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

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

Memories of the old school 

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

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

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

Autonomous Waypoint_ViewDaphnes Spanos Autonomous Waypoint project from Independent Thesis MSD 2016

 Danger Danger Will Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Architectural design should create problems

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

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

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

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

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

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3. Make architectural design subversive

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

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

4. Foster alternative futures

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

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

5. Architecture should be kind of annoying

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

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

6. We need more ugly 

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

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

Q: Is Architecture Inclusive? A: No.

In my part of the galaxy architecture is in a dire state. I think this is the same everywhere. Most architects are either individual scavengers or living in tribes scrabbling to survive on scraps from the big tables.  In sociological terms an institutional logics of survivalism reigns. Architectural knowledge is being increasingly commoditized in a global system. This commodification will eventually erode design knowledge to the point of where it’s domain and practices will have merged into other networks of knowledge.

For many architect’s architecture still remains a coherent and unified discipline. It certainly seems like it might be if you have the privilege of being able to access and pay your social media subscriptions. Everyone on Instagram is doing the Architectty influencer thing (me included). The digital viewpoint — all the images, the hashtags, the digital spin, the groups, the likes, — can easily seduce us into thinking that architecture is a multi-faceted, idealistic, humane, reformist discipline.

But when I think further I am not sure any more. There is something monstrous at the heart of architectural practice. The fundamental issue that hampers architecture’s survival, despite digital appearances, is that: architecture is not inclusive.

If architecture is to survive then it must embrace diversity and envelope in our ecologies of practice: gender, LGBTQIA, first nations and indigenous peoples; different ethnicities, minor literatures and the Subaltern; the disabled and the insane. As architects we need to have this conversation. But it needs to be a broad conversation and one fostered, but not dominated, by our professional associations; or by the new associations and networks that will replace them in response to architecture’s current lack of diversity.

This lack of diversity is killing the profession and exhibits itself in myriad seen and unseen ways. Mostly, it is an exclusion through quiet and passive silence. The woman who goes to the robot-in architecture-conference where there are not peers like her, the gay person who can never quite make the Associate Director grade, the transgendered person who is shunned from studio teaching, the indigenous person whose seemingly radical views are wanly smiled at by the senior management academic but never truly engaged with, the study group of international students that no one wants to join at architecture school. Of course, I myself can’t speak for these other voices. But how often do we as architects silence them? It’s our role as architects to make our design research, networks and practices inclusive so that these other voices are prioritized.

Architects need to understand intersectionality, the idea that intersecting identities compound to make a whole, in order to understand how regimes and flows of power have structured our discipline and the symbolic capital that circulates within the global system of architecture. An intersectional approach is different to the diagrammatic description, segmentation and distinctions made by the taste-makers of our discipline. As Gary Stevens notes in The Favoured Circle: The social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. “Taste is the primary notion by which privilege groups can maintain their cohesion and separate themselves from outsiders.”

It never ceases to amaze me that even in the field of Construction Management, a seemingly “backward” field, for architects that extensive research has been undertaken in notions of inclusiveness, identity and ground up ethnography. All we seem to talk about is Design Research. There are of course some glimmers of hope as last year’s November 2016 AHRA conference in Stockholm indicates. At the conference the aim was to address “connections between architecture and feminism with an emphasis on plural expressions of feminist identity and non-identity.” There were some notable papers from local colleagues Gill Matthewson questions the existing notions of “meritocracy” in architecture and the need to forge new modes of practice and identity in architecture. Janet McGaw questions, what I call the Boyo-ness, of recent biomorphic inspired digital production in architecture. She asks to what degree digital experiments and design research in architecture are “simply new practices of anthropogenic subjugation of non-human material systems that continue the environmentally destructive modernist industrial project.” Nicole Kalms examines, so-called safety technologies, their corresponding digital apps and sexual violence in the city.

The lack of diversity shapes both architectural history and the current dilemmas of architecture’s global system. A system dominated by a charmed circle of masculinities. As Martin Hultman has suggested this charmed circle — of tribes, warlords and transformers as I have called them– are intimately involved in the production of the contemporary city. The production of new and renewed cities, and the ecotopian dreams associated with them, are intended in theory at least, to be our salvation in the face of environmental catastrophe. Yet, as Simona Castricum noted at the same conference our current cities are riven by fear and a lack of safety for those who are different. Fear is embedded into the core of our cities. Cities have largely been designed through privileged masculinities that have produced spatial configurations that now need to be challenged; and in any case, hasn’t it always been the subaltern at the centre of the cities actual history.

Architects need to recognise they are a long way from being an inclusive profession. The silence of the smile that elides and silences difference is not really an option nowadays.

The full image of Leigh Bowery in this post can be found here.

Architects vs. Project Managers: Rising up against the alien overlords known as Project Managers.

This weeks blog is a bit later as I have been busy writing another piece here. I have also been consumed with Final semester design juries and marking. 

Architecture takes a long time to learn. Designing and organising the construction of buildings is a complex process. As most architects will know even the smallest renovation can involve juggling a complex scenario of client brief, planning and building regulations, site conditions, sustainability issues, construction detailing and logistics, contractor and subcontractor capabilities and of course design itself. This is a much wider range of design and construction knowledge than many project managers are either trained in or know about.

A few times in the past few weeks I have heard my architecture friends bemoan the profession of project managers. Good project managers, like good architects, will be able to make the trade offs, have the foresight and understand the  complexity of managing user requirements. Basically, good project managers understand architecture and design processes. The best project manager I have ever met was one who gained valuable experience in an architect’s office based on community buildings that involved a great deal of community consultation work. She then went on to much larger projects.

I should also say that I share an office with a project management academic. He is great. A kind of rocket scientist who has taught me a great deal about advanced quantitative decision analysis.

But bad project managers are really bad and I mean really bad. Of course some would argue the IT project managers are worse (but that’s another story). But, I worry that all the really bad ones have ended up in construction. One qualification for being a project manager is to be able to do a Gantt chart with unrealisable time outcomes that you can then bludgeon the architects and all the other consultants with. Yes, you don’t need refined or nimble negotiation skills to be a construction project manager. You just need to be a bully. Interestingly, the architects I have heard complain the most about these vermin have been female architects.

Of course I speak from a partisan point of view. This is because I think it is time architects really rebelled and rose up against the alien overlords known as project managers.

Blame the “bloody” architect.

But all too often the architects either individually or as a group are blamed when things go astray. Why is this?  I guess its related to some of the things that surround Trump’s election being elected. In the modern digitally connected world its pretty easy to run a spin campaign with no substance these days. It’s pretty easy to troll the architect, after all architects are dandified dickheads who don’t care about client needs or wishes. I think the star alpha-male architects have contributed a lot to this impression. Hopefully, as new alternative forms of practice emerge and architects are more aggressive in how they brand themselves as a group, these impressions will change.

Why architects are better  

An architect is a highly skilled professional, usually about 7 years of training, including two years of audited and examined experience. Architects are trained to lead projects from start to finish, on time and on budget. If they don’t get this right they can be sued. They are uniquely placed to understand cost pressures in construction supply chains.  Project managers often only have an overview of these things. Architects are trained to understand client and user needs and ensure that a project is feasible from the very beginning. The problem is that all too often Project managers get the architects in too late. They have already decided the wrong approach to the project’s feasibility, strategic design and often ignored risks that an architect, with more on the ground experience and a better overview of client needs as well as the broader context would have picked up.

Project managers love to tell the clients what they want to hear in the early stages of the project. Architects have to tell the truth because they are usually bound by architects registration acts and PI Insurance issues.

Architects are able to communicate. This is what they are trained to do. Architecture is in some ways a liberal arts education and communication across the project team and down the construction supply chain is essential.

Some real PM fuck ups. 

Southern Cross Station a low bid tender price put in by the contractor. When the architects came on board the architects wondered why there was no cost manager on the project. Basically the contractor low balled the price to get the job. All the other tenders for the project were 25% above. Lo and behold the final price was 25% above. The contractor then decided in the media to push the blame on to the architects. You can read about it here and I think this situation really poisoned my view of project managers and contractors. Its a pretty cheap shot to blame the architect all because of public antipathy and punter distrust of design aesthetics.

Federation Square is a case in point. This facility has now served the public of the City of Melbourne admirably. It actually works as a fine public space alongside its public institutions and commercial spaces. It is a building that is a legacy project that will serve the city’s future for many years to come.  Yet at the time the architects were excoriated for trying to uphold standards of construction and design decency for the project. You can read about some of it here. The meddling of politicians in the project and the hacking off of the Western shard was one of the most despicable anti-architecture campaigns I have ever witnessed.

As one of the architects of Federation Square Donald Bates was to note recently on Linked-In, “Project Managers produce negative consequences to projects – to the detriment of clients, to the degradation of quality and legacy and to the interests of the wider public. Very rarely do they bring innovation, intelligence, respect and wisdom to a project.”

Another example: The problems with the $16.2B Commonwealth’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) was not the result of architects. It was the result of project managers stuffing up. You can read all about it here. Schools that managed their own affairs with architects did better than those BER schools managed by Project Managers.

Architects best placed to do the cost trade-offs

The rise of project managers can be attributed to the impression that architects are not suitable to manage projects because they are not sufficiently focused on time and cost outcomes. In a 2011 paper we published which looked at how architects work with Quantity Surveyors we concluded that an important thing that architects contributed to projects, amongst other things, was the ability to make complex finishes and material tradeoffs in the clients favour. You can get the paper here.

In value management and cost reduction exercises it is the architect who is best positioned to uphold and fight for the best materials and finishes for the sake of the project. Architects are uniquely placed to do this because project managers and few other consultants or trades in the building and construction industry have an overview of how it all works.

Project manager’s, by virtue of their training, wouldn’t have a clue about material finishes in either domestic, community or public projects. A quantitative Gantt chart jockey is not going to be the sort of person you should trust with complex decision about your domestic reno,  legacy building or your facility designed to bolster your community. Another case in point is the Harold Holt Pool. You can read about that here. The project manager employed by Stonnington Council on the pool redevelopment really had no idea bout the modernist heritage values associated with the pool. You can read about that here.

In some industry segments client expectations have driven the pressures for unrealistic time frames and low budgets. This has been a significant factor in the continuing use of project managers in the construction and development industry. In the dark dim past it was the architect who managed, organised and supervised the construction process. It was the architect who was the single point of communication. I would argue that Architects are still the best people to lead integrated construction projects This is primarily because of their training architects are supremely placed as system integrators.

For the last 30 years architects have bemoaned the fact that project managers have taken over  their role. Of course it’s easy for project managers to blame the architect. I am sure many architects reading this will have stories about project managers with poor integration skills. A good project manager like the best architects can integrate systems and  make the trade offs. Most of all good project managers should have the foresight to see what is coming down the line. And yes, a good project manager treats you with respect.

Rise up !

So next time, as an architect you are being set-up-to-fail by some low-grade project manager, clutching spreadsheets with no idea about design, construction processes or user requirements call them out. Its time for architects to rise up against their alien project manager overlords. When the clients work that out as well our cities, community institutions and housing will be suitable for the future.

On my planet the students have gone teaching has finished. So, its time to do some research and get ready for semester 1 2017