Archive for January, 2011

Matter Battle!

Gently prodded by our friends at Urbanscale, I thought that it might be good to record these thoughts before they float away. I’ve been thinking about the Matter Battle philosophy as a way to explain the difficulties of construction, particularly to audiences who are used to the fluid possibilities afforded to us by the digital. Another way to sum up what follows is a beautifully simple line from sevensixfive: “Don’t take any guff from stuff.”

One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter. Any act of construction (such as building a building) is a good example of a Matter Battle. To lesser degrees, reaching for something on a high shelf, baking a pie, drawing a line, and other similar acts also qualify as Matter Battles.


Scene from a Matter Battle

A Matter Battle is the conflict between human intentions and the laws and behaviors of the physical universe. Material acts that are without intention, or where intention is purposefully exploratory such as drip painting, are not Matter Battles.

In a Matter Battle to Undo is to Redo

Matter Battles generally involve actions for which “undo” costs a lot of time, money, or both. This is because matter tends to exhibit characteristics such as: heaviness, largeness, crumbliness, and unwieldiness. In most cases Matter is not self-healing and does not have a native ability to regenerate, therefore resulting in a situation where mistakes tend to turn a piece of matter into useless scrap.

Matter does not Share Space

Matter is mutually exclusive. This is a fancy way of saying that one bit of matter generally cannot exist in the exact same place as another bit of matter. Therefore decisions will have to be made about which bit of matter occupies space with preference, thereby causing all other bits of matter to take a subsidiary position. This is particularly tricky when mapping abstract concepts such as a grid of overlapping lines onto the physical world. Three dimensional things do not easily overlap.

The Behavior of Matter is Hard to Predict Well Without Great Expense

Most of the time it will be too expensive to fully predict the behavior of matter or the full extent of actions which will be required to execute your desires upon matter. This explains the difference in tolerance between industrial activities, such as product-making which relies on repetitive processes, and more singular activities such as building a building. Unless one has the time and money to fixate on material decisions there will be some flying by the seat of one’s pants. In certain complex piles of Matter these ad-hoc decisions may compound to produce undesirable effects.

Matter Battles are Always Low Tech

Because Matter Battles are ultimately about the inescapability of physical laws, they constantly remind us that no matter high tech your implements there is always room for basic failure. Even robots fall down. 3D printers get their nozzles gunked up; laser cutters burn their lenses; and CNC machines still require raw material to be roughly screwed into place before they are worked on. High tech tools generally have low tech components somewhere in their workflow.

Matter Battles are Hard to Understand Until You’re In One

Most people who will read this blog post are already so used to working, perhaps even living, in the digital that the Matter Battle described above might seem overhyped. This is because we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we’ve mastered the material world. And to some extent we have. We’ve been to the bottom of the ocean and the top of the heavens, and yet putting things together (or taking them apart) rarely goes exactly according to plan.

Matter Battle!

Let’s Burn Architecture

Over on his excellent blog, Rory Hyde has fired up one hell of a conversation about potential futures for design practice. The question is a good one: what will architects and designers do in the future if their involvement with the production of the built environment continues to be marginalized?


The reason I love Rory’s post is because it’s proactive rather than whiny. Admitting you have a problem is the first step and all that. I’ve been very slowly working on some of these thoughts through conversations with Dan Hill, Rory, Alejandro Aravena, and Dash Marshall but have yet to write much down. So thanks go to Rory for providing an impetus to sit down and pound out a couple paragraphs in the comments section on his blog. I’ve also included my comments below for posterity’s sake.

Comment #18:

A lot here, so I will attempt to respond in fragments. Not the best, but if I wait to congeal these thoughts into one coherent narrative it will be 2012.

@rory: your question about whether responsibility should be part of the core requirements of design is one that I think we can safely assume is implicit. A professional undertaking must be done under good intentions with a level of professional responsibility. The question is responsibility to who… and this is particularly difficult when we come to questions of buildings and cities because the multiple groups that we must be responsible to (namely the current owner, the public, future owners, etc) are not always easily represented for decision-making purposes. This brings me to pet peeve #1 when discussing architectural process with product designers. I’ve heard many variations of the question “why don’t architects do user surveys?” Does it need to be more common within architectural practice? Yes! But how do you survey the needs and desires of the person who will occupy (let alone walk by!) your building in 30-50 years time? The time scale of architecture is something that our current modes of ownership (from both financial and moral points of view) are not able to deal with.

To speak more directly to your comment that “the designer is necessarily more invested in the projects success due to increased accountability” I would respond that this is a result of the specific positioning of the architect on the pivot between “analysis” and “execution.” Groups like management consultants are in the business of doing analysis and handing it off for someone else to execute. If there’s value in a design-led method that approaches management consulting, it’s that we move beyond the role of strict analysis and are obligated (whether professionally or personally) to be involved in stewarding the execution. I also argue that it’s this involvement with the execution that is the real value proposition of the strategic architect because it forms a feedback loop which provides valuable insights into subsequent analysis phases. I’ll get back to this below under the heading of “matter representative.”

@gerard and @rory: one of the common threads between both of you is the rightful identification of how damn hard it is to produce a nice chunk of the city. Without placing blame on the profession or everyone outside of the profession (ultimately a futile discussion) I point to what seems to me a basic fact of contemporary culture in the developed ‘west:’ we’ve been bamboozled by the internet. I say this as someone who has been quite involved in the commercial web since its inception, so I’m not a luddite detractor, but my point is that the consequences of material and spatial decisions are generally not understood in any sophisticated manner within our culture(s) and specifically within decision-making in the contexts of business and government. If PwC (or McKinsey or Boston or Doblin…) have been successful it’s because they have been able to offer decision-makers tools to make what they feel are better decisions. I take pains to point out that I have not written “make better decision” but “what they feel are better decisions.”

I choose this specific phrasing because I believe, echoing @Anita’s comments above, that we’re often involved in wicked problems whether we like it or not. Paul Nakazawa is brilliant on this topic by describing the role of the contemporary, forward-thinking architect as operating in a space which is “pre factual.” If you are doing interesting [work that has spatial or material consequences] you will be operating without all the facts. This is no different than the upper echelons of finance where the specific intricacy, and in some cases fragility, of the instruments in use are not known to all players, let alone the majority of players involved, if ever knowable at all.

This begs an interesting question: would architecture be more powerful, profitable, and enjoy a more central role if it were more opaque? I hope not, but that strategy certainly has worked out for the financiers.

I’d like to add to Dan and Marcus’ discussion of hardware/software the notion of contingency. Contingencies between various bits of software and hardware are an important consideration in development and one that we could probably make better use of within architecture. How many times have you had a client ask for a change that cascades necessary adjustments across many other aspects of a project? We need better rhetorical, planning, and even software tools to deal with contingencies in a timely manner.

In conversation with Dustin Stephens, a friend and architect in California, he suggested that some architects create value for their clients and others satisfy the basic need for shelter, unquestioningly drawing up their client’s stated desires. To me this seems like a slightly troubling, yet very useful way to divide up the various ways to practice architecture, or perhaps more broadly to create chunks of the city. It seems as though the available tracks of architectural education are not helping very much. We simultaneously have over-educated draftsman, like many of my classmates who graduated from Ivy League schools and are now doing glorified drafting for starchitects, and under-educated architects, those many developers and contractors who are busy building our cities all day every day.

Medicine has doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses. Lawyers have paralegals. What do we have? We used to use technical aspects to divide our roles (e.g. draftsmen vs. architect), but perhaps we need a staged definition of professional roles instead. The reality of current architectural education is that it’s not tooled up to produce enough students, no matter how smart and strategic they are, to have an impact at scale. This is the justification that Roger Martin uses when he says that business schools must teach design thinking rather than letting design schools get their act together. Martin asserts that design schools simply don’t have enough students to make a difference. It’s an exaggerated claim but ask your self seriously, how exaggerated is it? Not very.

Which leads me to a comment which touches loosely on notes that Dan, Gerard, Marcus, and Rory have each made. If you believe my assertion above that contemporary society does not fully comprehend the spatial and material consequences of basic decisions [1], then Rory’s excellent list in this post is missing the “matter representative.” Apologies in advance for a bit of Latourian bastardization, but someone needs to figure out how to more convincingly argue for/against material decisions. Same goes for spatial decisions.

To be truly effective here is to provide an enhanced decision-making capability which is currently missing (as I stated above) in many businesses and governments. Light weight spatial analytics (GIS), more sophisticated post-occupancy analysis, and a new diagrammatic language of spatial/material/cost accounting are three areas of work that desperately need smart people to devote some attention.

IMHO, universities are failing to hold up their end of the bargain at the moment. Schools are doing a mediocre job of training students to see the bigger picture of strategic issues at play which will quite narrowly define their sandbox as run-of-the-mill architects. More damning, perhaps, is the fact that no universities are (to my knowledge) producing basic research which bolsters the profession’s ability to operate in the decision making contexts of the contemporary world, nor make explicit the value of architectural practice beyond its “cultural contributions.” Where is the robust dialog of post occupancy analysis? Where are studies of the great architectural failures of the 20th century? Where are the careful studies of all of the external factors for those failures (I’m thinking here of something like Pruitt-Igoe which is often blamed on the architect when in fact it’s a failed social experiment that no amount of skillfully crafted matter could have mitigated)? Yes, it’s a difficult and messy discourse with a tarnished image from the 60s-70s, but that doesn’t make it any less imperative. A lawyer or doctor without a demonstrable record of success is a quack, not a professional. Ouch.

[1] This was the subject of my thesis research on the US Capitol/US Congress. What were the organizational consequences of spatial decisions made without any spatial understanding?

Comment #31

I’ll join in everyone’s appreciation of the conversation here. Rory, I’ve been slowly working on an essay around some of these ideas, so this is a great way to alleviate me from having to finish that!

It seems safe to summarize many of the comments above by saying that there is a general desire to find a way of being more effective.

There are two questions which are touched on a number of times. I’ll replace architect/architecture with XYZ since the term is potentially problematic too:

1. How do we educate the XYZs?

2. What is the business model for XYZ?


I love the idea of rethinking educational paths through design school. And as has been pointed out, there is already a very full curriculum in many nations because the licensure requirements mandate that a certain set of courses are taken. I’ve also heard similar frustrations from colleagues teaching at architecture schools in the US, including my colleague Marco Steinberg who is very articulate about the difficulties of expanding the curriculum to include things like finance, economics, etc.

In the US this leave a school two options: give up on having an accredited program which will graduate students on a pathway towards licensure or find ways to change the accreditation requirements (set by the NAAB). If you give up the license you have a very tough sell to prospective students, whereas seeking to change accreditation is a huge effort that likely takes a long time. I’m curious here how effective programs like Harvard’s Master of Design Studies 2 yr. programs have been. Where do people in those kinds of non-accredited degrees end up? What are they doing?

Let’s take a tangential moment to consider all of the students who attend an architecture school and go off to do something else. A baby step towards legitimating the XYZ may be a comprehensive survey of all of these ex-architects and what they have done with themselves. I can say that in our anecdotal experience at Sitra/Helsinki Design Lab, we have found interesting and successful people in any number of unexpected places who happen to have an architectural education in their past.

To some extent the role of XYZ already exists, it’s just that those people are not calling themselves “architect” or XYZ, but “mogul,” “senator,” or what have you. I bring this up because I think one of the dangers in these conversations is that we see the task of creating a whole new profession (!) as overwhelming and therefore difficult to impossible (not that the voices in this thread are falling into that trap).


Similar to how the education of XYZs is made difficult by a lethargic academic definition of what it means to be an architect, I can speak from my own limited experience in the US and say that our American Institute of Architects is not helping the profession. Basic things like the terms of the standard contract are… weak. I can’t come up with any better word for it.

To think about how much time, energy, and obsessive effort my friends in Silicon Valley pour into the writing of their term sheets (for venture capital financing) I am surprised how little it seems that the average architect thinks of contracts, business model, and even fee structure as design problems.

We need to be better business people. Full stop. And not just in terms of commanding a higher fee for our services, but more importantly drafting the legal/business end of our work with as much intent as our work on form/space/material to *make accomplishing our goals in form/space more achievable.* Fewer conferences about some shiny new CNC technique and more about awesome contracts. Sound exciting, right? It’s about as exciting as drawing plumbing risers, and yet just as important.

For me there are two relatively modest do&document pairs which will help lower the barriers described above. Of course we can also talk about how to renovate institutions like the NAAB and AIA, but that’s a whole different conversation:

A. Be better at engaging atypical consultants (like economists, politicians, etc) and atypical collaborations, as per Noah’s comment above about “speak[ing] both languages” which I completely agree with

B. Be better at giving full credit, including both the collaborators mentioned above, the client, and the given context. The hero myth is baloney, let’s be in the habit of regularly reminding ourselves of this by giving full credit.

C. Take more risk in the kinds of projects we take on and how we engage in them. This is easy for me to say as a youngster, but it’s a pretty simple reality that without risk there is little progress.

D. Celebrate in whatever media/events we can those offices, groups, and individuals who are taking on new roles and pulling it off.

Comment #36

Gerard, I like the quotation from your partner about design research and I’m wondering if we could replace “design research” with the more broad term of “doing.”

Edit: OK, having read over this response which I intended to be quite quick, it has gone a little off the deep end!

“[Doing] operates on the premise that the very act of [doing] results in new knowledge, in other words, that [doing] is not simply an application of knowledge gained elsewhere but rather through the [act] of [doing] we come to know the world in ways that we did not know it prior to [doing].”

This holds true for a professional sportsman just as true as it does for a designer. Why else does a football player practice kicking a ball so many times if not to understand the specificity of the world through the act of kicking?

The argument I’d like to make is that executing on a plan, whether done literally with one’s own hands or under their supervision, introduces all of the micro, macro, and fundamental misconceptions that the plan harbored. This is something that all intentional professions share to varying degrees. For me the question is what your learning cycle is and how quick your feedback loops function.

(This reminds me that I need to dig into the Action Research literature more deeply.)

By way of example, let’s think about drawing a straight line — remember the frustrations of trying to draw a straight line during your first days in architecture school? or maybe that was just me! Or an issue much more complex such as trying to get a rocket into space. NASA as an organization learned tons while trying to launch their first hunk of metal into near-earth orbit, and I’d argue that they benefitted from a very tight feedback loop.

By extension, I would like to rephrase the value of the work of an architect (which I use separate from designer because I believe this to be something which designers can escape if they choose, but architects cannot) as instructive because (the best) architects are translators between abstract intention and concrete social things. They operate at the crux between planning and execution in a unique way. Whether through the *creation* of diagrams, drawings, models, or the carrying out of construction administration, there is a tight feedback loop which benefits the work-in-progress as well as any future work that the designer may undertake. Over the past 6-8 years we’ve seen the tech and business world catching on to the value of prototyping which is evidenced most clearly in the profusion of websites permanently in beta.

What makes the crux role of the designer unique from, say, and engineer (most engineers?) is that architects must synthesize the hard facts of gravity, budget, and others, alongside the softer and more abstract notions of culture, the client’s desires, politics, and notions of architectural correctness (whichever flavor one subscribes to). This should probably be re-written to say that *the best architects* are able to play this role. C.f. “Not all design is research.”

(The best) Architecture is forever haunted by its non-art non-science status.

There’s something to the obsessiveness of architectural planning that is also unique in that it is not applied evenly to an entire building. If we start from the most banal of details, the door jamb, we can zoom out through the layers of the building asking new questions about intention at each of a number of levels of zoom. But! Between each ‘zoom level’ there are implicit questions which the architect does not plan for nor specify except in the most extreme cases. As a young architect I’m still learning to accept that builders do not /always/ follow the details that I draw, they use them as representations of intention and apply their own knowledge to achieve the desired outcome in the best manner possible. So here there’s something about the staccato focus of an architect at certain common scales (site, floor plan, detail, for example) which is unique to the profession. Implicit in this ‘I’ll draw the dots and you connect them’ approach is an understanding that there are questions which have not been answered and that answering them all is probably too complicated or expensive to be realistic. I choose to interpret this artifact of the architectural process as something which may have developed out of the need to reduce the workload to something manageable, but may now be considered in its own right as an extremely useful paradigm through which to think about any ambiguous and dynamic problem.

(The best) Architecture is propositional.

And to get back to that door jamb, I cannot let go of the fact that (the best) design’s fixation is on using material to create non-material impacts. If there’s something here which we can offer it’s a “deep understanding to spot gaps, possibilities, potential” as Dan puts it, which I posit is the result of being sensitive to the feedback loops that feed in predictive knowledge about how the spatial/temporal context of a proposed design works (or doesn’t). Within this seems to be a kind of material empathy that (the best) designers (or XYZs) develop by observing the ways that planned things create unexpected affects when materialized according to seemingly perfect plans. I include services here as well, given that services thread through multiple devices, screens, person-behaviors, and so on.

More so that the points above, I’m interested in the designer’s closeness to material reality and their ability to see the upstream implications of material decisions (often referred to as “poor design choices”). Rory, perhaps you remember the name of the Tasmanian philosopher that I mentioned to you and who I met in Torquay? During the course of a two day “design thinking” event sponsored by Swinburne this this man reinforced the the same cutting point: descriptions of “design thinking” sound an awful lot like descriptions of “good thinkers”. Linking the work of design/architecture to an understanding of material implications is to me one unimpeachable way to escape that critique — not to mention a potential source of great value, as evidenced by the eager work of the management consultancies described above. This begs another question which has come up above in the comments of Doug and others: is the knowledge of design/architecture different from that of craft? It feels more propositional, forward thinking than craft, but I’m not able to fully articulate it.

At the moment thanks to the lack of study devoted to what social, political, and financial affects buildings create, this makes us designers more like Marie Curie: we know exactly what we’re avidly handling on a daily basis but might only know the affects of our work after it’s too late.

Since I’m now re-treading previous comments I know that I should close this post. Sorry, Gerard, if this was a bit of a hijack!