Architects and Risk: The personal connection.

Thank you for all those who have completed the Surviving the Design Studio: Global Research Survey. The results and comments so far have come from all over the globe. It has given me much food for thought and the results will be shared here as blog post, or two, in early March. I would like to thank everyone for the comments and certainly the next research Survey I conduct will be better again. In the meantime we are rushing to prepare the Practice subject for the beginning of semester at MSD in two weeks.

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The Myth of the Digital Superhero

For most architects the drive of the architect to be a digital superhero, a creative celebrity, or a young Instagram genius, obviates and perhaps erases the necessity to focus on risk mitigation. But, regardless of the efforts to fashion a stable, if not stellar, identity in the vain hope of surviving financially, the overwhelming focus of attention for both employed and self-employed architects is risk mitigation. This has a personal dimension.

Yes, like most architects when I hear or read the word “risk”, my eyes glaze over and I think about hopeless project managers and all those risk matrix forms we sometime have to fill in the workplace. Like everyone I ahte thsoe cheesy Risk Management powerpoints.

For the majority of small practices and employee architects managing project risk appears to be dependent on the procurement path that has been chosen for any individual design or project. Yes, of course, managing project and design risks has been inculcated into architects since architecture school. But sometimes, like the dmeolition of Robin Hood Gardens, everyhting goes pear shaped.

Risk and the everyday life of architects. 

But, there is another aspect to the predominant approaches to managing risk in architecture that has, I think,  been overlooked. Whilst rarely stated project risk, the risks managed by architects as they undertake projects, and the risks they must manage in their everyday lives are linked; individual architects and small firms are required to manage their own personal financial risks in the face of volatile cash flows.

More alarmingly, given that the majority of architects either work in or a part of small SMEs project risks can easily impact on an architects individual economic circumstances. These risks may include:

  • The architect being sued for perceived or actual negligence.
  • Insolvency as result of not recovering client fees.
  • Insolvency through individual mismanagement; either time or financial management.
  • The need to use individual resources to rectify a design or construction error.

To reiterate, all of the risk events can connect to and impact individual and personal circumstances. But small firms often have few resources to manage the risks they face. They are often locked into cycles of inadequate fees, over work and conflicts in their work-life balance.

Fighting Risk

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Arguably, in Australian risk management is only partially inscribed in the competencies that determine architectural education. Yes, many of the architectural associations, wherever they may be in the world, have tried to plug the risk management gaps with professional development programs. In other words, the first response, the fighting response, has been  to build capability and knowledge about risk management.

 In a study of risk management practices in UK SMEs including architects (64 small practices and 49 medium practices) noting that risk regulation frameworks have been extensively studied and proposed. Yet, it was found that there is little understanding of how these frameworks are implemented in SMEs. The studies suggest that the resources required to adequately manage risks, in particular to implement risk management techniques, was often prohibitive because it was “unrealistic for SMEs and beyond their capability and affordability.” Despite this limitation he concluded that small firms required appropriate organisations structures, tools and organisational culture in order to implement effective risk management in order to gain competitive advantage.

Fleeing from Risk  

Recently in a discussion in an architect’s office it was put to me that in some ways architects have run away from risk. It was stated that in some respects architects had actually de-risked their practices but done this in a way that has given away ground to our competitors.

Because of a lack of resources individual architects have not resisted, and perhaps been complicit in the de-risking that has come about as result of external factors including: competition from project managers, disintermediation across the practice life-cycle and the increasing  availability and lower costs of digital tools. We have to stop doing Trash-for-Cash-Jobs. 

As architects we are best able to manage design and construction risks. But too often we perceive ourselves as the victims, of clients, developers and contractors.

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The personal dimension

But as suggested above, risk for many architects also has  personal dimension. This is often missed in the risk management literature. In the UK in 2009 a study of architectural job satisfaction, found that:

“20 and 40 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their rate of pay, practice management, promotion prospects, working hours and opportunity to use their abilities”

In contrast self-employed architects appeared to experience better occupational well-being. In contrast self-employed architects had more satisfaction because they had more flexibility and control over their workflows. However, there were issues for these architects, particularly in the area of job security as well as greater conflicts in their work-life balance.

In another similar UK based study focused on architects similar findings are confirmed. However, these researchers point to the:

 “a seismic shift in industry culture is required in order to address issue around flexible work practices, effective time management and workload planning⁠.” 

Mental Health: the real risk.  

 

Another area of personal risk for the architect is in the area of mental health.

In a landmark survey of existing research commissioned by the NSW registration board and the ConNetica.

There exists a dearth of research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed.”

But perhaps, more importantly, As the study states in this conclusion:

“The perception of architecture as a profession that is male dominated, that involves excessively long study hours and intense commitment during education, and excessive work hours and intense, often isolating, project focus in practice, suggests there are elements in the profession’s culture that could be contributing factors in mental health concerns. Whilst research to date has addressed the mental health of students (with some addressing architecture students specifically), There also are concerns in regards to women in architecture, given that it is considered a male dominated industry, and that their mental health may be at risk as a result.”

Architects, as a profession, need to think about risk in both deeper and broader ways. But it also makes me think that in Australia we need an Architects Benevolent Society. 

Robinhood images are from Deezeen and the Architects Journal 

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

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

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

Emotional Domestic clients

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An Emotional Domestic Client 

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

Large project clients

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

7 Characteristics of Trump-like Clients 

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

1. Dithering

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

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

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

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

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

2. Indecisiveness

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

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

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

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

3. Managing up

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

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

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

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

4. Too many stakeholders

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

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

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

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

5. Turf war warriors  

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

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

6. Blame gamers

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Architect Post Blame-Game

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

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

7. Zero Design and Procurement Knowledge

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

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

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

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

Finally: What Architects should do ? 

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

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

Rebranding the Architectural Firm: a brand framework for architects.

This week I spoke at the M-Pavilion and I got a little carried away talking about branding in relation to the Apple Store and Federation Square in Melbourne controversy. I will write more about that in coming weeks. But in the meantime, here is my first take at thinking about branding and architects.

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Intro

In the wonderful world of digital advertising. The subject, tone and style of a campaign needs to be delivered to a customer within the first 9 seconds of a digital advertisement. But architectural branding is a different kind of beast. Architectural services are not a fast moving consumer good (FMCG), like a Mars, Bar, or a product that requires a simple pay wave transaction. Branding and the elements that constitute an architectural brand are a little more complicated.

The Problem: How to change your architectural brand

The lead times in running an architectural practice are quite long. Sometimes it may take a practice up to 10 years to achieve stable and less volatile income stream. But in my experience the branding of a firm is often set very quickly within the first few years.

Late last year a friend of mine said there were two types of larger architectural practices those with “family” brands and those with “corporate” brands. She wondered how do you change an architectural brand once it has been established? This made me think about what the elements of branding is for an architectural firms. Once that branding is set how might you then change it? In other words how do you change the branding of a firm that has been going for 10 years or more.

The Elements of Architectural Branding 

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In my framework the three elements that make up an architectural brand are Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Delivery and Knowledge Style.

This is because I think a Knowledge Management approach is the best way to approach thinking about branding in architectural firms. Forget about the focus on designed objects. It is better to think about:

  • What design knowledge is being created?
  • Then, how is that design knowledge then delivered to clients and others?
  • Finally, and in doing the above, how is that design knowledge expressed in terms of an expression or style?

Knowledge Creation: What knowledge is created

You can see from the diagram that elements of this include the kind of architectural types your firm works, on or the size or scale of projects, the regions that you work in and create knowledge about, or the different kinds of expertise your firm is known for.

This may also be a proportion or mix of different elements.

Knowledge Pathways: How is knowledge delivered? 

 How you deliver this knowledge also contributes to your brand. Is your firm only interested in time or cost outcomes. Or maybe your firm is focused don generating concepts or iconic architecture. Or maybe it’s just about getting awards.

Knowledge Expression: How is knowledge expressed?  

 How your brand is expressed is also another aspect of this framework. Part of this is how an architectural firm creates knowledge that helps to brand its own clients.

  • Is it focused on informal styles where the firm does not have to structure the expression or aesthetics of design knowledge.
  • Or is design knowledge expressed somewhere in between. This is when the firm employs a mix of formal and informal signifiers and design knowledge to help brand groups or communities.
  • Or is the style of the brand, what I have termed high style, where the firm is focused on Iconic Symbolic Capital at a National or International Level? Where design knowledge is highly structure and bound by aesthetics.

Family vs. Corporate brands. 

Family brands are common in architectural practice. These are architectural firms that employ or hope to employ family members as leaders within the firm.

This has a number of advantages:

  • The value created by hard won financial stability over a long period of time stays within the firm.
  • Personal networks and connections vital to business can be maintained.
  • Succession problems are easily solved
  • Directors have more control, and incentive, over design decisions rather than giving these design decisions to managers.
  • In practice a “family” architectural brand might have this kind of mix.

The corporate branded architecture firm is different:

  • The brand may not be determined by a name associated with familiar and long standing networks or particular design approach.
  • Corporate style architects rely on the portfolio of projects within the firm.
  • The project portfolio, as whole then partly determines how the form is branded.
  • Managers, including designers, have more incentives to get projects which in turn determine the brand.

 Rebranding: the all important question. 

So if you need to change your brand or even rebrand your firm you can then look at this framework and decide which things you need to shift to achieve this. For example, a family brand wanting to be a corporate brand can see which elements to change.

In other words, the framework helps architects to decide which elements to change or transform and it also suggests that changing or rebranding necessitates changing more than just one element. Many architects fall into the trap of getting in a few new designers and fresh design ideas in the hope this will change the brand or how the firm is perceived. Or they think they can do it by, going after a new types of projects they havent done before, or by developing new types expertise.

It doesn’t really work like that because too often the other elements in the mix are not changed.

This is the first real post of 2018 and I would like to thank those of you who read and visited the site over January. Quite a few of the greatest hits posts from previous years were more popular than when they were first posted! The site has had a bit of a makeover and I am hoping to renovate it a little more in coming weeks.

Business Suits vs. Designers: Why architectural practice is going down the gurgler.

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This was another popular blog post from the last year or so. Many readers contacted me to comment on the post. Most were in general agreement with the sentiments expressed in it. Re-reading it now, I am more emphatic in my thinking, and wonder how does a profession or a domain of knowledge expect to survive? Especially, if it gives no priority to educating its best and brightest about economics, finance, business strategy and management.  

Down the gurgler is Australian slang for: down the plug hole; something has failed; wasted (as effort, money, etc.); ruined, destroyed. 

Before you read this you may be interested in the:

SURVIVING THE DESIGN STUDIO: 2018 ARCHITECTS GLOBAL RESEARCH SURVEY. 

At the 2106 ARCOM conference I attended I met a few other researchers working in the area of architectural services. One was from Western Australia and the other was from Delft. Delft is one of the largest and well regarded architecture schools in Europe. At Delft my friends there have a large EU research project looking at the nature of architectural services and their value. Whilst standing at our conference having a cup of tea one of them mused that architecture seemed to have a global ideology. I asked “What do you mean?” thinking that perhaps the counter is that architecture is something that is pretty much formed by what Kenneth Frampton called critical regionalism.

The great divide 

She went on to discuss that no matter where you went in the world in architecture there was always an insanely stupid divide between the creative designer’s and the so called “business” people of architecture. At her architecture school the “in-crowd” of design professors turn there nose up and reject the so called “business side” of architecture. I agreed and then thought more about it. This divide is contributing to the demise of the profession. It prevents big practices from integrating knowledge and going upstream; it cripples small practices because they often do not have the business skills needed to make them sustainable.

It’s not real until it’s real syndrome

This divisive refrain has often been driven home to me in the architectural practice classes I teach at MSD. Every semester students question why we would do business plans in the class as part of the syllabus. Of course, when I talk to practitioners and I tell them we teach business planning in the class at MSD they say that’s awesome. When I tell they students this they don’t really care and they don’t really get it until they themselves become practitioners. Even when I say: “you will be more employable if you understand this stuff”, they still don’t seem to get it. It might be the it’s not real until it’s real syndrome.

The “practice” lecturer syndrome 

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How “design” architects see “business” architects

Also, as the so-called “practice” lecturer I constantly, get the impression, that  in some way I am written me off as some kind of accounting value managing drone who hates architectural design because I have an MBA. Yet, I love Debord and Deleuze and Guattari and late Foucault just as much as the next theoretically inclined architect.

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D & G 

Of course, in other fields it is different. For example, in advertising, the dark heart of capitalism itself, the collaborative tensions between the creatives, the so called suits and the production people are acknowledged and managed well. Agencies still manage to produce great work that moves people and contributes to brand survival in the spectacle.

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“Design” architect complete with mandatory jacket. 

What exactly is the business side of architecture? 

Thinking about it I am actually not sure what is meant by this. It is such a vague term and ideological prejudice. Does it mean you just want architects to make money (don’t we all want this?) Does it mean if you are “pro-business” you just do what aesthetically ignorant clients do? Does it mean you hate design and design processes? But just maybe actually, paying attention to the “business side” means architects need to pay attention to the following: Diversity,  in our team structures, strategic positioning, innovation systems, knowledge management processes, technology implementation and how we respond to emerging forms of procurement.

Oh and there is that that other area of academic and professional study that is often ignored in architecture schools, and missing from our competency standards, also relegated to the “business” side: Leadership.

Long hours, price cutting and other structural problems of the profession 

As the Sydney architect Clinton Cole eloquently argues, amongst other things, the profession is beset by a number of structural problems that impact on its well-being and competitiveness. He cites the “hugely entrenched cultural tendency to perform long hours” combined with truckloads of unpaid overtime, anomalies in charge out rates (Charging staff out at 40 hours per week but working more than this). As Clinton points out these practices disadvantage women in the profession. Or anyone else, for that matter, seeking a reasonable work life balance.

Oh and I forgot to mention  the other structural problems such as fee competition (the persistent rumours about large practice cartels price fixing low fees) and the push in some quarters, even by some so called-architects themselves, to deregulate the word architect.

The need for industry research 

Industry development backed by evidenced based research is the key to help architects  argue their case. But, as far as I can tell the AIA has had no real research function for years. The Government Architect’s across Australia are also generally deficient in this regard. So it’s great to see the Association of Consulting Architects taking up this mantle and filling some of the basic research gaps with the fine work of Gill Mathewson.

As suggested above, there is a whole range of research areas, that architects could collectively pursue for the benefit of the public, policy makers and even their clients.

7 tips for bridging the divide despite the horror of small practice

Lets face it in small practice organising and scheduling time, managing cash flow, preparing marketing materials is extremely boring. But it is stuff that needs to be done. In larger firms, let alone any firm for that matter, strategic thinking, marketing and branding, HR and management policies that promote diversity and creativity are vital. So if you are a small or solo practice in the outer suburbs or inner suburbs of a large city. What do you do? How do you avoid the quagmire of overwork, high stress and the feeling that you are always reacting from crisis to crisis.

In my experience the following things are all definitely worth considering to bridge the divide.

  1. Don’t cut your fees just to get the job.
  2. Have a business plan even if it is only two pages long.
  3. Calculate charge out rates that allow for fair work hours and profit. Stick to them.
  4. Work on your business systems.
  5. Take the time to constantly market the value of design.
  6. Do what Google does and don’t work for half a day a week. Just think or meditate.
  7. Do some research that will help strengthen your knowledge base.

Unless a practice considers acting on the above 7 points it will always struggle.

Design value and design fees are positively correlated

Of course I fear, that if you mention business systems to one of those big name alpha-male architects  that adorn the global system of architecture they look at you as if you some kind of pariah. They always leave it to someone else. As a result our profession is getting killed. It struggles to argue to clients why there is a direct relationship between design fees and design value. It struggles to shake off the overall prejudices that the broader public have about architects. More importantly, it is currently struggling to compete with other professions that claim to offer similar services.

The business-creative divide and corresponding global ideology has crippled architecture and threatens to hasten its further demise as a domain of knowledge. As a result the viability of architecture as an profession is increasingly at stake. Unless the divide is bridged we remain a naive profession full of poetic and narcissistic dreamers who are rapidly losing ground.

What are we to make of the Apple Flagship Store at Federation Square?

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Earlier in the year I went to an exhibition at the Design Museum in London about the influence of Californian design on the whole world. One of the original Apples built by Steve and the Woz was in the exhibition. It was great to see how primitive it seemed, then I kind of forgot about Apple for a bit. Even though, I was surgically attached to my my iPhone 7 plus. Apple design is so clever and I was living the Apple dream without even noticing.

But, then a few days ago there was an eruption of outrage in my social media feeds. OMG!!! Apple were knocking down a big chunk of Federation Square to replace it with an Apple store and the Koorie Heritage Trust (will the new Apple building acknowledge country?) has to move. Apple are building a flagship store on that most loved of Melbourne sites Federation Square. Thankfully, the Koorie Heritage trust, or at least that is what we are told, is moving across the way, to the Alfred Deakin Building, on the other side of Federation Square.

So Apple is going to take over Federation Square. Another bit of creeping and insidious privatisation of public space in the city. The outrage on Twitter was incessant.

So, what about all of the other moments in the history and memory of the city when public space has been eroded and privatised in the city? As the Melbourne architect Stuart Harrison famously once said: try riding your skateboard down the so-called lanes of the QV development. It’s not long before the low paid security guard tells you it is private land and turfs you out.

Of course, it would be easy for me to say horror, outrage and sacrilege and jump onto Twitter etc. But then again Professor Donald Bates, whom readers should note that I work with at the Melbourne School of Design, one of the original designers of Federation square, is in support of the Apple proposal. Donald Bates stated:

The design of Apple Fed Square is necessarily of a different and distinct architectural vocabulary. We would abhor a faux-LAB Architecture design, replete with triangles and shifted geometries. The Foster Associates design is simple, pure and of its own aesthetic. Its success will lie in how it maximises the civic nature of Fed Square to form a tight connection with events and activities, bringing an engaging program of debates and discussions, as well as offering a new vista onto the Yarra River.

So given this argument, perhaps we need to think through the issues and fault lines at play here. So, let’s not jump onto the Trumpian cycle of social media Outrage vs. Outrage. Evil Apple versus People who love Fed Square (now).  So, without taking an immediate position of media Outrage here are a few questions to consider:

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Q: Why are the political hacks suddenly interested in Architecture and Urbanism ? 

Suddenly all the politicians got interested in Architecture, Apple and Federation Square. The collision of place branding and technology tends to get them out of the woodwork. It was an unlikely cohort, Adam Bandt (the Greens), Jeff Kennett (neoliberal liberal) and even Senator Derryn Hinch (independent centrist crusader) had something to say about it.

James Norman in the Guardian wrote as if the store was going to destroy Fed Square as we know it. His bio states the he is “a Melbourne-based writer and author of the book, Bob Brown: Gentle Revolutionary.” Obviously someone with a deep and abiding interest and knowledge in architecture and urbanism.

The Sun Herald was probably the worst. 

I just wish these people would be more interested in architecture and urbanism when it matters. I don’t see this motley bunch saying much about the lack of affordable housing or the crap towers now adorning our city. Nor do this group seem to do much every time a bit of our 1960s or 70s modernist or brutalist heritage gets knocked over in the name of development.

A: It’s like a brand collision, a car crash of the big brands:  Melbourne, Fed Square, Crazy Architecture, and the biggest brand of all APPLE. Thats enough to get the political opportunists, who I am sure hope, to build their own little brands by being a part of the ecology of outrage. 

Q. Why don’t we have politicians who can talk more with more nuance when it comes to issues concerning public space or new projects?

This question is, I admit a particular bugbear of mine, and of course a number of state politicians jumped in with the hyperbole in defense of the project:

“The tourism minister, John Eren, said the store would bring millions more visitors to Victoria and breathe new life into Federation Square.”

The trade minister, Philip Dalidakis, said the deal “reinforces Melbourne’s reputation as the undisputed tech capital of Australia and creates hundreds of ongoing jobs in the process.”

I draw your attention to some of the above phrases that were probably dreamed up by their junior advisors and spin doctors: “millions more visitors”,“breathe new life” (Fed Square wasn’t dead), “undisputed tech capital”, “hundreds of ongoing jobs” (all casual retail).

A: Because they are ignorant when it comes to architecture. 

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Q. We all live in the Apple economy now, so why be hypocritical?

Every now and then I ask my architecture students if they have Samsung or Apple phones. They all say Apple. So what is wrong with the Apple building given that most architects in town own Apple phones, perhaps we have turned a blind eye to Apples cross-border taxation arrangements or who makes actually makes the stuff. So given this blindness then what is now wrong with the having an Apple store at Federation Square. Is it any different to crafting your architectural or personal brand and career through Instagram on your iPhone ?

A. Apple’s success is its ubiquitous invisibility. Are we not, already as architects, totally embedded in the Apple economy? Do we not love Apple because of its design ethos?

Q: At what point, prior to its completion, do we judge the Foster and Partners design?

I am not sure about the Foster and Partners design. The design looks like one of those things old star architects, and their interns do, when they have run out of ideas. Just put together a bit of minimalist, and proportioned to an inch of its life, faux classicism with some smoochy and luxurious materials. Design it like a temple and make it “disappear” with transparency via glazing. A lawyer friend said it looked like a pagoda. Maybe, thats the easy way to build next to an already significant architectural building. There is an example of this type of thing here. It is not an unknown design strategy.

But maybe this design is actually a piss-take on Apple. Who knows? If Phillip Johnson was alive and had proposed it, that might be so. Also, and arguably, maybe Denton Corker Marshall could have done a better job than Foster and Partners. I am sceptical about the aesthetics of the building itself, the increased amenity seems likely, but lets wait and see how the thing actually pans out when it is built. I probably won’t be able to tell until it is built. It could be great, or pretty good, but I would prefer to wait and see in this instance.

A: Maybe when it is built. 

Q: Is urbanism just all about the brand now

It is unfortunate, if not outrageous, that we need an Apple Store to financially support a civic space like Federation Square. We need one of the biggest brands in the world to support the biggest and most important civic space in the city.

Architecture is a global system and brands circulate in that system, in Melbourne in many respects, Federation Square ushered in the idea of the iconic building as a global brand and nowadays, it’s all about the brand. The central Melbourne grid is now part of a property market, if it hadn’t always been, firmly embedded within the circuitry of global capital. This is evidenced by the privatisation of public assets, the commercialisation of public facilities, the private management of public spaces, developer driven regulatory frameworks and the product design of property assets.

A: Yes, and architects need to recognise and counter this. 

Q: Do Australian architects have the theoretical instruments and maturity to cope with global competition? 

Lord Foster and Partners is coming to town; and globalisation has always meant that architects like Foster would come to town. The winning design of Federation Square by Lab Studio Architects was announced in July 1997 and completed in 2002. It was a shock to the Melbourne system as Lab Architecture was not part of the Melbourne’s entrenched architectural networks of architecture schools and various tribal cliques.

Lab had a new way of practicing, that seemed to rankle with the entrenched networks, a way that seemed to say that architects were advocates, equal partners with policy and decision makers. The contractors hated this approach. Lab never got another job in the town again.

My worry is that architects and urbanists in Melbourne, or anywhere for that matter, have not developed the theoretical instruments, advocacy skills or research and industry infrastructure to contend with the worst excesses of branded architecture in the global system.

A: I don’t think they do. 

Q: What should have happened? 

A1: The better solution would have been to have given Donald Bates and Lab Architecture the job

At least that way Melbourne could have been absolutely sure we weren’t getting a ironic piss-take building or more than a techno temple for the international tourists. Maybe I would have liked more of that crazy triangle stuff and space frame stuff or something new  from Lab. Even the punters and the bogans love Fed Square now. Lab Architecture would have done a great job.

A2: A design competition would also have been a great idea.

If Apple’s, and all the Silicon Valley rhetoric about disruptive innovation is real, then a design competition would have been the way to go. I might have won that one. But that would have provoked even more outrage.

Architects and urbanists need to avoid the hypocrisies of piling outrage onto outrage. What we really need is better theoretical instruments to build our own capacities as advocates of architecture. Maybe then we can get better at theorising, recognising, and avoiding, the really schlocky outputs of corporate capitalism.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. Again, Thank you all for supporting the blog in 2017.

Surviving the Design Studio: Architects have the best Christmas parties.

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Now that the festive season is just about upon us I thought it might be good to be less serious, after some very, and all too serious recent posts, and to reflect on why the architectural profession is such a great a great thing to be a part of.

Architects have the best parties 

One of the main reasons people are so desperate to do architecture is because architects are the best at doing parties. In comparison the parties at my business school were never as good as the parties at my old architecture school. I have been to numerous  birthday parties (recently hosted a great 75th) , christenings, pre-wedding parties, weddings (including a few of my own), engagements, parties, cocktail parties, dinner parties and exhibition openings as well as other various events in genteel polite society.

I know to my friends on  the outside I look like a boring middle-aged academic. But actually on the inside I am really a wild party animal. Once I realised this in my late teens I vowed to have a big party at each decade milestone. After a three of these so-called milestone partays I thought it was better for the entire city not to continue. I know this sounds a little narcissistic, but a Raisbeck birthday party usually has reverberations that go beyond the immediate event.

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I have not been to my Faculty Christmas for 5 years after a kind of self-imposed exile. Maybe its only 4, but I can’t really remember a lot about the last one I went to, I vaguely remember going to the party, maybe it was at the ARM Recital centre, or maybe it was ACCA, or the Abbotsford Convent, and then I remember the bar on the Yarra, and I don’t remember much after the tram-ride. Unfortunately, just when I was about to venture back to the Faculty festive party this year, it was cancelled because of the prospect of dangerously bad weather. The whole city was shut down.

If architecture is dangerous then architectural parties are potentially very dangerous. We should all worry about what we do at the end of season partays. Any personal information revealed at a party, and distributed across social media, may be of interest one day to the HR types, who seem as young as my teenage son these days, or  promotion and interview panels, who, we are led to believe, scour the interwebs for details of our past lives, just to make sure we are not crazed alcoholic or drug infested maniacs. Not to mention the local and judgemental village gossips that every organisation seems to have in its nooks and crannies. I am constantly amazed at the antics of the Kardashian generation on Instagram and Snapchat and I fear that when they are my age they will regret all those terrible bathroom selfies.

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I better get back to the point.

Engineering parties are not great, still a lot of shorts and white sock action. Quantity Surveyors have not been known to kick their heels up and the conversation soon goes stale. They tend to choose wine and food that is prudent but not lavish. Think, smoked oysters (lavish) wrapped in slivers of bacon (prudent). Planners and parties don’t really mix as these can get argumentative if you attend as an architect. They will usually have a healthy selection of celery sticks, carrots and dried apricots. Its amazing to watch them dip the dried apricots into the little containers of hummus. They are planners after all.  Builders and sub-contractor parties are really a no-go-zone for architects; best not to say why. Let’s just say they are yet to discover craft beers and so they only drink beer from brown glass stubbies.  Plus, you wont get in with any black and without a fluoro hi-vis vest. Its amazing what they will do to each other at the end of an evening when they are drunk. Thats exactly when you should try and get them to tender. Its incredible to think, you have to virtually bribe them to get them to tender on any architecture project under 0.5M$. The parties of Project Managers are not much better. There is a lot of kabana sausage bits, pineapple and yummy glaced cherries (PMs love shiny cheap things) on skewers sitting alongside buckets of Costco dips. They always forget the crackers and the party never starts on time. Then they blame the architect.

Whatever why you look at it: Architects have the best parties.

Avoid Lawyer Parties. 

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In my experience the worst parties are the ones where there are too many lawyers. The worst thing about the Lawyers is that they also try and dress fashionably. But, then they always get it a little bit wrong (except the lawyers who are my actual friends).  We should give them style lessons. But then they will probably sue us anyway.

They all get down one end of the room and talk about the law. Then their actual partners are, usually sort of down the other end of the room, and if you tell any of the partners you are an architect they will say things to you like:

“oh, so your an architect, how interesting.”

“oh, my partner wanted to be an architect but he became a lawyer instead.”

“oh, our architect (insert name of appalling fee cutting architect) has just finished our Georgian style renovation, do you know them?”

“oh, I went to school with an architect, do you know them?”

“oh, we have a garage extension that needs doing what do you think?”

“oh, what do you think of the Opera House?”

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Its better if we only go to architect only parties as they are more fun. As you should be able to discern from the attached images here. This particular party was a great exercise in brand building. It really makes you want to do business with this office.

For those architects averse to parties, my advice is to loosen up, if you want to build your brand the best thing you can do is have a great end of season party. Invite me along. I will be one of the last to leave. After all is said and done there is nothing like having fun and partying to the max as architecture goes down the gurgler in Australian public life.

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

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

Memories of the old school 

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

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

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

Autonomous Waypoint_ViewDaphnes Spanos Autonomous Waypoint project from Independent Thesis MSD 2016

 Danger Danger Will Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Architectural design should create problems

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

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

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

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

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

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3. Make architectural design subversive

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

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

4. Foster alternative futures

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

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

5. Architecture should be kind of annoying

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

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

6. We need more ugly 

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

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

Surviving the Design Studio: On NOT Seeing REM when he is in town.

Rem Koolhaas is in my small city on the outer edges of the global architectural galaxy and his upcoming lecture at MSD is so popular I can’t get a ticket. Thankfully, there is a live stream. Not that I tried that hard to get a ticket, but now I feel a bit guilty, shouldn’t I be hanging out and rubbing shoulders with the celebrity architects like REM? Last night REM opened the M Pavilion and my Facebook and Instagram feeds were suddenly full of Rem, the pavilion and his partner in crime. I missed out on seeing Ai Wei Wei in person at our National Gallery last year and it was like everyone I knew had a selfie with him.

Hopefully, NOT being seen, in the same big M Pavilion or in the same lecture theatre as REM would not kill my own cult like status as a blogger or researcher interested in the socio-material practices and histories of architects . For a moment I thought that, given that I am increasingly keen on ethnographic studies and sociological perspectives on the architectural profession, maybe I could do a kind of ethnographic study, of trying to meet the big star architect who comes to town. But I am thinking it’s now too late to do that.

I told myself to forget the angst, envy and the hand wringing and to calm down about not seeing HIM. Not seeing REM in person wasnt the end of the  world. Besides, I was just coming off a teaching intensive, needed to get a few research projects actually running and worse still: it is the school holidays, and I feel I have to keep an eye on the teenager, lest he indulge in anti-social activities whilst he is waiting for his enlistment papers from the ADF.

I took a few  a few deep breaths and began to think about the tropes and characteristic images that we seem to follow in our feeds, and give authority to in our profession as architects. I began to wonder if we were stuck I some kind of media cycle which has a recurring narrative when a global brand comes to town.  This loose assertion of course is based on my own experience and when I was a student, in the 80s, we had this thing called the International Lecture Series it was great and we saw lectures by amongst others: Eisenman, Ito, Hasegawa, Stern, Shinohara, Prix, Cook and even Graves. After seeing so many I figured out that the general order of events for the star architects visit goes something like this:

  1. Arrival.
  2. Public Lecture.
  3. Dinner with notables.
  4. Visit to see architects buildings.
  5. Round table seminar.
  6. Studio Crit
  7. Everyone goes home.

There was usually some kind of controversy with each visit either a salacious scandal (leg propositions under the table) or clash of egos between global shark and provincial fish (It’s also good to make sure your star does not get run over).

But of course bodies, and gestures and fashion is a big part of the star’s visit. What are they wearing? How thin are they? Is it Comme de Garcons, or the last gasp of Marithe and Francois Girbaud, or Gucci shoes? Thinking all this, made me think about the recurring images and tropes or architects that seem to appear in our feeds in this media age of Trump. In order to promote media literacy here are here are a few recurring images for your amusement:

1.The architect at the drawing board 

TV series the Brady Bunch really set the tone for a whole lot of misconceptions and myths in popular culture about architects.

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2. The architect as rock star 

FLW and RW

 

3. Architect as James Bond 

DC and PS

4. Looking right at you architect visionaries and composers 

MB, DC and PC.

5. The olden days architectural project meeting

Brady Bunch, Corbusier at UN, FLW and NASA Engineers for comparison.

6. Project meeting’s now

BIM meeting, “inclusive” meeting and normal meeting.

7. Architects all over it 

Bjarke and WorldCraft

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Most of us who can’t see REM are maybe  too busy at this time of year with the kids in the school holidays to see him. But if I did go and see REM, and yes I am going to look at the live feed, it would be great if he came to town wearing an an outfit like Leigh Bowery below. Or at the least a special royal and kingly crown, as Philip Johnson, that most subversive of architects, managed to pull off. Maybe then, I might take the global system of our discipline more seriously.

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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.

The Research Paradox for Architects: What is design research?

The image on the home page next to this post is a picture of a typical architectural researchers desk. Sadly there are people in this world who dont think architecture has much to do with research. Even I sometimes have trouble convincing people that I am actually doing research. 

Yet, in recent practice, architects have argued that architectural design is a research activity in its own right.  The research activities of architects include a range of problem solving and design related research activities such as data collection, workshops, internet searching and design drawing. In addition architects also research historic precedents, climatic issues, construction methods, products and materials. Design as research, also points to the emergence of research amongst architects related to the scripting of programmes, 3D digital modelling and prototyping. But is design research simply speculative or generative designing?

I like many other architects agree with the proposition that designing can be research. But this is clearly a problematic proposition.

 The design as research culture

Numerous PhDs, design studios, books and even entire courses have been built around the notion of Design as Research. In fact no one really knows how to write it: design research, or is it Design Research, or is it “design as research” ? But the real point is that, many architects regard design processes such as creating sketches, making digital CAD models, building physical models and building prototypes as research. But is that what design research is?

Of course, some have had a go at defining what it is. Dr. Peter Downton at RMIT argued that design is a ‘way of enquiring a way of producing knowledge; this means it is a way of researching.’ In a study of architectural design PhDs Radu asserts: ‘Architectural design is to architecture what research is to science’ and the ‘process of architectural design is close to the process of knowledge creation in the sciences’

No research infrastructure

Across the globe system there is clearly a lack of research infrastructure for architects at a number of levels; research infrastructure doesn’t just mean having big grunty boyo computers. In my country of Australia, research skills are not clearly articulated in the architectural accreditation system. Architects don’t often do formal research methods courses and few graduate schools of architecture offer courses around design research. Notably, my own school does offer such a course. Worse still design research outputs, such as buildings are not counted in research evaluation and publication exercises.

The reality of practice.

In actual practice, I fear that the documentary, formal and methodological structures supporting the organic activities of design research are fragmentary and adhoc. Few practices have formal R&D procedures in place, and few practices have developed procedures for articulating and documenting its original design outcomes. Aside from, practices publishing their projects for peers and marketing. much of the knowledge generated by all of the research in architectural offices remains largely implicit within firms.

Few firms write research reports on the information they collect and yet many often claim that research information is transferred to other projects. These adhoc practices make it difficult to ascertain, and argue, which aspects of architectural research are a contribution to new knowledge.

 Research models in practice

As a result, many firms flounder around when it comes to research. A lot have tied their own research models focused around digital design and fabrication. Other firms have focused their research on Sustainability. But simply having and seeming to follow through on this research focus is not enough. A few firms go beyond a simple focus on a strategic research area. Many dream of, or attempt to adopt, research models related to a management consulting. Larger firms are better at this. But this is, more often than not, without the well-worn and templates and proprietary methods that real management consultants have.

Moreover, only a few architects have embraced research models related to patent innovation and product development. I am still struggling to teach graduate archi students what Intellectual Property is.

The research paradox for architects.

The paradox is that many architects often state that research is a part of their design philosophy yet there is often no further articulation of this. Often in practice the organic integration of routine research and design as research activities makes it difficult to identify what is routine design and what is design which creates new knowledge. Establishing the contribution to knowledge of any research endeavour is necessary if it is to be regarded by non-architects as research. I worry that to many architects in practice R&D is about simply placing product and materials information at the back of a project file.

This is not to say that architects do not develop new knowledge or insights as a result of design processes. But, many firms appear to lack the methodological infrastructure, systems or research training needed to support R&D activities. This makes it difficult to isolate and position the research knowledge and innovations arising out of design research. Without these methodological and meta-structures in place it is difficult for architects to argue how design as research makes a contribution to knowledge. It also makes it difficult to position and distinguish new design from previous design research.

Policy failures

The focus on design as research, and its rise in architectural schools, has too often tended to emphasise research related to material issues: drawing, modelling, fabricating and constructing. But further research in the architectural schools could identify to what degree design as research in practices is focused on non-material and context-dependent topics: urban space, gender identities, teamwork, and cross cultural issues. Not to mention history and culture.

Arguably, few other professionals would actively have this broad range of skills and expertise at their disposal. Yet, the role of architects is not often accounted for or encouraged in national innovation systems or construction innovation policies.

All the politicians love a so-called smart and sustainable city. We require initiatives need to examine in the potential role of architectural design as research in national innovation systems. These considerations could lead to policies that highlight the linkages between, design as research arising out of architecture and new technologies, construction, industrial design and manufacturing.  But at present the design thinking and research of architects is often subsumed and only seen as a minor element in national innovation, research and educational policies. As architects, we need to build and develop our industry in a way that substantiate, explore and promote the design research agenda to the max.

Just designing, and then making something, and then claiming that this is research will not be enough.