Some naughty things you just won’t see at any Architecture School

I got a few responses to the blog last week about architecture schools so I thought I would write a bit more about it. After last week’s blog it made me think about the kind’s of subjects I would like to see in architecture schools.

The broken compact 

When we start to think about what should be taught in Archi-Schools is it still worth thinking about or muttering that age-old question that still seems to get exclaimed by a particular class of architects: “Why don’t they teach them anything useful in Architecture School?” As some of you may know, from reading last week’s in the gutter blog—and a few people did pull me up for using the word twerking– my view about the demise of architecture schools is related to a particular managerialism that has broken the compact between the architecture school’s as communities of practice and architectural practitioners. It’s all about the KPIs these days student income, research funding and research metrics.

Someone said to me that in their architecture school, the managers—who used to be architectural academics until their souls were sucked out—send out emails to everyone saying here are your KPIs; and they just the same KPIs that have been thrown down to them from on high.

The Architecture School as a Community of Practice 

When I was at architectural school, 5,000 million years ago, there were no KPIs, and we were told it didn’t matter how long we took to be at architecture school as long as we left the school having learnt something. I took the ten-year option (the original course was 3 years plus 3 years part-time) someone else I know took the 12-year option. Most took the 8-year option. Nowadays it’s just a quick 5 years.

It was all about developing a unique culture of practice unique to the social milieu and place that the school was situated in. It was about creating and developing a school of architecture; a culture with its own norms, rituals, debates, conversations and narratives of practice. Admittedly the culture that was developed around the school I went to (no prizes for guessing which one) had its own petty rivalries, brutalities, misogynies and power asymmetries. But the outcome was a local architectural culture, centred on a school, that made a contribution to Australian architecture. And yes please: it would be great to critique the darker histories associated with that culture, beyond the hero worship or the slavishness to the “concept,” and examine its various histories in terms of the winners and losers (all the winners seem to have done is plaster the city in green chewing gum, weird hexagons and secret masculinist symbols). But at least it was a culture that could, and can be, be critiqued and was not some banal machine for producing mediocre ideas about our cities for the consumption of architects and clients who don’t want to feel guilty~guilt that will only increase as things keep going as they are (hey, hit me up with another ‘urban futures’ exciting smart city conference).

One arena of thought about architectural education is to think about it in terms of higher level policy issues around the regulation and compliance of the profession. That is a question that always leads to a narrative around the role of the ACCA and the competency standards. Fair enough and perhaps we do need different measures and perhaps we should ask how do we police the providers? Another discussion is emerging around what architects can learn in the pathway years between graduation and architectural registration. Perhaps the pathway should be more structured? Then you can also end up thinking about the scarcity of in-house graduate programmes in practices across the profession (more on that next week maybe).

Syllabus Innovation

But the other area is curriculum and syllabus innovation. Academics, as well as sessional practitioners, are really good at this kind of stuff. Now for some schools developing new subjects just burns up resources and the standard line from many university managers is “why would you do that?” I remember once when a university manager said: “why would you do that” when we suggested maybe we could have a bit of cheese and dips at student function to explain a course. Why change or reform anything? Ok, so I thought rather than getting all bitter and twisted about the dips, I thought I would have a bit of fun and think about the sorts of subjects I would like to see at an architecture school.

A few studio ideas you won’t see in your architecture school:

Intersectional Spaces and Urbanism

It’s incredible to me that no one has actually bothered to look at queer spaces and histories in relation to Urban Space in our cities. A city where queer voices are heard and have power through urbanism. That’s an entirely different and inclusive power dynamic.

Abject Algorithms

I know this sounds contrary. All those parametric facades tricked up by architects working with so-called specialist engineers and facadey experts look, how shall we say it,  oh so sanitised. Algorithmic wet wipes on the modular facades to assuage our carbon emissions guilt. I am pretty interested in how we can deconstruct all of that and look at facades and parametric patterns as conduits of waste matter and the execrable. How did the algorithm become he captive of the shiny luxury good designers? Is it possible to fashion a new politics of form out of the arrogance of star-architect facade algorithms?

Studio Extinction.

I am quite fond of the Extinction Rebellion group. Need I say more, and so I guess I am wondering how architecture is going to respond to the degradation of the earth.

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Outsider Housing

Slums, informal settlements, homeless, squatters, temporary structures, migrant housing, nomad housing meets Ferdinand Cheval and Nek Chand. First nations and frontier housing. The new frontiers being where the trees are being slashed. Of course, I have to get a little dig in and say: When I hear the words affordable housing I usually want to vomit. (maybe someone can do a graph charting “affordable” housing research vs. generational mortgage capabilities).

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Some Subjects you won’t see at your nearby Architecture School:

Design Leadership

Negotiations, theories of leadership, teams and teamwork. How gendered stereotypes of leadership operate. There is a humungous amount of research around leadership, teams and organisations in the social sciences. Architects should maybe try: just a little bit, and engage with this.

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Construction Detailing

This could be such a fun subject. I am thinking water, I am thinking flashings, I am thinking gutters, automotive gaskets, fixings and joints of all kinds. a kind of erotica and poetics of co at ruction details. Who actually knows what Construction Detailing is any more? A subject dealing with the dark and almost lost art of construction details would be great. Imagine having a BIM apparatchik in your office who ACTUALLY knew how to detail.

Consulting for architects

I am kind of thinking something like talking strategic design, and design thinking meets Mckinsey, Bain, BCG and the what was DEGW. The subject would introduce students to the smoke and mirrors hype, knowledge instruments and templates of the management consultants. We architects should be able to develop our own regimes; why should all the consultants get all of the fun. And the money.

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Strategic IT and Architecture

Yep, and I am not talking about just learning those dull software programs. Strategic IT management, Innovation theory, Data Analytics. I mean how do you manage software and think critically about it when you are making software decisions. How do you handle data, how do you collect data, how will architects do data analytics (could be a separate subject) in the future. What are the cycles and loops of innovation in the techno-sphere that architects should learn about? Oh fuck, it would be a subject where architects think about technology, you know like strategically, rather than just lapping it up like it’s some kind of addictive drug.

Of course, I am also thinking of a few seemingly kooky history and theory subjects. But I will keep those ideas up my sleeve as I don’t want to give too much away at the moment. Syllabus Innovation isn’t a bad way to think about our Archi-schools schools: from the bottom up rather than from the KPI top down. The problem with the latter approach is that subject delivery always becomes more important than subject content. I can’t wait to be told my online lectures have low production values.

Its all About The Money: What makes a great Architecture School?

So what makes a great architecture school? Or maybe a better question might be how would you design an architecture school for this day and age. I was prompted to think this because in Australia the ERA research excellence rankings have just come out. These rankings indicate that few of our Archi schools in Australia are “well” above world standard.

The rankings measure research outputs in these terms.

  • 5 Well above world standard
  • 4 Above world standard
  • 3 At world standard
  • 2 Below world standard
  • 1 Well below world standard

In this ERA round, 5 Archi schools got 4 (Above world standard), 8 Archi schools got 3 (At world standard) and 1 school got 2 (Below world standard).

But on that basis I think Australian architecture schools are doing pretty well giving the universities have been ripping them off for the past 10 years or so, pumping them full of students, exploiting their full-time and sessional academics and giving next to nothing back for research or research training (sorry to sound so strident this week but its easier when I am writing in a hurry).

Yes, no one school in Australia got 5 (Well above world standard). So we all know how much I love metrics but hey WTF? ERA is kind of saying that of 22 Architecture schools in Australia none are well above world standard? Are we all “above world standard” and no higher and WTF is “world standard” for an architecture school anyway? I think all that ERA does is point to the poverty and the managerial disgrace of these kinds of metrics and ranking systems. Not to mention the time and resources spent, by academics, preparing an ERA application.

I would also argue that our ERA rankings in the discipline would be better if our architecture schools were better managed by university executives (I might even develop my own ranking survey around this). Most don’t have a clue what design studio is. Yes, let’s repeat that: most managerial types—across the different schools I know of–have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care.

Its all about the research numbers or the money.

I reckon I could even do a Get Krackin style of TV comedy about design studios in architecture schools.

 

So my ideas for a world class plus architecture school would be:

Design Studios

Design studios are the core of any architecture school. They are highly sensitive to changes in the external environment supporting them. Such as class sizes or contact hours. You can’t learn architecture in 3 contact hours. Nor can you teach a studio with 18 students. Or spoil a studio with clueless teaching, cronyism, bias or worse still a paucity of prudent, decent and insightful design criticism, there goes your architecture school down the drain. But most managerial types—across different schools I know have no idea what a design studio is. Nor, do they really seem to care (there is that theme again).

Culture

I have written about this elsewhere. The best way to build a culture and a sense of community around an architecture school might be to have year cohort system (and an active studio system). You can’t create an architecture school culture through managerialism–sorry if this is starting to sound like a bit of theme. You won’t do it with a checklist, or a policy, nor will you do it with school prizes, nor lots of overseas studios and nor those MOFO male twerking celebrity architects coming to visit when the provincials do all the bowing and ring kissing. I have ruined my own career by never being interested in all the fawning over the celebrities. (last week we had a few visiting dignitaries, and it was like watching fawning flies on a meat carcass).

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Safety Zone Debates 

Yup, we need to do more than the above, and that is the mix where practitioners, academics and actual students can mix and in engage in the same milieu. Lots of panels are great, lots of questions, debates and discussions are even better. Debates and discussions about real issues. Debates where every voice is heard, and this is so important for the culture of an architecture school. Debates where it’s not just a macho title bout. We need to make safe spaces to have these conversations.

Of course, if the academics are too busy with their so-called “careers” and gaming their research metrics ( don’t get me started on this subject), then they will never engage in the culture of an architecture school. Even if some academics can’t design teach their way out of a wet paper bag, then it would be nice to see them at the debates, exhibitions and talks.

Diversity

Need I say more than merely using the D word. Or do I have to spell it out? I have written a bit about it here. If you want an excellent Architecture school the more diverse its constituents, the better. Homogeneous and monocultural schools just lead to the most appalling power asymmetries within their confines and then later on in the profession.

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Curricula

I have observed three different approaches across all the Archi schools in Australia.

The diverse curriculum school — as distinct from a school with diversity– the “design” school, and the focused curriculum school (oh so boring). The diverse school can be great as it will allow different lines of design research and approaches to emerge. It might even enable synergies to happen between different domains of design knowledge. Which is all ok provide the school with the diverse curriculum is structured well. But it is not great if it is usually managed in an ad-hoc fashion, all the bits of curricular just kicking around in a rubbish bin. To be great schools, these types of schools need active, attentive and balanced leadership.

Then there are the Archi Schools focused on a single-digit idiocy, of a technical trick, brand attribute or singular focus: sustainability, materials science, fab-labbing, urban design and of course parametrics. I am not actually sure these types of archi schools are actually schools of architecture. I am sorry, but I am too much of a generalist to stomach these types of schools.

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Of course, in some schools, everyone is a designer or aspires to be one. Committed to the concept and the holy idea or “process.” This tendency doesn’t really help dismantle the celebrity cult. And this sensibility always ends up sounding like the contrary argument. It’s a philosophy or approach that might have been current 20 years ago. But increasingly, design as an autonomous field to be protected, is a head-in-the-sand issue. It’s appallingly apolitical because it is a viewpoint that continually fends off anything from outside the discipline: politics, management, technology, and of course any kind of theory. With a little bit of intellectual generosity, rather than the old hokey-pokey designer smoke and mirrors, these schools can be great.

So that’s it, and I am always amazed how different schools fall into some of the various traps mentioned up. But the real point I am trying to make is that: architecture schools are a microcosm of the profession, and if we really want to change Architecture going into the future then we really need to change the schools as well. This is so important.

Bring on the revolution then we can all get fives in the ERA rankings.

Enough of the Parametric and BIM Stuff: Why we need to teach Excel in Archi-School

The Salon on Standards

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a NSW Registration Board a panel discussion called the Salon on Standards. For those reading this blog from outside of Australia, the national accreditation board, or the AACA, administers the standards of practice. In other words, the knowledge and skill set that architects are required to learn at architetcure schools:

“The Standard describes what is reasonably expected of a person who can demonstrate the standard of skill, care and diligence widely accepted in Australia as a competent professional Architectural practitioner.”

On the panel we all decided that we love the standards and that they are an important element in the setting the territory of what architecture is as a discipline.

Firstly, a few acknowledgments.

Professor Kirsten Orr of UTAS was also on the panel and her history of the AACA has been ably and deftly researched, You can find her paper here. Plus, I also had the pleasure of being on the panel with Melonie Bayl-Smyth a Sydney architect and NSW board member. All of this was ably presided over by registrar Timothy Horton. Byron Kinnaird facilitated the discussion and  Professor Gerard Reinmuth of UTS was there and was generous enough to be gracious towards me. As well and as Martin Bryant head of the Architetcure School at UTS

What should we teach ?

So, what do we need to teach in the architectural curriculum? At the panel, I really shot my mouth off and blurted out all the things I think we need to teach architecture students: strategy, finance, research methods, negotiations, innovation and leadership. I may even have said ecology; as compared to that sustainability greenwash policy Kool-Aid we currently make the students drink.

In other words, money, (finance), management, (organisational sciences) and research methods, are mostly what is missing from our standards. These are all the things I think should be taught in architecture school but don’t teach. But then I wondered if we should make greater efforts to teach these things through the design studio rather than via various add-on subjects.

The Primacy of the Design Studio

When I was a wretched student, the people who taught, me were obsessed with design. I think it was partly a reaction to their own training in the dark ages when hard-core pragmatics and necessity ruled the day in the design studios. So, at my Archi-school in those heady post-modern years, it was about being free, it all became about conceptual design and design and design and design and design. It was all about the primacy of the design studio as a place where architectural knowledge is transmitted. As pointed out by Angers Bergstorm, Donald Schon in his seminal work The Reflective Practitioner identified the primacy of the design studio but Schon also argued against a design studio culture cut off and isolated from either practice itself or other knowledge domains.

Balance

So maybe Schon is now right and the balance has gone too far the other way. Maybe the Design Studio has so over swamped and taken up space in architectural education for the last 30 million years that it has now become isolationist. Sure, we all love our design studios. We all like to talk about them and use them to reach out to other disciplines and be trans-disciplinary. But are we as trans-disciplinary as we make out? Should other knowledge be inscribed into the competencies we need to learn? Maybe what architects and architectural educators, are really doing too often, is importing knowledge into the studio for quick and easy adaptation. Maybe, this process is too often too token.

I think in the past building types and programmatic typology was seen as the stable point of architectural education. It was thus easy to design an architecture course around types. Architecture schools kinda went like this. In first year, they messed with your mind, in second year you designed a house, then in third housing and then, maybe a school, and then in final year a grand institutional building. I guess in many places this is still how it is done.

Data overload

But with new technologies alongside the fragmentation of cities into smaller and smaller bits, that can be plugged in to other bits to make money, the typological understanding of buildings and the city no longer seems relevant.

As architects, we are confronted with a never-ending flow of fragmented, variable, disjointed and seemingly disconnected data. In saying all of this, I am not tryng to argue, the old chestnut of, what we teach at Archi-school is too theoretical, or not pragmatic enough, or is not making the instantly graduates “employment ready.”

What I am saying is this, we really need to have this debate as a profession: What is that we should be teaching in the architecture schools? What should we be teaching in our offices as young architects leave universities. I guess if you never learn about money, managing stuff or organisations at Archi-school you don’t often think about the need for career pathways for young architects.

 The problem of specialisation

Fragmentation and specialisation within our discipline is a problem when we have to teach design. The problem is everyone in architecture thinks their own specialisation or field is the design studio: The architects with construction knowledge, think their subject is what a design studio should be all about; the architectural historians think their subject what the design studio; the sustainability architects think their subject are what the design studio should be all about; The workshop digital fabricator types think subject are what the design studio should be all about.

But actually, the design studio is a place where all these things are supposed to come together. Not as add-ons, not as a few guests, but a place where different knowledge territories are debated, analysed and then synthesised into the design process. That’s what design studios are about. About getting the balance right. Design is design and should never be beholden to one specialisation.

Finally 

The Salon on Standards was great. They even took me out for dinner afterwards and I thought that they had developed a great sense of community between the profession the NSW registration board and the school at UTS. We need more of that and now that the Australian Institute of Architects and the Registration boards appear to have parted ways its great to see what the NSW board is doing. It even runs the Sydney Architetcure Festival. 

But next time I run a studio, I might just get the students to design something using an Excel Spreadsheet. Maybe some Discounted Cash Flows or some funky Population Ecology Dynamics. Yip, as well as ecology we might even discuss money in the studio. Think what might happen if we actually had architectural graduates who knew how to use Excel as well as the all consuming Revit?

 

 

 

New Paths of Architectural Practice: Not everyone is going to be an architect with a capital A.

There has been a lot of chat lately about new models of practice. Increasingly, the scavengers and myriad tribes of architects that exist find it difficult to make their practices profitable in the face of intense fee competition and, what some have called, the economics of austerity. I have touched on alternative modes of practice in a few other blogs but I thought I would say a bit more.

No Silver Bullet

Foremostly, I am worried that practitioners think that there is a silver bullet or a simple solution to this issue. That we can wave a magic wand over the structure of their practices and it will all be better. I am worried that practitioners think that if only they had restructured their practice in a different way in the first place things would be easier. Yet, the legal and corporate frameworks for practice are normally quite limited within, and across different countries. There is no one way or legal “switch” that a practitioner can switch on or off if a practice is not profitable or not seeming to get anywhere. Changing the legal or financial structures may not change things. If you are not making money you are not making money.

The traditional models of sole practitioner, partnership or even company model appear to limit what architects can do. Some of the mega-firms, or Transformer firms, as I have denoted them elsewhere, seem more successful. They appear to manage ok, by virtue of being extremely large and having integrated service chains that provide a potential client anything; let’s not think too much about how these large firms might manage their taxation affairs.

Critical Regionalism

For many smaller scavenger and tribal practices there is still the dream of criticality at a local level. Of doing great jobs that people love in your own city, street or neighbourhood. Thinking about this reminded me that in the early 80s Kenneth Frampton argued for a new architectural culture based on critical regionalism. Frampton advocated an architectural culture and discourse that was resistant to what he saw as processes of universalization. Frampton argued that optimising technologies had delimited the ability of architects to create significant urban form. For Frampton, the work of critical regionalism a practice focused on, and grounded in local traditions and inflections, was intended in Frampton’s words to “mediate the impact of universal civilisation.

I think that much of Frampton’s dream has come to imbue much of what we value in Architectural Practice and design. The Pritzker prizes seem to go to regionally inspired and grounded architectural auteurs. In my country a lot has been written about the two main city based “schools” or traditions of work the Sydney School and the Melbourne School. But, I worry that as architects we have been boxed in and swamped by global capital and technologies while we clong to models of practice are focused on the auteur. I think the the dream of critical regionalism is something that perhaps masks the real situation: The continuing commodification of architetcural knowledge.

Exploring new models of practice.

A few years ago, I got my architectural practice students to do business plans for Social Enterprises. In other words, for enterprises that had a social purpose or profit. In my naivety I thought they would love doing it. The idea was to encourage the students to think about how they would use their architectural skills and knowledge to determine the nature of a new social enterprise. It was a way to hopefully get the post-graduate Master’s students to think, yes actually think, about different forms and models of practice.

The better social enterprise plans were encouraging.  A number of plans aimed to address gender discrimination. One plan looked at commercializing feminine hygiene products in order to get homeless woman off the streets. Another group targeted the architecture and construction workforce by supplying sustainable personal protective equipment and then investing the profits to advance gender equality in the design and construction workforce. A few projects looked at issues around waste and recycling. For example, one project looked at recovering discarded food and food waste. One of the better social enterprise plans produced by the students was based on putting beehives into social housing estates and then harvesting, marketing and the selling the honey. Thus, employing some of the residents in the estates.

Thinking outside of the box. 

But by and large most of the students hated the exercise, my student experience scores that semester tanked, and my academic masters wondered “WTF” I was doing. A practitioner associated with the school asked, “why are you doing business plans at all?” I think the social enterprise plan about the Bees was the one that really drove everyone nuts. Of course, it didn’t really help that I said in the Assignment instructions that: “There are no prescriptions for this assignment. On the basis of the business plan, you will be assessed as to how well your social enterprise will realistically establish itself, survive, and grow.”

So much for getting the students to think out side of the box and deal with high levels of ambiguity.  This year we went back to business plans for the straight-down-the-line architectural practices.

Abandoning the old ways

If we are to talk about different forms of practice then I think architects really need to abandon their pre-conceived notions of what practice is. There is no magic solution. We need to use our learned creativity and design thinking skills to embrace new ways of doing business. Not everyone is going to be an architect with a capital A. We need more beekeeping ideas.

A recent exhibition at the CCA, and now travelling, suggests that historically alternative practice doesn’t always have to centre on the single genius.  At any point in time architects have always sought to explore new models of practice and escape the constraints that beset them.

Thankfully, there have been those in recent years who have broken out of the old moulds of architectural practice. Collective and collaborative action is a common theme on my short list. Notably, and not in any order, the following spring to mind:

Assemble, Parlour, Forensic Architecture, ONOFF, Sibling, R&Sie and Group Toma.

These  examples suggest, a wider range of practice, as well as the different ways, that architects might now practice. I am sure there are also other examples and I will add to this list over time. Contact me if you know of anyone. But the final upshot is this: Architects really need to think about these new paths. Because, architects can’t be sure that the old ways are going to work for much longer.

Surviving the Design Studio: How should we teach and research Architectural Practice?

Teaching for our subject Architectural Practice at MSD has started this semester. This year we are trialling a series of hour long Q&A sessions. The first panel session was on inclusiveness in the profession; a pretty big subject that deserves an entire subject or seminar series.  It’s a pity I have to teach all the content in Practice the way that I do. Squeezing anything into the syllabus outside of the accepted accreditation requirements or competency standards is always  a problem. Nonetheless, his year at MSD we are going to have panel sessions on fee cutting, branding, cross-disciplinary collaboration, innovation and risk. The extra content we don’t normally  cover. We will probably finish off the semester with a Q&A panel on diversity, intersectionality and career pathways.

By the time we teach everything else that we need to teach in the Practice subject, in order to meet the accreditation requirements, there is not a lot of time left for the really big issues facing the profession. In many respects the accreditation requirements and Australian competency standards seem to reinforce some of the myths that bedevil architectural discourse and culture. As we touched on in last week’s panel, on diversity and inclusiveness, the guidelines appear to reinforce the notion that the only way to Practice is via traditional practice. I call it the Wilkinson-Eyre model of practice. Yet there are many different ways to be an architect. Yet architecture seems imprisoned by the traditional mythologies of masculine and male creative genius, the pedigrees of client patronage, race and class, as well as the binary split between design creativity and business. All of these things seem to reinforce the idea that practice is not a place where discussions around diversity or inequity should take place (there is a lot to cover and this is why I also teach an elective called Design Activism).

In the olden days, there was subject on Specifications. This is now covered as one lecture in our Architectural Practice subject. In the olden days, there were subjects that addressed contract documentation strategies and workflows. We now cover this in practice in one tiny lecture. The same for Contract Management which is now covered in Practice and yet it should probably be a separate subject. These days I think we all benefit if the teaching of Architectural Practice is seen as being more of a contested area. I have no problem with that. A place where debates around the profession and its relationship to various issues can take place.

Architectural Practice is too often an incredibly contested area in the wrong ways. One of the older binaries that seem to pervade it is that one between the real world and academia. It’s always been oh so easy for practitioners to come to the university and look at the work and say the graduates: can’t do this, or they can’t do that. I have seen this happen on numerous occasions during various accreditation panels. Some architectural employers don’t want graduates that have been taught to think but to simply fit into the cogs of that CAD monkey documentation machine. This is a simplistic binary debate, and it’s a pretty easy criticism to utter, and in the end only diminishes architecture as a profession. The real problem is that some voices are too often silenced or not heard when these simplistic aphorisms get trotted out. For example, the graduates who are paid poorly by practices, work long hours and don’t get paid overtime. Or the people of difference who don’t make the so-called grade at Wilkinson Eyre.

It was suggested to me recently that the architecture curricula was simply about teaching design, technology, history and theory. I thought WTF? As an integrated subject Practice, should be both reflective of the debates in contemporary architecture and give young architects their first insights into a range of things. The strategic management of technology for example. Or knowing how to negotiate or consult with a client or a developer or a marginalised community group for another.  Teaching young architects to write business plans so they can find pathways through financial economics in order to not economically exploit others when they come to direct practices themselves (This week our Q&A style panel in is on fee cutting).

Traditionally, Practice has always taught by male architects who by and large seemed to wear suits and seem to know something about money in a kind of worldly sense (I am one of those; but sometimes I don’t wear the suit). As a subject Practice, was and is, for the most part sequestered from design in graduate architecture schools across the world. It is either often forgotten or seen as something that has nothing to do with either design, technology or even history and theory. It is presumed to be a practical subject that somehow teaches architectural students about the “real world.” But this image of the real world is a shibboleth. This is because I know of few architecture schools, where teaching cross-cultural negotiation skills, or stuff like the darker arts of social media branding, or the banalities of cash flow forecasting is thought about. I know of one architecture school, so notoriously attracted and addicted to its own tiny autonomous discourse, that if you mentioned any of this stuff they would stereotype you as a “non-designer” and relegate you a long way down their coveted pecking order of young and emerging star architects.Of course, as we know from other domains of knowledge, that economics. sociology and the management sciences are fields that are valuable to encounter intellectually.

This forgetting of Practice reinforces the worse mythologies of practice itself. The way we practice architecture needs to be dismantled through more effective ethnographic and empirical research using methods dragged in from other domains. Even in the UK field of Construction Management, as a result of an interest in the sociological and management sciences, there has developed over the last 10 years focused research studies on: technology take-up, sustainability, innovation, immigrant labour flows, as well as the inequities of pre-formed racial and gender identities in construction. By contrast in architecture all we seem to do is something called design research (I am still to figure out what that is) a bit of do-gooder sustainability (despite the fact that we are facing extinction as a species) and a whole lot of technical research using robots, 3D printers and Virtual and Augmented reality.

This focus on the technical only seems to reinforce the new image of the young architect as a kind of sneakerboy guru of Rhino or Grasshopper. Someone, I know went to an international robotics in architecture conference to find it was full of hundreds of blokes with less than a handful of woman represented. Even in the sixties, another time of technological obsession in architecture, figures like Archigram and Reyner Banham had a Boys-and-their-Toys fetish about computers, space ships and industrialised building. Not sure if a lot has changed.

For me it is the historians and architectural theorists who are doing the most interesting research in architecture. These areas, as well as research into practice, more often than not, get squeezed in research funding rounds in favour of technology, sustainability and construction. I think the profession at large needs to think more carefully about what it means to practice, beyond the narrow models, pedigrees and mythologies that have pervaded architectural culture for the last million years. Maybe, thats why in all of this it was good to see three (yes, three!) Catalan architects get the 2017 Pritzker Prize. The question of what practice is, who can practice and who does practice should be reflected in both academic and professional development programs, accreditation guidelines, curricula and syllabi.

But to really teach practice I think we need to teach young architects how to chain themselves to the gate of a coal mine. Or how to work directly with colonised groups. Or how to reflect on their own genders and backgrounds. Architecture school is the place for the messy debates that will hopefully dismantle and decolonise architecture’s current subjectivities, pedigrees, rituals of taste-making and mythologies. Architecture school is the place where the politics of global economics confronts the new and emerging forms and structures of architectural practice itself. Most traditional practice courses have avoided building into their framework these perspectives, and sadly in most architectural schools architectural practice seems to get forgotten. These are the issues that should be central to the teaching of practice. In fact, as architects we should all be teaching these things in our firms and in schools of architecture.

 

 

 

 

Surviving the Design Studio: Seeking MSD Architectural Practice Tutors

We are looking for architects with a commitment to architectural education to tutor, guest lecture or join our weekly discussion panels, in Architectural Practice in Semester 1 of 2017. The subject aims to develop a strong connection between MSD MArch students and architectural practice. The tutors are a key part of helping us to make this connection. For many of the students in the class this will be their first introduction to practice.
Using the traditional practice syllabus as a platform the subject covers strategic thinking, emerging forms of collaboration, foresight and forecasting, negotiations, gender issues and knowledge futures.
In 2017 lecture content will be delivered online and via lecture based panel discussions as well as structured tutorial case studies.
Ideally tutors in this subject will be registered architects or practitioners with post registration experience who are currently working in their own practices or as project architects in medium to large firms. It is expected that tutors will meet the challenge of teaching in a cross-cultural and diverse context (perhaps unlike the people in the photo above)
We would also welcome people currently in leadership positions in practice who wish to contribute to the subject either as a tutor or as a guest lecturer and discussion panel member.
Time commitment for tutors is significant and this will be: 11 x 90 minute tutorials plus 4 x 1 hour moderation sessions during the semester. As well as attendance at 2 x 1 hour lecture panel presentations. This is an opportunity to make a direct contribution to current debates about architectural practice.
Tutors will also need to view the online lectures. There is approximately 32 hours of marking during the semester. Tutorials are generally either Monday and Tuesday evenings.
To give students a sense of the reality of practice each tutor will also be responsible for posting “a week in the life of the architect” content to the subjects Instagram account for one week of the semester.
I am happy to talk with you further if you have any further questions about your contribution as tutor to the subject. I look forward to your application as a tutor via the MSD’s Session Staff Recruitment System at the following link.

Architecture Students as Customers: How not to measure the value of architectural education

Whilst we are waiting for the outcome of our federal election it is worth noting that The Abbott-Turnbull  government has increased funding to a new project that measures quality in tertiary education. This initiative is called QILT: Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching. QILT is a ranking system that relies on independent data based on the 2015 different Student Experience Surveys. In September the survey will add in graduate employment data as well. On this basis your architecture school is a great architecture school if you graduate (in order to do the survey), love the experience (no matter how little you learn) and earn a buck. Yes, as a customer you will need to earn a buck to pay down your Higher Education student debt. But as we all know nowadays everyone pays to attend. Some more than others.

Architectural education is now well and truly a part of this increasingly global “business” of education. Although, architecture is not a large part of the “business”, or as large in revenue generation as law, commerce or biomedical sciences, it still seems to tick over nicely. For some university executives architecture is a commodified cash cow. You can thrash it like an old Holden via lot’s of short term contracts and  high staff-student ratios in the studios. It doesn’t really matter who you take in as students, or how you treat them, just as long as they pay.

QILT

Data measures such as QILT only seem to reinforce these “customer” orientated tendencies. The architecture student is now a customer; student’s get the branded degree they paid for; and they aren’t challenged too much or they might complain (tell me about it); and they learn a few technical skills (throw in a bit of of CNC, Rhino and Revit) that enables them to get a paying job (maybe).

The first flaw of QILT in relation to architectural education is is that it  aggregates data from across number of different disciplines.  This includes Architecture & Urban Environments, Building & Construction.It slums together Architecture, Urban Design and Regional Planning, Landscape Architecture and Interior and Environmental Design, Building Science and Technology, Building Construction Management, Building Surveying and Building Construction Economics. How any one could lump together architecture construction management and economics with urban planning is astounding. The built environment design disciplines should be in a separate dataset.

QILT uses data that is based on university Student Experience Survey (SES) which, as most committed tertiary teachers will tell you are notoriously flawed for reasons too long to discuss here (this is a good introductory paper on the issues). In architectural education a brief example might suffice: In architecture design students respond to the surveys prior to their final studio presentations. The administrators of the SES view these crits as an examination but do not realise that getting students to respond prior to the crit distorts the figures. Fewer architecture students respond, they are to busy preparing for the crit, and more importantly, the end of project design crit is one of the significant learning points in the semester.

QILT is also based on data gathered from the The Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ). This is completed by graduates of Australian higher education institutions four months after completion of their courses measuring: Overall satisfaction, good teaching, generic skills. QILT also measures data gleaned from the Graduate Destination Survey. Which includes the median salary of graduates. This is one reason why the discipline data should not be mixed up together as every one is on different pay scales. The QILT data jockeys are also developing a “The Employer Satisfaction Survey (ESS)” which  is being developed as part of the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching

The QILT website allows you to compare between universities. Using the quick comparison I did it would seem that one architecture school in Australia appears to outshine all of the others in terms of graduate satisfaction, skills learnt and median salaries. There is not a lot I can say about this; except I don’t think much of the QILT methodology or its comparative results.

What makes a great architecture school

Of course, we all want to say that we went to a great architecture school. The one I went to is now argued to be, by some at least, one of the best in the world (it did not rank as well on QILT). The one I teach at is also ranked highly across global research measures. Of course when I went to Architecture school in the pre-digital dark ages there, some of us much longer than others, we thought it was a shambolic and chaotic mess. That was part of its charm and that’s probably what you get when you have architects running the whole show. Of course now that we have left architecture school and look back on it it doesn’t seem so bad. Compared to other schools in Australia at the time, or even elsewhere we had a pretty good deal.  In fact I would argue that because the architects were in positions of leadership in the faculty and the school this contributed to it’s burgeoning global reputation at the time. Sadly, one architecture school I know of is governed almost entirely by administrators.

Measuring architectural culture

QILT doesn’t really measure the value of an architectural culture or how students may be involved in current global debates. It is  a one size fits all approach to running the “business”. As a student I was actively involved and close to the architectural debates, controversies and conversations of the day. I had the opportunity to be taught by the best practitioners and academics of the day. As students we were challenged by our studio tutors and we did not mind this. As students we helped to create the culture that made the school better. Moreover, thanks to Whitlam I didn’t have to pay a cent and in fact I even got paid an allowance to escape my outer suburban bunker and go to architecture school.

Measures like QILT are easy tools for the administrators to bludgeon university academics with. Its a misleading tool to guide the potential customers. Fostering the link between teaching, research and industry in architecture schools is essential for the future of the architectural profession. This is not measured in QILT. Just giving graduates a technical skill set or measuring output by how good the graduate feels during the course or their employment and salary outcomes really misses the mark.

In the future most architectural graduates will have to cope with the firestorms of technological change, climate change, political volatility and perhaps worse. Being narrow technologists who cant think across disciplines, or graduates who have never been challenged by inspired teaching to think doesn’t really cut the mustard with me. Bad shit is coming down the pipeline and our architectural graduates really need to be able to think rather than consume.

 I am almost out of the country yet on annual leave. So watch out for next week’s blog which might even be written in road trip style.