The Double Whammy Stigma: What architectural academics do over January in Australia.

Happy New Year to all regular readers and visitors to this blog. if you read this blog post shortly after it’s posted I will still be on holiday.. This year I am on a road trip to Queensland to K’Gari traditional home of the Badtjala people. This was a early 2017 and popular blog on the travails of being an architectural academic. I have reposted it. I think it expresses a little about the incoherent simplicity of national university policy and the populist anti-design sentiments that seem to bedevil architects.

I know many international readers of this blog will imagine me lolling about on  beaches, surfing the waves, driving across the dunes, wrestling Crocs, or drinking in the pubs. Of course when I look at the Instagram and Facebook feeds of the other architectural academics I know they are all having a great time over summer. Maybe the new social media landscape is what is giving people the impression that architectural academics are slack arses who do very little when the students are not around. On Instagram my fellow academics are on beaches, in forests and far flung places like Central Java, Coolangatta,  and New York City. Mostly they all seem like they are eating a lot of gelato ice cream and chugging down the French champagne. But that’s only how it looks.

In anycase I have got sick of going to dinner parties over the holidays and people saying, “so I guess you have 3 months of holidays with no students around.” Generally the conversation goes something like this:

Fellow Guest: Great to meet you I hear you are an academic.

Peter R: Yes, that’s right.

Fellow Guest: I guess you have holidays now for a few months that the students are gone.

Peter R: Like most people we only get four weeks off a year. 

Fellow Guest: Oh huh really !??!?

Or maybe ordinary people, whatever that category is, have a distrust of expertise and think that it’s all bullshit. Because, you know, teaching at a university is a bludge job anyway. A job that is entirely funded by the public purse and one where you get to travel a lot and all you are doing all day is thinking and writing and researching stuff that no one gives a toss about anyway. Not to mention the fact that you are hanging out down the pub all the time with the students.

The above summer conversation is not so different from the other one architects have all the time.

Fellow Guest: Great to meet you I hear you are an architect.

Peter R: Yes that’s correct.

Fellow Guest: That’s INTERESTING. My partner (brother, sister, boyfriend, fill in the relationship here) always wanted to be an architect. But they decided to be an economist, lawyer, orthodontist or management consultant instead. 

or

Fellow Guest: I was going to employ and architect, when we did our renovation, but we decided it was too expensive to get an architect so we got the builder, draftsperson to do it.

I mean architects are so rich and all they are doing is really really really big white houses for rich people. Houses full of white Italian bathrooms and marble and Cinemas. Or they are doing whacky buildings with crazy roofs. It’s like a double whammy for me because: holy Mother of baby Jeezus I am an architectural academic. What a stigma.

Its amazing to think there are people who still think that working as an academic means that you have a bludge, as some might call it in Australia, job for life (I wont bore you with the onerous and narrow KPI regime we have to work under). My university facilty is essentially a not for profit business with revenues in excess of $50M or so. I wish people would understand this. Most of that revenue comes from teaching and international students. Most universities use teaching revenue to cross subsidse research programs. In Australia the education sector is the third largest export earner after coal and iron ore. That could be a good reason for our Federal government to have a decent policy on universities and university funding.

But there has been a lot of uncertainty in the higher education policy realm and so far not much has happened in regards to Commonwealth policy.

Many people I know in universities are employed on casual contracts and this is particularly difficult for female academics as set out in this report. It is also difficult for our young academics who are the best and the brightest. But, why would the punters care, when our politicians will always jump through hoops when it comes to the car industry or worse still the coal mining industry.

Maybe the above is because in Universities there is still mindless talk about universities needing to be like corporates. It’s similiar to the Trump phenomena. Lets try and run the university, or in Trump’s case the country, like a so called “business”. A university is a complex entity in terms of its operation. How it generates both research knowledge as well as revenues to support itself is quite different to a NASDAQ stock or a mining company or any kind of listed company for that matter.

During a change management program I was witness too it was horrific to see a executive manager say to a whole bunch of people about to be made redundant: “Thats how they do it in the corporate world.”  So much for managerial intelligence and authentic leadership when you have these kinds of brutal mantras alive and well in your institution. After that some of my colleagues wondered why I had lost faith and trust in the organisation. I have more faith in it now.

I am heartened by the fact that  my university supports an entrepreneurial start up program that I think is really great. As well as the fact that that my university is currently promoting and advertising its research itself with advertising on bus shelters around my city. Its a great way to get ordinary people to associate universities with their core task of conducting research.

If only the architects would do the same and advertise at a macro level and radically promote the value they add to our urban spaces, communities, policy and culture. That might go some way to me avoiding the double whammy and stigma of being an architectural academic.

No matter where you are located, or how you are placed, in the great global game of architecture, have a great 2018. I am looking forward to another incredible Surviving the Design Studio, year and really looking forward to interacting with those of you who faithfully read this blog.

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.