Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?


Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 


Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?


Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Surviving the Design Studio: 4 Ways to make sure you become a BIM monkey.

Feature Image: ‘Concrete[I]Land’ (Photograph courtesy of New_territories with Ann-Arbor)

Getting older in architecture sucks. Along with all the other forms of discrimination, profiling, appalling labour practices and lack of diversity once you get to certain age you become invisible. Worse still you become really really invisible to those architects above you adept at exploiting the talent. Much easier to exploit the interns and the recent graduates than the old hands.

A friend of mine, an architect with about 25 years of experience working with the very best architects in town, as well as the worst, bemoaned the early career architectural graduates she had to work with. In a nutshell she said there was

“sometimes a staggering gulf between “confidence level and knowledge-experience-skill.”

Another friend, who came through the same cruel archi-school regime I also suffered under, wondered out loud:

“why would you go to architecture school just to learn BIM and not much else?”

Someone else I know in NYC, was aghast in a design meeting where one early career architect proclaimed:

  “I’ve done some research and Brooklyn has a lot of old buildings with arches so we should do a building with arches.”


Someone else said to me:

Whenever I go to those large practices full of young architects on computers don’t they realise in a few years all these computers will be gone? What will they do then?

This of course is not to stereotype a whole generation of early career architects as dumbed down, dullards who think doing BIM is what architecture is and thus have no need for history and theory. Many of this generation are going to be great architects and help to transform the profession. Perhaps even save the profession from itself.

But there are nonetheless a few gentle warnings in the above litanies of architectural senility and cynicism. So, if you do want to be BIM monkey this is what you need to do:

  1. Actually think that BIM is Architecture.

Of course BIM is just a bundle of software programs and processes. I won’t bore you with the definitions. But in this is not the same as architecture. You will only be able to spend so much of your life doing the CAD or BIM monkey seated jigs. In fact jigging on the computer jigs has a limited life-span as documentation becomes increasingly more commodified.

  1. Know in your heart that Parametric Modelling makes the best architecture.

Listen to and channel Schumakkker.


schumakkers ear

The Parametric types like to push the idea that every Parametric model is a unique and customised product or object. Our digital feeds have since the early 2000s been swamped  with completely dysfunctional and useless Parametric “art” objects; conceptual objects that claim to increase our haptic awareness. Hit me up with a another geomorphic iceberg skeletor thing. Another adornment or folly to cleanse our souls and “transport” us to a natural environment. At least Francois Roche is brave enough to explore the scatological and organic forms in a way that isn’t just pap.


‘Robotic Processes’ (Photograph courtesy of New_territories

I am not sure Parametric Design has really moved on in the last 15 years. It certainly hasn’t engaged with politics nor does it seem to have a sense of its own irony.

  1. Forget about wild and crazy design thinking.

Wild and crazy Design Thinking is central to architecture. But if you want to be a great BIM Monkey just go for that linear problem solving, get it done one quickly, jam that round problem into square hole type of thinking. Get excited about the efficiency of the CNC code. Love that little laser cut model that looks like a plywood skeleton.

If you are at architecture school just to learn BIM and hot-shot oversaturated realistic rendering then maybe you are better off somewhere else. I really don’t want you in the profession. You are only hastening the commodification of architecture as a domain of knowledge.

No wonder the 30,00 strong REVIT group on Linked-In told me to only post “relevant” pieces to their group page.

  1. Love and consume the tasteful.

Yep, just eat up the tasteful. Wear the clothes and subscribe to the mags. Follow the Insta influencers. The best way to become a BIM jockey is to keep thinking the best architects are the ones that the real estate marketers, middle brow property developers and the lifestyle magazine editors love. Who can blame architects for getting in with this crowd?

The above people are obviously the gatekeepers who see architecture as a narrow canon of taste and fashionista profiling. Best to stay on side with them. Ignore anyone different.

Abandoning theory 

Architecture has a complex social politics and history. Abandoning theory in favour of fashionable consumption is your choice. But it will just leave you ceaselessly jigging in the BIM jig money chair.

I made the worst models and did the worst drawings at architecture school. But I did learn how to think and that is what is most important. So my advice is, from an older invisible architect verging on senility, if you want to have an enduring architectural career see if you can get through the whole of architecture school without learning BIM. Otherwise, you will end up jigging with the software jigs for the rest of your life.

You be a robot architect and then the real robots will take over and you will be out of a job. If don’t learn how to think at architecture school this will be your fate.

Surviving the Design Studio: Why architects are the Design Thinking Misfits we all need.

Design Thinking has become all the rage for the corporate, consulting and media organisations. Since the 2015 Harvard Business Review on Design Thinking everyone is jumping onto the bandwagon. There has even been a documentary and as I noted in an earlier post there a now graduate schools and courses devoted to this. Design Thinking is seen as an efficient way to configure new digital workflows and processes. For some people working in this area, Design Thinking as architects know, it has a lot in common with User Experience design, or as some people call it UX.

It’s great that these things are starting to emerge. But as architects we need to be aware of these developments, and start to build these things into our curricula and to promote ourselves as the foremost exponents of Design Thinking. The range of design techniques we learn at architecture school, and our understanding of both digital and physical spatiality at different scales are things we don’t want to lose to others.

I was once invited to a corporate “Think Tank” workshop thingy about 10 years ago and started talking about “creative destruction.” This is a key mode of design thinking. I argued it as a great way to help solve complex business process problems. You can just imagine how those exact and actual words went down: in that room, of hard core line managers, country club styled corporate execs, and shiny suited consultants I felt like a TOTAL misfit. It didn’t help that I was wearing my black architects drafting coat.

I started to think about and remember this experience, when a friend of mine working in the UX consulting space said to me that the best people to do this kind of work are architects. She said this was because architects are able to think across different knowledge domains; as well as quickly drill down into the detail of one particular area. Then at lunch this week, another person involved in managing and reconfiguring digital work flows in a global consultancy argued that the Misfits, especially and usually the architects, are the best type of people to do this kind of work. He said it’s not just about learning regular BIM or Rhino or other routine aspects of coding. These things seem to work best with the Misfit outlook.

All of this begs a number of questions which I might leave for later blogs for example: Are we making enough Misfits at architecture schools? Also, are we as architects actively promoting ourselves as the specialists and leaders in the wider area of Design Thinking? Have the industrial and graphic designers grabbed all the Design Thinking glory? More broadly, are architects too often slaves to meeting the normative requirements of clients and regulations and money. As a group have we architects forgotten how to be misfits?

I have even developed an Acronym to help you read through the rest of the blog:  Architectural Misfit Thinking or AMT.  As an architect if you feel yourself thinking you are slipping into the mire of normalised design production; here are few mindful like Misfit thoughts and exercises you can do.

1. Link your problem to something else. Don’t just focus on the project/product.

In AMT any design problem can, and should be, quickly linked to something seemingly extraneous. Yes, it could be about the life, the universe, or everything. Anything really: The endangered species, the next scale up or the next scale or detail down. AMT can quickly get you across the emotional experience, the politics and the subaltern perspectives. In AMT there is no problem creating, a seemingly unrelated idea, throwing it into the mix,  something as an idea, testing it and the destroying it to see what’s left. Then starting all over again. To others from the outside it looks like a chaotic design process but from the inside, if well led, divergent thought helps to test and determine the best solutions.

AMT Exercise:  about a design problem you have and then think about something else completely different. Then think about how you might even try to link the two together.

2. Imagine the physical reality in your head.

Your mind is way better than any Rhino or BIM modelling software. AMT, because it is a socio-material and spatial way of thinking is a great way at helping people visualise things. AMT can help you visualise the full experience of a thing.  Not just the digital one you see on the screen. ATM relies solely on the imagination and the mind.

AMT Exercise: Design and imagine that next project in your mind. Then zoom in and out and spin it around, in your mind, as if it was on a screen. Walk through it in your head.

3. Dance across the Silos of Knowledge

As suggested above, AMT is about thinking across specialist knowledge silos and putting together lots of disparate fragments. Architects usually assemble and put together many different manufactured products. We dance across structural, hydraulic, climatic and electrical services; silos of knowledge too numerous to mention.

In some ways designing a single building can be easily linked to product or industrial design. But it isn’t quite the same. A building can be a bundle of different off-the-shelf products. But then some of it is completely one-off, innovative and purpose-built. AMT is about knowing how to make things from scratch and also how to combine very different products or pre-existing configurations together.

AMT Exercise: Think about a few different off- the-shelf industrial and manufactured products and then sketch or diagram how you might put them together to make something useful. Or better still, think how you would put them together to make them completely useless, but still look fabulous as an aesthetic.

Yes, Architects are the Misfits you need and perhaps the Misfits we all need. In some ways architecture needs more Misfits. But as architects we also need to embrace our inner Misfitness and not lose touch with the great aspects of our odd Design Thinking, weird studio education, and strange but wonderful discipline.

Making Sense of Design Research: Five questions

It doesn’t really help if the Design Research debate is polarised between practitioners, bewildered by the fact that their project outcomes are not considered research, and academics, from within and without the discipline, who say that such outcomes are “not real research.” The area is fraught with ambiguity and emotion. This is the same for both the practitioner “just doing it” and the academic trying to fit into university research metrics.

After I blogged about Design Research last time I offered up a few definitions. A few further definitions of Design Research which I came across rang true in this article.  And at the, now infamous, RIBA Research Symposia of 2007 it was reiterated that ‘“Research” for the purpose of the UK’s University Research Assessment Exercise was:

original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design…;

OMG! That sounds like from the above definition that Design Research is in fact actual Research with a capital R! (regular followers will know what I mean: but, sometimes, I really wonder if I am living in a research coal mine).

My ironic tone above is because, some still think Design Research is “not real research.” When I hear such things, I think architects are actually on the right track in order to elicit such doctrinaire reactions. So here are few quick ideas, and by no means definitive, for how practitioners, might strengthen, that most dangerous, impure and evil of things, Design Research.

1. Consider how the research fills or pursue a gap in architectural knowledge?

Ok, just going out and designing something is not really Design Research unless you can show or demonstrate that you are seeking new knowledge. Perhaps, you are seeking to develop a new fabrication technique, or designing a building type that other people have not designed before, or designing an existing building typology with a different design approach.

But to do all this you have to know what knowledge has been previously created. What are the relevant design contexts, projects, or techniques being the reference points for this new design project? What new ideas are you trying to test or explore? How is this new Design Research positioned in relation to the canon of architectural knowledge that already exists?

2. Develop a catalogue of projects which the Design Research can refer to.

It follows from above that you need to have a catalogue of either, the projects you have done before, or projects you are interested in. This information can come in different formats: In books, (yes, strange but true), or in some kind of data storage. This information could also be in your brain. But, it’s probably best if it is explicit rather than tacit.

One practice I know produces an in-house research books or file for each new project in the office. This contains a range of things.

3. Develop a Design Research methodology.

A methodology is not a method. Don’t be confused. Understand this and everyone will think you are a Design Research guru.

Methodology was once described to me as, the arguments for the way, or manner, that the research is being pursued. This is the same for Design Research. Why is the Design Research being pursued or approached in a particular manner?

What kinds of design activities or processes are involved in the design investigation and research? For example, is it master planning, or spatial planning or is it something about materials or light or maybe it’s something about form making and coding.

You need to be able to argue, and think about, why the particular type of design processes you have chosen is appropriate to what you are trying to investigate. The resulting argument is your methodology.

3. Are new methods of designing or making involved?

This is probably an easy question to answer. But, that is perhaps the problem. Just getting out the robots or 3D printer and making something anew doesn’t make it Design Research.

All too often is it easy to be seduced by the technologies of making. It is all too easy to think that, superficial objectness or aesthetic funkiness alone means that what you are doing is in fact Design Research. All because you are designing something new (and oh-so-organic and diatomic) doesn’t necessarily mean that the thought behind it is new.

Are there steps in the process that make it unique? For example, employing or developing, anew plug-in, a new algorithm, a new geometric regime, unique patterns of design iteration.

Is the design research exploring a new or existing technology and its relationship to design process itself? How is the technology, shaping or changing the way that architects design?

Taken together how do the different methods employed in the Design Research support the methodology?

4. Does it develop or add to new theories of architectural design?

Architects should ask does the design research, or the design itself, build or develop a new theory of how architecture is made?

With fellow students, I once went to a presentation by an architect of a large and prominent downtown high-rise office building. We asked the architect how he came to make the forms he was proposing. He stated these had come about as result of “whatever just came into his head.” We were aghast.

The mysticism associated with so-called “intuitive” design has often led to the situation where any theoretical scrutiny of architectural design is greeted with ignorance, and even hostility. For some architect’s theory is always going to be bullshit.

As architects, no matter the type of work we do we have responsible to develop theories that explain and argue the general relevance of what we are doing. Is there a body of theory around your firm’s design practices?

Testing theory and building new theories is an essential part of the outcome any ongoing research. As Design Research generates new design solutions how does it help to formulate guide, or determine a theoretical framework.

5. Finally, has Design Knowledge been added to?

This is the key question. Can the architect argue that new Design Knowledge has been created? How strong is this argument? Do the foundations of this argument simply rest on intuitive designing. Or is there a logical substance to the argument based on a clear aim to fill a knowledge gap, sound documentation, a supporting methodology, established or unique methods and a new theoretical framework?

Understanding and promoting Design Research in architecture as a discipline is essential to the disciplines viability. For architect’s attitudes to Design Research need to be clearer and less contaminated by the twin evils of academic prejudice, about what research is, and the theory free zone of intuitive alpha-male designing.








The Architect’s office: Gleaners and waste pickers in a scrapyard.

In many respects the architect’s office resembles a scrap yard and the organisational pattern that emerges from the activities and material artefacts in the office is the idea that an architect is a gleaner. Or in other words, a kind of waste picker of knowledge. I will explain more about what I mean below. I came to this conclusion after conducting an ethnographic study of two small architect’s offices, sharing the same office space, in Melbourne and the full write up of the study was presented at the ARCOM conference in 2016 and can be found here.

In the Agnes Varda film The Gleaners and I (2000) a gleaner is a person who hunts for food, knick-knacks, and thrown away or discarded items. Similarly, as I observed this office I began to think that an architect is a person who collects together, or gleans, data and information from various sources in order to create and generate design knowledge.

Often the knowledge we architects salvage, find, assemble, test, reassemble and put together, or glean, is not valued by the other people we work with in the design supply chain. Design knowledge is often viewed as being of no use. For builders, developers, sometimes consultants, tradespeople or other workers all wanting to make a buck along supply chains the knowledge architects value is seen as being as. Design knowledge related to history, urban theory, sociological perspectives, spatiality, aesthetics and nuanced construction processes are is seen as being wasteful.

With the rise of digital software and BIM work practices the architect’s office is increasingly, and should be seen as, a knowledge intensive digital workplace. Dare, I say a KIDW. Digital technologies are blurring the line between physical and virtual work practices both within and outside of the firm. Internally, physical and virtual workflows are now to a degree interconnected. Externally, architects are now digitally connected to various stakeholders including clients, builders, consultants and sub-contractors.

Given this context, and from my perspective, the study was a quick way to explore the myth of seamless integration, between our digital models and the physical world, that the technology proponents and software vendors seem to push down our throats as architects all the time: all the time and all the time.  I worry that it sometimes makes us architects feel a sense of self-loathing, because we are not “real” architects unless we have, and are, using and immersed in the latest and newest technologies.

As an ethnographic observer in the office, this initial thought of gleaning, was related to how the material artefacts in the office reminded me of the scrapyard and waste pickers I had met in Monterrey Mexico. We can think of the architect is a waste picker of construction and building knowledge for two reasons. Firstly, the material artefacts and tools in the office seeming organised across the space of the office in an extremely ad hoc fashion. Secondly, the office contained 12 substantial physical bins. This space was full of physical artefacts and in no way paperless or entirely digital.

The sources from which the architects glean information from are varied and diverse. An architect may glean information from the computer or from the Internet; the architect may also glean information from the digital models that are created in the computer. Hence much the information that is embedded and inscribed into the architect’s digital models in this office comes from a diverse and extensive range of sources including: personal knowledge as expressed through hand gestures and vocalization; information gathered and gleaned via communication devices, paper documents and all manner of physical materials including scale models, material samples, drawings, printed materials books and videotapes.

A predominant metaphor that appears to dominate the discursive practices and sale pitches of software vendors is that of the library. This in sharp contrast to the conceptual model observed here. That the broader milieu of knowledge used to design a building is a scrapyard and that architects using techniques of gleaning via performance narratives to create design knowledge. Architects fashion knowledge out of chaos.

However, BIM and digital software proponents presume that the projects or indeed the world is a library that can be categorised and that the design of project can be done by drawing or data mining this catalogue. This is a metaphor that certainly supports industrialised building and automated design processes. Many of the objects that are in BIM libraries are building components that have been manufactured by building component companies. The prevailing metaphors in used association with BIM and the Industry Foundation Classes all suggest a high degree of ordering and structure.

If the digital realm is one of structure and order then it is the architect who uses his skills of gleaning to bring order to this digital realm. If the architect’s office was to be understood as library then much of the material in the office would be catalogued and filed in particular formats. However, this is not often the case because too much of the materials and tools used to create design knowledge within the office are simply not catalogued. The library metaphor does not account for the way that material is bought together through narratives that may rely on the architects sketching, vocal communication or gestures. Data entry and information transfer via framing and the translation of things into common scales or media was a predominant activity in the office.

To reiterate, gleaning is an activity that includes materials (both physical and digital), gestures, rituals and suggest that architects create designs, and fashion design knowledge, out of a chaos data and information.

This process of gleaning in order to produce design knowledge also suggests that current models of knowledge management and models of IT management in architectural practices should be revised. These models need to account for the rituals performed in the office and the material culture contained within it. In other words, the super duper digital model of the architect’s office does not allow for the many rituals, narratives and inflections when architects design.

This suggests that more comprehensive and nuanced models of how architect’s offices generate design knowledge should be developed. No more dumb-ass technological utopias. Maybe then we can make better architecture with the technologies at hand and stop feeling ashamed about not being on the latest technology bandwagon.

I am just back from a short holiday and hoping to head to the SAHANZ conference over the next few days where I am presenting 2 co-authored papers. I would like to thank all of you who have supported and read the blog this past 18 months. So far, this year I have had as many visitors to this blog as I received for all of last year. I would encourage you to follow me here and at the other social media channels.

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.


In Praise of Drawing: Six design things you cannot do in a computer.

Digital computing has destroyed essential elements of architectural design. Digital software is killing our architecture schools and the profession. When I read about Schooomaker (king of the market processes) or the other dudes in the parametric digital tribe my eyes start to glaze over when I hear the same old stream of consciousness about how the, fill-in-the-word-space-with-a-Zeitgeist-word, is going to change fucking everything. This Zeitgeist word is sometimes computers, robots, VR, AI, AR, smart infrastructure, 3D printing or some alliance of technology with ecological systems. But then, when I look at the productive design work spat out by the adherents of the digital tendency, in the words of the former FBI chief George Comey, “I feel mildly nauseous.”

Limited learning

At the level of design practice the digital impetus has wrought much damage in our schools of architecture. A focus on digital practice has limited the range of what emerging architects learn. This has been compounded by the ongoing development of  performance metrics related to financial outputs in our university sector. Much easier to teach a narrow version of architecture via digital computing and then dazzle everyone by pretending the design outputs are great. Usually, and on closer inspection, these outputs too often seem to be riffs on the orthogonal frame with plug-in boxes: straight jacketed versions of Cookie’s Plug-In-City with none of the fun. Too often the allure of the computer limits an understanding and practice of the design process.

Craft Beer

So let’s raise a unique and handmade crafted beer to the old ways: to sketching, drawing, to typology and composition, and to a more mindful consideration of ecologies than just making stuff look like bones, or aortas, or slimy mucus with aerated bubbles. The best architects draw on all available media to design. and here is my list of 6 design things you can do better outside of a computer.

1. You can annotate

You can actually write words on a drawing. Its true. You can use words like “maybe” if you don’t really want to do something. You can add room names, colours, and even thoughts (yes, actual thoughts) about the design’s next iteration. A great thing to annotate on a drawing is to denote different design options and iterations. Even better you can write numbers on drawings. Annotations can help bridge the qualitative and quantitative aspects of a design.

2. You can diagram quickly 

Architects love diagrams. They help to structure concepts and help you bridge the gap between a conceptual arrangement, or relationship, and an emerging form or figure. A flow chart, a graph, a complex social structure, a landscape or a site can be quickly mapped and diagrammed on a bit of paper. The smaller the better (joke).

Design diagrams can help you to remember what the fuck you are doing. Digital deisgn gives the impression that the designer is in control. But design is really about exploring the limts of control. It is about always skirting the line between the chaotic “what the fuck am I doing” and a stable and controlled order.

3. You can scribble and smash things up 

Yip, smashing up your digital model in parts is limited by the software. Digital software just whispers in your ear and urges you to extend and grow things. But with a small drawing you can easily and quickly smash something up into its constituent parts or fragments. You can scribble and cross things out. You can erase things. You can do this in a sketch to test and then see what something might be made of.

There is no point producing prototypes if they aren’t dissected and smashed up. Drawing allows you to draw prototype after prototype after prototype. The problem with digital and CNC computing is that the resultant prototype are too often the result of a linear and step-wise series. With sketches you can do the prototype first and then work back from there.

4. You can stick your head into the models

There is nothing like the joy of a physical model you can hold up to your eye, stick your head into and even place your whole body into. With a physical model we can easily and very quickly apprehend the design from different scales and perspectives. We can get both in and out of the physical model.

Will  VR be the same and supplant the physical model? I doubt it. This is because, we can easily get inside a VR environment, but I am not so about viewing a VR environment from afar or at different distance or scale. Moreover,  physical model’s models, depending on the material they are made from, have an abstracted presence that conveys information that may not be communicated through VR.

5. You can really get fuzzy

There is a tyranny of precision inherent in digital practice. Design precision is not something architects should necessarily value all the time. But with a sketch or drawing you can draw two, three or four or more lines over or near an initial single line. Linework in preliminary sketches and drawings are iterative and help the designer explore the tolerances and limits of a design in a given context.

Its fun to  put icky bits of paper over a sketch, and through further drawing change the design, ever so slightly.

6. You can colour in a lot

Colors are evocative. But, I fear the digital tribes have no need for the evocation of memory or tone. This because, colour is actually a real thing and there are a lot of colours in the world. More colors in a box of Derwent’s than there are on a colour wheel or pallete in a computer. It’s great to color code sketches to denote and then explore different tones, spaces, materials, or functions. Maybe in the digital world we forgot that real colours, like real fragrances,  are actually derived from the natural world.

Spin me around and around

How did architecture become a race to spin the model around and around, to zoom in and out, How did it become such a stylistic cliché and banal mix of Frei Otto structures, Darcy Thompson geometries, Penrose tiling and fractal geometries that look like unconvincing Origami. This stuff was boring in the late 50s and early 60s and it is still boring now.

The digital tendency masks the social constructs of architectural production and privileged taste-making. Whenever, I see the parametric polemics I always think of the original Futurists Manifesto. For a few minutes, Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists, were the brightest stars in the architectural firmament. The digital tendency is worryingly a re-enchantment of the Futurist trope: an impetus that seeks to legitimise itself with a universal history, and then simultaneously populate our shimmering screens with new figurative angels and demons. A polemic with an underlying passion for imagined enemies and the technologies of war (e.g. Drones).

Despite its claims to the opposite, the digital tendency abhors ecological memory and masks this loss with a belief in a universalising human agency. The digital is the contemporary engine of the Anthropocene.

For some of us architecture is still, and should be, a generalist pursuit. By this I mean that, it is a field of knowledge that spans between disciplines as well as media. But the worst of the digital tendency is rapidly turning it into the domain of techno-nerds with no memory for politics. After all, who needs politics when you can convince yourself that the parametric gesture, through its common and seemingly literal organic images, will bind the human species to nature. This unifying concept has always been a little paradoxical because it has facilitated the project of modernity in its orgiastic destruction of the earth.

So given all of the above, what’s wrong with designing outside of the computer?




So you think you can Design: 5 Nextgen rules for emerging designers.

If you think you can design, or think you are a designer, in this modern and contemporary Trumpian age read this. The traps you should avoid and what you should know is very different from older waves of architects. In practice and in your own career here is what I think is vital if you are to call yourself a designer. Certainly, if you are different in any way, and consider yourself to be a designer, I think it’s better to avoid putting all your energy into the traditional career pathways of architecture.

Each year you have been an architect you can multiply your age by 3-4. It’s a gruelling and demanding profession and that formula makes my architectural age a lot more than 100. Yes, in architectural age terms I am as old as Methuselah and this may be why I am both envious and in awe of newly emerging architects. Better educated, more technologically savvy and also young. Some of my much younger architectural colleagues have done things I only dreamed of doing when I graduated. I think this is because the more recent waves of architectural graduates are not paralysed by the old ways of the lone genius and the some of the moribund norms and traditions of the profession. So here is a few thoughts form my vantage point.

1. Designers don’t need  “the one” path career.

I once landed in Phoenix Arizona whilst travelling with a friend. I was meeting my Aunt and Cousin. Three minutes after we met my crazy American relatives whispered to me about my friend “Is she the ONE.” I just thought, OMG I cant believe I am actually related to these people. These days there is no “ONE” absolute career path for design architects. Maybe, there used to be a very simple career path for architects. Or it seemed that way anyway: Go to architecture school, work part-time for a few people, graduate and then get more experience, sit the accreditation exams, and then either end up in a firm or go the crash and burn option of starting your own practice and then crash and burn.

This particular career path was, I think, largely illusory. Yes, I do know people who have crawled their way up the practice ladder to become project architects, associates, associate directors and then maybe partners. It has taken some of them 25 to 30 years to do it and not everyone has the temperament to stay in the one place without going insane with boredom. Architecture takes a long time to learn but once it is learnt things can become routine and dare I say it boring. Others I know have done the hard yards in their own practices. But your own practice can take around 10 years to establish to a point where the cash flows are not volatile.

Compounding all of this is the nature of the construction industry which is based on an adversarial, project to project, and contract to contract culture. Gender discrimination is only the tip of the iceberg and there is a work life culture which is not as balanced as it should be. Career pathways are more ad hoc than planned.

So as a designer I think its best to avoid the pitfalls of putting all your energy into the traditional pathways. You need a few more career options. The might include non-standard ways to design and practice in and between academia, pro bono work, unique collaborations, competitions, as well as developing design expertise and research in a particular area.

2. Designers create new teams 

The role of the single designer who is the repository of all knowledge is a deadweight that hangs over the profession. A figurehead that everyone reports to or extracts design knowledge from. A taste-maker and arbiter.

Under the new rules new designers create teams rather than being the centre of a team. These new designers know that team diversity, collaboration and team processes are vital if they are to create design knowledge. The next generation of designers will be able to actually design and craft the teams they need for each project.

3. Designers communicate in new ways

The old school designers were not that great at communicating. Mostly they grunted a lot and said unfathomable things that sounded deep to the ears of young architects. Mostly this style of communication was to maintain and foster a kind of designer mystique or aura. There is still a bit of this about.

But in contrast contemporary designers need to communicate. They need to do this firstly with the teams that they manage. But they also need to communicate across boundaries with other disciplines and even more widely. In fact one of the key roles of the designer these days is to communicate across a range of social media channels (just like Trump and his Twitter account). Understanding these channels and doing this effectively is critical to positioning, debating and contesting design ideas in the global system that constitutes architecture.

4. Designers actively blur the boundaries 

Sitting in a Silo and pretending you are a designer doesn’t really work. Pretending you can design by, hanging out in your computer with the BIM models, the CNC machine, 3D printer or jiving with the robots, doesn’t really cut it for me. Architectural Design never was just about technical mastery. That was only part of the equation.

New designers nowadays are indeed skilled in and adept at the technological crafts. But they don’t sit in the silo of technology. They actively blur boundaries between domains of knowledge, systems and technologies; as well as theories and histories sub-cultures, groups, and teams. In fact designers are the ones shaping the boundaries between different fields of knowledge and groups.

5. Designers understand that Knowledge is the new currency

It  used to be all about the object, or materiality or presence. I would be rich if I had deposited a dollar in my Acorn’s account every time I heard the word materiality. In the 20th Century olden-times  of architecture  it was all about chasing the next big physical and large-scale commission. For many designers the physical object is where it is at. For many this remains the case.

These days I worry that this is emphasis on the object is just a little too phallocentric and limits the range of what we can do as architectural designers.

These days data, information and knowledge are the real currency of design. Designers now need to understand data analytics, advanced, diagramming mapping and coding. They need to understand these things in order to produce design knowledge and this knowledge may not necessarily be that archetypal prestigious institutional building or commission that every designer wants to design. It may also be a competition entry, a system, a strategy, a policy, a research project, a consultative process, an activist campaign and dare I say it a life.


Paradoxical Design Thinking: How architects can avoid the BIG IDEA is crap trap.

In this week’s blog I resuscitate from my vault an old conference paper which discusses design processes. This came after a conversation with friend about how and why his firm of architects is suffering because they have not won a lot of new work recently. I think this blog might help those architects and other creative orientated firms, stuck in a rut, and seeking to reflect on their creative processes. 

The BIG IDEA syndrome

Trump is full of big ideas like build a wall, lock up HRC and even all those franchising ideas Trump steak, Trump uni, Trump perfume and Trump Vodka. Sadly for some there is a view that creativity and genius is something innate. A secret sauce or recipe that is embedded in our DNA. This sensibility leads to people looking for the one big idea. The BIG IDEA. Dare I say it: the big fucking idea. The secret to the universe or the solution to the particular problem. (Of course as noted in another blog when the problem is “wicked” there may not even be a single solution). Unfortunately, in the many professional cultures, for example architecture, urban design, landscape urbanism and maybe even advertising, the single idea or big idea view reigns supreme. Once you have that idea you, or the team, runs with it. But as Andy Warhol said of Trump he is kind of cheap and I think the same about the Big Idea in architecture. It’s always kind of cheap.

So, what if the one BIG Trumpian idea is crap? How do you avoid the Bad BIG IDEA syndrome (it’s a bit like saying how can America avoid Trump)? If the idea is bad you might lose the competition, the job, the client or the pitch. You might even lose the confidence of your team working on it. You might end up with a design or an end strategy that is so bad that all you can do is polish it a bit (there is a saying for this but I think I can only sustain one profanity per blog post).

Paradoxical Design can save you 

One way to get around this conundrum is to abandon the focus on the one big idea syndrome and always build a portfolio of ideas into your design practice. This is done by deliberately fostering the generation of paradoxical or counter ideas in a project. Ideas that are in opposition to the prevailing project idea. In opposition to the one BIG IDEA. In other words, its great have a few paradoxical, counter or oppositional ideas being pursued at once. Yes, it makes for chaos with contradictory ideas are competing at some point in the project but this is manageable and ensures that you are not locked into a dog of an idea. The counter ideas can help you to test and compare the prevailing idea. Not only that but you can use the paradoxical ideas in other projects in the future.

Design thinking is about constantly generating creative ideas and every project should run with and explore a few ideas in parallel. This is one aspect of design thinking that most, but not all architects, understand and are taught in architecture schools (well some of the time anyway).

Running with a few paradoxical ideas might actually save time and effort (and of course money) in the long run. The problem is that for architects or other creative design professionals changes are often seen as being unwelcome and at odds with sequential project development milestones. Changes are often seen as negative in a productivity sense; or changes contribute to rework during the construction or production process and this adds costs to project risks. Also, there is the perennial problem of how you explain changes to the client.

But, on the other hand creative and generative design is seen to foster innovation and this is at the heart of the design paradox. One way is to ignore this constant paradox but the other way is to embrace Paradoxical Design.

Paradoxical Design and innovation 

In innovation theory a number of notable theorists also suggest that embracing Paradoxical Design means recognising, but also fighting against linear and binary descriptions of the design process. As Winch theorised (sorry to get all academic here) designing can either be characterized as either a conjectural model or a linear model (Winch, 1998). He argues that the linear model is a problem solving approach which involves analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Which is all very well and dandy. But he goes onto argue that the conjectural model, a model which is arguably linked to ker-razzy assed architectural design, is more discontinuous or disruptive. For those of you reading this interested in innovation theories and systems, in Clayton Christensen’s parlance, (the elder-king of innovation academics) conjectural design is what might be termed as exploratory innovation.

In Paradoxical Design, an initial hunch or conjecture is formulated and following this the process then proceeds through a number of iterations. It is through these paradoxical iterations that design knowledge is created; in each iteration conjectures are proposed and then abandoned. The iterations, or the creative idea embodied in each one, are paradoxical because they might be quite different to one another. They may even contradict each other.

A rapid survey of architects

In a rapid survey I did a few years back of architectural firms practices in Australia in a desperate effort to churn out a quick conference paper. I aimed to find out to what degree architects pursue Radical Design vs Incremental Design solutions as design projects progressed. You can find the paper here. Its full of diagrams describing the process I am describing.

To cut a long story short, in the survey I defined Radical Design solutions as: solutions “leading to fundamental rethinking of elements of the project”, “affect the form or conceptual origin”, “change the design concept” or “a change that affects the fundamental design – so great that the concept must be re-assessed or thrown out.

In the survey which had about 70 respondents the term Incremental Design was seen as being “stepwise improvements” or “incremental refinements of an existing idea.” Incremental Design represents linear, logical, and rational design gestures and solutions.

Survey results

28% of the Architects surveyed responded by saying that “Pursuing radical design changes is a part of the practice’s normal design process.” 29% claimed that “In our practice any project the principal designer, designer teams and design architects have the time to pursue new design solutions throughout the project.” More importantly. 42% stated that “continuing to generate both Incremental and Radical design solutions throughout the process helps to identify and highlight new design issues and problems as the design progresses.”

In terms of cost benefits, 21% responded that “Continuing to generate both Radical and Incremental design solutions throughout the process outweighs impacts on project delivery time or cost.” But despite this 72% acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to discard a design solution or sketch design and start the design process again in order to achieve a better project outcome. And 65% agreed that “Creating and then culling both Radical and Incremental successive design solutions in a given project helps to achieve high quality and innovative design.

Design architects are often accused of changing their minds once decisions have been made during the project development and delivery process. Some see this as architects just being all about ker-razzy assed architects. For other professions, even creative ones, paradoxical design is not possible. This is because an investment in design itself is seen as all too costly and wasteful. Let alone running with the wolves of Paradoxical Design. But, on my town we all remember the brouhaha over Federation Square; which turned out great despite the village naysayers decrying its cost and design.Of course it is always cheaper to run with one idea. But, a badly and cheaply designed building or project has many longer term societal costs.

But if you really want to find the creative idea that is so compelling that clients, users and the punters can’t resist it then you are not going to find it just latching onto the first big idea that comes along. Thats part of the paradox I guess. You may only get there by thinking about a set of pradoxical ideas rather than one BIG IDEA.  In any case, thinking about and managing Paradoxical Design processes is a great way to build design knowledge and a portfolio of design ideas in your firm. Paradoxical Design thinking is essential to winning those clients, the big commissions and the awards.

My students in the colliding spaces studio have pretty much finished the semester. thankfully no one imploded. A few even seemed to enjoy it ! But then again as we all know archi-students will say a lot of nice things about their tutors to get a good mark. I am hoping to put their projects up on this site in the next few weeks.