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.

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.

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: 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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Q: Why do Architects need to be better communicators? A: Because everyone is ripping us Architects off.

A few years back I got together with another architect who had also been to business school. We had the idea of looking at how we might develop a course about that would help corporate strategists and line managers understand the nuances, ambiguities and worth of design thinking, innovation ecosystems, prototyping, creative destruction, design methodologies, iterative generation, developing idea portfolios and managing creative teams. We had even gone some way to developing a syllabus.

We trucked it around to the architecture schools. No one really cared. The local business schools were more interested but wanted to see architecture schools buy-in. The architecture schools did not really get it. Oddly enough the only people who seemed half interested were the Edward De Bono types.

Of course, these sorts of courses have now sprung up in quite a few places. But certainly not in architecture schools. Nor, have they emanated from anywhere near the domain of architecture. There are now design thinking courses and more  courses, and consultancies all over. In fact everywhere. Except in architecture. Maybe because of these developments architects are slowly coming to the realisation that they have a unique way of viewing the world and this is valuable and can be of value to others. But coming to this realisation now could be too late.

Now all of this is not to say, or exalt our own egos, by saying that we were ahead of our time. But I did start to think about this failed project when I came across a recent article by Barbara Bryson at Design Intelligence entitled, the Future of Architects: Extinction or Irrelevance. This article appears to have gone viral across the usual social media platforms and it is worth quoting and analysis an excerpt:

Firstly, I strongly agree with her argument that:

Design thinking, the empathetic problem-solving methodology, grew, in part, out of our architectural problem-solving design methodologies. Education innovators are also taking lessons from architecture schools. Active learning, making spaces, and student engagement all have roots in the studio process.

But it’s probably not just in the education that our design expertise is being ripped off by others. Everyone is grabbing our best stuff. Maybe this is why, the next sentence struck a chord with me:

The rest of the world is learning from our processes, grabbing our best material, and moving on to success and relevance.

She then concludes that:

Architects, on the other hand, are impossibly stagnant in process and perspective, incredibly vulnerable to irrelevance and even extinction. I believe we have been on this road for decades, and we need to make some profound changes if we as architects are to have an impact on the built environment in the future and if we wish to be relevant.

Her argument is that architects have become too narrow in defending the territory of design. It’s still a hard task to convince architects that we need to expand our territory and domain of knowledge. Trying to convince other architects that a couple of architects with MBAs could teach the strategic line managers something was mostly greeted with blank looks and polite silence. Yet, Architects are better at design and know more about it than engineers, accountants, lawyers, and dare I say it, even software developers.

But, have architects really been that good at communicating why design thinking is important and how it may apply to other fields of knowledge? Have we really been able to develop our own research methodologies and methods in order to stake expanding territories of knowledge rather than shrinking ones? Are we really open to strategic collaboration and using our design intelligence to expand what we can do; and what we need to do in cities and urban settlements?

Unless architects move out of a defensive mode to a more generative and expansive domain in regards to our traditions of design thinking, it is possible that we will become irrelevant. Spitting the dummy, and having apoplexy every time: we perceive our design territories becoming somehow “impure”;  or when we argue that simply designing something  is somehow design research, without understanding what the contribution to architectural knowledge is; or we cling to an alpha-male and pedigreed star system, a star system that rewards the biggest egos; or worse still, the biggest spinmeisters; or we silently support a non-inclusive career path system; or an intern and work culture of chronic underpayment; or an industry association research infrastructure that is non-existent; or our unthinking love of new and emerging technologies. Any wonder we get cut out of so much stuff.

Don’t get me wrong I love architects and wouldn’t be in any other profession. But, we need to grow up as a profession and have a mature discourse. Otherwise, we are heading down the gurgler.

As one of my connections in my social media feed said: Barbara Bryson has “nailed it.” And you can read her full blog here.

 

Tribes, Warlords and Transformers: Which architectural practice are you?

After the last post, which focused on Australian Architects, I thought I would expand some of this apocalyptic thinking to the global system of architecture. Arguably, architecture is at an end because of the commodification of the services that architects provide. But the effect of neoliberal policies and market competition is more insidious than that. I think that this global system has also come to condition the very types of practices that operate within it. In the late 20th Century the heroic architect of the 20s morphed into the star architect of the late 90s and the early 2000s. But I think we also have some new practice types.

The Three Types: Tribes, Warlords, and Transformers. 

I have named the three types of practices as Tribes, Warlords and Transformers. These practices are conditioned by a survivalist mentality that accounts for architectural competition in the global system. Architects are desperately trying to survive as their knowledge and workflows are being simultaneously digitized and commoditized.  The work of Sklair, examining star architects and the work of McNeill which looks at the political and cultural economy of globalization and cities. No doubt there are others.

This impetus of market survival is evident as a result of global flows of capital pertaining to: neo-liberal policies, service disaggregation and fee for service competition. Despite its allure and heroic mythology in architectural traditions architects have in reality abandoned the old binary logic of Creative vs. Suit. In this global system there are recognizably three types of architectural firms:

Tribes 

Tribes are small community based and local practices. Their territories are local. These firms create a design knowledge ecosystem around their own local field of practice. These are small firms which develop linkages both within their teams and the communities that surround them. These firms inwardly focused and are bottom-up in they way they create design knowledge. They are collaborative and community orientated. Whilst a single designer may dominate these tribes the emphasis is on consultation. As many of these firms feel they are struggling to survive these Tribes will sometimes form together to make bigger firms.

Examples: Assemble Studio, RCR, Grupo Toma in my town we have Architecture Architecture and our very own Assemble.

Warlords

Warlords: Warlords are best exemplified by the so-called star architects. Their territories are media channels. They dominate both national and global systems. These firms create a knowledge ecosystem around themselves that is dominated by a single, style, aesthetic ideology or person. These firms create design knowledge on a project by project basis. However, the creation of design knowledge is secondary as the firm seeks legitimacy through media hits. They are focused on winning prestigious commissions and often create conflict in order to win media presence.  They are intent on creating seminal projects that build their reputation in the architectural canon.

Examples: Schumacher, in my town we have you know who, Aravena (star or tribe?) and of course the older generation of people like Gehry and the remnants of the New York Five like Meier and there is of course Rem (but I think OMA is a Transformer)

Transformers 

Are large multi-disciplinary and networked mega-firms firms that work within the global system and often across borders. These firms are predatory. They need to be to survive. Their Territories constantly captured, expanded and rebuilt. They resolves conflict in order to govern. In these firms design, knowledge, systems and governance are integrated. These firms create highly specialised design knowledge which is integrated into their own systems.  As a result these firms are large enough to anticipate, create, design and deliver large mega-projects such as urban infrastructure and cities; whether or not we need these urban products. These firms are intent on building projects that enable the firm to be continually self-sustaining. They transform as they their constituent networks ebb and flow. They are often surrounded by tribal firms that act as a Remora fish.

Examples: RMJM, Arup and Aurecon. So whats BIG, tribe, Warlord, Transformer or Mega-firm? Probably a hybrid tribe-star on the way to becoming a Transformer) Some firms are hybrids and we can see  them changing  from one type to another.

Its all about the Brand 

Certainly, an overarching institutional logic of survivalism is arguably the result of a number of factors. The changes since the 1970s in professional status as a result of neoliberal policies leading to trans-national and market competition. The loss of traditional services to other disciplines and subsequent disaggregation of full fee-for-service regimes. The rise of new technologies alongside new procurement systems have also led to the commodification of design activities and knowledge.

In this system design knowledge has been confused with branding. So I guess Tafuri, and perhaps even Guy Debord, may have been right about the intellectual work of architects after all.