10 things Architects learnt from the Apple at Federation Square Debate


All that remains of the Western Shard at Federation Square is an imprint on my Shard protest t-shirt. 

In case you missed it the Open House Melbourne debate regarding the Apple store at Federation Square took place last week. I watched the live stream at home on my Apple iPad. I couldn’t get a ticket and something else was on at work at the same time. But I decided to stick it out and settled down with my APPLE Gold iPad Mini (yes, terrible I know to admit, obviously I am some kind of unwitting sucked in APPLE consumer; Oh, and I should say I am typing this on an Apple Power Book that is owned by my University).

I hate getting on bandwagons no matter the cause. Cause orientated bandwagons always seem too cultish and clubbish for my liking. But hey, at least I was involved with the effort to Save the Shard. I still have my T-Shirt to prove it. What worries me now are the echoes of that debate in this one.

I watched it on the live stream for more than the entire 2 hours. I am thinking the whole thing is going to make a great case study for my Design Activism course in September.

Its great Open House Melbourne organised this debate. It was seen by many as a mature debate around issues of urban design and public in our city. But, if the debate was mature, then we can also ask, how nuanced was this debate ?

So here is everything you need to know about the debate at Federation Square in 10 easy to digest points.

1. Let’s face it the Yarra Building at Fed Square became a bit awkward. 


As hinted at by Donald Bates one of the architects of Federation Square, in his debate speech. The Yarra building never was the best bit of Federation Square, it was worth a try at the time, as a commercial space, so why not change it now? Why not redesign the Square? Or should we just keep the Yarra Building as a piece of so-called heritage?

2. Some people like to say the word Activation a lot.


I must have done my post-graduate urban design degree so long ago at RMIT that it was before this activation word came into vogue. Donald Bates mentioned it a few times but Ron Jones on the Anti-Apple side mentioned it a lot. It even made the internet tabloids.

Its zombie urbanism concepts like this that a sliming (or slimeing?) our cities with low-grade commerce. Does “activating an edge” mean putting in little coffee shop, or kripsy kreme, tenancies all along a so-called urban “edge”.

3.Politicians still need to figure out that community consultation processes for large-scale projects are needed.

I think Cr. Ron Leppert was able to set out the case for the failure amongst our political class (the non-greens class) to adequately consult and to be transparent.  It was great when he kept saying something along the lines of “I am not an architect”, but I am still going to tell you how to plan the city. That was so “plannersplain.” Designing planning schemes without an architectural perspective = more zombie urbanism. Read about it here.

4.The Committee of Melbourne elites have yet to develop a more nuanced argument than the zombie concepts of Melbourne 4.0.

The Committee for Melbourne CEO Martine Letts, ably outlined the standard neoliberal  position: more change, more disruptive technologies and get ready for more global competition. We are all on this hamster wheel. But maybe the Committee for Melbourne might have more success in these matters if it wasn’t full of so called “movers and shakers.” Let’s see a few “bogans” on their board. This is definitely a group that could do with a dose of real people and learn about community development and consultation. God help us when F2, (neo-liberal speak for Federation Square East) gets going.

5. The Victorian Government Architects Office needs more funding and independence.

Yes ! That might help get some transparency back into these processes. When will politicians stop listening to Treasury and listen more to architects?

All too obviously, this situation is the product of the autocracy, elitism and lack of transparency when it comes to the procurement of major civic projects in our nation. Architecture is too often sidelined. But something like this is bound to get a backlash. When will our political classes and neo-liberal elites figure this out? It was the same at Sirius in Sydney and there will be other examples in the future.

6. No one from Foster’s office or evil Apple seemed to be at the debate.


I have written about the Foster design for Apple HQ here. As someone noted in the Open House debate when these stars come to our great southern land they don’t necessarily do the best job. Usually they just do second rate job then fuck off back to whence they came (Lab Architecture Studio was actually an amazing exception to this).

7. The design of Federation Square didn’t just happen

I fear that many in the audience didn’t know this (maybe the audience was packed out with too many of Ron Leppert’s Green’s party planner mates and that’s why I couldn’t get a ticket),  but the design actually evolved and emerged over time. Yes, architects actually design things through iteration. Designs don’t just pop out of architectural heads fully formed. Donald Bates said something like this and its worth quoting from my rough debate notes:

“This is a Drawing showing one tenth of all the iterations of the design process. The design developed by iteration and possibilities emerging. It is about a design of relationships and not specific objects. The fixation on objects is not embedded in the DNA of the Square

8. It is a hate the big brand thing


It is correct to say Fed Square is not retail Chaddy or Bunnings. But it doesn’t matter because according to the no case, Apple, will make Fed square into a giant Shopping Mall. A huge giant giant shopping mall. Just like they have in the suburban badlands. They will sell you stuff and every Insta photo in Fed Square will feature them. It’s a brand thing the No-Apple side is fighting against.

In response to the Apple proposal its easy to rail against the perceived evils of the big brands. Apple’s personal consumerism, its awful tax regimes, its blind technological march to the singularity. But what does that have to do with site specific architectural arguments in this instance?

9. The Koori Heritage Trust gets a much better deal out of this proposal. 

Shouldn’t that be the highest priority for Federation Square as a public and civic space? If it was me I would put KHT where the Apple store is supposed to go and Apple into the Deakin building. I would, if I could, decolonise the square and let KHT own all of it ! Maybe thats what we should be thinking about rather than the populism of big brand hatred.

10. Its train wreck

This issue is a train wreck of big brands, naive and not so naive political populism. Not to mention, architectural ignorance, conflicting theories of architecture, planning and urban design in our civic politics. Space prevents me from writing how we got to this point. It may sound strange but I partly blame that huckster Jan Gehl and his slippery urban design populism for watering down our urban theories and analytical instruments. I think the crazy comitteeee for Melbourne has a lot to answer for. Check out what they thought about the minimum apartment standards. A veiled attack on those standards in the name of a pro-development flexibility. Yet, this is a group that claims to be all about sustainability and future liveability.

Outrage cycles and populism 

It’s so easy to be populist in this social media age. Easy to rev up the shock jocks and the tabloids. Perhaps this is why it’s the No-Apple bandwagon that also worries me in this debate. In embracing populist notions of public space, architecture and urban theory are too easily erased from the public discourse. This has what has happened in regards to this issue. Digitised Outrage and Outrage and Outrage that blunts any real analysis of the plight of our civic spaces. Paradoxical when all the genuine and self serving outrage is facilitated by Apple devices. Architecture and any deeper architectural and urban arguments get swamped.

The architectural and urban arguments for Apple, as presented in the debate, were analytical, nuanced  and refined (to echo the Victorian Government Architect) and actually grounded in architectural process. Arguably, it is the architectural argument that bridges the complexities between architecture, urban design and the social realities of the mercantile.

Having said that, we also need to recognise that the position underlying the Pro-Apple argument, and indeed the original scheme, is based on a stream of architectural theory that has never really resisted, and always accommodated capital. There never was a secret about that in this city. So why are people upset now? No one screamed when QV was pillaged and privatised. Of course its because we all love Federation Square so why don’t we now listen to one of its architect? But do we really care about pursuing real public space and architecture?

Campaign 2016 Debate
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s way too much like Hilary versus Donald. 

It seems ironic to me but in a strange way the Pro-Apple team was a bit Hilary-like (actual experts, politicians and neo-liberals) whereas the Anti-Apple team employed Trump-like (or maybe John Howard) populism. A populist backlash that seems to be saying: we are the people, we are angry with the neoliberal and global elites, we are angry about the public spaces in our city, we hate the outer suburban shopping centres, and so WE should get to decide who comes to our Federation Square shores.

What a train wreck the whole thing is and I am not even sure the punters care that much. Because, after all is said and done, Federation Square has free Wi-Fi.

ARCHITECTS VS. TRUMP-LIKE CLIENTS: Rising Up Against The Alien Overlords Known As Client.

As we start to get into 2018 many of us can see that Trump would be the worst kind of architectural client. But sadly, many clients have Trump like tendencies and this is a real problem for most architects. It is a particular problem for those architects who have to deal with clients with the resources to do large projects. Please note: I am always available to run a client education or design thinking workshop for your most evil and Trump-Like clients. 

Architects, apart from having to deal with Project Managers, without any idea of the complexities and nuances of design thinking, architects also have to deal with that other group of evil alien overlords: Trump-like clients.

Emotional Domestic clients


An Emotional Domestic Client 

Don’t get me wrong many clients are great, supportive trusting and generous in their relations with the architect. But many clients are problematic to the architect for a number of reasons which I will explain below. For small architectural projects, in particular residential projects client emotions can and tend to run high. In some ways this is understandable if the client has had no previous experience of building procurement or you are ripping off the back of their house, usually their largest asset, in order to make it better. In my experience domestic clients tend to flip out the most just after the demolition stage, or during framing stage prior to anything else being installed.

Large project clients

But my remarks here are directed to those architects with larger projects and clients. These are the clients who should know better. But, often they don’t and I want to outline some of the pathologies at play here. By larger clients I mean large companies, large public institutions, state or federal governments, not for profit agencies with turnovers exceeding not just millions, but hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars. There large projects spun out of these entities might include projects related to urban infrastructure, health or education.

7 Characteristics of Trump-like Clients 


I met a friend over January for a coffee who is a project manager in one of the larger entities. This person trained as an architect and then pursued a career in Project Management. By the end of her latte she had quickly outlined the characteristics of the dysfunctional, Trump-like Clients often found in these large organisations. These clients may be individuals, the may be CEOs, senior executives, line managers, so-called project managers with responsibilities, or worse still a committee of so-called stakeholders.

1. Dithering

Firstly, the dysfunctional client is always meddling. Mostly the process is additive. Adding a bit to the design here and there, a new material, a new subsidiary design concept, a new function, a new bit of technology, an increase in space allocation or a new stakeholder to be thrown into the project mix.

Sometimes this process goes back and forth, they alien client adds something and then takes it way in the next minute. These clients are not able to trust architectural expertise and will add and subtract things depending on who they have just spoken to.

These clients think that by doing this that they are actually managing effectively: But, they are not. These clients tend not to be able to cede control to others (until things go wrong of course) and the often have no overview or strategic insight into project timing or processes. They think that adding and subtracting in this way is about “refining” the project.

Dithering is time wasting and corrosive to a projects overall design strategy. With lots of client dithering, a project can bit by bit, end up being something completely contrary to its initial strategic intent.

In these situations architects need to assert control and get the client’s over-control  out of the project process as far as possible.

2. Indecisiveness


All projects have time and cost benchmarks. Despite myths to the contrary most architects have the benchmarks firmly stuck in their heads from project inception. In order to meet these decisions, decisions need to be made in a timely fashion.

Client indecisiveness, for whatever reason will slow things down. Often it is the result of procurement and design ignorance combined with the fear of being seen to do the wrong thing

Where there is more at stake for the client, for example a domestic client, decisions can be made quickly. For line manager or a senior executive in a large organisation, direct incentives do not apply because the projects outcomes will not impact the manager’s personal finances. Indecisiveness can easily be covered up by managers in large organisations, but it is essentially destructive to a project, if not self-destructive to the entity sponsoring the project.

Architects need to communicate clearly to clients when indecisiveness impedes project time and cost outcomes. This can be difficulty when it means telling your client that their own indecisive practices are screwing things up. But, if you don’t you are being set up to fail. 

3. Managing up

There worst and most dysfunctional of the clients are the ones that don’t really care about the project. In fact, they are more interested in managing up to their own overlords. What matters is not a great project but how this project is perceived. In other words, how project looks, both as a process and as an end result, to other client overlords is the most important this.

These clients don’t really care about effective client or stakeholder consultation, they don’t care about design (even though they say they might), they don’t care about effective and sensible project processes and workflows, they only care about how it looks to their own networks and political masters.

These are truly Trump-like clients Some of these client types are really more interested in the projects ability to be promoted across social media, once the project is complete, or as I recall in one instance, the executive manager more interested in hosting a dinner for their own managerial networks, to celebrate the project’s completion. Despite the fact that the manager had little to do with the building’s genesis or design.

Smart architects will use this syndrome to extract design leverage out of a client. Amoral architects will just go along with it out of political necessity.

4. Too many stakeholders


Too many stakeholders with no decision making governance in place. Stakeholder management and processes often ill defined. Without proper project governance and a process for managing stakeholders everything becomes a meeting; where nothing is decided and no leadership is exerted. Everyone feels good at the end of these meetings, they feel like they have done something. But actually they have done nothing.

I once pitched for a job which had 13 people on the selection committee. I should not have wasted my time and in the end no-one got the job because the committee couldn’t decide. There other extreme is when the managers make a pretence to “consult” with stakeholders but then make autocratic decisions. Usually the autocratic pathway leads to organisational resentment once the project is complete. Often it is the architect who then bears the brunt of post-occupancy dissatisfaction.

Effective client excellence means having effective and authentic organisational leadership. It means having an idea how to govern and consult with stakeholders and make decisions.

Architects need to be sure that they are dealing with the right stakeholders and this project is being managed by the organisation authentically. 

5. Turf war warriors  

Clients who don’t have the leadership ability to negotiate between different parts of their organisation. There extreme of this is those clients who use the project to gain organisational territory or power over other organisational groups and networks within the organisation. This usually has an impact on the resourcing an organisational entity can give a project. It may mean that as a result of territorial disputes and Architect is denied vital information that is vital to integrating design and construction elements as the project proceeds.

Architects need to make sure what the lines of project reporting and governance are in place between different sub-groups or organisational silos in an organisation. Architects need to be clear at the outset that they may need to gain information from across the organisation.  

6. Blame gamers


Architect Post Blame-Game

The client or the clients are so busy blaming each other that nothing gets done. The  extreme of this is that the Trump-like clients are so worried about cycles of blame, or getting, fired that they are not willing to take design risks, or risk anything. This really distorts the architects risk management process.

As an architect caught up in the vortex of blame eventually the cycle will come to you. There is no easy solution to this one. 

7. Zero Design and Procurement Knowledge

It’s great when the project manager is an economist, or has background in accounting and management consulting, or nursing and health and really now idea about urban design, architectural design, or bottom-up community development and consultation.

So, maybe worse still, are not the evil clients who know very little, but the ones who think they know about what architects to do, because they did their own house renovation once, or they have allied degree in maybe civil engineering or construction management.

Procurement pathways and options these days can be very complex. Making the right decisions about procurement in the early stages of a project is vital. There current community and political controversy over the Apple store at Federation Square is a case that reinforces this point. Clearly, for such a project, a procurement and decision-making process that was both lacking in transparency and did not build in community consultation, was bound to explode in the face of the Trump-like project sponsors and clients.

Time consuming as it is: Architects need to constantly communicate and educate clients about the entire process. Be wary of the clients who think they know stuff. 

Finally: What Architects should do ? 

The difficulty for architects when faced with these larger evil clients is then having to explain and communicate, in other words educate, to them the intricacies and risks involved in the complex process of making great architecture. Arguably, that’s why we need to have negotiation and organisational leadership skills as a core competency in our national competency standards. Or, as a post professional development option.

Not only do architects have to face the challenges of designing great architecture but they also have the challenges of educating and working around evil clients. Many, architects do these things all the time and as a result their design and project leadership skills are often more effective and authentic than the large clients they serve.

Trump’s climate abandonment: How architects can fight back.

Now that Trump has abandoned the Paris climate agreement what can architects do? Are architects doing enough? In the face of the prospect of two-degree global warming I would suggest that we architects need to reconfigure and question our current professional certainties. The issue of global warming and its relationship to architecture is one that warrants being written about in a polemical fashion.


I fear that we architects are consumed and distracted by a narrative of enchantment. A discourse that distracts us from developing a more radical narrative and leadership in the face of climate change. As I suggested in a previous blog this is narrative has a focus on utopian poetics; a naïve poetics that should be dammed for its lack of irony and unself-conscious perspectives. As Urban-Think Tank have proclaimed we need to forget utopia and need to focus our perspective on the unfolding, and catastrophic, realities of the Favela cities and informal settlements. These are the cities which will be impacted the most by a warming atmosphere.

The fantastic technologies, futuristic cures and emerging intelligent processes that circulate in popular culture and social media have little immediate impact on the realities of day to day practice; nor do they touch the cities that are driven to highrer densities as a result of volatile capital flows. Why have architects and urbanists so thoroughly embraced the densification of cities and the global urbanisation mantra?

Architects need to avoid the comforting fairy tales and cures of technology.  We also need to avoid the self-comforting warm slosh of green of sustainability. Don’t get me wrong I am all for innovation and Futures thinking.  But I am not for a distracted profession that is naïve when it comes to arguing and debating different alternative futures. Our futures should not be simplified and depicted as picturesque renders of flooded cities; or worse still floating cities that are little more than polluting cruise ships; or the escapism of outer space habitats.

Yep, the robots, and articial intelligence is coming, but that doesn’t mean architects need to unthinkingly embrace emerging technologies as the next best thing to ride. The robots and drones will probably kill us.

More activism 

Architects are uniquely placed to address the above issues and the serious issue of a warming world.  But in order to do so architects need to be more radical in their activism and policy stances. Our discourse is too conditioned by tropes that imply adaptation, integration and accommodation, rather than militancy,  in the face of a looming disaster. Words like sustainability, adaptation and resilience need to be abandoned and recast. This is a salvage operation in the face of mass extinction and should be seen as such. It should not be too strident, too polite or too crazy to discuss things in these terms.

Architectural theory 

Architects also need to recast their theoretical instruments. The apolitical and abstract theories and debates that emerged out of the pedigreed schools of the American East coast in the early 80s no longer have any utility. In practice these theories have too often supported neoliberal capitalism. We need new theories that encompass diversity, difference, ecological realities and contest neoliberal urbanism. As some have suggested we need to abandon the dictatorship of the eye.

Architectural education needs to change and orientate itself towards developing a scepticism about emerging technologies. As argued by myself elsewhere the production architectural knowledge needs to be privileged over the production of the physical object or building. We need to teach young architects how to manage data, information and knowledge.

If design research is to mean anything then we need to argue about how we can measure and qualify its contribution to architectural knowledge. The latest funky or sustainable design requires a theoretical infrastructure and argument that establishes how design contributes new knowledge to the architectural canon. Just saying and making the claim that a particular design is design research is not enough.

Architectural leadership is important in the current age of barbarians and fragmented truths amidst the swirl of, what Debord designated, as the Spectacle. But in order to exercise that leadership architects need to avoid the easy seductions of a naïve and seemingly idealistic poetics. Only then will architects help to shift the narrative in favour of the Polar Bears.

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The Folly of the Folly: Architecture and the new age of Trump.

The semester is over and Trump is the prez. So this required a little bit of time to write a more theory driven blog. 

In this new Trumpian age that we find ourselves in we are witness to the rise of the architectural folly. We all love to go to and visit the follies and drink the champagne or suck on Aperol icy poles.  These little follies or pavilions often pop in the parks and cities and galleries. There are few, here and here,over the Southern hemisphere summer in my city of Melbourne. The Serpentine Gallery famously has at least one each year in Kensington Gardens. I wrote about the 2016 folly here.  Tiny houses, tiny cafes, tiny pop-up shops, tiny little renovations, eency weency rooms, instantaneous barista centres, decorative baroque makeovers straight out of the flat packs and lots of public sculpture.

All these follies have become interwoven in our lives via their transmission though social media. These follies have quickly developed there own history in our lives. A history made of Instagram moments, Facebook landscapes and Snapchat curiosities.Our social media channels seem beset with architectural follies. Of course, all of this seems pretty innocent and well-meaning, an effort on the part of architects to create a communal connection via the digital urbanisation of the city. But, perhaps this is all architecture can do these days.

I am wondering if all of this micro-designing is a way to make a space for architecture itself, or any kind of architecture for that matter, given that the two extremes of the modernist project in architecture appear to be exhausted. This certainly seem to be the case in my city where the public and civic traditions of architectural language appears to be caught between two poles. I imagine it may be the same in other rich globalised cities. The first pole is the tradition of minimalism of Mies Van Der Rohe (Farnsworth and the like, the brick country houses) , mixed with its precursive tradition in the functionalism of the Russian Constructivists (but, more Melnikov than Leonidov) and uber functionalists  like Hannes Meyer. In the traditions of my city this pole exhibits itself in private housing; well mannered modernism usually drawing on the traditions of the 1950s. In the area of housing OMA and BIG are its more recent manifestations. In many projects this becomes an elegantly proportioned but try-hard functionalism; a functionalism, whilst seeming to be objectively expressed, is obviously softened by the markets and so called value management; as a result it becomes a functionalism of mediocrity that struggles to make anything strange as the Russian literary formalist Viktor Shklovsky would urge us to do.

The second pole is easier to identify but it is, I fear, no less empty. It is probably best related to the poetics of Corbusier symbols, volumes, lines and shapes and symbols drawn from the animist and natural world or the architectural canon itself.  As Tafuri was to point out in relation to Corbusier’s Algiers project this approach represents a pinnacle of the CIAM avant-garde’s failure to make the intellectual work of architecture mean anything in the face of  capital.As well as Corbusier examples of this pole can be seen in the work of the New York Five, both Saarinen’s, Niemeyer, and all of the concrete brutalist buildings in the world that seem nowadays to choke our feeds. For Tafuri these were games without meaning or content disconnected from the real economics of the capitalist universe. In the hands of better architects this poetics becomes a kind of shamanism pointing to its own absurd emptiness. In the hands of other architects it becomes a chaotic cacophony of empty signs.

The architectural folly or project is usually set in a landscape. This landscape is viewed as either being hostile in which case the architectural responses typically point to fortress like metaphors of protection or a picturesque ruin in the landscape. The folly always disengages with its political context. In fact, context only serves to reinforce the folly’s claims to a romantic and ideal sentiment. But in reality this is an attitude denoted by Tarfuri as “the exaltation of apartness” and this contrived apartness is never a terror of faith. It is always so so certain in its cultural, and dare I say it, colonising groundedness.

As Vidler notes in a commentary on Tschumi’s Parc La Villette

“The folly, is on one, level, genuinely a meaningless object, a reassemblage of once-meaningful terms to make a nonsense out of them.” With no political agenda, no revolutionary aesthetic or social aim, and no historicist nostalgia, the allusion to constructivism becomes a mad shot in the dark that at once cherishes its avant-gardism but comprehends its madness. Analogically, the folly stands for a body already conditioned to the terms of dissemination, fragmentation and interior collapse.”

All too often I see these kinds of projects as fragments in architecture schools. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Iconic shapes representing typological figures. The primitive huts evoking the gables houses of Tessenow nowadays rendered in core ten-steel or Larch and packaged up for TV on Grand Designs. Poetic renders and hand drawings, uniquely and sensitively rendered with shadows and lines. Or worse still: parametric adornments and crystalline jewels, bridges (prevalent), aorta like tubes, shells, distorted urban blocks and even bits of clothing. Beautiful galleries and institutions also feature as fragments in Westchester like verdant landscapes. Many folly like projects ar etaken as rehabilitated ruins, loving crafted to give life to derelict buildings and all to often these are made whole with pop-up stores and shops. Nothing like a bit of retail therapy in the old warehouse.

The sustainability architects have their own follies. Rather than being concerned with issues of climate justice, their proposals are too often about reinforcing fragmentary rather than radical change across the city. In our digital streams we see glimpses of verdant rooftops, recycled facades, algae vats and mycelium walls and strange eco-machines driven by the wind.

In the work of people like Neil Brenner the diagram itself has become a folly (look at how first nations people are represented in these diagrams). From the Smithson’s onwards the diagram as kind of folly that adorns, decorates and tattoos our proposals. My cynicism urges me to say that every folly these days needs a power point presentation and a Ted Talk with lots of clever diagrams and statistics. Another decorative placebo to offer us the hope that as architects and urban designers we are making a difference and have things under control.


The rush to the folly is I think  because both of aesthetic tendencies streams identified above, junk functionalism and  a kind of poetic bruto symbolism, have been corrupted by the consumptive tendencies of capital. The city has been sped up by the new urban-digital technologies that employ follies for content and feeding the city in order to further fragment it before our eyes. Once adorned with these folly like fragments this new city machine gives the appearance of being the result of intellectual work and critical insight.

It is too easy to think of these fragments and follies as benign. In some ways the folly seems like an escape and a placebo.  This may be because the folly and these urban machine-made fragments are so easily attached to our individual lives via social media. Follies seem innocuous perhaps because the are small. Fragments celebrating an otherness we can grasp and exist in before returning to the world. Some are very tiny trinkets indeed. All architects yearn for their own fragment to go viral. Yet are these follys all we can propose as architects?

Yep, some of these follies are as big as cities. Follies can also exists at other scales as geopolitical instruments. In geopolitics the Israeli wall and the new Mexican wall to be proposed by Trump are follies at the geopolitical scale. I don’t know why but Trump’s Tower seems like a folly fragment embedded in the grid of New York. For some reason I associate it with Saddam Hussein’s monuments in Iraq. Maybe, this is why I think Donald Trump’s victory represents the emergence of a Baathism peculiar to the United States. A secularism that is nationalistic in outlook and against pluralism of any kind. Trump, like others Baathist’s is a populist hell bent on urban modernisation. Yes, in the current interregnum between election and inauguration, it is Trump Tower which is the ultimate folly. A folly gone viral.

Trump Tower is now the most famous building in the world. Perhaps very little of our own architecture will escape the taint of Baathist emptiness. Follies have always been empty and I decry their unthinking appearance in architecture and our cities. For the most part, in architectural discourse follies are cut adrift from theory. Seeing another garden pavilion folly in my digital stream only deepens my emptiness and yearning for a different kind of freedom.

Next week normal transmissions shall resume. 


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.