Howard Roarkness: Identifying the 6 stages of the alpha male egocentric architect.

In architectural practice one of the variants of the alpha male egocentric architect is the holy monster. Howard Roark in Ayn/Anne Rand’s novel Fountainhead seems to epitomise many of the characteristics of this type. Some of these figures exist in both smaller and larger organisational and practice contexts. The antics of a few of these alpha male variants have been on my radar of late. Within the practices and organisations that serve architecture these “types” sometimes serve useful functions, and while not all of them are complete narcissists, they mostly cause more trouble than they are worth.

My point here is not to single out particular identities, known to us all, but to point to the fact that architects need to be better at leadership. We need better leaders, we need better systems for learning about strategic and organisational leadership—it is indeed not one of the AACA competencies. We need different leadership, and that’s not the same as a guise of diversity with the same old leadership model’s underneath. We also need better systems, within both our schools of architecture and practices, of mentoring and encouraging authentic leadership. Diversity and intersectionality must be a part of the mix especially if we are only recruiting in our image or only listen to the voices of sameness. Architecture needs more leaders like Leigh Bowery.

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Last week I actually saw a leader own up to and take responsibility for a mistake. It was great to see some plain speaking. I wonder as a professional collective if architects are too used to dissembling and explaining things away for the clients.

Again, there is a kind of semblance of a lifecycle for these types. To some people, usually, those who give them credence and authority, the types look like, act and are accepted, as leaders. Often without question. I have mapped the stages of evolution for these holy monsters, and many readers will appreciate that these figures inhabit the different ecosystems and tribes discussed in last weeks blog. I am sure you will all recognise someone you know.

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The 6 Leadership Stages of the Howard Roark.

Stage 1: The Golden Boy.

Relaxed and lazy, went to the right design studio (and or school), boyishly charming, well-bred and slightly precocious. Doesn’t seem to do a lot of work but seems to get the breaks. Never really has any of their own ideas but always seems to be onto the “latest” thing. In some variants, the boyish charms sets in and solidifies for life.

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Stage 2: The Up and Coming

They have usually had a promotion of some kind to project architect, associate, associate director. Catapulted from, they are dashing and fashionable and opinionated. They are good at managing upwards and ticking the boxes for the promotion criteria. Sometimes they never stay in the same place to be really tested as they are always moving onto the next gig before the mess of their own making hits the fan ( I have been stuck in this one for about ten millenia).

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Stage 3: The Charming and Cunning Crook

These are the figures that have usually got somewhere, with some kind of title or advanced position, they have succeeded through the previous two stages. Secretly, they worry about their own worth and contribution to the discourse. But, basically, they employ their charm to do as little work as possible and to advance their own career. They are crooked in the sense if you are not careful you will do the work they were meant to do.

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Stage 4: The Affable Bully

As the Howard Roarkian figure moves up the food chain, they need to get things done. If they are not trying to trick people they usually just bully people. This usually exhibits itself as passive aggressiveness. Charming, on the one hand, regarded as a “a good bloke” but as soon as they need something done, they will bully you. Rarely do they give you compliments which is the first sign you should be aware of.

In stage 5 there are two variants:

Stage 5A: The Pompous Sage

These are the people who have gone through all the stages made some achievements and then pontificate. They might be directors or business owners who are good at getting jobs. Their wisdom is rarely real insight about architecture but usually insights that are fundamentally about themselves. Don’t get caught in a corner with these ones at the practice Christmas party. They will bore you senseless.

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Stage 5B: Holy Monster

This one is the most dangerous, full of self-regard, fickle, narcissistic. Trump-like in many ways. Sometimes they get things done because everyone is scared of them. But getting things done is extremely rare. But I have seen this type all too often once or maybe twice or actually maybe a lot in my 40-year ethnography of the local profession. They usually have the most amazing fights with builders. Sometimes they will use their holy monster status to sleep with whoever they like. Once they are spent, or age catches up with them they revert to Type 5B.

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I find this kind of thing fascinating because I am sure we have all worked with these types and we all recognise some of these traits.

More importantly, I think architects really need to reflect on leadership theory and practice and be more critical of the monoculture that spawns, encourages and tolerates these types. We need better mentoring programs, we need to teach leadership in architecture schools, we need professional development around these issues, and for the sake of our profession, we need to put a higher value on authentic and diverse leadership.

#Freespace: The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale

For regular readers of this blog, I am sorry for going AWOL for a few weeks. This is the biggest break from my weekly blogging that I have had since I started this endeavour. Of course, I feel a little guilty. But hey, this blog is not always about the Google stats, if it ever was. For the past few weeks, I have been in Italy and managed to visit the Architecture Biennale. So, dear blog reader the next few blogs will focus on the 2018 Biennale. So dear readers, you can now say, as they say in the Chucky Movie he’s back. Typos and all.

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Freespace

Freespace is the theme for the 2018 Architecture Biennale, and it has been curated by two Irish architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. It is thought-provoking and well curated, and this is the best Biennale I have seen. They have done a great job. And for the most jaded of architectural hacks such as myself, looking at it through a haze of Cocchi Americano spritz, the curators have presented their theme as a comprehensive vision (Aperol is no longer my drink of choice on the lagoon). Its a vision of what architecture can aspire to be. Compared to past Biennale’s, it is not as muddled as Chipperfield’s theme of “Common Ground” or as ambiguous as Sejima’s “People Meet in Architecture” of 2010. This Biennale, unlike previous versions, has its very own manifesto written around the notion of Freespace.

The Manifesto

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are graduates of University College Dublin and their practice is called Grafton architects .  The Freespace manifesto has six points. You can read the entire manifesto here. Here are a two manifesto points for your edification.

FREESPACE can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene. Architecture has an active as well as a passive life.

FREESPACE encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.

You can see all the selected architects here

These are noble aspirations, and the manifesto helps to keep everything together. I think that Farrell and McNamara have curated a Biennale that is in keeping with their manifesto. Of course, the theme must allow enough room for broad interpretation and yet lend itself to specificity. Farrell and McNamara, and the architects, have done this admirably, and one of the great joys of this Biennale is the effort that has gone into the interpretive signage of each of the 71 or exhibitors in the Venice Giardini and the Corderie within the Venetian Arsenale; the impregnable complex of shipyards that was the epicentre of the Venetian Republic’s power. For each exhibitor, Farrell and McNamara provide for the visitor a piece as to why each was chosen and how their work relates to the overall theme. These little blurbs are concise, well written, refer back to the Freespace manifesto and are a pleasure to read.

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Frampton

And it might seem foolhardy to find a stable point in the plethora of approaches selected and presented at this Biennale. Nevertheless, this Biennale evokes Frampton’s 1983 essay, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance. In it Frampton argued that optimising technologies had delimited the ability of architects to produce significant urban form.⁠ The curators, like Frampton, strenuously advocate for the legitimacy of localised architectural cultures and a discourse resistant to processes of universalisation. The work of Critical Regionalism itself was to, “mediate the impact of universal civilisation with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place.⁠” Much of what the curators have selected in this Biennale accord with this sentiment. So much so they awarded Frampton a Golden Lion.

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A Computer #FreeSpace Zone

Best of all this is a Biennale that is very much a computer free zone. Yep. Let me just say that again. This is a biennale that is very much a computer free zone. Yes, there are lots of exquisite laser-cut models, there are obviously computer-generated drawings and diagrams. But for many of these architects, their patrons, and ordinary punters this is an exhibition that is about a kind of bottom up-architecture. There is no bombast or hyperbole related to the latest computer technologies to solve all of our problems. By and large, most exhibitors have provided representations of their own work, rather than pursuing dreary conceptual pieces based on abstract ideas. One might ask Farrell and McNamara, if they think computer hyperbole is diametrically opposed to the aspirations of Freespace?

Of course, between these two polarities–the curator’s against a universal society and the absence of in your face computing–there are other pathologies at play that probably cannot be covered in a blog like this.

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A schlock free zone

This is a Biennale refreshingly free of abstract schlocky volumes, cheap Eisenman-like syntactics and thankfully para-mucking-metrics. A few installations are overly conceptual, and they fall pretty flat. There is only so much you can do with gauze curtains and multi-media. This is a biennale depicting an architecture still based in the techniques of drawing, model making, section (remember those) and the plan. Yes, the plan, the plan as a working method, before it became an overly coagulated El Lissizky composition; drawn over and over and over again with line sequences adjusted a little bit here and there; lines never expressive enough to break out of the constraints of fluid capital.

This is a Biennale exhibition of models, materiality, construction and spatial context. An architecture cognisant of regional differences, cultural layers and as the curators say in their manifesto.

FREESPACE encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.

Highlights

This is very much a Biennale that exhibit’s work that is shaped by propositions and experiments of the European city. The stats tend to suggest this: 46 of the firms represented are from Europe, 11 from across Asia, 5 from South America. Peter Rich from South Africa. Notably, the Trumpian republic only has 5. In theory, this Eurocentric focus and pursuit of Frampton’s credo is paradoxically the limitation of this Biennale. In accord with the Freespace manifesto, much of the work of the firms in the Arsenale is focused on exploring layers, community, culture, memory and the morphologies of the European city. Yes, the curators have selected some non-European entries from India, China and South Americas. But overall, the wan light of the iniquitous slum-cities now sprawling across the globe are missing at this Biennale. This is arguably an architecture formed in a Eurocentric bubble, and one wonders if Freespace is radical or confrontational enough to fill the gap. Perhaps in the future, some historians will decide that Betsky’s 2008 Biennale was the last gasp of American architecture.

Nonetheless, the result is refreshing as this is by and large it’s a star architect, and parametric free zone, although beautiful, charming and talkative Bjarke is there with a dreary flooded scheme of New York replete, in a room with plasma screens which have a cheesy blue bubble water that rising up on each screen. It reminded me of the Bubblecup franchise (I guess that’s what happens when you leave Europe and go to New York). Nothing like converting global warming and rising sea levels, to a graphics device on a plasma screen to help avert the actual horrors of climate justice.

Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie

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And of course what about the Ozzie’s? What about the Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi architects. Well, there are two plucky little Australian firms selected by the curators in the Asrsenale. John Wardle and Room 11. Wardle makes it into the Arsenale with a giant kind of conceptual spotted gum (if that was the species) piece, sadly let down by an overwrought plastic red thing with a mirror at the end. I can’t even begin to tell you what it reminds me of. It would have been better to see some of the practice’s work. As for Room 11, from Tasmania, I think I have written about them elsewhere.

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Caccia Dominioni

One of the revelations for me was the presentation of the work of the late Milanese architect Caccia Dominioni curated by Cino Zucchi. Dominioni worked to create magnificent apartments for the Milanese bourgeois.

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When I see this work I think it indicates a rigorous working method committed to a project that inscribes the lives and habits of a people into the plan. His work is a far cry from the Jim Jims and melamine soaked interiors, featurist luxuries, and cheap scrims in the apartment plans of Australian cities.

In coming weeks I will discuss the Sean Godsell’s contribution at the Holy See, Repair the Australian Pavilion and maybe even the MADA wall. In the meantime don’t forget to help Architeam fund the RASP project. 

Project Kulcha vs. Design Knowledge Kulcha: What type of Practice are you in ?

I hate the word HR, especially the HR people who give the impression of impartially managing the protocols but are really just doing what they are being told by the organisational power brokers. Yes, I am bitter and twisted but architects deserve better. Favouritism, recruiting-in-your-own-image, gender discrimination and of course age discrimination (try and get a job in architecture when you are over 50) does not make for an innovative meritocracy. Throw in a bit of class based stereotyping and profiling. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fostering of acolyte cults and the sleazy disease of managing up; which all too often seems to work for some; eventually these people are caught out; usually not before the practice or organisation has been irretrievable damaged.

Open systems of governance and inclusive collaboration in design studios and architectural firms is where architects should be at. It is not rocket science but why is it so hard to examples of.

As someone said to me recently:

“Design leadership is not simply about putting the smartest people into the design studio and then telling them everything they do is “not quite right”, a “little bit wrong”, or their work has “no credibility” or doesn’t actually “count” or “amount” too much. All of which is a recipe for resentment and low organisational morale.

All these practices are too often rife in architecture and eventually they all impact on a firm’s ability, and the capabilities of the profession at large, to retain a competitive advantage or do great architecture.  There is some hope as in Australia, The Association of Consulting Architects Australia (why didn’t the AIA do this sooner I hear you ask?) has a lot of material here for those of you interested in developing a productive workplace.

And of course there is the elephant in the room. The bullying and sexual harassment that goes with poor workplace cultures. Australian Architecture has yet to have its big Weinstein #MeToo moment. But this is certainly an issue bubbling away in the pressure cooker of architectural firms in Australia as margins remain under pressure and the sector is forecast to not grow in the next year or so.

One theory that seems to accelerate this bundle of syndromes and horrific work practices in architectural firms is what I call the Project Culture mindset.

In the schizo, Project Culture mode, many architectural practices swing between, a project culture that is about processes of delivery, as well as time and cost outcomes and a project culture that is excessively focused on the “design”. Over determined reporting, pedantic detailing in documentation (as if that’s the only thing that counts), IT and quality systems that slow rather than speed, are all aspects of this type of culture. Combined with rigid organisational hierarchies and they are also an aspect of this type of culture. Feeding into the firm’s hierarchy is often the ill-informed practices mentioned above.

Project Culture. Managing projects to ensure: Design Knowledge Culture. Designing in order to:
Compliance Create new norms of compliance
Avoidance negligence Have foresight in relation to negligence.
Avoidance risk Testing the boundary conditions of risk.
Efficient time and cost outcomes Have time and cost outcomes that maximise Design Knowledge.
Managing relationships Managing relationships in way that creates Design Knowledge.
Operations Maximise the operational creation and delivery of Design Knowledge.
Qualitative Value Management Link Design Knowledge to Value.
Quantitative Cost Management Develop pockets of Design Knowledge within Value Management Agendas.
Managing staff through rule based incentives and metrics. Managing staff so they create Design Knowledge.

The Project Culture Firm

A firm with a project culture orientation will concentrate on the following types of knowledge:

Yes, this is the stuff the design architects are always pushing against. Within the project culture firm conflict between the design architects and the project architects, and so-called business architects is incessant and cyclical and often counterproductive. It’s a cycle that is really very boring. But it is also a cycle that is unnecessary and it is best typified by the large, and conservative, practice that wants to “beef” up its design credentials: Enter the new design director ( or recent grads), on the promise of being able to have design agency, who end up doing little and being frustrated by resistance from an entrenched project culture. This happens all too often. I guess its one way to exploit the design talent.

But what is also scary is that this list, as well as sounding all too familiar, looks so much like the competencies that architects learn or an Architectural Practice subject syllabus. But there is not a lot in there about, what I call, the real and authentic issues, of leadership and culture. Being a good project architect, or administrator, or a great managing upper, does not necessarily mean you are a good leader. We also need to decouple the design genius types out of our ideas of leadership as well: Being a good designer does not mean you are a good leader. It might just mean in all these cases you are a common garden variety arsehole (apologies for using the A word, at least I used lower case) who is incapable of building through leadership an inclusive Design Knowledge culture in a firm.

The Design Knowledge Culture Firm

A firm with an orientation towards a Design Knowledge culture is more interested in generating Design Knowledge or even other forms of construction orientated knowledge. This is a similar argument to that proposed by Flora Samuel, a recent visitor to MSD, argues this—although a little naively– as well in her latest book Why Architects Matter. Samuel argues that knowledge architects are concerned with “developing systems and processes the profession needs to subsist, not buildings.” Great, but I think there may be more to it than just getting out the Post Occupancy Evaluation and Quality Systems checklists. Nonetheless, the book is certainly worth a look even if it is still stuck in a project culture.

Within a Design Knowledge culture there is no conflict between the design architects and the project architects and so-called business architects. There is no territoriality or regimes of pettiness and power. All staff, with different roles, are incentivized and working towards creating knowledge; Design Knowledge speaks for itself.

Design Leadership 

In this ideal knowledge orientated practice Design Leadership is used to set the culture of the firm. This is the first role of leaders. But sadly, project orientated culture has a real grip on the profession and it is currently the predominant mode of developing leadership and culture. But architects now need to shift to the new models of leadership, unfettered by project pedantry, if they are to avoid the sludge of mediocrity and irrelevance.

Design Genius is not Design Leadership: Avoiding the cult of architectural design secrecy

Design Leadership requires the ability to be open and transparent about the way ideas and design knowledge is conceived, transmitted and fostered in the organisation. One thing that seems to hamper research across the field of architecture is a culture of secrecy. There are patches of this culture all across the topography of architecture. It manifests itself in a number of ways and at a number of levels. It might be the directors in a larger firm afraid of sharing information that is seen to have some competitive advantage. After all, if the cabal shares the premises of a firm’s competitive advantage that might mean exposing that knowledge as inconsequential. It could be the project architect who hangs on to project information and does not share it with others in the team. Better to keep them guessing or in the dark. It is easier not to explain anything. Or it could be the so-called design architect who refuses to reveal the sources or the inspiration of his conceptual ideas. After all, someone might steal those ideas and claim them as their own.

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All of these shenanigans of secret knowledge, tacit and unspoken communication and preciousness are corrosive to developing an architectural culture that maximises design knowledge. The covens of design managerialism and secrecy, the power tripping of withheld project information, and the egotistical horrors of pathetic design ideas made more important by being locked in the head of the design architect. All of these attitudes make it very difficult to conduct research within the profession.

I am not really sure where this culture begins. Of course, the curricula and studio systems of the architecture schools as usual, can be blamed. Few subjects are devoted to leadership and organisational governance in architecture school curricula. No wonder the profession is struggling to maintain itself.

In these systems, without the right studio leadership, individual competition can be vain, petty and subject to the vagaries and whims of favouritism. We have all been in studios where we will never make the favoured circle. Design Leadership is not about simply reinforcing and replicating your own theoretical position or the way you were taught architecture. Nor is Design Leadership is not about positioning a design within systems of parochial politics in order to gain influence. It is not about designing in a way that positions you for a commission or a peer award.

To reiterate, Design Leadership is about maximising design knowledge in the most efficient, effective and brutal way possible. After all when the rubber hits the road and the project is besieged by clients, value managers, and contractors the design ideas need to survive the journey.

The continued glorification of the design genius, which I have written about elsewhere, only leads to a situation where the profession is riven by localised mystery cults. Each genius, whatever their stature, surrounded by acolytes along with initiation ceremonies, encouraged rivalries, different circles of access and knowledge. It all starts to sound like Trump’s White House. Better to be an outsider than in the cult. So here a four principles to creating a culture of Design Leadership in your practice.

  1. Make design processes visible

Design leaders have clear processes in place. These processes are visible, transparent and communicable. Design leaders understand design processes and how these processes work through team environments. Design Leadership requires generating design knowledge and ideas through clearly communicated actions and gestures. By doing this everyone in the team can pursue, develop and contribute to the design.

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  1. Don’t hide design knowledge.

Hiding design information only creates islands of territorial power. The role of Design Leadership is to constantly posit design knowledge into the public sphere. Of course this sphere may the realm of the project team or it may be the consultant team. from different groups or individuals within the organisation It is not about hiding things away. If design are ideas are hidden they are not fully tested and may then crumble at the first sign of value management.

  1. Make designing inclusive.

Design Leadership does not require the trappings of a cult. It does not exclude or set boundaries around who can be in and out of the team. A collaborative team open to a range of design views is better than a team subservient to a single design view. Effective design leaders mentor and foster their team members. They do this is in order to make individual team members better designers.

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  1. Create space for design.

Good design leaders are bale to create safe havens for the most extreme and seemingly kookiest of design ideas. This is because, Design Leadership requires teams that ask questions rather than teams that simply reiterate like-minded principles. Excellence in Design Leadership nurtures and fosters this questioning. Everyone should feel safe to ask the dumb questions in the design team.

  1. Creates more ideas than can be used.

This is the measure of great Design Leadership. Having a cauldron of ideas constantly generated and replenished as the project proceeds. Design Leadership means both generating and then managing design ideas as they proceed. Design Leadership means having the luxury to pick, choose and give life to the best of architectural design knowledge.

Architects need to change the way they approach Design Leadership and their own organisational structures. Architects need to more effectively manage their own pool of talent. What architect wants to sit in front of a computer second guessing what needs to be done? Worse still, is sitting in front of a computer knowing whatever you do is never going to be quite right, because you weren’t initiated into the favoured circle.

Now back after a brief Easter Break !