Some naughty things you just won’t see at any Architecture School

I got a few responses to the blog last week about architecture schools so I thought I would write a bit more about it. After last week’s blog it made me think about the kind’s of subjects I would like to see in architecture schools.

The broken compact 

When we start to think about what should be taught in Archi-Schools is it still worth thinking about or muttering that age-old question that still seems to get exclaimed by a particular class of architects: “Why don’t they teach them anything useful in Architecture School?” As some of you may know, from reading last week’s in the gutter blog—and a few people did pull me up for using the word twerking– my view about the demise of architecture schools is related to a particular managerialism that has broken the compact between the architecture school’s as communities of practice and architectural practitioners. It’s all about the KPIs these days student income, research funding and research metrics.

Someone said to me that in their architecture school, the managers—who used to be architectural academics until their souls were sucked out—send out emails to everyone saying here are your KPIs; and they just the same KPIs that have been thrown down to them from on high.

The Architecture School as a Community of Practice 

When I was at architectural school, 5,000 million years ago, there were no KPIs, and we were told it didn’t matter how long we took to be at architecture school as long as we left the school having learnt something. I took the ten-year option (the original course was 3 years plus 3 years part-time) someone else I know took the 12-year option. Most took the 8-year option. Nowadays it’s just a quick 5 years.

It was all about developing a unique culture of practice unique to the social milieu and place that the school was situated in. It was about creating and developing a school of architecture; a culture with its own norms, rituals, debates, conversations and narratives of practice. Admittedly the culture that was developed around the school I went to (no prizes for guessing which one) had its own petty rivalries, brutalities, misogynies and power asymmetries. But the outcome was a local architectural culture, centred on a school, that made a contribution to Australian architecture. And yes please: it would be great to critique the darker histories associated with that culture, beyond the hero worship or the slavishness to the “concept,” and examine its various histories in terms of the winners and losers (all the winners seem to have done is plaster the city in green chewing gum, weird hexagons and secret masculinist symbols). But at least it was a culture that could, and can be, be critiqued and was not some banal machine for producing mediocre ideas about our cities for the consumption of architects and clients who don’t want to feel guilty~guilt that will only increase as things keep going as they are (hey, hit me up with another ‘urban futures’ exciting smart city conference).

One arena of thought about architectural education is to think about it in terms of higher level policy issues around the regulation and compliance of the profession. That is a question that always leads to a narrative around the role of the ACCA and the competency standards. Fair enough and perhaps we do need different measures and perhaps we should ask how do we police the providers? Another discussion is emerging around what architects can learn in the pathway years between graduation and architectural registration. Perhaps the pathway should be more structured? Then you can also end up thinking about the scarcity of in-house graduate programmes in practices across the profession (more on that next week maybe).

Syllabus Innovation

But the other area is curriculum and syllabus innovation. Academics, as well as sessional practitioners, are really good at this kind of stuff. Now for some schools developing new subjects just burns up resources and the standard line from many university managers is “why would you do that?” I remember once when a university manager said: “why would you do that” when we suggested maybe we could have a bit of cheese and dips at student function to explain a course. Why change or reform anything? Ok, so I thought rather than getting all bitter and twisted about the dips, I thought I would have a bit of fun and think about the sorts of subjects I would like to see at an architecture school.

A few studio ideas you won’t see in your architecture school:

Intersectional Spaces and Urbanism

It’s incredible to me that no one has actually bothered to look at queer spaces and histories in relation to Urban Space in our cities. A city where queer voices are heard and have power through urbanism. That’s an entirely different and inclusive power dynamic.

Abject Algorithms

I know this sounds contrary. All those parametric facades tricked up by architects working with so-called specialist engineers and facadey experts look, how shall we say it,  oh so sanitised. Algorithmic wet wipes on the modular facades to assuage our carbon emissions guilt. I am pretty interested in how we can deconstruct all of that and look at facades and parametric patterns as conduits of waste matter and the execrable. How did the algorithm become he captive of the shiny luxury good designers? Is it possible to fashion a new politics of form out of the arrogance of star-architect facade algorithms?

Studio Extinction.

I am quite fond of the Extinction Rebellion group. Need I say more, and so I guess I am wondering how architecture is going to respond to the degradation of the earth.

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Outsider Housing

Slums, informal settlements, homeless, squatters, temporary structures, migrant housing, nomad housing meets Ferdinand Cheval and Nek Chand. First nations and frontier housing. The new frontiers being where the trees are being slashed. Of course, I have to get a little dig in and say: When I hear the words affordable housing I usually want to vomit. (maybe someone can do a graph charting “affordable” housing research vs. generational mortgage capabilities).

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Some Subjects you won’t see at your nearby Architecture School:

Design Leadership

Negotiations, theories of leadership, teams and teamwork. How gendered stereotypes of leadership operate. There is a humungous amount of research around leadership, teams and organisations in the social sciences. Architects should maybe try: just a little bit, and engage with this.

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Construction Detailing

This could be such a fun subject. I am thinking water, I am thinking flashings, I am thinking gutters, automotive gaskets, fixings and joints of all kinds. a kind of erotica and poetics of co at ruction details. Who actually knows what Construction Detailing is any more? A subject dealing with the dark and almost lost art of construction details would be great. Imagine having a BIM apparatchik in your office who ACTUALLY knew how to detail.

Consulting for architects

I am kind of thinking something like talking strategic design, and design thinking meets Mckinsey, Bain, BCG and the what was DEGW. The subject would introduce students to the smoke and mirrors hype, knowledge instruments and templates of the management consultants. We architects should be able to develop our own regimes; why should all the consultants get all of the fun. And the money.

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Strategic IT and Architecture

Yep, and I am not talking about just learning those dull software programs. Strategic IT management, Innovation theory, Data Analytics. I mean how do you manage software and think critically about it when you are making software decisions. How do you handle data, how do you collect data, how will architects do data analytics (could be a separate subject) in the future. What are the cycles and loops of innovation in the techno-sphere that architects should learn about? Oh fuck, it would be a subject where architects think about technology, you know like strategically, rather than just lapping it up like it’s some kind of addictive drug.

Of course, I am also thinking of a few seemingly kooky history and theory subjects. But I will keep those ideas up my sleeve as I don’t want to give too much away at the moment. Syllabus Innovation isn’t a bad way to think about our Archi-schools schools: from the bottom up rather than from the KPI top down. The problem with the latter approach is that subject delivery always becomes more important than subject content. I can’t wait to be told my online lectures have low production values.

Surviving the Design Studio: When you choose the wrong design studio and you realise you are just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you.

The title of this blog was my life in every design studio. Anyway, I thought it was time to write something a little more positive and less cynical than in recent weeks. It’s been Design Week in Melbourne this week, and there have been lots of great events, and I would encourage all of you to go along to some of these before it finishes. I will be at this one on Sunday, and it should be an excellent opportunity to have a collaborative discussion about how architects can improve their working conditions and begin to think about labour practices in the profession.

But hey, let’s take it easy this week and talk a bit about design studios and design studio  teaching. Specifically, what should you do if you get that sinking feeling you are in the wrong design studio.

The Wrong Archi-School?

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Image: Simona Castricum 

So, you think you are in the wrong studio. And firstly, and you need to check this, you may actually be at the wrong graduate school of architecture, and if that is the case, it could be worth looking at the latest QS ranking list and seeing where your school falls. Some schools are better than others, and yes arguably the rating methodology is flawed. To say the least.

The ethos and the culture of your current school may not suit you. Especially, if you are different in some way and this clashes with the two extremes of Archi-school’s. These extremes are those with a prevailing cult mentality or those with a lacklustre culture of design mediocrity. I know of one new school of architecture where everyone has been narrowly recruited in the image of the head of school (cult). I think it is relatively predictable that without diversity in the academic cohort the school is doomed from the start (IMHO).

Another friend of mine is teaching at another Archi-school where the students seem to be so lacking in motivation; they are always late for class, and they never turn up on time for studio (lacklustre). Something is seriously wrong with that.

Ok, so let’s assume you are in the right architecture school for you but for whatever reason a few weeks into the semester you realise you are in the WRONG studio.

The Wrong Studio?

This may sound strange, but the best thing you can do when you are in this situation is to stay in the studio. I will try and explain why I think this is the case in more detail below. Firstly, there may be different reasons for thinking that you are in the wrong studio, and some of these reasons require more substantive actions than others.

Dud studio project

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Firstly, despite the lustre and appearance of the studio at the beginning or at the studio presentation, you might realise that it’s a not very interesting project. The site is banal, the brief is simplistic or the tutors love to dampen everything down with prosaic pragmatism.

If the project seems more comfortable than what you have done before, then that is obviously an excellent opportunity to think of ways to make it more complicated and to engage with your tutors at a deeper level. Try and understand the project and understand where your tutor wants to take it. Most tutors will have expectations about what they want from the studio. They don’t expect every student project to be super great, in the sense of looking fabulous at the end of the studio. Most tutors know that there will be people with a range of skills in their studios. But if you can understand what your tutors are passionate about and what ideas they might particularly want to develop in the studio then you can certainly use these to develop your project further. In tandem with your tutors you can help your them explore, to the max, the best ideas for the project even if the studio project seems dull.

Studio project beyond your skill set

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Of course, if you think the project is too hard for you and that’s the reason why you are in the wrong studio. A legitimate reason for this will be if your skills are not up to scratch or they are undeveloped (The bad reason is that you are just lazy). An excellent way to deal with this is to be very analytical about what skills you have and what skills you need going forward (some ideas on how to do this here).

A good design tutor will help you develop your skills and confidence. They will give you the space to do this. Having done your own skills analysis you will then need to figure out which skills you want to work on. Don’t be a dumbass and say: I just want to learn Revit or Rhino. You need to think about the range of skills you need. A good idea is to let your tutor know what it is you think you want to learn. Don’t make your tutors second guess what that is. Too often tutors don’t ask or just try and figure it as the studio proceeds. It’s not until the end of the semester that they actually work out what it is you needed to learn. Another related issue to this is your learning style, and it’s always good to figure this out and let your tutor know how you like to learn.

You realise that your tutor or tutors are a little bit crazy

Yep, this can happen, and it’s more likely to occur in schools where there is a cult mentality or a lack of oversight when tutors are chosen. Ok, don’t panic. Try and look on the humorous side of the situation. Take it easy, as the bad thing about this is that you probably are going to get contradictory messages from the tutors. And they will probably be inconsistent in either the value they put on your work, the advice they give you and even worse the respect they have for you. If you get caught up in the craziness you will end up being on an emotional roller coaster.

I think the best you can do in this situation is to gather around you a group of support critics and friends who can provide you with consistent design advice as you negotiate your way through this. If you can do that and you can gather enough support around yourself, then you should be all right. But it’s a bit like doing two studios at once, as you will need to meet with your friends each week and tell them what your crazy tutors have told you and try and work out your own design priorities. Two studios are better than one and if you survive you will be better off. Best not to worry too much about your marks in that situation.

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No studio friends?

You might find your friends aren’t in the studio. Really? My advice is to find some new friends and quick. Having no friends in the studio is an opportunity to make new friends and especially if the studio involves group work. Too often architecture students are crap at group work, and too often design tutors, even those tutors who insist on group work don’t give students any hints or ideas about how to do the group work.

There are a few fundamental rules of group work that everyone should know. Like assigning roles at the start and understanding everyone’s different working styles and maybe even working out common methods of contact. I guess I worry that architects and Archi students are hopeless at organising teams and teamwork.

The research syndrome.

Most studio participants don’t mind this. Hey, procrastination can’t be all bad. You can put off the hard stuff (actually designing) and talk and drink filtered coffee almost all semester. But it is essential not to go down this path at Archi-School. This used to drive me crazy, and it has a couple of different variants. Basically, it’s when the studio spends like 80% of the time talking and researching and talking and researching and talking and researching and never any ACTUAL designing. If you get stuck in this kind of studio vortex, don’t be sucked in. The sooner you start developing and generating your own design propositions the better. The idea that you have to wait for all available information and ruminate over it before you design the best way to never learn anything about design.

You realise you just not that into your design tutors, and they aren’t into you

Look you don’t have to be. And sometimes it’s hard when your tutors are vainglorious, discriminatory or they excessively foster others through obvious and not so obvious favouritism. But hey that’s architecture, and it’s something we all need to negotiate. But these things are also what we all really need to call out: the self-serving ambition, petty rivalries, profiling, bias and cronyism that is endemic in architecture schools and studios. If you feel bullied or discriminated against get help to call it out.

But again, getting yourself through this morass means you need lots of support, especially if you’re the only intersectional person in the studio and you feel like you have to hide in a corner when everyone else in there seems like they are in some kind of club or a clique. But shit who wants to be in that club anyway.

Make your own club as this is always better.

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In the global architectural system, architecture as a domain of knowledge practice is continuously being eroded, and so many architects have blindly accepted the celebritization (is that a word?) of our discourse. The elite clubs, the secret meetings, and unspoken smarmy clubby masculinities and handshakes. The few stars and the many. Why do we swallow it so readily? Why do our architecture schools mirror that stuff?

For me, celebratory and absurdist vitriol is one way to dismantle all of that. Someone asked me after I told them I was in the process of writing a book if it would be as vitriolic as the blog? I thought that was hilarious (I am just waiting for someone in my small village to say I am flaming down in a bitter and twisted way). However, for regular readers I am sure you will appreciate that the vitriolic tone has been pretty consistent over time. I like to describe this tone and voice as one of celebratory vitriol. After all what else can you do?

Finding your place 

If you get really desperate, you can find your voice in the studio via design tactics of irony, collage, mimicry and absurdity. Take a look at PJ’s work. Is it critique or homage to corporate capitalism. As soon you stop thinking that your mediocre tutors, in their many little mini-celebrity club guises, no longer have power over your design you will actually begin to design. For some of us we are never going to be in the club, we are never going to win the awards or the Archi-School prizes, or hang out with the celebrity architects. We will never have that Archi-pedigree. The architectural celebrities aren’t as fun as the real celebrities and they will only wipe their feet on you anyway, and the pedigreed types will never change the profession. After all, why would they?

Don’t Panic

Above all, and firstly, when you don’t like the design studio, you are in don’t panic. In architecture we don’t always like our clients or the projects we get dealt with and learning how to deal with these things as result of these factors is something we can learn when we hate our design studio.

But more importantly, the best tutors are the ones that will respect you regardless of how you look or your background. The best tutors are the ones who will not have favourites, and they will help you find your voice. These are the design tutors who have respect not only for you but for the future of architecture as well.

Updated March 21 

The Vampire Factor: Are the universities ripping the architecture schools off?

Are the universities ripping the architectures schools of? Sure, the 18-20 architecture schools across the country are not the most significant revenue spinners for the universities. But, those revenues are not insubstantial.

When most people did architecture up until about 2005, there was still a strong connection between the profession and the architecture schools. This connection is still mostly the case today, but the difference then was that the architecture schools largely controlled their destinies. The schools could largely dictate what could be taught and how it was taught. Architecture schools largely controlled the agenda of architectural education. For the most part, there was a close linkage between the Architecture schools, the profession—via the Institute of Architects (genuflect and cross yourself)—and the registration boards.

 

To better understand Australian architectural education, the Australia Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA) is doing a survey of Architectural education in Australia. What is great is that the study is not only for architectural academics but also for the MANY SESSIONAL TUTORS who work in Architecture schools. Yep, let me repeat that it covers issues regarding research, university resources, career pathways, the practice-academic nexus, and what should be taught in Architecture schools. If you teach as sessional or fractional academic you can do it. This is a fantastic initiative and the AACA should be congratulated.

 Take the AACA Survey  

The blurb for the survey is below:

The brief anonymous questionnaire is open to all ongoing and sessional architecture academics and may be found at the following link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RLYN62

It is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to shape the future of architectural education so please take a moment to make your voice heard! The survey is open until 30 November 2018.

The questionnaire will ask some questions about your teaching career and will seek your views on resourcing, teaching and learning practices, graduate pathways, and the future of architectural education. Participation is completely voluntary. You can read the participant information statement here.

This Architectural Education and the Profession in Australia study is funded by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA), the Association of Architecture Schools of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects, and is being administered by the AACA.

 If you have questions about the research, please feel free to contact AACA Research Director Alex Maroya on 0413 339 394 or email alexmaroya@aaca.org.au.  For occasional updates about the study, please “like” our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/aepstudy.

 This research has National Ethics Approval through the University of Technology Sydney: ETH18-2931N.

 Architecture schools no longer control the agenda. Their voice is mostly diminished within the university sector and of course, as is the habit of the profession, this is exacerbated by an increasingly fragmented professional landscape. In the past, the Architects Institute has not been much of a policy advocate when it comes to Higher Education policy. The Architects Consulting Association and Architeam seemed to be consumed, and perhaps rightly, with more local issues around membership. So who is advocating for architects at a policy level?

With the rise of, diminished federal funding, international student markets, research metrics (architects never really seem to get very many research brownie points), university managerialism (in all of its absurd glory), the architecture schools are not what they could aspire to be.

Are the Universities ripping Architects off?

 

So let’s look at a few numbers. This will help put things into perspective. I have only started working through these and happy to argue the assumptions behind them if you are interested. At the end of each year in Australia, the universities produce given that each graduate pays that is an aggregated revenue assuming each graduate pays around 36K for a place each year. As the recent AACA report stated:

Australia’s architecture schools produced around 1300 graduates from accredited Masters programs in 2017, which is consistent with preceding years.Overall, architecture schools enrolled over 10,000 equivalent full time students in bachelor and masters level architectural study in 2017, collectively bringing approximately $225 million to the university sector.

I think these figures understate the case. So let’s look at a local example.

The Subject Example

So in a subject which is 12.5 point subject out of 100 points per year that is around 4,500 per student in the subject. If I then have 280 students that’s total revenue for the subject of $1,260,000. That is equivalent to a pretty big renovation!

If the semester consumes 30% of my time that has a cost of around $50,000 per semester including all salary on-costs (using a 1.7 multiplier). If the Subject teaching budget, for tutors, is around $81,000 It will then be about $137,000 with salary on costs.

Hence the total salary costs is around $187,000.

Now let’s say that the multiplier for other non-salary on-costs such as overheads etc. (in contracted research projects this might vary between 1.7 and 2.1) is 2.5 we get total expenses of around $467,500.

Bottom line: Then the net gain to the university is, by this calculation, $792,500 a profit margin of 62.8%

The Studio Example

For a studio of 14 students as 6 hour subject with 14 students that is about 9,000 bucks per student. Hence, the revenue is $126,000 per studio. Ok, so let’s say you get 70 bucks an hour for a studio. For a 13 week semester that’s about $5460 bucks. Not a lot of bucks for a small practice. The salary on costs would be $9,282, and the non-salary on costs would bring that up to $23,205.

Bottom line: The net gain to the university for a studio is thus around $102,795 a profit margin of 81.5%.

Again, I am happy to further debate and refine these figures.

How much goes back to architecture as research dollars?

How much of this is going back to architects? This is the Vampire bit. Sure the universities support many small practitioners through sessional teaching. But how much of this is going back into architectural research?

Not a lot at all. When was the last time the Australian Research Council consistently gave anyone grants in architecture? For example, we did not raise any money from the universities for our Architeam project and getting funding for book publishing is also a nightmare.

So, I would urge you to survey as it will help present a united front on how we want to promote and shape Architectural Education into the future. But of course, the universities love architects, and I mean lerv, when they get them to brand the new campus or capital works program. Hey everyone wants that gig, But apart from that, in the meantime, the universities will keep ripping off the architecture schools and give us very little back for architectural research.

Take the Survey

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RLYN62

It won’t be a silver bullet but it will help.

 

Surviving the Design Studio: This is the end; the last things before the design crit.

Last week I had the opportunity to see some student crits in my Archi-schools undergraduate program. I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing projects from undergrad students and in my dotage there seems to be nothing more appealing than the prospect of prancing around a crit with the tantalising possibility of letting loose with a few well-chosen design criticism barbs. Thankfully, for all concerned including myself, the projects I saw were pretty good all things considered. It was indeed a pity because I still yearn to employ the darker arts of studio criticism and you can read about a few of them here. But it did remind me that in the last weeks of a studio—or even a design competition–there are lots of things architecture students should be doing.

1. Don’t turn back on your concept. Avoid concept-diarrhea

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Developing a concept beyond the pragmatic is an excellent idea. One of the problems many students have in studio is that by the time they do the research, understand the site, procrastinate, do a few half-hearted sketches, have a look at what Remksy, Herzog and de Neuron, MVRDV or Bjarke spark-a-larkles are doing on Insta, then do some more reading, fool around on the internet, procrastinate some more and its like 3 weeks to go and then the panic sets in. Perhaps it might have been better to do some design sketches in week one?

If at that point you don’t have a concept get one. If you do have a concept, don’t lose faith with it. Don’t replace it with another different concept. Concept replacement is usually seen as being desperate, and a reasonable jury will always sniff out projects based on the last-minute rush to finish. You have to run with it and make it connect to all the different aspects of your building that you need to design.

If you have burnt up all your time, the first thing you need to do is remember the concept and try to fashion and explain it in a way that is not merely about a knee-jerk functional reaction to the clients, the brief the studio outline or the site.

At the end of the day critics, everyone will want to see how you have used your concept or conceptual apparatus to fashion your design. Maybe, summarise your concept in one diagram or image and put this on your final print out.

2. Work on your plan. Avoid DLD (dimension-loss-disease)

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As everyone knows I hate plans, and they sued to bore me senseless when I fancied myself as an archi-school student designer. I was more interested in the developing dynamic volumes and three-dimensional architectural language.

And FFS get your scales and your spatial dimensions correct. There is nothing worse than looking at a plan that is full of empty space or the kitchen benches or door openings that are too big or too small. Another aspect of DLD is that some areas are either much bigger or much smaller than what they are supposed to be.

Print, yes actually print out your plans, and get a friend to check them. I am sorry to tell some people this, but plans are about measurement. One old trick is to actually design into your plans cool bathrooms, laundries, kitchens or storage areas. Yes, get those toilets right. If you can do that the whole plan will have more detail and look more convincing to a jury. Get some level of detail into your plan even if it is only visual.

3. Work on and present your sections. Avoid alt-right-angle-sectioning.

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I cannot stress this enough. Yes, I am a section guy. I love those Siza sections which communicate so much about volumes, light, spatial sequences, and the relationship between spaces. After all, a section is in some ways a plan that has been turned on its side. Good sections are of lines that are articulated, a section is a line that has a profile: steps, nibs, thickenings and thinnings, bumps, protrusions and the whole affair is a contoured and shaped image.

There is not building on the planet that has a right-angle where the exterior walls meet the roof. Just spitting out from a digital model, plans, sections and renders without thinking what they are like in reality is not architecture.

4. How is it to walk around your building and what will you see? Avoid unreal-viewpointing.

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Avoid the impossible angles, screwy scaled views, hot air balloon basket views that no user of your design will actually see. Avoid viewpoint unreality.

The worse thing you can do is front up to the crit and have no idea yourself what your building might be like to walk around. Looking at things in the computer is not the same thing. So, you need to walk through it in your mind and not in your computer. What will you see and what will you encounter? If you can produce and present a series of vignettes and views of what it might be like for someone, perhaps as an actual user of your building,

5. Show the context. Avoid render-plopping

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Please, I beg you, I ask you with all my heart, to show the context. Nothing shows archi-school and computer ignorance more than just plopping on a sheet—and I mean plopping in a scatological sense— render as if it is completely isolated from any surrounding urban, material or physical context.

6. Show the design process. Avoid process-voidance

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Bring along all your sketches, preliminary models, have them ready to show the critics. Stick them into some kind of consistent format. I mean how long does to take to do this?

Physical models are excellent. Even if you are running out of time, it’s still good to do a small, simple scaled physical model even if it is tiny. It’s probably worth at least 5 more marks if not more.

7. Get your project timing right. Avoid timing-desperation.

Of course, all the above things might seem like they are going to slow you down or take up too much time. Better to just stay in the model and keep on doing stuff as that will be quicker. But in fact attending to the above issues either partially and or fully will, in the long run, make for a better design and a set of images at the jury end of the process; it will communicate more about your design to a jury.

If you get too desperate about timing, you will screw everything up and end up at a broken printer. Timing is everything, and you need to plan ahead as to how long things will take to do.

I suppose the above is a kind of plea for the importance of design thinking and its associated crafts. Working on a computer model and then just spitting it out into a presentation—extruded plans, oversaturated renders, no sections, Insta-people collaged into all the views, a completely missing context, isn’t really architecture. It is just crap.

Previous blogs along these lines include the following:

Surviving the Design Studio: How to start making architecture with an actual drawing.

Surviving the Design Studio: How to avoid plan reading blindness

Surviving the Design Studio: 7 things to do to hit the ground running.

Surviving the Design Studio: 6 hacks to develop your crap design quickly.

Surviving the Design Studio: Symptoms and cures of design jury anxiety.

Surviving the Design Studio: Getting through the last days before the submission deadline.

 

 

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Making architecture dangerous in the swamplands of design mediocrity.

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Daphnes Spanos Autonomous Waypoint project (above) from Independent Thesis MSD 2016. Rehabilitaing and old modernist resort hotel, this project grappled with the flow of refugees to Greece and Europe from Syria. Numerous critics were aghast that she was even trying to do this. One critic thought she was doing a Manus island detention camp, another couldn’t believe she was doing it at all. I was aghast at the emotional reactions to this admirable and well thought through project that sought to tackle a seemingly dangerous issue. 

Memories of the old school 

Recently, I returned to my architecture school of my architectural birth to look at the final year projects. It reminded me that my architectural education was largely a mix of being self-taught and learning a few things in the actual classes, being bullied by tutors, and stumbling from one design studio disaster to the next. Ironically, even though I now teach it, professional practice was not my best subject, whereas architectural theory was.

I should also add at the time the principal mode of studio criticism seemed to be good-cop bad-cop combined with a large measure of passive aggression. I didn’t talk, but I did observe. Luckily for me one of my design tutors had a, seemingly dangerous, passion for Christ. It was great education to see over the years how that dangerous and unconventional passion manifested itself in a subsequent career and built works.

It’s also best, if I skip over and dont mention, my not so fabulous design marks. Needless to say, I have always been suspicious of people who got the top marks in design. Unless, of course they were in my studio or my own thesis students. Two of which are featured here to illustrate my points.

Autonomous Waypoint_ViewDaphnes Spanos Autonomous Waypoint project from Independent Thesis MSD 2016

 Danger Danger Will Robinson

I think one of the most important things I learnt at architecture school was that architecture needs to be dangerous. I remembered this when I saw the final year projects on the walls of my old architecture school. Not all of these projects were vapidly pragmatic or useful. In almost every one there was a sense of danger, a sense that architecture itself mattered more than logical design thought and functional solutions and techniques. More than a sense of concise, orthodox and well expressed arguments. It reminded me that architecture can still provoke ideas through spatial experience, the way we make sense of the world, questioning aesthetic norms, as well as allowing us to pursue techniques to there most extreme, and often surreal, conclusion. A sense that architecture was about estrangement, evoking worlds, states of being, and memory that exists outside of and in parallel with our everyday lives. Of course, to complicate matters further, and this may come as a shock to some readers, architecture doesn’t always need to be about anything all the time anyway.

Once you get past the naïve swamplands of thinking that architectural design is all about designing solutions to problems it gets more interesting and paradoxically, I think, architecture also becomes more effective. Last year in a design crit I heard a jury member say: I don’t like those materials and the way the project has been drawn it looks “hard and impersonal and repetitive” and hence the implication was that the project itself was hard and maybe should it have been soft? I wonder, what it is with the hard-soft dichotomy anyway, the more I think about that the weirder it gets. Our level of critical discourse and criticism needs to rise above this kind of simplistic determinism and crap dichotomies.

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Above and Below: Priscilla Kwok’s Independent Thesis MSD 2016 drew on the polemic of Superstudio and critiqued the all male culture of innovation spaces. The project was a poetic and thorough critique of current fashions and exclusion in workplace design. 

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Architectural Design needs to be a little polemical and dangerous to be of any use

What should be of concern is that the problem solving ethic, often ignores aesthetics and does little to produce architecture that either provokes our thought or speculates about the future. Even the smallest and most budget restrained project can speculate and provoke us to think.  Being self-satisfied with the baby pap mix of concepts based on simplistic functionality, constructional CNC logic or another “bespoke” policy issue, or social enterprise do-gooding is not enough.

The “urban happiness” push is fine but is it just about making the already privileged comfortable in consciousness and urban lifestyle?  Is it just about trying to organise and mitigate the horrors of neoliberal capitalism: sustainability, green innovation (another apartment building covered in green) and clients with that “awesome” lifestyle. Making the deterministic and causal link between material aesthetics and how a building feels only diminishes our design practice.

So along these lines what follows are no less than six talking points, to help you think about how to make architecture a little more dangerous, and even fun. Plus, I have included a few images of “dangerous” final year projects.

1. Architectural design should create problems

Yes, there are times architects are so caught up in solving immediate design problems for the instantaneous moment that they disregard forget how to create problems. Have architects become too risk averse? Of course, I don’t mean deliberately creating problems related to some technical lack. Like the roof leaks or bits of the building fall down. Creating speculative problems is about the long game; the real game after the project is delivered. For example, architects can choose to design to disrupt. To disturb or distort prevailing urban aesthetic, sustainable or material patterns and orthodoxies. Just doing sustainability isn’t really enough. I hate it when developers get their green on.

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Jing Yi How, Bridging the Edge, RMIT Major Project 2017 Mark Raggatt and Tim Pyke Tutors. 

2. Create architectural images that burn a hole in your brain

Create dangerous architectural images (and I don’t mean pornography). I dislike images that are full of sanitised clarity or have been over saturated with “realistic” colours or filled with bright happy Google people. Create, fuzzy and blurry images, ambiguous images, images that play with perception, images that obscure and confuse us and play with existing regimes of power and media distribution. I am sick of seeing that archetypal housey thing covered in black zinc in my social media feeds.

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Kayden Khoon Yaw Lau, Game-On, RMIT Major Project 2017 Ian Nazareth Tutor. (Above and below).

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3. Make architectural design subversive

In what way does the design subvert or counter a client context, prevailing typology, or economic situation. We need more projects that speak to refugees, migrant labour, gender inequality and LGBTQIA and indigenous people. We need more projects that reference the political contexts that confront us and it is architects who have the spatial, form-making and material tactics to do this. I am not sure the community pop-up barista café design market urban garden is really that political. Sorry.

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Jan See Oi, Abyss in Luxury, RMIT Major Project 2017 John Doyle Tutor. 

4. Foster alternative futures

Architects can really foster debates about the future of our cities and architecture and I don’t just mean debates around making those cites nice, or “great”, or high density or more liveable. Or another thought leader convention full of urban densifiers and city exciters. Architects can also propose experimental futures. Architects can and should have a real discourse around utopia and dystopian outcomes for our cities. I am not sure those renders of endlessy flooded cites, or cities full of windturbines, will do that either.

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Imogen Fry, Regenerated Farms Regenerated Towns Regenerated Nature, RMIT Major Project 2017,  Mauro Baracco Tutor.

5. Architecture should be kind of annoying

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Austynn Machado Hi-Fi Lo-Fi RMIT Major Project 2017,  Paul Minifie Tutor.

Is architecture just about giving the everyday users, or punters, what they want? Maybe people need to bump into architecture more, maybe it needs to be in their faces more, maybe it needs to make them walk through a labyrinth or see different aspects of light than the monochromatic fluorescent and halogen wash we are all living in. Architects should avoid, like the plague, that happy little bright and sunny sustainable community focused apartment development with all the big floor to ceiling windows looking onto the garden.

6. We need more ugly 

In decrying these things I am not wanting to evoke a sentiment of cynicism or bitterness. The tone is probably meant to express a kind of desperation in order to save the discipline of architecture. The images of the final year projects reproduced here suggest a little about my position. I am not suggesting that architects should escape the world and outcast themselves into a zone of isolated hypocrisy or pernury. I am not forgetting architects need to get the fees in. But, intellectual appeasement to the prevailing norms, fashions or about to happen policy problems is not architecture. Nice and safe is not architecture. It only leads to an architecture easily swallowed up by the mass produced business as usual landscape.

We need more ugliness and danger in our aesthetic and critical practice. Maybe naïve art and kitsch is pretty good after all and thankfully the architecture schools are still places where we can experiment. Architecture needs to take us, and be, somewhere else from where we are now. Playing it safe is not going to do that.

Surviving the Design Studio: 6 hacks to develop your crap design quickly.

The all too familiar scenario

For many students, even in the most prestigious architecture schools it is easy to be seduced by the computer: The lure of the computer with the shimmering screen, often means you can easily convince yourself that what you are creating is Architecture; that your design is more developed and refined than what it actually is.

In fact a computer can help you think your design is actually fabulous.

Crisis

Then suddenly you realise your time has run out. The jury crit is looming, or the client is coming, and you haven’t done enough to develop the design. You were too busy researching, or procrastination, or kididng yourslef you were great, or bogged down in admin, or suffering under the hands of a capricious tutor or client. Crisis time !!!

The problem with having a capricious tutor is that they will quickly cut you lose, and wont defend you when the jurors start drilling down into the details of your design; actually, jurors don’t actually care that much about function; they are usually more interested in discussing, those things known as ideas. Holy Rissole Batman !!! Do you you mean actual ideas !?!?

 The Danger

A primary danger is this: allowing the computer to fool you that you had done more design development than what you have actually done. In fact, if you haven’t done enough design development, all you have really done is a functional diagram at best. At worst a conceptual diagram simplistically mapped onto the site. It is awful to see people fashion these diagrams in order to make them seem like architecture.

Knee jerk reaction

The common response to time pressures of the jury session combined with a lack of design development detail is to develop the design through an obsessive and irrational focus on the brief or program, function and functional elements. Yes, it is easy to lapse into form follows function when you are in a desperate panic to get that conceptual and schematic design finished in time.

Certainly, The first thought of most people in this situation is the old keen jerk reaction of developing the design further through, an even further and intense consideration of function. But probably over-thinking the functions is what got you in this mess in the first place.

The worst thing you can do

For a start it is too easy. Secondly, architecture is not about just solving functional problems. Sorry, to have to tell you but it is about more than this and it is also about Ideas. As a socio-material practice architecture concerns itself with embodying ideas in space. I will even stick my neck out and say, architecture actually has nothing to do with function. In the hierarchy of elements a designer should be concerned about function is really a very, very, very, low level concern.

A bit of theory

Yes, in modern architecture, some architects in the past have been to develop radical notions of “pure” functionalism that manages to escape the prosaic. Hannes Meyer, Ernst May, and the Neue Sachlichkeit in Weimar Germany spring to mind. Maybe even Hilberseimer. In the late twentieth century Kazuo Shinohara springs to mind. There are glimmers of this functional realism and objectivity in the work of OMA and Bjarke Ingels. But all of these architects are able to evoke a functional realism resulting in a highly refined and abstract ambiguity (let’s argue about that point later).

Architecture can’t escape being read, or perceived, in ambiguous and uncertain ways. Just solving a design for “function” won’t allow you to control or even apprehend the pathways of ambiguity.  Hence, over-thinking function is really, really, really boring. Developing a design by over-thinking function will not actually allow you to develop the design in a way that accounts for all the other factors architects need to consider.

So here are the 6 so-called hacks:

In no particular order, that might help you get out of the function rut and save your career as a capital D designer.

1.Develop the spatial experience

Develop the spatial experience. What is it like to walk through it. What will people see? Box-like rooms with no windows maybe? What kind of light is in each of the rooms and at what time of day?

2. Develop from the context

What is physically around the design?  How does your design respond to this? Take an element or idea from the context and integrate it with your design or use it to develop your design. Or is your design just an isolated object with no relationship to the  surrounding context. A box, or a industrial product on a blank site.

3.Develop the materiality

What are the materials?Is there materiality or texture? What is your functional diagram like as a physical entity? Or is it just lines in a computer?It won’t look good if it’s just a functional series of boxes. It’s your your pick, is it concrete, parametric plastic or inflammable metal cladding? How do these materials look? How are the materials joined together? Are there floor or wall patterns?

4.Develop the façade treatment (and technology).

How do things look on the façade. Is there a pattern? How is the facade constructed? Are the facades layered or just one material? Will the facade get hot or cold, or mitigate sun, and or carbon emissions? How do the openings look like on the facades?

5.Develop the Public and Private

How are the public and private spaces gradate? Which rooms or spaces in the functional arrangement are more public, or more private. What can you do to emphasise and reinforce this?

6.Develop the car-circulation

Cars can seem like a really functional kind of consideration. But not really. The car is a site where the future will be a contested area; as the AI revolution and the data analytics cult kicks in.

But if you can do this with elegance and actually design the way the parking works and how this is linked to overall concept that helps. Slamming the carpark next to your building or sticking it underground and showing this only in the section is really ordinary. The more, you can think through how people drive to your building, the better.

In other words: Develop the design through playing

Exit the computer and play. Get the design out of the of the computer and print it. Ask yourself how does it look? Then draw on the prints. Draw on the plans, draw on the renders, draw on the elevations. Draw on yourself.

Yes, if you are looking at something in the computer and have yet to translate it to the real world or to the layout sheets. How, the on earth (I will refrain from using profanities this week), do you know what it is you have is actually designed and developed?

The point is, to play with and explore a design, in order to create and even better developed design. Yes, I mean play, like getting into a sandpit and making a sandcastle. After all when was a sandcastle made as a result of strict functional requirements? But some sandcastles l are really cool.

Finally

Everyone can tell, especially jurors,  if it’s a uni-dimensional overthought-in-function design. A better rule to be guided by when developing a design is: If it looks good it is good.

A checklist to tell if you are in a design studio or architecture cult?

During the week, I watched a documentary on L. Ron Hubbard the founder of the Scientology religion.  It was fun to read about Ronnie and his Sea Org followers. This also made me think a bit about the architecture cults I have known. At the same time, I was also communicating on social media with someone who thought that, the complete lack of interest, or knowledge, regarding money by architects is bred into young architects at architecture school. This made me think that architecture school was also like a kind of cult thing. Lets face it for many of us architecture school was a cult experience. 

My friend argued that at archi-school we learn: it is noble and heroic to “struggle” and “starve” for our vocation; we learnt that we should never “sell-out” to the Money God; and we can only ever be validated through our own architectural integrity. In other words, as my esteemed friend noted, we are taught in architecture school, through the studio system, that the only thing that can validate our existence as individuals is our wonderful designs.

That’s ok if you have decent work or designs that will actually validate your existence. Hard to do if you only ever do bathroom renovations. Most architects seem to struggle to even get one great project designed and built.

My cult memberships 

Yes, I also drank that Kool-Aid at architecture school as well. I drank a lot of cultish Kool-Aid there. I suppose the first archi-cult I fell into at architecture school was the Aldo Rossi cult. I wanted to be in a car accident just like him. Then design a cemetery.  Then it was the Carlo Scarpa cult. I wanted to live half the year in Venice and the other half in Istanbul. Then, of course, the Corbusian cult. I wanted to start a practice in Chandigarh. For a while I was in love with Michael Graves and I wanted to draw classical figures on yellow trace just like him. I wanted to channel James Stirling and go live in the Florey building in Oxford. For a young architecture student from the outer suburbs, where the consumer consumption roller coaster reigned supreme, all of this Modern and Post-Modern architectural goulash was heady stuff.

At architecture school, I also fell in, as a follower, with a few of the local heroes. I followed around a few of these emerging architectural cult figures until they gave me a job. Then, usually, they sacked me. It was almost like every semester I was in a different studio cult. I was always so desperate to fit in.

The problem is that the norms and forms of cult behaviour ingrained into us as architects means that not only are we architects hopeless at money, but, we are also hopeless at management. As a profession, we need to get out of the ever diminishing and downward spiral of cult behaviour. It’s not healthy because most cults rely on charismatic, leaders, bizarre initiation rituals and secret circles of knowledge. Sounds like Architecture doesnt it?

Usually these cults favour those who will do whatever the cult leader says. These architectural cult leaders often take their cultish and bad behaviour into their firms. Maybe thats why architects are crap at management. Architects need to avoid the cultish behaviour. Because it is actually brutish behaviour. In your current studio, office or project team ask yourself the following questions:

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Charles Manson

The architectural cult checklist

  1. Authoritarianism or paternalism without accountability. Only the lead architect or studio leader can make decisions or is empowered to do so.
  2. No tolerance in the group for critical questions or inquiry. The architect or studio leader only likes the followers who ask the questions that affirm the cult. Followers compete for the leader’s attention.
  3. No open and transparent disclosure regarding the project or the client etc. Information “leaks” out to the followers. Some followers or team workers get more privileged information than others. Followers spend time second guessing the leader.
  4. Unreasonable criticism about the broader architectural culture outside of the office or studio. There are enemies and tribes and other architects or styles to envy or hate. A us against them mentality.
  5. There is no legitimate reason to leave: former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even “evil.” They are never seen or spoken to again. They are seen to have made bad career choices.
  6. You work lots of overtime and your remuneration is not aligned with the agreements and awards. You do things that effectively subsidise the office. You are literally paying ypur employer to work where you work.
  7. The charismatic architect who leads you is abusive and may often get angry. The tantrum over “design’ or “aesthetic” issues is all too common.
  8. You feel that you can never be good enough or you will never get it right.
  9. The architect or studio leader is always absolutely correct and never wrong.
  10. The architect or studio leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

Most architectural teams and studios (and even bigger organisations) will exhibit some of these tendencies to a degree. But, if there are too many of the boxes ticked in the above list, then you are possibly and most likely in cult territory.

Cult’s never really last

Inevitably these cults implode, they are by their nature self-sabotaging, self-destruction of one kind or another, staff turnover is too high (costly), or things don’t get done properly (implementation issues). Usually, the architecture is actually not as good as it could have been with better less cultish management in place. 

It is an easy thing to do. Being in a cult as you develop has its place but not forever you as you will end up like Gollum living in the shadow of some minor architectural cult leader

When I left architecture school no wonder I wanted to start my own cult. I wanted to be the cult leader rather than the follower. This of course, caused all sorts of problems. I think at the peak of my cult when I taught and was in practice I may have had, 6 and possibly 7, followers. I was on fire. Just like all good cult leaders.

According to my blog stats, and Google Analytics I now have a few more cult followers than suggested above.  So, thank you so much to all of you who follow this blog and watch out for the next blog which will come to you from London as I attend ARCOM 2017 in Cambridge.