Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Losing My Edge: Architectural Informatics (and others)


(Disclaimer: This is quick and unconsidered)

It is fascinating to watch other disciplines inch closer and closer to the territory that was once claimed by architects. As the profession of architecture continues to shrink, the ground that is ceded does not remain unclaimed for long, and there is new and interesting territory to be discovered at our borders that we no longer seem to have the resources to explore.

Sustainability Consulting, Strategic Masterplanning, Landscape Architecture - all of these other disciplines are very interested in architecture: its literature, its history, and its scope of services. Now add to that the relatively new fields of Service and Interaction Design. Recent articles here and here (and here(and here!)) have all implied that there is a strange relationship between services, distributed computing and cities, with a parallel strangeness in the design of interactions and the design of buildings.

Despite having several friends who are actively working in these fields, I admit that it is sometimes very difficult to understand what it is that they actually do (besides organize, attend, and speak at conferences). Many of them have backgrounds in architecture, and almost all of them are avidly reading Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Archigram, Situationists - all of this neglected literature from the 60s and 70s that architects themselves had almost forgotten, in our (perhaps bubble-powered) accelerated criticality (and the inevitable post).

So there are all of these people moving in this direction, and there are a few general observations that are worth making about that:

- They seem to think that they have something to learn from the theory and practice of architecture, so let's help them figure out what that is.

- They are creating their own discourse from scratch, outside of academia. Architectural discourse has been supported by schools for so long that it is difficult to remember any other way. The fields of Service and Interaction Design seem to be supported by something more like the feudal corporate patronage structure that architects relied on in the Renaissance. That's very interesting, no? Not the least because despite any purse or apron strings linking them to the corporate world, they still seem to want to talk about ideas, even some of the more out-there quasi-marxist corners of critical theory that academic architects like to frequent. That's kind of fun, right?

- They have no history. Though some might disagree, this is probably a good thing for now (but not for much longer).

- They bring an entrepreneurial startup culture with them. A lot of the work in this area is coming directly out of computer science by way of the old dot.com and web 2.0 pathways, but the thing is, these aren't the casualties, they are the survivors. Many of the people involved with these offices have lived through several busts, and they are thriving. They know about venture capital, public offerings, and bootstrapping. They have business plans. This is kind of exciting, yeah?


For Archinect's '09 predictions last year, I hoped that there would be this massive flow outward from architecture to other disciplines: underemployed architects as secret agents, implanting methodologies into other fields from the inside out. It hasn't happened. Instead, we've lost even more ground to others who are doing the things we do, and it's like the song says: "... to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent ... and they're actually really, really nice." They want to be friends, they want to talk about cities and buildings.

So in the New Year, let's all spend more time hanging out: architects can trade some of our thoughts on cultural context, historicity, and the public realm for some of you all's ideas about agility, narrative, strategery, and business planning, and we'll all hopefully learn a lot.

15 comments:

fleur de gris said...

nice post, fred. doesn't *sound* unconsidered.

i agree with the perception that what was historically within the bailiwick of architecture has splintered and been dispersed - largely our fault.

but then there is a counter-flow: i'm right now responding to an RFP for architectural services which are to include - in addition to the typical schematic design, DD, CD, CA - a proposed BUSINESS PLAN! under the umbrella of design services will be responsibility for actually 'designing' a business: showing its potential products and revenue streams, costing and amortization of equipment, maintenance and operation costs.

so maybe where we contract in one place, we expand into another? if i weren't already interested in the scenario-building process for a project's life-cycle, i think this would scare the crap out of me but, instead, it seems both irresponsible and fun!

steven ward

sevensixfive said...

Thanks Steven. That is a really strange and exciting thing to include in a proposal. I'm working on a business-plan-esque thing, too, and I've realized: I have *no idea* what a business plan even looks like.

As designers, we love to mess with given forms, but what do you do if your familiarity with the form is nil? So far, I am not letting that stop me.

Hunter said...

hey Fred,


I’m always admiring what you’re up too these days. I am kind of confused about how to approach this situation you laid out…thought I might throw in my 2 cents.

We all know specialization isn’t something new for architecture, and especially not for many other industries/professions. We haven’t been master craftsmen or engineers for years but we have always, or at least tried to always maintain the big picture ie the organization of form, space, and utility. We are all kind of generalists working in a specialized profession, and the profession seems to be asking us to become more specialized in individual aspects of the general role.

In terms of the new territories on the edge of our profession I think they have much to do with the creation of new technologies that engage, sometimes enhance, and much of the time violate the architectural body. Beside the territories never really existed before and I don’t think they were taken so seriously by many architects. Some diciplines are sort of like pharmaceutical companies offering placebos for afflictions that don’t exist, others are defining new possibilities or problems that are add ons but could be reabsorbed into the project at origination.


I have to ask, if architects are providing the package why should we worry about other disciplines adding a bow, a ribbon or even re-evaluting the overall package? Yes we may loose out in terms of control or fees, but in some ways this frees us to potentially collaborate up front, to use a sort of cloud computing model to absorb and distribute specialty services and information while concentrating on the more fundamental aspects of producing a nice piece of architecture. However, it could also mean that aspects of architecture just become more specialized, new concepts are born, new methods are teased out and later explored, eventually reabsorbed into a cohesive office environment? I can’t decide whether or not that is a good thing. I tend to believe that if we have more diverse companies looking at and evaluating architecture it will only do it good, so while we may shrink in our profession or shrink our fees the quality of the built environment may flourish.

Super interesting topic I definitely want to join in on some new conversations and possibilities…. we have to. We need more multi-disciplinary conventions/talks, or maybe just cooler bars for all these people to meet. I am down for some cross pollination for the new decade…lets do it.

Oh and Fred I especially like the james murphy ref I saw him play at this crap bar in Brooklyn a few months ago, to me… he hasn’t lost a thing and definitely not his edge.

sevensixfive said...

Thanks for your comment, Hunter. A lot of things I want to hit there, but briefly:

You mention arch.'s role as the trackers of the bigger picture. This is one of many things that attracts these disciplines together. Computer science has reached the point where the engineering is consciously instrumentalized in the service of a larger scale goal. Architects are the nearest profession that works at this organizational level to do that, so it's an isomorphism.

You mention snake-oil, and yes, there seems to be a lot of that around, too.

... why should architects be worried? I hate to admit it, but there's a real possibility that we might end up inhabiting a sub-discipline, subsumed by this stuff sooner than we expect. Or for the better (and more interesting), we might find that there are many sorts of things that the organization of systems in general can teach us all, and that this is the real larger context within which we all work.

speedbird said...

I'm not sure that there is any such thing as "service design," by the way. Huge interest - *enormous* interest - and ambitious rhetoric, but as yet a very underdeveloped theoretical-practical terrain.

I'm almost tempted to say there's no there there, and but for the fact that there probably does need to be, I would.

bryan said...

fred- I've probably missed this particular party, but that's what I get for leaving your post in my feed reader for so long.

you know that this is territory coursing through my veins, so a few thoughts. I'm growing increasingly nervous that we should be having these sorts of conversations in some sort of Secret Plans Of The Architects boardroom, but anyways:

You mention arch.'s role as the trackers of the bigger picture. This is one of many things that attracts these disciplines together.... Architects are the nearest profession that works at this organizational level to do that...

Not anymore. Rory Hyde was just telling me about gulf cities being planned by consulting groups such as McKensey. If you thought that the accounting consultancy fall out of the Enron era was bad news, just wait to see what happens when these consultancy-cities don't develop according to the powerpoint bullet points that launched them. On the other hand, the whole notion of building a city from scratch in the urban equivalent of "overnight" is an entirely risky proposition. Maybe architects don't want to have that sort of risk on their ledgers – architects certainly don't have the billings to protect them in case of failure.

People trained as architects are working from within these consultancies, but I'm not sure it's producing the results you would hope for. There are larger structural problems that make the proposition of a consultancy designing a city difficult. Where is the accountability? Or scratch that, forget the stick approach – where is the incentive for the big picture planner to care for the evolution of their work? This is where the portfolio being the currency of the architect/planner is critical: you're on the hook for the Thing in the real world, not just its skeleton outline on paper. I see this as a critical juncture: what arrangements between client and _____ produce incentives on both sides for the original parties to maintain a relationship of shared intent, not only up to construction but through to inhabitation.

bryan said...

… why should architects be worried? I hate to admit it, but there's a real possibility that we might end up inhabiting a sub-discipline, subsumed by this stuff sooner than we expect. Or for the better (and more interesting), we might find that there are many sorts of things that the organization of systems in general can teach us all, and that this is the real larger context within which we all work.

This is already happening as well. Engineering consultancies like Arup are actively eating architectural territory by going after projects as the architect. On balance, Arup is a pretty benevolent group to be eating architectural territory, but where they create precedent other less desirable groups will follow.

This is largely a question of how capable architects are as participants in the sorts of conversations clients are demanding of them. In my own anecdotal experiences with the Low2No competition, it's still a relatively rare architect that can hold a fluent conversation between form, financing, and diplomacy. Sure, that combo is a tall order for any individual, but if we are to have high ambitions for the architect we should not shy from high expectations as well. Again from my own anecdotal experience, one of the implications of this for architects is that we will need to learn to apprehend form, at least in discussions.

The greatest asset of the magical near-future architect that we have been collectively imagining (if not actually yet admitting this in writing) is to understand the formal/spatial implications of organization/systemic conversations and vice versa. If we are articulate in high-level conversations about the allocation of resources at the level of markets and cities then our ability to also understand, predict, and design the material armatures that enable those desires is incredibly valuable to all those people architects wish were still their clients (CEOs, mayors, presidents).* But this means being comfortable with holding off on form until the time is right. It's akin to how you try to avoid detailing a building before the programing is done. Sure, sketch in the margins, but those are private doodles! Generally architects seem to be perceived from the outside as form-happy, unable to discuss anything unless it involves starting construction immediately. The more time I stew on this the more it seems like we've collectively failed at PR.

It strikes me that knowing when to deploy visualizations and when to rely on conversation instead is critical to the future of the profession with regards to upward mobility on the continuum of conception to implementation. There's an entire game theory of when and what kind of deliverables should be used at what time during a project that has yet to be developed.

But let's step back, because there's a lurking issue here that I want to address head on: what do we mean when we use the word "architect?" Is that anyone with architectural training? Is it just the "smart ones" who read Log, went to fancy schools, and learned about criticality and all that? There are groups like Burt Hill who are doing tons of work in the Gulf but I don't think that you or I would necessarily consider it exciting or desirable. Yet, to the rest of the world, it's architecture. The reality of the market is that architecture is merely one third of the AEC acronym and probably much less than 1/3 of the AEC market cap. So when we use the words "architecture" and "architect" here, are we talking about "good architects," "forward-thinking architect," "liberal architects," or what? I'm asking because I don't have an answer for this question, but it's one that has been put to me before in conversations with others – "we already have an architect involved…" (but not the right architect!)

bryan said...

You mention snake-oil, and yes, there seems to be a lot of that around, too.

Someone must have done analysis on this, but increased sales of snake-oil is the sign of an emerging profession, isn't it? I'm thinking here of the profusion of elixers and other snake-oils in the US during the 19th century, at least in its mythology, just as medicine was getting its act together. The AMA was founded in 1847 and the American College of Physicians follows in 1905. I would love to see sales figures for elixers during the 19th century. But back to the point: there's absolutely a lot, lot, lot of snake oil out there. But rather than be bothered by the poseurs, let's figure out what this means and what to do about it.

I would extend adam's point about service design by asking what is service design? I honestly and earnestly ask this question. What are the specific deliverables of service designers? What are their specific objectives? To me it sounds like a subset of every other design practice. Not that designers have been holding up their end of the bargain very well, but everything should be designed with its use and coordination in mind. Just because designers have collectively been stumbling with this obligation doesn't mean that the answer is to create a new field. Then again, if the non-designers out there have come to understand "design" as something that they use to make things pretty and occasionally sell more widgets then perhaps the only escape is to invent a new name to sell what could actually be called, simply, "good design." I hope that this is not the case, but that's what it feels like.



*As an aside, my Calvino-esque dream of an installation piece would be to connect, with string, all of the cells of a C-suite excel spreadsheet to the material (people and Things) that they impact. This is what I mean when I say that architects have x-ray vision: on the whole we are better trained to understand this inherently and instinctively… it's a key form of foresight but we have not been very good at explaining to outsiders why it's valuable.

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