Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?

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Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 

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Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?

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Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Surviving the Design Studio: Why are architects so fucking serious?

I went to an advertising function a few days ago, the Moet was flowing amongst the producers, copywriters and account service people I ran into an ex-architect now working in advertising and he looked me in the eye and exclaimed: why are architects in Melbourne so fucking serious? Good point I thought, and I had to agree as the verbal case was laid out over the champagne. And my agreeance, was not merely politeness because this claim struck me as the truth. So, I thought given the amount of auto-ethnography I had done concerning architects in Melbourne, in one way or another, I thought I would accept the claim and then try and develop a theoretical model around it.

Melbourne Architecture is probably the epi-centre of architectural seriousness. I guess I can’t talk about Sydney but maybe the model developed below can also be generalised to encompass other places.

Serious Architectural Insects 

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The first lot of serious architectural insects I met were at the tail end of the early seventies mud-brick, alternative living, roll your own spliff movement. This time was a kind of cross between the post 68 countercultures, Alastair Knox’s mud-brick houses and the Sunbury rock festival. It was a kind of blues and roots and Whitlam thang. Everyone hated Malcolm Fraser. My shared house flatmates got busted for growing marijuana. At Archi school we had self-assessment, my first project was a long essay on alternative energy sources, my second I learnt how to design in the style of MLTW’s sea-ranch (think, planimetric chamfers). At archi-school our orientation camp was at a monastery where a guy played the bongos and as I listened my head span around and around and mesmerised by the sound I vomited. It was a serious vomit and set the tone for the rest of my architectural education.

 

No need to shed tears of nostalgia for this long lost era. Funnily enough, I think a lot of it is now back in fashion, and the common denominator is and has always been, the seriousness. For the earnest or humanistic architect, the architect without irony wanting to do good in the world, the seriousness is a natural state of being. However, this too often masks a desire for economic gain or a proclamation of egocentric vanity. For seriousness, the parametric architects are the worst and take the cake. Since when was coding a computer to make Bucky Fuller like domes, and their squishy variants, ever considered to be in any way fantastic.

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The cult of the seriousness tars even those Australian architects who appear, on the surface at least, to pursue irony and absurdity. Just have a look at the northern end of Swanston Street in Melbourne. An entire block of very very serious architecture and perhaps it would have been better if WB looked happier. Nowadays all the universities are getting into their very own Archi-serious capital works programs. The serious architectural sensibility too often about branding of one kind or another; the branded pomposity of neoliberal and market-driven clients.

And surely the absurd gymnastics of super serious architecture without whimsy is a terrible and empty thing to behold. Paradoxically, architectural seriousness has always had its darker hues. All this seriousness is serious. But what would I know as I am really really serious too?

But hey these days you would be fooled into thinking seriousness never really exists. This situation is the case if you looked at architects and social media, it all seems light and fluffy, and oh so we don’t need theory we are just doing what we do. Little arches, trellises and meshes. However, even this frivolity seems too serious especially when it is aligned with the torrent of nostalgia around the history of Melbourne architecture. This is too often a history all about the cute little 1950s housing boxes; Boyd in all his Brahmin caste politeness; the sanitised and domestic machines of the Small Homes Service; the little follies and gems of architecture recycled as serious doodoos. In Melbourne, there were lots of serious insect architects in the 1950s: Neil Clerehan, John Mockridge, James Earle, David McGlashan, Peter Jorgenson, Ken Hardcastle, Geoffrey Woodfall, Peter Burns and David Godsell. In posh Toorak, there was Guilford Bell, Rosenthal and Holgar and Holgar. Hit me up with a bit of Mid-Century Modern nostalgia insulin.

So what is the unhappy dynamic driving this seriousness and what is its pathology? Below are a few thoughts towards developing an all too slight model that might explain all of this architectural seriousness.

Insularity

Insularity the idea that nothing exists outside of the autonomous culture of architecture is the first factor. The realm and boundaries of this culture are strictly reinforced. A larger scale of geography often determines the insularity. For example, a Melbourne School or a Sydney school. However, other factors may define the boundaries of each of the clubs, clans tribes and influence networks that each city has; different ideological and theoretical ideas formed at architecture school, and even at secondary schools, may also determine these different clubs and clans and sets within the larger geographic realm.

Jargon

A peculiar language often emerges in the different architectural tribes. The utterances, aphorisms and codes often emanating from these groups often constitutes a private language. As someone remarked to me if you met these people at the dinner table, it’s difficult for an outsider to understand the lingo. Within each group, this language might evolve a little over time. Rarely is there any thought that this way of speaking might be a real bore at dinner.

The group’s jargonistic expressions will ensure that its central tenets will remain stable over time. To the initiated, some of these words and sayings seem to have magical and talismanic powers. To the outsider, this private language is instead of explicit communication and plain English. As many architectural websites attest to plain English is not often pursued. To the outsider. Let alone the client, and this results in an impenetrable language that can only be deciphered if you are in the favoured circle.

Abstract Language 

A key feature of seriousness is a verbal language of abstraction based on logic. As if to say, either reasoning and abstraction confer authority (I prefer the ravings of Artaud any day). Eisenman was good at this as was Colin Rowe and perhaps this way of speaking has its sources in the late 1980s and early days of the American architectural journal Assemblage. In any case, any of the Architectural engagement with continental philosophy since the 1970s has not helped this. Anyone reading this who may have heard Brian Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari’s translator, speak about architecture should know this.

Pecking Order

Within the circle of seriousness, the pecking usually determines who has the most power over language. Many architects will be familiar with the traits of these orders. Pecking orders are primarily determined by pedigree. Class, school of origin, architecture school, or whom you did studios with and the office you may have worked for. Alpha males win out most of the time in these orders. Having independent wealth may also help. Combine both of these attributes and will do better than most. Architects are fascinated by genealogies: Who worked for whom, who can trace their family tree back to a master or a heroic figure. Even I have claims to tracing myself back to Robin Boyd. Ridiculous, I know.

Deification

Within this system, some are architects, or deities, are bestowed with power. This endowment may or may not translate into commissions or a legacy in the canon. Usually, only men are deified, and they can then determine who the enemies are. There are always perceived enemies in the cult of seriousness, and the idolised gods have a number of tactics to relegate you to the enemy camp. We have all be written off by those helicoptered in well-pedigreed leaders who only recognise their own kind. That’s how architecture works I guess.

Maybe the above is because the notion of the enemy has a long history in the creation of modernist architectural history. From CIAM onwards there was always an enemy for modern architects to fight against. Across the globe, in the provincial market-towns of architectural culture making and remaking enemies is a constant sport.

Lack of Fluidity

In this ecosystem of seriousness, architectural experiment and the fluidity that goes with it is often abandoned. This move is in order to maintain power. Creating design knowledge is secondary and expanding the stock of architectural knowledge is secondary to maintaining a status quo. In other words, all of the above, all this seriousness, is not there to enhance the discipline or to create new knowledge and promote an engaged discourse or think about architecture as an evolving and dynamic field of expertise. No, architectural design is posed as something to defend, an inviolable territory of privilege. This defensiveness is, for the most part, a ruse to maintain and enforce power in whatever local architectural culture that power is claimed and employed.

Masculinity

All of these processes emphasise norms of masculinity within the profession. The single architectural voice with all of its mystifications, contrariness, rationalisations and self-importance has no interest in more fluid notions of identity.

This gendered voice seeks influence, authority, power and sometimes a pathetic kind of social notoriety and deification. This voice continually seeks to prescribe and fix its own identity. Perhaps, we have all wanted to be there and have saught this. In contrast, collective notions of design, or architectural theory, that questions fixed identities is belittled or relegated. Consequently, the design process itself is ring-fenced and quarantined in a way that always links it to fixed architectural identities. As a result intersectionality and its attendant approaches are never something that comes into play. Any suggestion by anyone that points out the jargon, mystifications, influence, and deification that result in this seriousness is overlooked and at worse silenced.

The paradox is that architectural whimsy, a lightness of being, has a more significant potential for emotional and political nuance than the strictures of seriousness. And I don’t mean a whimsy devoid of politics. Perhaps all we can hope for an architectural culture that embraces a collective lightness and openness, as much as any other sentiment. But hey, who am I to talk when I am also so serious. But anything is better than vainglorious seriousness and insane pomposity that characterises much of the profession. Architecture as a genuinely collective endeavour and a contested field of knowledge deserves more.

Due to work commitments, I have not been able to get the blog out as much as I would like. I did manage to get to ARCOM in Belfast, and my co-author Loren Adams and we won a prize for the most innovative paper! Read it here if you dare. However, more about that in later blogs. For those of you in my own special identity cult don’t worry too much: I am alive, but only just.

#Freespace: The 16th Venice Architecture Biennale

For regular readers of this blog, I am sorry for going AWOL for a few weeks. This is the biggest break from my weekly blogging that I have had since I started this endeavour. Of course, I feel a little guilty. But hey, this blog is not always about the Google stats, if it ever was. For the past few weeks, I have been in Italy and managed to visit the Architecture Biennale. So, dear blog reader the next few blogs will focus on the 2018 Biennale. So dear readers, you can now say, as they say in the Chucky Movie he’s back. Typos and all.

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Freespace

Freespace is the theme for the 2018 Architecture Biennale, and it has been curated by two Irish architects, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara. It is thought-provoking and well curated, and this is the best Biennale I have seen. They have done a great job. And for the most jaded of architectural hacks such as myself, looking at it through a haze of Cocchi Americano spritz, the curators have presented their theme as a comprehensive vision (Aperol is no longer my drink of choice on the lagoon). Its a vision of what architecture can aspire to be. Compared to past Biennale’s, it is not as muddled as Chipperfield’s theme of “Common Ground” or as ambiguous as Sejima’s “People Meet in Architecture” of 2010. This Biennale, unlike previous versions, has its very own manifesto written around the notion of Freespace.

The Manifesto

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara are graduates of University College Dublin and their practice is called Grafton architects .  The Freespace manifesto has six points. You can read the entire manifesto here. Here are a two manifesto points for your edification.

FREESPACE can be a space for opportunity, a democratic space, un-programmed and free for uses not yet conceived. There is an exchange between people and buildings that happens, even if not intended or designed, so buildings themselves find ways of sharing and engaging with people over time, long after the architect has left the scene. Architecture has an active as well as a passive life.

FREESPACE encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.

You can see all the selected architects here

These are noble aspirations, and the manifesto helps to keep everything together. I think that Farrell and McNamara have curated a Biennale that is in keeping with their manifesto. Of course, the theme must allow enough room for broad interpretation and yet lend itself to specificity. Farrell and McNamara, and the architects, have done this admirably, and one of the great joys of this Biennale is the effort that has gone into the interpretive signage of each of the 71 or exhibitors in the Venice Giardini and the Corderie within the Venetian Arsenale; the impregnable complex of shipyards that was the epicentre of the Venetian Republic’s power. For each exhibitor, Farrell and McNamara provide for the visitor a piece as to why each was chosen and how their work relates to the overall theme. These little blurbs are concise, well written, refer back to the Freespace manifesto and are a pleasure to read.

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Frampton

And it might seem foolhardy to find a stable point in the plethora of approaches selected and presented at this Biennale. Nevertheless, this Biennale evokes Frampton’s 1983 essay, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance. In it Frampton argued that optimising technologies had delimited the ability of architects to produce significant urban form.⁠ The curators, like Frampton, strenuously advocate for the legitimacy of localised architectural cultures and a discourse resistant to processes of universalisation. The work of Critical Regionalism itself was to, “mediate the impact of universal civilisation with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place.⁠” Much of what the curators have selected in this Biennale accord with this sentiment. So much so they awarded Frampton a Golden Lion.

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A Computer #FreeSpace Zone

Best of all this is a Biennale that is very much a computer free zone. Yep. Let me just say that again. This is a biennale that is very much a computer free zone. Yes, there are lots of exquisite laser-cut models, there are obviously computer-generated drawings and diagrams. But for many of these architects, their patrons, and ordinary punters this is an exhibition that is about a kind of bottom up-architecture. There is no bombast or hyperbole related to the latest computer technologies to solve all of our problems. By and large, most exhibitors have provided representations of their own work, rather than pursuing dreary conceptual pieces based on abstract ideas. One might ask Farrell and McNamara, if they think computer hyperbole is diametrically opposed to the aspirations of Freespace?

Of course, between these two polarities–the curator’s against a universal society and the absence of in your face computing–there are other pathologies at play that probably cannot be covered in a blog like this.

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A schlock free zone

This is a Biennale refreshingly free of abstract schlocky volumes, cheap Eisenman-like syntactics and thankfully para-mucking-metrics. A few installations are overly conceptual, and they fall pretty flat. There is only so much you can do with gauze curtains and multi-media. This is a biennale depicting an architecture still based in the techniques of drawing, model making, section (remember those) and the plan. Yes, the plan, the plan as a working method, before it became an overly coagulated El Lissizky composition; drawn over and over and over again with line sequences adjusted a little bit here and there; lines never expressive enough to break out of the constraints of fluid capital.

This is a Biennale exhibition of models, materiality, construction and spatial context. An architecture cognisant of regional differences, cultural layers and as the curators say in their manifesto.

FREESPACE encompasses freedom to imagine, the free space of time and memory, binding past, present and future together, building on inherited cultural layers, weaving the archaic with the contemporary.

Highlights

This is very much a Biennale that exhibit’s work that is shaped by propositions and experiments of the European city. The stats tend to suggest this: 46 of the firms represented are from Europe, 11 from across Asia, 5 from South America. Peter Rich from South Africa. Notably, the Trumpian republic only has 5. In theory, this Eurocentric focus and pursuit of Frampton’s credo is paradoxically the limitation of this Biennale. In accord with the Freespace manifesto, much of the work of the firms in the Arsenale is focused on exploring layers, community, culture, memory and the morphologies of the European city. Yes, the curators have selected some non-European entries from India, China and South Americas. But overall, the wan light of the iniquitous slum-cities now sprawling across the globe are missing at this Biennale. This is arguably an architecture formed in a Eurocentric bubble, and one wonders if Freespace is radical or confrontational enough to fill the gap. Perhaps in the future, some historians will decide that Betsky’s 2008 Biennale was the last gasp of American architecture.

Nonetheless, the result is refreshing as this is by and large it’s a star architect, and parametric free zone, although beautiful, charming and talkative Bjarke is there with a dreary flooded scheme of New York replete, in a room with plasma screens which have a cheesy blue bubble water that rising up on each screen. It reminded me of the Bubblecup franchise (I guess that’s what happens when you leave Europe and go to New York). Nothing like converting global warming and rising sea levels, to a graphics device on a plasma screen to help avert the actual horrors of climate justice.

Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie

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And of course what about the Ozzie’s? What about the Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi architects. Well, there are two plucky little Australian firms selected by the curators in the Asrsenale. John Wardle and Room 11. Wardle makes it into the Arsenale with a giant kind of conceptual spotted gum (if that was the species) piece, sadly let down by an overwrought plastic red thing with a mirror at the end. I can’t even begin to tell you what it reminds me of. It would have been better to see some of the practice’s work. As for Room 11, from Tasmania, I think I have written about them elsewhere.

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Caccia Dominioni

One of the revelations for me was the presentation of the work of the late Milanese architect Caccia Dominioni curated by Cino Zucchi. Dominioni worked to create magnificent apartments for the Milanese bourgeois.

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When I see this work I think it indicates a rigorous working method committed to a project that inscribes the lives and habits of a people into the plan. His work is a far cry from the Jim Jims and melamine soaked interiors, featurist luxuries, and cheap scrims in the apartment plans of Australian cities.

In coming weeks I will discuss the Sean Godsell’s contribution at the Holy See, Repair the Australian Pavilion and maybe even the MADA wall. In the meantime don’t forget to help Architeam fund the RASP project. 

Weasel word hashtags for Architects and Urbanists

Architects always seem to get quite a bit of criticism for adopting strange, eccentric and or opaque language. Recently a friend told me that he heard a Project Manager say that “everything architects write is shit,” I am not entirely sure but maybe that PM had been reading this blog. Especially this extremely popular blog post.

Weasel words defined

This prompted me to think about this and the pressures on architects to employ weasel words to get work. A few years back Paul Keating’s speechwriter Don Watson identified and wrote a book about same weasel words amongst corporates types and the political class. In his introduction he wrote:

Weasel words are the words of the powerful, the treacherous and the unfaithful, spies, assassins and thieves. Bureaucrats and ideologues love them. Tyrants cannot do without them.

To speak the words the powerful speak is to obey them, or at least to give up all outward signs of freedom. Stalin was not the first tyrant to be so feared that those around him preferred to imitate even his malapropisms than give him any reason to think they were not in awe of his authority.

The same mimicry can be expected wherever the official language is a kind of code that we must at least appear to understand, or be excluded. It happens in democracies, and in businesses and government departments. Today it is found everywhere the language of the information age is (compulsorily) spoken; everywhere the management revolution has been; everywhere marketing goes. This is language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance or the varieties of experience. It is cut off and cuts us off from provenance – it has no past.

The public language of architects 

Certainly, the same kind of miasma exists in the public life of architecture. Its true for construction and the related disciplines and I am breathing this stuff in all the time in marketised academia. Who is the worst I wonder? The development industry, the real estate industry or the contractors. Architects should know better to avoid the butchering of language, and overuse of signifiers cut adrift from any real architectural theory. For architects weasel words often accompany weasel images.

My point is not that architects do not need a dose of “plain English” speaking.  They already do that. For example, a quick scour of a few architects websites revealed words like client focus, inspiration, evolving, inclusive, distinctive, responsive, quality and of course context. Architects are all these things. But I  hope that in and across all the architectural websites and hashtags there might be a little more clarity, nuance and resistance.

How you talk about projects, like urban design or architecture is just as important as how you might represent them. In recent years with the rise and rise of social media, it seems like every second, Facebook post, Twitter byte, Insta Story or Linked-In post is pushing a new positive and inspiring line about the urban and architectural world. Written in a way that attempts to grab you distract and then grab your mind for a few seconds in the attention economy. Consequently. It seems with the rise of social media we have seen a corresponding surge of weasel words and slogans. With the demise of theory and history and any subject that might help architecture students analyse these words.
Are architects flying into a vortex of dumb and dumber? So here is my own list of Weasel words specific to architects and urbanists. So what is an urbanist anyway? When you hear someone say one of these words or phrases its best that the alarms go off in your head and you drill down into the detail.
The following is a warning and an alert as to what these words might really mean. So here is my list of weasel hashtags. For each #weaselword I added the word architecture or city to and did a Google image search to see what would happen.

#Low-Carbon

Usually followed by words like Architecture, Urbanism, City, City Transition Holy fuck you can add low-carbon as a descriptor to just about anything. Maybe it doesn’t really matter if haven’t actually done a Carbon Audit or you emissions are through the roof.

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The low clouds are not carbon emissions

#Sustainable

This one has really been overused. We should stop using this word and think of something better. This one is also like Low Carbon. But whereas Low Carbon sounds a bit more techy and quantitative, this one just sounds like mush. But hey sustainable architecture is this in image search.

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Naturally 6 stars for this one

#Smart Cities  

What this really means is the opposite. It means dumb cities. Dumb cities with awful curtain walls, mixed-use retail and glassy-eyed towers in the portfolios of middle manager real estate types. The Google image search threw up this.

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Just oozing smarts

#Parametric

Ok, I know regular readers of the blog will be accustomed to my hatred of the cult of parametricism. But I could resist. It’s like a label you can use to pretend you have done architecture. Googling Parametric studio gets you 9,960,000 results. When I Google image searched Parametric architecture I got this:

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Not so far down the parametric image food chain you start getting timber stuff like this. 

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Wow !!

#Liveable

#Liveable = Melbourne. Yes, equals full stop. Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city.   What else could it possibly mean? When I Google image searched Liveable I just got Melbourne:

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It’s a great place to sleep out if you are homeless.

#Visionary

This one means usually means we are going to build a massive tower on top of a tiny little historic building. When I Google image searched Visionary architecture I got this:

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Those crazy architects !

#Resilient

It should mean when the climate change catastrophe comes how will our community recover. Or it might mean how we can recover from any kind of volatility. But when I Google image searched resilient architecture I got this:

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How could that design not be resilient? 

#Innovative

Usually means “we are going to try and do something different that our middle-brow time and cost outcome clients will not like.” Can also be used to explain, to the uninitiated, why the scheme is a completely under designed ad-hoc dog’s breakfast disaster. When I Google image searched innovative architecture I got this:

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Innovative and blurry. 

Finally

So let’s hear it for those architects and urbanists who bother to think about the words and images they make and send out into the media streams. Let’s applaud those architects who refuse to adopt the official languages of information tyranny and capital. Architectural practice of worth will always pursue architecture as a minor literature in the hope that it can still be a gathering point of critical resistance.

Project Kulcha vs. Design Knowledge Kulcha: What type of Practice are you in ?

I hate the word HR, especially the HR people who give the impression of impartially managing the protocols but are really just doing what they are being told by the organisational power brokers. Yes, I am bitter and twisted but architects deserve better. Favouritism, recruiting-in-your-own-image, gender discrimination and of course age discrimination (try and get a job in architecture when you are over 50) does not make for an innovative meritocracy. Throw in a bit of class based stereotyping and profiling. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fostering of acolyte cults and the sleazy disease of managing up; which all too often seems to work for some; eventually these people are caught out; usually not before the practice or organisation has been irretrievable damaged.

Open systems of governance and inclusive collaboration in design studios and architectural firms is where architects should be at. It is not rocket science but why is it so hard to examples of.

As someone said to me recently:

“Design leadership is not simply about putting the smartest people into the design studio and then telling them everything they do is “not quite right”, a “little bit wrong”, or their work has “no credibility” or doesn’t actually “count” or “amount” too much. All of which is a recipe for resentment and low organisational morale.

All these practices are too often rife in architecture and eventually they all impact on a firm’s ability, and the capabilities of the profession at large, to retain a competitive advantage or do great architecture.  There is some hope as in Australia, The Association of Consulting Architects Australia (why didn’t the AIA do this sooner I hear you ask?) has a lot of material here for those of you interested in developing a productive workplace.

And of course there is the elephant in the room. The bullying and sexual harassment that goes with poor workplace cultures. Australian Architecture has yet to have its big Weinstein #MeToo moment. But this is certainly an issue bubbling away in the pressure cooker of architectural firms in Australia as margins remain under pressure and the sector is forecast to not grow in the next year or so.

One theory that seems to accelerate this bundle of syndromes and horrific work practices in architectural firms is what I call the Project Culture mindset.

In the schizo, Project Culture mode, many architectural practices swing between, a project culture that is about processes of delivery, as well as time and cost outcomes and a project culture that is excessively focused on the “design”. Over determined reporting, pedantic detailing in documentation (as if that’s the only thing that counts), IT and quality systems that slow rather than speed, are all aspects of this type of culture. Combined with rigid organisational hierarchies and they are also an aspect of this type of culture. Feeding into the firm’s hierarchy is often the ill-informed practices mentioned above.

Project Culture. Managing projects to ensure: Design Knowledge Culture. Designing in order to:
Compliance Create new norms of compliance
Avoidance negligence Have foresight in relation to negligence.
Avoidance risk Testing the boundary conditions of risk.
Efficient time and cost outcomes Have time and cost outcomes that maximise Design Knowledge.
Managing relationships Managing relationships in way that creates Design Knowledge.
Operations Maximise the operational creation and delivery of Design Knowledge.
Qualitative Value Management Link Design Knowledge to Value.
Quantitative Cost Management Develop pockets of Design Knowledge within Value Management Agendas.
Managing staff through rule based incentives and metrics. Managing staff so they create Design Knowledge.

The Project Culture Firm

A firm with a project culture orientation will concentrate on the following types of knowledge:

Yes, this is the stuff the design architects are always pushing against. Within the project culture firm conflict between the design architects and the project architects, and so-called business architects is incessant and cyclical and often counterproductive. It’s a cycle that is really very boring. But it is also a cycle that is unnecessary and it is best typified by the large, and conservative, practice that wants to “beef” up its design credentials: Enter the new design director ( or recent grads), on the promise of being able to have design agency, who end up doing little and being frustrated by resistance from an entrenched project culture. This happens all too often. I guess its one way to exploit the design talent.

But what is also scary is that this list, as well as sounding all too familiar, looks so much like the competencies that architects learn or an Architectural Practice subject syllabus. But there is not a lot in there about, what I call, the real and authentic issues, of leadership and culture. Being a good project architect, or administrator, or a great managing upper, does not necessarily mean you are a good leader. We also need to decouple the design genius types out of our ideas of leadership as well: Being a good designer does not mean you are a good leader. It might just mean in all these cases you are a common garden variety arsehole (apologies for using the A word, at least I used lower case) who is incapable of building through leadership an inclusive Design Knowledge culture in a firm.

The Design Knowledge Culture Firm

A firm with an orientation towards a Design Knowledge culture is more interested in generating Design Knowledge or even other forms of construction orientated knowledge. This is a similar argument to that proposed by Flora Samuel, a recent visitor to MSD, argues this—although a little naively– as well in her latest book Why Architects Matter. Samuel argues that knowledge architects are concerned with “developing systems and processes the profession needs to subsist, not buildings.” Great, but I think there may be more to it than just getting out the Post Occupancy Evaluation and Quality Systems checklists. Nonetheless, the book is certainly worth a look even if it is still stuck in a project culture.

Within a Design Knowledge culture there is no conflict between the design architects and the project architects and so-called business architects. There is no territoriality or regimes of pettiness and power. All staff, with different roles, are incentivized and working towards creating knowledge; Design Knowledge speaks for itself.

Design Leadership 

In this ideal knowledge orientated practice Design Leadership is used to set the culture of the firm. This is the first role of leaders. But sadly, project orientated culture has a real grip on the profession and it is currently the predominant mode of developing leadership and culture. But architects now need to shift to the new models of leadership, unfettered by project pedantry, if they are to avoid the sludge of mediocrity and irrelevance.

TESTOSTERONE FUELLED TECHNO-OPTIMISM: 2018 Global Architectural Research Survey Part 2.

This blog follows on from the previous blog discussing the responses to my rapid survey of research attitudes and structures in architectural practices. I have sprinkled a few thought provoking quotes from survey respondents throughout.

As a new practice with limited mentor-type assistance research consumes a massive amount of time which results in inefficiency and financial stress. It is nevertheless a constant element that underpins all projects through all phases. The assumption is that through research we develop our knowledge and the ability to recall and apply it in order to achieve better result and with greater efficiency.

Research Ad hocism

Around 57% of responding architects have no, or only partial, systems within their practices to capture research knowledge. Yet as noted in the previous blog on this many architects still claim that they are doing research in informal ways as they design projects.

Chart_Q18_180322

If all this ad hocism is the case then it is reasonable to ask: what sort of research are architects currently pursuing in their wonderfully ad hoc, informal, doing the project-at-hand and organic ways? The survey asked a two questions about this. The first question asked: Does your firm conduct research into any of the following established research areas ? The results are below:

Chart_Q12_180322

Perhaps the survey question could have been sharper. But look at the chart: Lots are doing sustainability research (surprise, surprise), lots are into Urban Design (I am old enough to remember when no-one did this) and then different variants of health, housing and education crop up. Health and ageing looks like its a bit low. Nonetheless, my innate trained at RMIT cynicism tells me its a list of the usual suspects.

What is probably more interesting, in the above somewhat prosaic list of responses, are the outliers (the other responses) and these were things like: indigenous cultural awareness, forensic architecture, animal welfare,  pre-fab, modular, briefing methodologies, co-living, design advocacy and dispute resolution.

The list certainly reflects broader economic realities. Being the areas where clients have the money and the architects are following. As they say, follow the money.  So this may simply reflect broader economic realities.  But is this really a list of research areas that are going to help architects enhance their agency in the future? If everyone is doing the same research how can an individual firm differentiate itself?

I’ve noticed many practices in the UK do formally engage in meaningful research and employ full time research staff to organise and catalogue information. Not only does it help to strengthen the practices body of work, but also their image as a practice that engages with contemporary issues, this consequently gives them a competitive edge when competing to win much sought after public projects and roles involving design advisory for government bodies

One strategy for firms is to set up structures, to research the things around what the practice is currently doing but also develop a few research projects that lie outside of the firms expertise; research that might create knowledge that will differentiate the practice.

Chart_Q19_180322

The research carried out by the practice is underutilized, and should be benefitting the practice and the industry in general.

Which leads us to the next chart, the second question about what architects do, which was intended to be a little more future orientated:

Chart_Q13_180322

Looking at this one, I am beginning to wonder, again with my cynical hat on, if anything outside of the techno-optimistic agenda might be too hard for architects. But all of the other usual and overtly macho-boyo technical suspects were there including: BIM, Parametric Modelling, Drones & 3D Printing or Scanning (stab me in the eye with a biro),  Virtual Reality, CNC Fabrication and Advanced Prefabrication. Not a word about the organisational or social sciences. The what?

I was somewhat shocked to see that a huge slab of architects listed BIM Modelling and Parametric modelling as the big ticket future research items. Maybe not so suprising. Surely, any future research in these areas is more about incremental rather than radical innovations. Perhaps architects are now lost without a kind of technical agenda for guidance.

But, as someone said to me if you are going to research this stuff don’t dabble in it. Either do it as pure research or do it as serious applied research, at the other end of the chain, which will give you some kind of competitive advantage. But don’t dabble.

Little thought is given to incentivising staff to carry out research. For more could be achieved if there were incentives for staff. Staff are assumed to be interested in research but many capable members of staff feel they are too busy to do it especially when they do not see a return.

Heres another chart looking at research governance:

Chart_Q16_180322

While there is a knowledge bank from previous successful and never built projects that can be accessed by anyone in the practice, it is a tool that it is rarely used. There is this idea among architects that there is always the need to reinvent the wheel, even when sometimes the answer is within previous research and projects undertaken by the practice.

Ladbrokes 

For my money I am betting with my Ladbrokes account on research into data analytics and social media. This is because I think architects can profitably bring their creativity, spatial thinking skills and ability to see across disciplines fields like data analytics.  Maybe those qualities are a bit old school. But, I am over the boys-with-toys technologies in architecture. And what really worries me is all that testosterone fuelled techno-optimism has eroded our ability to think clearly.

Surviving the Design Studio: 4 Ways to make sure you become a BIM monkey.

Feature Image: ‘Concrete[I]Land’ (Photograph courtesy of New_territories with Ann-Arbor)

Getting older in architecture sucks. Along with all the other forms of discrimination, profiling, appalling labour practices and lack of diversity once you get to certain age you become invisible. Worse still you become really really invisible to those architects above you adept at exploiting the talent. Much easier to exploit the interns and the recent graduates than the old hands.

A friend of mine, an architect with about 25 years of experience working with the very best architects in town, as well as the worst, bemoaned the early career architectural graduates she had to work with. In a nutshell she said there was

“sometimes a staggering gulf between “confidence level and knowledge-experience-skill.”

Another friend, who came through the same cruel archi-school regime I also suffered under, wondered out loud:

“why would you go to architecture school just to learn BIM and not much else?”

Someone else I know in NYC, was aghast in a design meeting where one early career architect proclaimed:

  “I’ve done some research and Brooklyn has a lot of old buildings with arches so we should do a building with arches.”

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Someone else said to me:

Whenever I go to those large practices full of young architects on computers don’t they realise in a few years all these computers will be gone? What will they do then?

This of course is not to stereotype a whole generation of early career architects as dumbed down, dullards who think doing BIM is what architecture is and thus have no need for history and theory. Many of this generation are going to be great architects and help to transform the profession. Perhaps even save the profession from itself.

But there are nonetheless a few gentle warnings in the above litanies of architectural senility and cynicism. So, if you do want to be BIM monkey this is what you need to do:

  1. Actually think that BIM is Architecture.

Of course BIM is just a bundle of software programs and processes. I won’t bore you with the definitions. But in this is not the same as architecture. You will only be able to spend so much of your life doing the CAD or BIM monkey seated jigs. In fact jigging on the computer jigs has a limited life-span as documentation becomes increasingly more commodified.

  1. Know in your heart that Parametric Modelling makes the best architecture.

Listen to and channel Schumakkker.

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schumakkers ear

The Parametric types like to push the idea that every Parametric model is a unique and customised product or object. Our digital feeds have since the early 2000s been swamped  with completely dysfunctional and useless Parametric “art” objects; conceptual objects that claim to increase our haptic awareness. Hit me up with a another geomorphic iceberg skeletor thing. Another adornment or folly to cleanse our souls and “transport” us to a natural environment. At least Francois Roche is brave enough to explore the scatological and organic forms in a way that isn’t just pap.

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‘Robotic Processes’ (Photograph courtesy of New_territories

I am not sure Parametric Design has really moved on in the last 15 years. It certainly hasn’t engaged with politics nor does it seem to have a sense of its own irony.

  1. Forget about wild and crazy design thinking.

Wild and crazy Design Thinking is central to architecture. But if you want to be a great BIM Monkey just go for that linear problem solving, get it done one quickly, jam that round problem into square hole type of thinking. Get excited about the efficiency of the CNC code. Love that little laser cut model that looks like a plywood skeleton.

If you are at architecture school just to learn BIM and hot-shot oversaturated realistic rendering then maybe you are better off somewhere else. I really don’t want you in the profession. You are only hastening the commodification of architecture as a domain of knowledge.

No wonder the 30,00 strong REVIT group on Linked-In told me to only post “relevant” pieces to their group page.

  1. Love and consume the tasteful.

Yep, just eat up the tasteful. Wear the clothes and subscribe to the mags. Follow the Insta influencers. The best way to become a BIM jockey is to keep thinking the best architects are the ones that the real estate marketers, middle brow property developers and the lifestyle magazine editors love. Who can blame architects for getting in with this crowd?

The above people are obviously the gatekeepers who see architecture as a narrow canon of taste and fashionista profiling. Best to stay on side with them. Ignore anyone different.

Abandoning theory 

Architecture has a complex social politics and history. Abandoning theory in favour of fashionable consumption is your choice. But it will just leave you ceaselessly jigging in the BIM jig money chair.

I made the worst models and did the worst drawings at architecture school. But I did learn how to think and that is what is most important. So my advice is, from an older invisible architect verging on senility, if you want to have an enduring architectural career see if you can get through the whole of architecture school without learning BIM. Otherwise, you will end up jigging with the software jigs for the rest of your life.

You be a robot architect and then the real robots will take over and you will be out of a job. If don’t learn how to think at architecture school this will be your fate.