Pritzker Prize meets Instagram: Architects and their social media train wreck

Isozaki got the 2019 Pritzker, and I came across a picture on Twitter of him and Rem having a kind of dinner according to the Twitter caption they were talking about Metabolism. One  article I found in the non-architectural press was the one which described Isozaki as the “The man who fused east and west.” This kind of hyperbole aside, I wanted to vomit, and I couldn’t work out why.  But maybe its because I think the entire Pritzker prize thing is a flawed conception because it by and large supports the star architect regime. A regime of royalty ruling over the architectural masses. A regime whose tentacles reach across the globe into every aspect of architectural life: education, design and the way practices are managed.

Hashtag tyranny 

I started to think about all those Instagram hashtags that architects are now enamoured with. I checked, and the hashtag #pritzker on Instagram has had 23,582 posts. Many of  post-2000 Pritzker architects are all now on Twitter and Instagram. Of course, there are a few exceptions as not all of the Pritzker prize winners have readily embraced these new media channels build their brands. Both Doshi (2018) and RCR architects (2017) have a relatively low key presence on these platforms. Doshi only has one Instagram post which states: “Lifestyle celebrates when lifestyle and ecosystem fuse.” I mean what else can you say?

Pritzker winners and social media 

Jean Nouvel (2008) has 12.1K followers on Twitter and 194k on Instagram as well as that #Jean Nouvel hashtag has almost 80,000 posts. On Intstagram, Shigeru Ban (2016) has 13.3k followers. Herzog De Meuron (2001) has 1681 followers on Twitter but 380K followers on Instagram. Even if you’re trying to split from the band and go out your own you can have your own account Thom Mayne (2005) of Morphosis has #thommayne with 5923 posts. But #Morphosis has 18,860 posts, but this includes posts for a brand of hair products. Even if you’re dead you can still get a hashtag, for example, Jorn Utzon (2003) who died in 2008 has  #jornutzon with 8,308 posts. Other long-dead architects have lots of hashtag followers, for instance, @corbusier has 1067 followers, on Twitter but #corbusier has 41,072 Insta posts. LC® Le Corbusier has 722 followers and Corbu at @corbucorbu a Psych band from NYC have 25.8K followers on Insta. I might listen on to them on Spotify.

Zaha Hadid 

But if you are a female architect social media popularity of any scale–even on a global scale–may not mean much. Another Pritzker winner, now deceased, is Zaha Hadid (2004) and Zaha Hadid Architects now has 508K followers on Twitter, and 687K followers on Instagram and #zahahdid has just under 370,000 posts as of March 2018. Indeed, Hadid is arguably the most significant Instagrammer of the Pritzker prize winners.  Yet, as Katie Lloyd Thomas pointed out in Architectural Research Quarterly, Zaha Hadid’s death in 2016 gave rise to many of the old tropes of architectural misogyny, in the reporting of both her death and life. You can read what Katie writes below:

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Craig’s List

And if you an architect who wants to sell something, and an acolyte who wants to buy something, then Instagram is just the place. You can buy the Glenn Murcutt Folio (2002) a “Limited Collectors Edition boxed folio of Glenn Murcutt’s design process and methods” has 2840 followers on Instagram and the followers and the #glennmurcuttmasterclass has 411 posts and the  #glennmurcutt has 2,421 posts. It really doesn’t get more exciting than that, and maybe we will soon see architects selling stuff on Craig’s List.

YouTube 

Then there is also YouTube. Broadcast in 2016 The Greg Lynn Show on YouTube, indicates the ways where the emergence of new distribution channels in social media collide, and I mean really collide, with the canon of high architectural culture. In 2016 Lynn was the curator of an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal entitled Archaeology of the Digital: Complexity and Convention. The curatorial purpose of the exhibition was to examine how architects from the 1980s onwards sought to incorporate digital tools into architecture. So hey why not do a YouTube thang and develop what Lynn called an “an archaeological reading of how digital tools were incorporated into architecture.”

Arguably, if we are to be churlish, the purpose of this endeavour was to highlight Greg Lynn’s own position in the canon. Nothing like killing a few birds with one stone.

Using a late night talk show format Lynn employed YouTube to interview the architects of various projects these included amongst others “stand-up comedian and special effects guru Neil Denari,” and Patrik Schumacher, who is promoting his new book, “Para-Patrik Schumacher, which is about being Patrik Schumacher.” As reported the Youtube format lent itself to numerous sound bites as reported including Francis Roche exclaiming “I am not a digital masturbator,” and then saying “I wish I were a masturbator.” Alejandro Zaera-Polo being described as “just a peasant from Spain,” and Wolf -Pritz also interested in ensuring his place in the canon architecture. By you know just being Wolfy. The show ran for 11 episodes⁠1 with each episode being around 10 to 11 minutes in duration.

But maybe Greggie really needs to get back onto Instagram as he only has 20 posts 1,745 followers. Although from the look of this post from a crit in Vienna he is trying. If architects are going to brand themselves then sometimes its good to have a refresh. Gregg Lynn FORM is getting a bit tired.

Cardi B and Alexandria 

But in the scheme of things, despite all this hyperbole, architects are really not doing that well on social media. For example, Cardi B 41.4m followers for only 635 posts followers and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 386 posts 2.7m followers. Diet Prada has 1.2 million followers and Saint Hoax with 972K followers on Insta.

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Cardi schooling Trump (sound on 🔊)

A post shared by Saint Hoax (@sainthoax) on

This really makes me think that the best Instagrammers in popular culture are those able to dis-assemble, play with and regurgitate the norms of that culture and its image-politics. I don’t see a lot of that on social media when it comes to architects and the so-called architectural canon. It looks like for architects the same old tropes and prejudices are being reproduced on social media. Quaint hero photos of Isozaki and Rem at dinner—post-coital Pritzker style–on Insta don’t really do it for me. But I guess if you don’t like what you see on Insta you can always watch Greg Lynn and his old 90s mates on YouTube.

No wonder I wanted to vomit.

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.

Rising and Falling Stars: Australian vs. Global architectural firms

This last week or so at my graduate school of architecture the students were lining up for selfies with Bjarke when he came as a part of the Beulah International competition. It was quite a commotion. Initially, I wanted to puke, there was a lot of black, and I mean a lot. Black tees, black jackets and black horn-rimmed glasses. Everyone looked liked gangsters on a Eurovision set. Most people who read this blog know how jealous I am of Bjarke’s hairstyle.

After my initial revulsion, I calmed down and realised that Bjarke was here for the Beulah International competition to design a mixed-use high rise complex on Southbank in my City of Melbourne. For Beulah quite a few of the local firms got together with the stars.

Beulah Competition: The Local-Star Match-Ups 

  • Bjarke Ingels Group with Fender Katsalidis Architects
  • Coop Himmelblau with Architectus
  • Mad Architects with Elenberg Fraser
  • MVRDV with Woods Bagot
  • Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) with Conrad Gargett
  • UN Studio with Cox Architecture

In December the South Australian government announced the shortlist for the Adelaide Contemporary Art gallery. This list was as follows:

  • Adjaye Associates (UK) and BVN with Steensen Varming, McGregor Coxall, Barbara Flynn and Yvonne Koolmatrie
  • Bjarke Ingels Group (Denmark) and JPE Design Studio with United Natures, Arketype and BuildSurv
  • David Chipperfield Architects (UK) and SJB Architects with Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture and Arup
  • Diller Scofidio and Renfro (USA) and Woods Bagot with Oculus, Pentagram, Katnich Dodd, Rider Levett Bucknall, Arup, WSP, Deloitte, Kaldor Public Art Projects, Klynton Wanganeen, James Sanders, Dustin Yellin, Right Angle Studio and Garry Stewart
  • Hassell and SO-IL (USA) with Fabio Ongarato Design, Mosbach Paysagistes and Fiona Hall
  • Khai Liew, Office of Ryue Nishizawa (Japan) and Durbach Block Jaggers (Australia) with Masako Yamazaki, Mark Richardson, Arup and Irma Boom

Rant Free Zone

Firstly, I will try and avoid a rant about how much I hate the star system and the paucity of risk-taking on the part of our institutional decision makers. Yes, it was great to see some emerging practices and voices in the Adelaide lineups and a focus on indigenous narratives for some of these teams. As time goes on, I think this focus will increasingly have to be a consideration for public commissions. But what does the overall inclusion of so many stars say about architecture in Australia? Have we lost our nerve?

Local Grunt with Super Star Strategy

In strategic terms what do these collaborations say about global competition, competitive advantage and the branding of architects in Australia and Australian architecture as a brand across the globe.

What struck me was that there is no single stand-alone Australian architect in this bunch. In both of these competitions, the short-listed firms are Australian architects aligned with the so-called star architects. Now far be it for me to preach some kind of little Aussie battler nationalist bias. But it is nonetheless vital to ask a few more questions about this situation:

As a strategy is it wise for local architectural firms in Australia to collaborate with these so-called stars architects? The old aphorism is that the local partner brings along well needed local expertise and on the ground knowledge. In other words, the international star designs and the local, seemingly domestic, partner implements.

Are Australian architects the documentation drudges of the global system? In these competitions have the Australian firms, in these collaborations, become global lackeys. The so-called second rate “drafties” of the global system? But is it really as simple as this? And in an increasingly media driven international marketplace for architectural services perhaps this strategic rationale is only partially valid.

Outsourcing 

In this context, one could argue that the Australian firms might provide the local technical grunt. This is in line with the overall trend towards the global outsourcing of documentation services. Across the global system, privatisation policies, and shareholder value practices have led to a situation where there has been a rise in outsourcing for architectural and building documentation.

The rise of digital technologies and the labour rates in the so-called global south have led to an increase in digital outsourcing for documentation. The late Bharat Dave in his own work noted the rise of offshoring architectural services which began in the late 90. Outsourcing has coalesced in places where there is an ICT infrastructure aligned with skilled workforces and low labour costs. Dave noted in 2010 a situation, that is now commonplace, where designs in one country are modelled in another, documented in yet another and then fabricated in another. It is not hard to concur with his conclusion that this situation necessitates the need for the “reconfiguration of practice in the long term.” ⁠

This situation has only accelerated in recent years, and it is perhaps naïve to think that the reconfiguration of practice is solely about the outsourcing and subsequent commodification of the services, such as technical documentation that designers seem to loathe in the first place.

The problem with partial services 

In these matchups, local architectural firms ruled by economic survival might find some comfort in being more easily able to modify the range of services they provide; being able to provide the technical grunt. Yet this flexibility poses a dilemma: to be more profitable, these firms need to offer a complete range of services. But as a result of changes in technology, partial services are less profitable and also readily supplied by non-architectural competitors. Consequently, many middle-ranking and larger firms have no choice but to provide limited or partial services despite the fact that this only encourages, and leads to, further disintermediation, and commodification in their markets. Providing partial services may be unsustainable in the longer term. For the local collaborating firms it might be a vicious cycle.

Mapping Strategy 

There is another issue that these two competitions point to, and that is the role of the internet and media to shape perceptions and the branding of architects. The following strategy diagrams map media impacts of the collaborations in these two competitions. I charted media hits (as measured by Google) of the stars against the reach of the local firms (number of Australian plus Internationaloffices of the local partner). I will let you make your own analysis of what all this means. My take is that clearly for some offices the match-ups appear to be ad-hoc and without any strategic intent. For other practices, the diagram shows who might gain or lose from the collaboration.

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Clearly, it also suggests who might win these competitions if this was the only criteria. It also shows which local firms may be using the collaboration to either extend their range or extend their brand by being attached to a star architect.

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For many Australian architects or any firm on the periphery of the global media starchitect system, such collaborations are perhaps necessary.  Since the early 2000s if not before, architects are no longer grounded in a particular office or geographical location. Competition amongst architects is global in the intense global competition for architectural services, arguably Australian firms need to extract value from networks and systems of patronage no matter how distant they may be. The star architects are better able to do this because they operate from larger economic centres.

Commodification of Design 

In any case, this all points to the ongoing commodification of design services. Perhaps the local/star matchups, point to the dumbing down of design into seductively drawn products with market signals that scream out “star-designer.” This is regardless of the fact that these designer products, seem to retain a threadbare relationship to what might have formerly been regarded as a traditional design process. Many of these designer products, indicate no interest in the memory of city or any sense of freedom and politics to be found in local communities.

Taken together, Australian firms need a renewed emphasis on strategic thinking, better management, a recognition of the media landscape, and internal research to gain competitive advantage. Otherwise, Australian firms will be doomed to be secondary actors, and lackeys, swilling around in the global system of architecture.

10 things Architects learnt from the Apple at Federation Square Debate

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All that remains of the Western Shard at Federation Square is an imprint on my Shard protest t-shirt. 

In case you missed it the Open House Melbourne debate regarding the Apple store at Federation Square took place last week. I watched the live stream at home on my Apple iPad. I couldn’t get a ticket and something else was on at work at the same time. But I decided to stick it out and settled down with my APPLE Gold iPad Mini (yes, terrible I know to admit, obviously I am some kind of unwitting sucked in APPLE consumer; Oh, and I should say I am typing this on an Apple Power Book that is owned by my University).

I hate getting on bandwagons no matter the cause. Cause orientated bandwagons always seem too cultish and clubbish for my liking. But hey, at least I was involved with the effort to Save the Shard. I still have my T-Shirt to prove it. What worries me now are the echoes of that debate in this one.

I watched it on the live stream for more than the entire 2 hours. I am thinking the whole thing is going to make a great case study for my Design Activism course in September.

Its great Open House Melbourne organised this debate. It was seen by many as a mature debate around issues of urban design and public in our city. But, if the debate was mature, then we can also ask, how nuanced was this debate ?

So here is everything you need to know about the debate at Federation Square in 10 easy to digest points.

1. Let’s face it the Yarra Building at Fed Square became a bit awkward. 

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As hinted at by Donald Bates one of the architects of Federation Square, in his debate speech. The Yarra building never was the best bit of Federation Square, it was worth a try at the time, as a commercial space, so why not change it now? Why not redesign the Square? Or should we just keep the Yarra Building as a piece of so-called heritage?

2. Some people like to say the word Activation a lot.

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I must have done my post-graduate urban design degree so long ago at RMIT that it was before this activation word came into vogue. Donald Bates mentioned it a few times but Ron Jones on the Anti-Apple side mentioned it a lot. It even made the internet tabloids.

Its zombie urbanism concepts like this that a sliming (or slimeing?) our cities with low-grade commerce. Does “activating an edge” mean putting in little coffee shop, or kripsy kreme, tenancies all along a so-called urban “edge”.

3.Politicians still need to figure out that community consultation processes for large-scale projects are needed.

I think Cr. Ron Leppert was able to set out the case for the failure amongst our political class (the non-greens class) to adequately consult and to be transparent.  It was great when he kept saying something along the lines of “I am not an architect”, but I am still going to tell you how to plan the city. That was so “plannersplain.” Designing planning schemes without an architectural perspective = more zombie urbanism. Read about it here.

4.The Committee of Melbourne elites have yet to develop a more nuanced argument than the zombie concepts of Melbourne 4.0.

The Committee for Melbourne CEO Martine Letts, ably outlined the standard neoliberal  position: more change, more disruptive technologies and get ready for more global competition. We are all on this hamster wheel. But maybe the Committee for Melbourne might have more success in these matters if it wasn’t full of so called “movers and shakers.” Let’s see a few “bogans” on their board. This is definitely a group that could do with a dose of real people and learn about community development and consultation. God help us when F2, (neo-liberal speak for Federation Square East) gets going.

5. The Victorian Government Architects Office needs more funding and independence.

Yes ! That might help get some transparency back into these processes. When will politicians stop listening to Treasury and listen more to architects?

All too obviously, this situation is the product of the autocracy, elitism and lack of transparency when it comes to the procurement of major civic projects in our nation. Architecture is too often sidelined. But something like this is bound to get a backlash. When will our political classes and neo-liberal elites figure this out? It was the same at Sirius in Sydney and there will be other examples in the future.

6. No one from Foster’s office or evil Apple seemed to be at the debate.

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I have written about the Foster design for Apple HQ here. As someone noted in the Open House debate when these stars come to our great southern land they don’t necessarily do the best job. Usually they just do second rate job then fuck off back to whence they came (Lab Architecture Studio was actually an amazing exception to this).

7. The design of Federation Square didn’t just happen

I fear that many in the audience didn’t know this (maybe the audience was packed out with too many of Ron Leppert’s Green’s party planner mates and that’s why I couldn’t get a ticket),  but the design actually evolved and emerged over time. Yes, architects actually design things through iteration. Designs don’t just pop out of architectural heads fully formed. Donald Bates said something like this and its worth quoting from my rough debate notes:

“This is a Drawing showing one tenth of all the iterations of the design process. The design developed by iteration and possibilities emerging. It is about a design of relationships and not specific objects. The fixation on objects is not embedded in the DNA of the Square

8. It is a hate the big brand thing

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It is correct to say Fed Square is not retail Chaddy or Bunnings. But it doesn’t matter because according to the no case, Apple, will make Fed square into a giant Shopping Mall. A huge giant giant shopping mall. Just like they have in the suburban badlands. They will sell you stuff and every Insta photo in Fed Square will feature them. It’s a brand thing the No-Apple side is fighting against.

In response to the Apple proposal its easy to rail against the perceived evils of the big brands. Apple’s personal consumerism, its awful tax regimes, its blind technological march to the singularity. But what does that have to do with site specific architectural arguments in this instance?

9. The Koori Heritage Trust gets a much better deal out of this proposal. 

Shouldn’t that be the highest priority for Federation Square as a public and civic space? If it was me I would put KHT where the Apple store is supposed to go and Apple into the Deakin building. I would, if I could, decolonise the square and let KHT own all of it ! Maybe thats what we should be thinking about rather than the populism of big brand hatred.

10. Its train wreck

This issue is a train wreck of big brands, naive and not so naive political populism. Not to mention, architectural ignorance, conflicting theories of architecture, planning and urban design in our civic politics. Space prevents me from writing how we got to this point. It may sound strange but I partly blame that huckster Jan Gehl and his slippery urban design populism for watering down our urban theories and analytical instruments. I think the crazy comitteeee for Melbourne has a lot to answer for. Check out what they thought about the minimum apartment standards. A veiled attack on those standards in the name of a pro-development flexibility. Yet, this is a group that claims to be all about sustainability and future liveability.

Outrage cycles and populism 

It’s so easy to be populist in this social media age. Easy to rev up the shock jocks and the tabloids. Perhaps this is why it’s the No-Apple bandwagon that also worries me in this debate. In embracing populist notions of public space, architecture and urban theory are too easily erased from the public discourse. This has what has happened in regards to this issue. Digitised Outrage and Outrage and Outrage that blunts any real analysis of the plight of our civic spaces. Paradoxical when all the genuine and self serving outrage is facilitated by Apple devices. Architecture and any deeper architectural and urban arguments get swamped.

The architectural and urban arguments for Apple, as presented in the debate, were analytical, nuanced  and refined (to echo the Victorian Government Architect) and actually grounded in architectural process. Arguably, it is the architectural argument that bridges the complexities between architecture, urban design and the social realities of the mercantile.

Having said that, we also need to recognise that the position underlying the Pro-Apple argument, and indeed the original scheme, is based on a stream of architectural theory that has never really resisted, and always accommodated capital. There never was a secret about that in this city. So why are people upset now? No one screamed when QV was pillaged and privatised. Of course its because we all love Federation Square so why don’t we now listen to one of its architect? But do we really care about pursuing real public space and architecture?

Campaign 2016 Debate
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the start of the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

It’s way too much like Hilary versus Donald. 

It seems ironic to me but in a strange way the Pro-Apple team was a bit Hilary-like (actual experts, politicians and neo-liberals) whereas the Anti-Apple team employed Trump-like (or maybe John Howard) populism. A populist backlash that seems to be saying: we are the people, we are angry with the neoliberal and global elites, we are angry about the public spaces in our city, we hate the outer suburban shopping centres, and so WE should get to decide who comes to our Federation Square shores.

What a train wreck the whole thing is and I am not even sure the punters care that much. Because, after all is said and done, Federation Square has free Wi-Fi.

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.

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.

Architects & Badass Clients: The perennial moral question?

There has always been a debate in architecture about patronage and politics. The central question of this debate, which I am sure many architects are familiar with, is should architects work for those with no morals? This becomes a dilemma and does it really matter who architects work for as long as they make good, or even great, architecture?

The bad and sometimes evil clients.

All architects have had clients we don’t like, or we don’t particularly want to work for, or we are worried that they will rip us off by not paying. We refused a client once because he looked like Catweazle. But what happens when the client is a demagogue or a war criminal?

Usually, when this debate gets going, the old hero icons of modern architecture get trotted out: Gropius and Mies and the Nazi and the Reichsbank competition. Le Corbusier and Vichy, and the break up with his Marxist cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. Phillip Johnson, that most subversive of architects and the actual Nazis. For a brief moment, in the late 20s the constructivist worker architects and artists had the same problem, should they work for Stalin? However, by 1932 it was too late for them and most were killed in the Terror or went to the Gulag’s.

Tessenow and Speer and Krier 

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Inevitably this argument cycles around to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, the gargantuan and ham fisted classicist and pioneer of modern managerialism. Speer was no Plecnik or Lutyens. As an architecture student Speer was reputedly thrown out of Poelzig’s studio and then ended up in Heinrich Tessenow’s studio. What would have happened to Speer if he had stayed with the early expressionistic Poelzig who later embraced New Objectivity rather than the classically orientated Tessenow.  As most know, Speer was later to be admired so much by Leon Krier, who published the monograph on Speer, once Krier himself escaped the clutches of James Stirling. In the 1980s as students we once interviewed Tadao Ando through a Japanese translator and asked him what he thought of Krier, the response in Japanese, was opaque, long winded and incomprehensible and surprisingly animated. However, in this perplexing outburst there was one word that we could discern through the rush of Japanese: Fascist. Yes, Ando thought Leon Krier was a fascist. As Paul Davies has noted Giorgio Grassi would rehabilitate Tessenow; and Leon Krier, Speer.

 Patrik Comes to Town

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Hot on the heels of Rem Koolhaas, all of this history, came back to me when we had a new star architect visitor these weeks past. Yes, in my small city on the architectural periphery, it was none other than Patrik Schumacher. Suddenly, my Archienemy Instagram social media feeds were full of people I know doing selfies with Patrik. Rather than going all out I chose to get a photo of his ear. He even spoke at Rem and David G’s MPavilion, which I am yet to visit, with the Victorian State Government Architect.

Perhaps I was a little jealous, I asked myself, I was not invited to the Pavilion, nor was I invited to the jury sessions where Patrik appeared. Had I through some character flaw and self-sabotage avoided the great man and celebrity. Had they read all the bad stuff I had written in the obscure conference papers about Parametricism. I had already avoided the Remmy Koolhaas festival when he came. Should I have lurched into Patrik’s field of vision to get a selfie? I did at least manage to get a picture of his ear.

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Patrik and the Mayfair Development

Regular readers of the blog will recall Patrik’s statements about Aravena winning the big Pritzker prize in an earlier blog.

“I respect was Alejandro Aravena is doing and his ‘half a good house’ developments are an intelligent response. However, this is not the frontier where architecture and urban design participate in advancing the next stage of our global high density urban civilisation.”

ZHA architecture, in  which Patrik is a partner leads, has also designed a “vase” shaped tower in my city intended to be housed by the Mandarin Oriental hotel. In Brisbane ZHA has also designed a  “champagne flute” tower development. Nothing like a metaphor to motivate the sales team.

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Chin-chin in Brisvegas.

The Mayfair 

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More interestingly, there is also the Mayfair sited on a prominent corner on St Kilda Road, for those not familiar with Melbourne this is the boulevard leading into the cities central grid. The developers UEM Sunrise are employing the ZHA brand to sell the apartments off. This one has the soft flowing curvy butterfly metaphor attached to it. Apparently, the design is based on the “Lorenz attractor – a mathematical set of equations that, when plotted, resemble a figure eight or butterfly.”

There is also great Zaha Hadid exhibition associated with the sale of units in the development and the website is pretty slick. All the apartments look great on the inside and are full of well designed and exquisitely fabricated ZHA designed wall finishes, furniture and fittings.

Bris-Vegas?

Amongst all the signature suite excitement of the interior there is the exterior. In contrast to the interior, the exterior does seem a bit, how shall I say it, Bris Vegas with its predominant horizontal blades and glazed balconies. Perhaps, the Mayfair, and other luxury apartment types in general, are more about the exquisite luxury interiors and less  to do with the exterior. I am not sure how the facade might contribute to a high density urban civilisation?

Perhaps this is the danger the architectural fascination with CNC fabrication and digitally enabled supply chains. Perhaps, all we will get to do as architects in the future, are the luxury interiors: the product marketing types and planners will design the exteriors.

Maybe we are already at the point where we are no longer architects but in fact strategic product designers and marketers. Architecture is a key element in the marketing material for Mayfair:

“Mayfair is unmistakably Zaha Hadid. A mastery of scientific precision and artistic integrity, its soft, organic form pays tribute to St Kilda Road’s leafy streetscape, and the context within which it exists.”

I don’t really know what to say about the “soft organic form” line.

The local connections

With such international collaborations there is always a local architectural connection.  With the apartments on St Kilda road, branded as the Mayfair, it is that notable firm of high rise apartment architects Elenberg Fraser.With the ZHA Mandarin Oriental tower it is Plus Architecture. On face value across the liveable city of Melbourne these two firms, Plus and Elenberg Fraser, seem to have cornered the market for apartments design. Interestingly Plus’s 4248 scheme looks a bit like the ZHA Mayfair. These are architects who seem happy to surf the real estate free market. No doubt  in doing so they are ensuring their fee for service regimes are commensurate with the excellent plan-façade combos they are producing.

Follow the money

Of course, in the modern age all architects immersed in the free market no longer need worry about the Nazis or Stalinists to work for or fight against. Arguably, it is the kleptocrats and big sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and Panama Paper style investors who provide the juice for the luxury housing fragmenting our cities.

The Mayfair development is being developed by UEM Sunrise. UEM Sunrise is wholly-owned by Khazanah, an investment holding arm of the Malaysian Government. A few years back the sovereign wealth find of the Malaysian government was the subject of a financial investigation. You can follow this here and even search for Khazanah and UEM Sunrise at the Panama Papers. You can also read about some the advanced urban civilisation stuff Malaysia has done for Palm Oil and Penan people.

It would be monstrous to suggest that the architects, or anyone else associated with these current projects, are in any way implicated in illicit financial flows of capital. But the point is that we are all connected in this new digital age via 6 virtual degrees of separation. The landscape in this new global system no longer resembles the past.  The old empires and their classical icons have gone and it is the oscillations of distributed capital propelled through conduits of digital finance that now shape the monumental vistas.

Subversion 

Spare a thought for the other architects, more distant from luxury housing and the celebrity system of architetcure. The local architects who ponder the vicissitudes of the NDIS roll out, informal settlements and the possibilties of producing new housing types driving by financial structures that enable a range of demographics, typologies and ownership.

Perhaps it will always be a perennial question for architects: Does it matter who we work for and who our patrons are? Does it matter where the money comes from? But, maybe the even greater sin for architects is not so much where the money comes from, or the issues around patronage, but whether or not the project is simply trash for cash.

Lets hope that there is a subversive sentiment somewhere in that approach.