me that in the early 80s Kenneth Frampton argued for a new architectural culture based on critical regionalism. Frampton advocated an architectural culture and discourse that was resistant to what he saw as processes of universalization. Frampton argued that optimising technologies had delimited the ability of architects to create significant urban form. For Frampton, the work of critical regionalism a practice focused on, and grounded in local traditions and inflections, was intended in Frampton’s words to “mediate the impact of universal civilisation.

I think that much of Frampton’s dream has come to imbue much of what we value in Architectural Practice and design. The Pritzker prizes seem to go to regionally inspired and grounded architectural auteurs. In my country a lot has been written about the two main city based “schools” or traditions of work the Sydney School and the Melbourne School. But, I worry that as architects we have been boxed in and swamped by global capital and technologies while we clong to models of practice are focused on the auteur. I think the the dream of critical regionalism is something that perhaps masks the real situation: The continuing commodification of architetcural knowledge.

Exploring new models of practice.

A few years ago, I got my architectural practice students to do business plans for Social Enterprises. In other words, for enterprises that had a social purpose or profit. In my naivety I thought they would love doing it. The idea was to encourage the students to think about how they would use their architectural skills and knowledge to determine the nature of a new social enterprise. It was a way to hopefully get the post-graduate Master’s students to think, yes actually think, about different forms and models of practice.

The better social enterprise plans were encouraging.  A number of plans aimed to address gender discrimination. One plan looked at commercializing feminine hygiene products in order to get homeless woman off the streets. Another group targeted the architecture and construction workforce by supplying sustainable personal protective equipment and then investing the profits to advance gender equality in the design and construction workforce. A few projects looked at issues around waste and recycling. For example, one project looked at recovering discarded food and food waste. One of the better social enterprise plans produced by the students was based on putting beehives into social housing estates and then harvesting, marketing and the selling the honey. Thus, employing some of the residents in the estates.

Thinking outside of the box. 

But by and large most of the students hated the exercise, my student experience scores that semester tanked, and my academic masters wondered “WTF” I was doing. A practitioner associated with the school asked, “why are you doing business plans at all?” I think the social enterprise plan about the Bees was the one that really drove everyone nuts. Of course, it didn’t really help that I said in the Assignment instructions that: “There are no prescriptions for this assignment. On the basis of the business plan, you will be assessed as to how well your social enterprise will realistically establish itself, survive, and grow.”

So much for getting the students to think out side of the box and deal with high levels of ambiguity.  This year we went back to business plans for the straight-down-the-line architectural practices.

Abandoning the old ways

If we are to talk about different forms of practice then I think architects really need to abandon their pre-conceived notions of what practice is. There is no magic solution. We need to use our learned creativity and design thinking skills to embrace new ways of doing business. Not everyone is going to be an architect with a capital A. We need more beekeeping ideas.

A recent exhibition at the CCA, and now travelling, suggests that historically alternative practice doesn’t always have to centre on the single genius.  At any point in time architects have always sought to explore new models of practice and escape the constraints that beset them.

Thankfully, there have been those in recent years who have broken out of the old moulds of architectural practice. Collective and collaborative action is a common theme on my short list. Notably, and not in any order, the following spring to mind:

Assemble, Parlour, Forensic Architecture, ONOFF, Sibling, R&Sie and Group Toma.

These  examples suggest, a wider range of practice, as well as the different ways, that architects might now practice. I am sure there are also other examples and I will add to this list over time. Contact me if you know of anyone. But the final upshot is this: Architects really need to think about these new paths. Because, architects can’t be sure that the old ways are going to work for much longer.

Q: Why do Architects need to be better communicators? A: Because everyone is ripping us Architects off.

A few years back I got together with another architect who had also been to business school. We had the idea of looking at how we might develop a course about that would help corporate strategists and line managers understand the nuances, ambiguities and worth of design thinking, innovation ecosystems, prototyping, creative destruction, design methodologies, iterative generation, developing idea portfolios and managing creative teams. We had even gone some way to developing a syllabus.

We trucked it around to the architecture schools. No one really cared. The local business schools were more interested but wanted to see architecture schools buy-in. The architecture schools did not really get it. Oddly enough the only people who seemed half interested were the Edward De Bono types.

Of course, these sorts of courses have now sprung up in quite a few places. But certainly not in architecture schools. Nor, have they emanated from anywhere near the domain of architecture. There are now design thinking courses and more  courses, and consultancies all over. In fact everywhere. Except in architecture. Maybe because of these developments architects are slowly coming to the realisation that they have a unique way of viewing the world and this is valuable and can be of value to others. But coming to this realisation now could be too late.

Now all of this is not to say, or exalt our own egos, by saying that we were ahead of our time. But I did start to think about this failed project when I came across a recent article by Barbara Bryson at Design Intelligence entitled, the Future of Architects: Extinction or Irrelevance. This article appears to have gone viral across the usual social media platforms and it is worth quoting and analysis an excerpt:

Firstly, I strongly agree with her argument that:

Design thinking, the empathetic problem-solving methodology, grew, in part, out of our architectural problem-solving design methodologies. Education innovators are also taking lessons from architecture schools. Active learning, making spaces, and student engagement all have roots in the studio process.

But it’s probably not just in the education that our design expertise is being ripped off by others. Everyone is grabbing our best stuff. Maybe this is why, the next sentence struck a chord with me:

The rest of the world is learning from our processes, grabbing our best material, and moving on to success and relevance.

She then concludes that:

Architects, on the other hand, are impossibly stagnant in process and perspective, incredibly vulnerable to irrelevance and even extinction. I believe we have been on this road for decades, and we need to make some profound changes if we as architects are to have an impact on the built environment in the future and if we wish to be relevant.

Her argument is that architects have become too narrow in defending the territory of design. It’s still a hard task to convince architects that we need to expand our territory and domain of knowledge. Trying to convince other architects that a couple of architects with MBAs could teach the strategic line managers something was mostly greeted with blank looks and polite silence. Yet, Architects are better at design and know more about it than engineers, accountants, lawyers, and dare I say it, even software developers.

But, have architects really been that good at communicating why design thinking is important and how it may apply to other fields of knowledge? Have we really been able to develop our own research methodologies and methods in order to stake expanding territories of knowledge rather than shrinking ones? Are we really open to strategic collaboration and using our design intelligence to expand what we can do; and what we need to do in cities and urban settlements?

Unless architects move out of a defensive mode to a more generative and expansive domain in regards to our traditions of design thinking, it is possible that we will become irrelevant. Spitting the dummy, and having apoplexy every time: we perceive our design territories becoming somehow “impure”;  or when we argue that simply designing something  is somehow design research, without understanding what the contribution to architectural knowledge is; or we cling to an alpha-male and pedigreed star system, a star system that rewards the biggest egos; or worse still, the biggest spinmeisters; or we silently support a non-inclusive career path system; or an intern and work culture of chronic underpayment; or an industry association research infrastructure that is non-existent; or our unthinking love of new and emerging technologies. Any wonder we get cut out of so much stuff.

Don’t get me wrong I love architects and wouldn’t be in any other profession. But, we need to grow up as a profession and have a mature discourse. Otherwise, we are heading down the gurgler.

As one of my connections in my social media feed said: Barbara Bryson has “nailed it.” And you can read her full blog here.

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Architectural Practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem.

For some practicing architects, there is the prevalent fantasy that they are valued for their knowledge. In this utopian world architects, with their unique generalist knowledge alongside an ability to drill down and easily grasp disciplinary detail, are employed just like management consultants. In this scenario, all the practicing architect has to do, rather than slaving over CAD drawings, is to sit back and relax and dispense valuable knowledge to the clients. In fact, in this oh so wonderful scenario, architects get paid lots of money for it. But maybe this is dream, is the dream of a discipline slowly losing its currency, moribund by the fact that architects are hung up by the building delivery paradigm.

The best way to get anywhere near this dream is to operate an architectural practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem or DKE.

Ecosystems as a model, and a theoretical view, of practice are well known and prevalent in the world of big software development. For example, Google’s ecosystem has been described in the following diagram from HBRgoogle-designed-for-innovation-24-638

Some business commentators have even argued that Apple is no longer a hardware or a software company but an ecosystem. In construction management Chris Harty and Jennifer Whyte discuss what they call ecologies of practice. One of my favourite sociologists is the Bronfenbrenner who has developed Ecological Systems Theory. Bronfenbrenner’s theory contributes to our understanding of individuals in organisational contexts. Check it out if you are interested.

Thinking of the practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge is a much better way to conceive of and create new architectural theory, new modes of architectural education, and practice management. So what does the above mean for the practicing architect? For me organising a practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge implies the following:

It’s all about the idea and not the building

 A practice needs to be organised around the generation of knowledge. In other words ideas. The design of buildings are a by-product of these ideas. For a start this means that the practice must embrace research, research and development and even in some cases strive to produce innovative intellectual property. Dare I say it, Intellectual Property that might even be commercialised. This will mean that architects need to better understand and even be taught the dark arts of entrepreneurial pathways, innovation systems and associate policy contexts.

What is important for practices is not so much the creation or delivery of buildings, or representations of those buildings for that matter, but the creation of design knowledge. Managing the Design Knowledge Ecosystem is about constantly creating new ideas and managing a system that is in flux. Knowledge ecosystems can take on a life of their own and architects need to be comfortable with the ambiguity this can create.

Leadership 

Within practices new decision-making process and modes of leadership will be required. In the past, far too often knowledge was centred on a single designer or figure within the practice. Too often this knowledge was by its nature was tacit and for the most part hidden. Knowledge transparency is the key to creating better designs; designs that have been subject to rigorous process of design testing and re-testing. In the future leadership in the best practices will be those that are able to harness in an inclusive way all the members of a diverse team. The best leaders will be those with an intimate knowledge of design processes and different modes of designing. These leaders will understand that

Diversity

The purpose of having a diverse team within a practice is not simply about giving people opportunity. Although that is really important. Practices that recruit in their own image or through existing intern networks (really, how many interns from Columbia or the AA can you get?) may miss the opportunity to create teams that spit out a range of ideas and perspectives. The Management Consultants are the same and possibly worse. Worse because consulting is an industry that constantly espouses its creativity. But, whenever I get in a room for management consultants I usually shrivel up from the stench of conformist boredom (harsh I know). Diverse teams, is about having team members with contradictory and diverse perceptual, and conceptual thinking skills. It’s also about having diverse age groups and backgrounds. Tell that tot he management consultants.  To put it cruelly who needs a team entirely composed of “big Picture” people or only the under 30s.

Boundaries

Building a robust knowledge ecosystem, means not limiting information to the closed boundaries of the firm. In the design knowledge ecosystem, clients, consultants, product suppliers, sub-contractors, manufacturers and yes even academics may form a part of the way a firm gathers, produces and sifts through design knowledge. This is not dissimilar to what the software developers do.

Hybrid practices

One of the problems of the current system of architectural production is that the focus on the built object has been aligned with the digitisation of design processes and workflows. And whilst the delivered object is physical, hopes for its efficient realisation has increasingly led to the myth that this realisation is entirely reliant on the virtual processes. In the design knowledge ecosystem is an immanent system where both digital objects and practices are seen to be equal with the physical. As Harty and Whyte designate the real practices of the firm are hybrid practices.

The tyranny of the commission

I suspect that for some architects the idea of a Design Knowledge Ecosystem goes against everything they were taught at architecture school. At architecture school, many of us were inculcated with the idea that architecture was ONLY about designing buildings. I think a pedagogical approach focused on building design is far too narrow an objective. This unduly puts the focus onto gaining, and then delivering, an elusive built commission. This leads to the physical object, or building, rather than the knowledge or ideas embedded in that object, being debated. Don’t get me wrong as I am the first to argue that architecture’s presence, as well as architectural aesthetics, is an important component of architectural debate (As I say in the studio, “is if it looks good then it is good”). But what interest me more than anything else is the link between architectural aesthetics and ideas. It is the ideas that architects create through design knowledge ecosystems that gives rise to the ideas that are of most interest to me. Not necessarily the completed building itself.

However, the crude emphasis on the built and completed object has helped to create a global system of architecture that is overly bound to educational pedigrees, the clustering of architectural brands around star architects, a discriminatory intern system and worst of all a clustering of theory around crude ideologies focused on the latest delivery technology. I thought we had gotten rid of those, banal notions, of a historical zeitgeist driven by technology in our discipline and discourse.  Since when was architecture just, and only, about technology: in particular delivery technologies like CAD, BIM, the gymnastics of coding and CNC fabrication? Of course the contractors and the Project Managers will flip out when they hear it’s not about the building. But maybe that’s the point of the exercise.

So, next time someone tries to tell you it’s all about: getting actual stuff built, the big brand star architect or some new technology run for the exit. It’s time for architects to stop being content with both a local and global system of practice that is entirely inflexible and increasingly redundant.

Strategy and Design Thinking: Why architects need strategic thinking.

This blog explores the nexus between architectural design and strategy. I am thinking there will be more blogs on this subject to follow over the year. 

Most architectural practices seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. In Australia most architects are small practitioners, juggling family commitments, trying desperately to maintain work life balance and at the same time running a small business that produces bespoke projects that require innovation, high levels of risk management, advanced negotiation skills not to mention networking and marketing skills. Architects, in between juggling the school drop off or saving for their own mortgages, work hard to add value to their clients, the built environment and society at large. Of course, its much easier, as it is for some in the building industry, to take the low road of cheaper, better faster and easier when it comes to delivering projects. If its cheap and nasty it must be good, right?

Having a strategy, and embedding strategic thinking into practice, a good way to help guide and resolve the dilemmas of practice. A good way to combat the cheap and nasty faction. Recently it was suggested to me by an architect that architects need not learn the finer arts of strategy. It was put to me that some architects never learn it and that it doesn’t really matter. I was pretty surprised by this as we were taught at Business School, regardless of what you think of business schools or biz school education, that strategic management and thinking was the highest form of managerial action.

In classical management theory the classical definitions of strategy are intertwined with notions of competition, military thought and the notion of winning. Mintzberg argued that strategic thinking was a central component of creating innovation and was by its nature intuitive, creative and divergent.  Strategic thinking as defined by the managerial theorist Mintzberg argues that strategic thinking is:

“about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. The outcome…is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction”

Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:

“Competitive strategy involves positioning a business to maximize the value of the capabilities that distinguish it from its competitors.”

Of course strategy as a field of thought has moved on since the work of Mintzberg and Porter. This has happened because technology has morphed and remorphed and the interconnected complexities of the global system have seemingly increased. In recent times the discourse of strategic management has reflected this. In strategic management theory and research questions abound: Is strategy formulation something that emerges or is it something that can be designed top down? How can strategy help our institutions with concepts of turbulence and uncertainty? As noted in a recent editorial in the Strategic Management Journal strategy may cover: organisational capabilities, interfirm relationships, knowledge creation and diffusion, innovation, organisational learning, behavioural strategy, technology management, and of course corporate social responsibility.

For architects having an understanding of strategy and strategic thinking is vital. In fact I would argue that it is vital for future architects to study strategy at architecture school, perhaps in the design studio.  To suggest that strategic thinking is not a part of architectural education or architects expertise suggests that architecture is simply a bundle of technically orientated skills and processes. A bundle of repetitive actions that require little thought. Actions that can be transferable and imparted to others. This suggests a craft based notion of architecture where skills and knowledge are passed down from so-called master to apprentice. I am not so sure about the craft myths that seem to permeate architecture. The craft myth is hard to shake even when highly advanced design and construction methods are used. The craft metaphor is probably a little bit too formulaic as a concept of architectural knowledge for my liking.

In Australia the competency standards describe the competencies and skills that architects are expected to know. These standards are used in accreditation processes to determine if a particular person is capable of being an architect; or an architecture school is teaching the correct skills or competencies. Interestingly, the standards say little about the need for strategic thinking.  They mostly describe what architects do rather than the thinking or conceptual skills they require. They are activity and process based. The standards are really lacking when it comes to issues around concepts of strategy, foresight, risk, project management and financial skills. The weight of the standards are focused on design and documentation. Viewed in detail much less emphasis is given to practice management and project delivery. I mean who needs that stuff? All we need as architects are the skills inherent to the traditional practice life cycle: Sketch design, design development, contract documentation, contract administration ect etc. In fact all we need to know about is Sketch Design. No matter that this lifecycle is increasingly under pressure and fragmented and as result a result of the industries lack of diversity, fee competition, and dis-intermediation.

Strategic thinking and planning has a number of advantages even for those architects lurching from the client to the consultants between picking up the kids from school. Strategic thinking sets a direction, even for the small firm beyond the day to day. A kind of thinking that helps to guide resource allocation when difficult decisions or trade-offs need to be made. It determines how your firm might be different, and I mean really different, to all of the other firms out there. Understanding strategic discourse can help the architect understand clients as they make strategic decisions regarding the future. If the management consultants and gurus can do it, why not architects? We are a lot smarter and more diverse than those guys.

An appreciation of strategic thinking helps to get architects out of the cycle of reacting from practice crisis to practice crisis or seeing architectural design as simplistic, step by step, and linear process of sequential tasks. Seeing design as a narrow technical specialisation is a huge mistake. Strategic thinking is inextricably and broadly linked to design and should be regarded as the highest form of design thinking.

It’s all quiet on the front at my grad school of architecture. A few summer studios are running and there is till 5 weeks to go before classes start. Nonetheless, next week, in the lull I am pre-recording a whole lot of online lectures! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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