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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, I strongly agree with her argument that:

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

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

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

She then concludes that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Finishing the design when you have have no time left. 

The myth of the lone architectural genius has never really factored in the notion of individual and psychological well-being. We always seem to assume that the super-star designer’s produce a continuous stream of design work. If we subscribe to this view it means that these guys are always spitting out the big new and dazzling ideas. All the fucking time. In reality most architects have crazy lives juggling everything for sometimes very little reward.

Everyone gets tired, even architects, not everyone has a great idea everyday and in reality  its hard work to test the really good ideas that you get anyway. Besides, not every project is great and sometimes it takes a lot of work to make a mundane project with severe constraints good. In reality design production for individual architects is something that waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows, and is subjected to personal circumstance, energy and focus. It can be hard trying to finish a design when you are out of mojo.

Even harder when you are ferrying your kids around town, juggling the cashflow, designing another tiny kitchen and turning up to confront the sly anti-architect jokes at the site meetings.

But perhaps we should also spare a thought, if not any sympathy, for the archetypal indolent architecture student. Especially the one who has done no work. Its always tough for architecture students to get to the end of the project. I was always one of those students that was good at starting, talking up the ideas, but not so good at finishing a project. It didn’t really help that I couldn’t draft my way out of a paper bag. Usually, by the end of the studio I had invested so much of myself, as well as time and effort, into the project that I was exhausted.

I have written a few other posts about the end of semester and these should be of some help to students in this situation. But it’s never over until it is over so here are a few more suggestions. All of these suggestions are meant for those of you, for whatever reason risk falling into  the end of project/semester panic vortex. Or for those of you whose energy has waned. As well as being for those designers out there who who need help because you have spent too much time having fun, ferrying your kids around, fighting off the creditors, and the client presentation is tomorrow.

1.Dont Panic 

Panic produces chaos.

Before you panic and go straight into hyper reactive mode don’t forget to schedule your time. Don’t end up in the print queue at the last minute.

Figure out when you need to submit or present to tge client and work back from that. Allow for printing, digital layout out and modelling. Allow for time to do a proof. Remember you don’t have time to be indecisive or even time to panic. Work back from the end and prioritise your tasks. What are the most important design elements you need to work on? Which design elements will carry the day despite the fact you have done no work or have run out of time?

Once you have your priorities ordered solve each problem methodically.

2. Don’t worry about the other architects.

Let them worry about you.

Forget about what other people are doing. Don’t compare yourself unfavourably to them. Its is such a waste of valuable emotional energy. Its to late to be critical negative of your own or the work of others.

However, you can ask them to look at stuff. When you own eyes start to fail its always good to ask someone, another architect or maybe even your grandmother,  if something looks ok. Use your peers, mentors and friends as a way to filter out the bad bits and details of your scheme.

Your tutors and clients will always like you for not subjecting them to ugly and ungainly graphics.

3. Under no circumstances stay awake all night.

BAD, BAD and more BAD.

There is nothing good about this. You cant make wise design decisions at 3 am in the morning. You run the risk of going backwards.

Yes, indeed: BAD, BAD and more BAD.

4. Annoy your tutors and even your clients. 

After all they got you into this mess.

Yes, the more contact you have with your tutors at this point the better. Email them and ask for advice. Show them your preliminary layouts. Ask them questions.

The more contact you have with them the more sympathetic they will be at the final crit (maybe) and your clients will think you have actually been working.

5. Give everything a second glance.

Tell your story in images as well as words.

Old Raisbeck Saying: If it looks good it is good. But look at everything twice if you can. Think carefully about your graphics. Fonts, typefaces, placement of images relative weightings of images. Don’t get carried away. Keep it simple. Avoid cutting and pasting the following items from your library into plans and sections.

Tutors and even clients can spot graphic filler from a mile away.

6. Don’t colour everything in on those renders.

More Bad.

Digital renders are not like one of those colour by numbers colouring books. Digital images are not real and its naive to think otherwise. Save yourself some time and tread lightly with the colours. Think about the best way to convey your idea through the images and this is not the same as making it real or “natural”.

It is better to build up your layers of colour in your renders bit by bit. Don’t over saturate. Once they look finished you can move to the next task.

The critics including clients will want to know that your design concept relates to final presentation.

7. Make the people, animals cars or trees in your renders appropriate and even funny.

Make it relevant.

If your project is in Kurdistan. Make sure the people in it are Kurds and not rich white guys from New York. Diversity is good and the design critics will think you have actually thought about the whole design if you have thought about the people in the images.

Your clients will love you forever if you Photoshop them into the renders.

7. Remember to think about construction.

Dear architecture students your building is not made of evenly thick concrete with a few walls and openings.

Think about your design as you are drawing it. Don’t just stand up at the end and say its made of concrete or brick. If you have no idea about the construction think of something you have seen and can us it as an example.

Think about water. Yes, thats right water. How does your project, building, project, shed water. Is there a roof? Are there parts of the building where people get wet. What happens when it rains? Have you drawn a roof plan.?Are there pavements, drains and gardens that soak the water up around the project? Also, think about sequencing what is  going to be built first? Is it the  frame or are there panels or other constructions systems or elements that order the construction sequence.

Any construction detail will help convince the clients you are a pragmatist and not some wild and crazy auteur struggling to make a living. In the eyes of the studio critics any kind of constructional nuance will help save you.

8. Diagram as you finalise the drawings.

Diagram, diagram and diagram.

If you don’t have time to draw it fully then diagram it. Diagrams also help you to think about how you will talk about it. Thinking about what you will say might then appear to be integrated with your actual diagrams and images.

What do you want to say? Which parts of the design best exemplify your concept? How do you want to promote or discuss the concept. How can you show this in diagrams.

The more diagrams you have the more the critics will love you and the more things you can explain, without laboriously drawing them completely, to the clients.

9. If you have done no work all semester do a section.

Just turning up with plans and a few hazy renders is a signal to every critic, and even client, between here and Antarctica that you have done nothing.

If you do a section the critics will love you. The clients wont neccesarily understand it but then you can explain it.

10. Go physical.

Make a physical model.

Even if its a bad bad physical model like the ones I used to do. You will always get some points for doing it.

Everyone loves a model.

Now that its the end of the teaching semester I am off to visit the ancient cities and landscapes in the interior of my continent. I will be back in a week or so and I would like to thank all of who who supported and read this blog so far in 2017.  

This is The End: Australian Architecture’s end game.

Like Martin Sheen in the above image most architects in Australia are barely surviving. Their heads are just barely above water. Like the Doors song “The End” one must question if the profession is heading down the gurgler as I noted in a previous blog. For those of you reading this in larger practices with lots of awards and institutional work or from the comfort of the large multi-disciplinary practices or consultancies spare a thought for the noble and small architectural firm. The tribal firm, protecting its own local territory and connecting to community, and yet struggling to survive. These firms exist in a highly competitive climate; most do housing , competing with every other wackadoodle price cutting, project manager, builder or huckster, and most are struggling to survive.

Tipping point. 

Without new industry wide strategies and approaches aligned with effective industry development the long term survival of these firms is not sustainable.  We are possibly about to reach a tipping point as baby boomer firm directors retire leading to even less critical mass in the profession. A tipping point and mass extinction.

Chart_Q7_170406Chart 1: Outsourcing is widespread 

Technology and Disaggregation

A few quotes from the architects who responded to our recent surveys will suffice:

“We see that conventional Architectural Services are not going to be sustainable in the future and are looking at other services and models of practice to survive.”

and:

“Specialist Services, sadly, are a precursor to the the shame of the an industry being eroded by the increasingly acceptable practice of piecemeal delivery”

and this doosey from a practitioner working in the housing market:

That market is highly competitive and the fees were not sustainable and the liability was enormous. The role and respect for architects in those areas has dramatically reduced over the last 15 to 20 years.

In the practice class at MSD this week we had a Q&A panel on documentation. A practitioner who runs a documentation outsourcing company came and spoke. He is at the cutting edge of disaggregated services. He fills the gap for architects who can’t document or administer contracts. Some of the work of this practice is outsourced to documentation factories in South-East Asia. Increasingly technologies such as BIM are driving the commodification of architectural services. Design Development is almost non-existent these days. Ever tried explaining to a client what DD is? 

Chart_Q14_170406Chart 2: Competition is Intense 

Strategy and business plan education

Architectural education at large, alongside the accreditation standards, basically doesn’t give a fuck about anything outside of the box ticking. By this I mean any curriculum or syllabus, that might suggest that architects are more than just a profession of digital building technicians; more than a profession plying commoditized knowledge and processes. The univerisites simply want fee revenue, customer satisfaction and graduate employment outcomes. All of which conspires to corrode our discipline of architecture. Worse still, our own accreditation standards have been built around activities that, are not about analysis, entrepreneurship, strategic thinking or innovation but are about simply “doing it.” Doing the old SD, DD, CD, CA dance is what it’s all about.  Thank god those national competency standards still at least cover a knowledge of history and theory. It won’t be long before the university’s replace those aspects of our architectural education with CNC fabrication subjects. 

Business planning or strategy specifically tailored to architecture students is scant. Much easier to get the commerce faculty to give them a dose of generic marketing and branding. In response to our survey questions it is obvious many architects do not have business plans and I suspect this is because they are just struggling to get the work at hand done.

Chart_Q6_biz-plan_170406 (1)

                      Chart 3: Too few business plans 

Demographics and Diversity.

Yes, we still need more data and research into the demographics and underlying industry diversity. But the problem here I think is that architects think they are already diverse enough when they clearly are not. This is still a white Anglo-Celtic male dominated profession. This has hampered the profession at large from rejuvenating itself from within. It may be the efforts to rejuvenate the profession by correcting its misalignments with gender, race and class may now be too late.

Check out this great video and then think about the profession you know.

Research 

The architectural profession in Australia has had no research infrastructure for some time. As a result, architects have little knowledge about their own industry structure. Profitability, what segments of the market they dominate, various practice financial demographics, and the impact of technology. are all mostly mysteries. In the battle for survival it is always the larger firms that win out in driving industry policy, research and shaping industry structure. The problem is all of our current research on our industry, fostered by the peak bodies and associations, is catch-up research. Very little of it will add to the competitive standing of architects. It’s mostly about understanding how things stand. Not about how architects can get better at innovating. 

My own bitter experience suggests that the ARC research system, with few exceptions, has not served us well at all. As far as many architectural researchers are concerned it is a broken system. A few years back myself and two other middle career researchers joined with a small firm to submit an ARC Linkage proposal focused on small practices and BIM. We got excellent peer review reports back. The other researchers thought it was in the bag. One of them even had dream we had got it. But in that round the big money went to a project with eminent and credentialed researchers with a big practice partner focused on health. In the ARC system its much easier to get funding if you have been to an elite uni overseas and sometimes you don’t even need a PhD. Fair enough, that’s how the system works. It would be a better system if it was blind reveiwed. But it’s a system that is killing a profession that needs effective bottom up research as it struggles to survive.

The Perfect Storm 

It’s a perfect storm. Of course its easier to think that everything is ok. But everything is not ok. Architects in Australia may be at a tipping point. The profession is in a parlous state and even though I believe architects have much to offer our society and culture it is tragic many ordinary practices are stuck in the constant game of survival.

Design Leadership for Architects?

Design Week is almost here in my antipodean city on the edge of the global galactic system of architecture. There are lots of great events, including this one with GT2P, even for those of us with the most cynical and jaded of architectural hearts. There is lots of stuff about how we might value design but not a lot about design leadership specifically. Effective design leadership is really about promoting the value of design in our communities and actually working to increase its value. It should also have an activist component.

We don’t teach design leadership in architecture, landscape architecture or urban design. Leadership studies are broadly a branch of the management and organisational sciences. As a field of knowledge Leadership sits somewhere between management and sociology. Architecture has been so insidiously structured by the mythology of the singular male genius that any objective talk of organisational leadership and its conduct in architecture is usually greeted with silent derision. I know at least one architecture school where that is the case. No prizes for guessing which one (not mine). This approach certainly shuts down any sense of more inclusive notions of leadership. Not only are diverse teams needed in architecture but architects need to understand how to manage these teams. If collaborative models of practice are the future of architecture, as some would suggest, then leadership is an essential component of that.

It is the more inclusive, expansive and indeed realist notions of leadership that we really need to teach in Architetcure and our related disciplines.

Design leadership requires a knowledge of design processes that isn’t simply about waiting around for the big idea. Or having a whole lot of wholesome intentions (like sustainability) that you throw into the mix. Design processes can be learnt by most people and are counter to the view that some people just have “it”. That is to say that there is a secret source (sauce?)  code of creativity that only some people have.

I think both schools and practices (in their career development programs) need to encourage, teach and actively foster, through mentorship, design leadership. I think two areas need to be covered: Knowledge and Implementation skills.

Knowledge

Innovation and Commercialisation

The dark arts of intellectual property creation and management. Start-up processes and venture capital phases need to be understood. There is a whole range of things in the start-up system design leaders should understand. For example, the differences between seed and start-up capital, development capital, dilution of founder’s equity, trademarks and patents are all concepts architects should be familiar with.

Concepts related to innovation systems and policy also need to be apprehended and understood by design leaders in architecture.

Knowledge of the Canon

Design leader in architecture need an extensive knowledge of architectural history, theory typologies and morphologies. Last week in the practice class we asked everyone if they know who Tadao Ando and I was surprised by the number of blank looks. I don’t think this is the fault of teaching architectural historians. But I do think anything we can do to remind young architects that the canon is historical and it comprised by both a physical and digital realm. Trickle down web histories, and the latest meme or viral concept can be really superficial and don’t really cut it as architectural history.

Design Futures 

Design leaders need to understand futures and I don’t just mean cooking up a whacky scheme of for a post icecap melt flooded city or suburb or city flooded. (why do we keep seeing this stuff; can you imagine what a flooded city might really be like?). Our future speculations need to adopt advanced tools of scenario planning and modelling not just spitting out a few renders of domes on the moon with Tesla batteries.

Implementation Skills. 

Design Teams 

Essential for design leaderships is for design leaders to understand the dynamics of team processes. This requires self-reflection on the part of a design leader to be able to manage a diverse team rather than a team created in their own image. Look around the office you are currently working in does everyone look the same, did they go to the same graduate school or come from the same social milieu? The best teams are diverse teams and the best design leaders are the ones who can manage this.

Design Processes 

The better design leaders will be the ones who can manage design processes that are not simply linear and contain within them high degrees of ambiguity. Excellence in design leadership is about being able to create, generate and manage seemingly paradoxical ideas and processes; and doing this in a team. Great design leaders are the one who not just top down decision makers but are able to reconcile bottom up, or emerging design strategies, with strategic, seemingly, top down priorities. Knowing the difference between structured decision-making leading to incremental change and more creative generative approaches is critical. Knowing when to employ processes of creative destruction (and not just at the last fucking minute before the tender is due to go out) and processes that generate radical ideas and solutions in a given context is important.

Design leadership is about timing these different modes of idea generation.

Design Collaboration and Negotiation 

Collaboration and negotiation are basic skills that architects need to develop. It is oh so much easier to adopt a model of design leadership that is top down, transactional and seeks to reward and punish people (usually staff). That is way of managing that is inherently violent. It is violent because it is a process that grants and removes resources at will. The “good’ staff are rewarded and the “bad” staff are punished. It’s a model that seems to permeate architectural office and design studios. Great design leaders have the ability to see the good things in all members and instead of writing of the “bad” ones use their views to generate new insights about a conceptual design or as the design develops.

Irksome things (to me at least)

Design leadership studies and research can bring together and integrates the different sub-disciplines that define our field. It’s a little scary when you look at entire new courses and subjects being devised in architecture schools and there are no subjects or courses on leadership. Of course they are full of all sorts of technical things, construction, digital technology, and the one I really hate: sustainability. How did sustainability studies become reduced to the technical intricacies of architectural science or cranking the handle of the LEED or Green Star ratings. Why isn’t it about shifting the weight of a Carbon system to something completely different in a few short decades?

I hate those all-purpose sustainability mission statements about seeing things holistically, and being “organic” and being nice to Gaia and all it boils down to is a bit of facade design and a few plants thrown onto the facades. This design week event is more like it. If architects were really honest as a  discipline they would rename sustainability studies and call them decarbonising studies or extinction or degradation studies.

Finally Activism. 

Design leadership is about activism. I think this means be explicit about the political in architecture. Good design leadership is about knowing where you stand. It is about knowing what the political tradeoffs are in a given context of patronage and institutional logics. I don’t think we can afford to pretend that architecture is apolitical. It never was in the first place and it’s a pity the parametric technologists don’t get this. Otherwise you are just blowing with the wind and that is not really what design leadership should be about.

 

 

 

 

 

Strategy and Design Thinking: Why architects need strategic thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Kick in the Head for the Architects: Symbolising the National Parliament as Detention Centre.

Welcome back. First full blog for 2017. 

As soon as Romaldo Giurgola’s concept for Parliament house Canberra came into being it had perhaps already sown the seeds of it own destruction. This is because it was always a holistic and seamless conception of democracy. A unitary idea that appeared without effort to bind together a complex competition brief, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s plan, Canberra’s landscape and the aspirations of a social democracy (of course no mention of the first nations). The concept of a building underground with a hill over it was clever. The spin was that this was a people’s house a monument which allowed the punters, the ordinary public, absolute access above its interior parliamentary workings.

As reported in December:

 the Australian government announced plans for a $60-million security upgrade to Parliament House that included installing 38 CCTV cameras and building a 2.6-metre-high perimeter fence that would prevent the public from accessing the lawns.

Giurgola’s concept

But in hindsight perhaps Giurgola’s concept was all too clever and it is only now that the flaws of the concept are all too apparent. The current move by the parliamentary executive to fence off the hill from the public in the name of security certainly suggest this. The contrast between the aspirations embedded in Giurgola’s concept and the current proposals to change and manage the building could not be more disparate. These current proposals amount to a vandalism of the building’s architecture that is extremely disturbing.

Giurgola’s architecture was that kind of modern classicism prevalent from the mid 20thC onwards. The design is redolent of his mentor (and teacher?) at Penn Louis Kahn, the architect, who more than any modern architect, looked to reinstating a nostalgia for the classicism of Rome and map these to the mythologies of the American republic. There is certainly nothing overtly “Australian” about the overall parti and conceptual design of Giurgola’s project. Most of the seemingly Australian elements were added in a kind of decorative and featuristic way in the internal spaces.

The Competition

Other competition schemes for Parliament house proposed more difficult and indeed complex concepts for how to represent a democracy in this country. Edmond and Corrigan’s concept for the site easily springs to mind. No doubt there are others. The E&C scheme is an interesting comparison to Giurgola’s proposal. Incomplete, fragmentary and more a ad hoc bundle of forms partly incomplete that suggest a city on a hill. A work in progress rather than a monolithic and unitary composition. Unlike Guirgola’s homogenous composition E&C’s entry was brave enough to distribute a few pieces of virtuosity across the site. In some ways Giurgola’s composition, in its efforts to be timeless, is devoid of architectural detail or intimacy. It’s all big scale and symmetry. There is a complete lack of estrangement in the composition. This is certainly not a classicism that even approaches the humour and  empty ironies  of Lutyen’s classical monuments for example.

This is not to belittle Giurgola or his achievements but it is to point to the folly of architectures that are bound to a historic nostalgia and paradoxically the anti-historical idea that there is in architecture so-called fundamentals. Fundamentals and histories that draw upon myths of origin and the monuments of the Roman Forum and the Acropolis.I also vaguely recall at the time that there was a suggestion that the satellite view of the project, read in conjunction with Giurgola’s Italian connections, resembled the fasces symbol.  As the Italian critic Tafuri suggested of Kahn this is an architecture that seeks a “mystic aura” and has a “misplaced faith in the charismatic power of institutions.” But you will probably agree that this is probably beside the point if you read on.

Let the fear loose 

Nonetheless, Giurgola’s original concept and the building deserves respect.  Over the break I met a journo from the press gallery who stated that the good Burghers of the parliament did not want anything bad (e.g terrorism) to happen on their watch. This is the new conservative political correctness. Firstly, conservatives ramp up and create the fears and once these fears are let loose they step in to solve them.

As we now know after years of neo-liberal economics, executive government, the continuing catastrophe of the Middle East set in play by the invasion of Iraq, the hopes and failures of Occupy that a seamless idea of democracy is mostly fantasy.  Arguably democracies are fragmentary, ephemeral and sometimes short lived. As we are beginning to see they are fragile and easily eroded by cycles of fear mongering. To represent them as a holistic and complete image, as is the case with Giurgola’s design, is bound to lead to trouble at some point. For no seamless and complete image can sustain itself for long before its contradictions are exposed.

Even if we grant that the presiding officers of the Parliament have legitimate concerns. It is, as usual, the professional planners of the National Capital Authority, supported by GML Heritage, who really have no idea about architectural heritage, values or history. In parliamentary reports and hearings they argue the fence will not compromise the Heritage values of the site because it can easily be taken down.

At the Joint Standing Committee of December 1 the CEO and chief planner of  the NCA as well as the Acting Executive director of the National Capital Estate all argued that the measures would not infringe the heritage values of this building. At best all I can say is that this belies a genuine lack of architectural knowledge.

Another kick in the head for architectural values from planners not trained in architecture.

The current proposal seems to be a knee jerk reaction to fear. Such sentiments only deepen my cynicism for our governing political masters (not to mention the planners involved). Masters who have no concern for architecture in any way. It’s all ratcheted up fear and then cheap belt and braces pragmatics. Why not a design competition for the fence? Perhaps they could have thought of better ways to control and monitor the building’s hill top in line with both of the Griffin’s and Gurigola’s vision.

No these are men and women who have no regard for architecture, architectural design, or culture. Perhaps their idea of culture is a bit of golf, wine snobbery and an “intellectual” interest in the sports prevalent in our mass media. Again and again in our society, as architects, we are witness to this sensibility. Where architecture lies outside of cultural and institutional logics. The Sirius building, the debacle of Barangaroo, the continued destruction of the remnant 19thC fragments in our major cities. Yet many of our politicians claim to have our best interests of our democracy at heart and yet when it comes to architecture they always seem to favour cheapness.

The bright sparks at the NCA stated that:

The NCA is satisfied that the proposed works have been designed in such a way as to reduce the impacts on the heritage values of Parliament House. Whilst the new structures will be visible, the Heritage Impact Assessment notes that the potential for visual impacts has been reduced to a reasonable level by the modest scale of the guardhouses. The siting of the fence is in keeping with the landscaping contours originally designed to accommodate a fence.

In the May parliamentary hearings the NCA fence is described in the following terms.

  • Construction of two gatehouses in precast concrete with stainless steel and aluminium window framing (you gotta love the shop front framing)
  • Installation of steel security fence and retractable gates (approx.2.6m high)
  •  Installation of eight fixed stainless steel bollards
  • Installation of ten surveillance security cameras and poles
  •  Replacement of window framing and glazing.

This is the architecture most favoured by our political classes. An architecture of cruelty (but not in any nice Artaud kind of way): aluminium window framing, spare skillion roofs, metal decks, steel gates, and off the shelf building products. Just do a Google image search on Manus Island or Christmas Island detention centres and you will see what I mean.

The fence has had a long and cruel history in Australia and this new fence around our national parliament is no exception. The awful thing is that these mofos will have morphed the symbolism of our national parliament building into that of the immigration detention centre.

You can sign the petition against the proposal here. 

Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: Online Culture, Universities and the Architecture School.

This post was first published in January 2016. I had such a great time at the Six Degrees end of season party (snapshot of what I did at the party above; smoking and petty vandalism inflicted on a strawberry). It was in their new office a few days ago and it reminded of what I had written here. 

Bowie is dead and this made me think about the rock and roll life style. I just thought great maybe I should listen a bit to his Berlin trilogy of albums and ponder the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. Questions rang in my head. Why couldn’t I be more like Bowie? Is 69 the new 27 0r 28? Naturally, these thoughts made me think about my experiences at architecture school 30 years ago. Then I saw an article in the Harvard Business Review which argued that developing a organisational culture is critical if an organisation or enterprise is to be successful. In my grieving Bowie mind it all seemed to link up and this got me thinking about the context I work in and how the issue of culture is currently playing itself out in Architecture schools and more broadly universities via social media. 

All Australian Universities, and not just architecture schools,  appear to suffer from the malaise I describe below. A uncertain policy environment does not help. Why make positive and strategic policy decisions when it’s so much easier to measure stuff. 

Teaching and research academics, like myself are increasingly regulated, measured and administered. I concur with the article in the HBR that play is an important part of developing a organisational culture. Organisations that are constantly monitored, managed and measured end up being crap organisations with a transactional culture of individuals incentivised to blame, use carrot sticks on each other and amass brownie points rather than contributing to a collective culture of ideas (Or as the HBR article summarises it more politely, “emotional and economic pressure combined with inertia” erode motivation). Organisational culture is all too often managed out of the equation. I once had to explain to a university manager why it was a good idea to buy a few dips and have a few bottles of wine for cohort function for new architecture students. They kept saying: “why would you bother to do that?”

The reputation of a school like the AA in Bedford Square London is famously said to be built around its bar. The architecture school I attended, which will remain nameless here, quickly built its reputation as one of the best architecture schools in Australia on similiar factors. Firstly, it developed a culture around the rituals of the end of semester drinking fest, opening night parties and long alcohol soaked dinners with local architects. It became a hot bed of gossip and trivial scandal. It appointed a Head of Department who appeared to want to do nothing more than party with the local architects and put on great parties for the students. Of course as a young graduate teaching at the place I took all of this ethic on wholeheartedly. This was until I got into trouble for standing in front of a group of prospective students and their prim parents and said that attending architecture school was all about sex and drugs and rock and roll.
It was a highly effective strategy by the HOD. 

All of this activity, quickly drew in practitioners, decision makers, graduates and students. It wasn’t too long before the discussions, debates, controversies, and alliances engendered by this activity resulted in the school being seen as the centre of the known architectural universe. The parties were the places where the business was done: where the school’s students formed their career networks, where recent graduates found jobs and where industry did deals. It became a culture where architectural ideas were promulgated and debated and this culture inevitably became associated with the school itself. Quickly the school gained an international reputation as a place to be. The product’s of the school’s vibrant culture became associated with the schools brand and this contributed to the school’s reputation. A reputation which it still holds today 30 years after its formation. Building a culture within any tertiary program adds to the student experience, helps to foster links with industry and position a school as a place of disciplinary leadership.

As an architectural academic who now works at a university I am conscious of the technological differences between today and when I was taught. The web and social media now reign supreme. Building a culture in an architecture school, or in any university cohort for that matter is now very different. All of the activities of student experience are often programmed and managed via web interfaces. Relationships to industry are fostered by industry nights and public lectures managed though online ticketing. Alumni are managed via databases and contact software. 

Web pages abound for every graduate architecture school in Australia but when I look at these many seem to be stale and lacking in interactivity. Few, if at all any, seem to contribute to building an online culture or a community of interest around a school. Yet, it seems that social media, in addition to the parties, is one critical way that a school or university department could build its reputation as a place of intellectual excitement and controversy. Digital content needs to be actively produced, and social media should be used to both foster and connect students to the events and architectural culture of the school.

Building online cultures

So along with having more cocktail parties, exhibition openings, public seminars and lectures. I offer the following suggestions:
Forget print. Develop a digital platform and a governing architecture for this platform. All faculties should have a sub-Dean responsible for digital policy and delivery. Other organisations in the Industry have digital CEOs.

1. Build a community of influence centred the school. Get recent and distinguished alumni, members of industry and students themselves to influence and write short pieces or blogs on issues of interest to both student and industry (my friends at Parlour have been able to do this very cleverly with few resources).

2. Tweet and Instagram and Snapchat all the time. One way to do this is to get a different academic, distinguished alumni, student or staff member to take on this role each week.

3. Connect social media to real time events. Use the real time social media channels such as Tweet and Instagram and Snapchat (and I forgot to mention Tumblr). Use these to follow and stay in touch with exhibitions, events and the student lifecycle.

4. Communicate to cohort segments via the most ubiquitous platforms such as Facebook. 

5. Publish the selected work of every studio each semester on the web.

6. Use a central web page that directs and connects to all of the other digital points of connection.

7. Forget the corporate branding and get the web graphics right. The best design schools have the best graphics. Change the look every two to three years.

8. Publish multimedia and rich content on the web: simulations of projects, cartoons, interviews with architects and architectural presentations and guest lectures.

9. Send out a monthly newsletter to all alumni who want it. Use it as away to get alumni to contact each other.

Too often universities and the managers see a digital platform as a way to market the school rather than as a means to build a culture. Filling web pages with pictures of the brightest looking students and recent graduates doesn’t really do it for me. Too often the managerial class sees regulation and administrative rules as the solution to everything. As noted in the HBR article by Lindsay McGregor “A great culture is not easy to build — it’s why high performing cultures are such a powerful competitive advantage.” As universities move to, and impose, online modes of teaching it would be a tragedy if the old ways and culture of the architecture school was erased.