Archive for the 'Making Buildings & Cities' Category

Thoughts on Venice Architecture Biennale 2012

Curated on the theme of Common Ground by David Chipperfield, the Biennale was a bit scattered for me. Though, as a Martti pointed out, even when you remove all of the banal parts of the show the sheer volume of the Biennale leaves plenty to make up a decent exhibition of its own. We’re cursed by abundance.

Nevertheless, I struggled to find the linkages, the Common Ground that the curators hinted at in the opening room of the show. What links Norman Foster’s boom-boom room of glittery architecture and riot films to Peter Märkli’s collection of borrowed phallic sculptures? What does Urban Think Tank, Justin McGuirk, and Iwan Baan’s excellent Gran Horizonte cafe share with Zaha Hadid’s metal flowers and developmentally-challenged stingrays? FAT’s Museum of Copying was fantastic (best in show for me), and it shared something with Ines Weizman look into the copyright of Loos’ Baker House, but what links these two to the rest of the Arsenale?

Why do we feel compelled to claim a common ground if there is not much of one?

Instead I found two installations which spoke to the common ground which every practice involved with the show, and surely every visitor, can appreciate and truly share.

Free and open wifi:

And a healthy respect for fire safety:

Street Food in Helsinki

Nene Tsuboi and Åbäke have been working on a project entitled Unbuilt Helsinki, carefully digging up bits of the city that were planned but never made, and presenting them back to us in the form of installations and other experiments. We have lots of interests in common, so I was not surprised when they came to us asking about the street food work that we’ve been engaged in. One of the Unbuilt Helsinki subjects are the city’s ubiquitous grilli kioskis, our hotdog stands.


As Nene and Benjamin prepare their grilli-themed installation for the Flow Festival, I wanted to share the street food missive that I contributed to the poster announcing their work. Here’s what the poster looks like in full technicolor:

The poster features unbuilt grilli kioski designs rendered in custom Meccano parts. They’re pretty great little things that look like this:

You can see them at Flow. And in the meantime, here’s the text:

The most visible food in the streets of Helsinki today has already passed through the human body and been reborn into the world as site specific installations of urine and temporary constructions of vomit. While we’re a city that’s comfortable with pissing in the street, eating is puzzlingly hidden. It’s mostly reserved for the drunken stumble to a grilli (which everyone hopes to forget the next morning) and slurping porridge in a tori (where one is hidden amongst the ubiquitous orange tarps).

Despite Helsinki’s architectural commentary by bodily function we have all the right ingredients for an urban culinary renaissance. In 2012 Nordic food is the envy of the world and Helsinki’s specific architectural heritage gifts it a variety of iconic lippakioskis and grilli structures waiting to be linked into a city-wide network of grub hubs. If only they served something worth remembering.

Oh but they will! Bring on the curry siika, poro bratwurst, and birch soda. This is anything but a trend. It’s a sign of a culture that embraces diversity, in a meal and on the street. Street food is about relearning how to make the city our own not just for occasional festivals but a real—and really delicious—part of everyday life.

Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents

“Globalization destabilizes and redefines both the way architecture is produced and that which architecture produces. Architecture is no longer a patient transaction between known quantities that share cultures, no longer the manipulation of established possibilities, no longer a possible judgement in rational terms of investment and return”

—Rem Koolhaas, Globalization, S,M,L,XL

Your lungs are full of foam fumes, your eyes are bloodshot from exhaustion, you’ve slept at your desk. But you stick with it, because you enjoy a pleasing degree of freedom to pursue design ideas that challenge accepted reason, so long as the lead designer sees something they like. Sound familiar?

If so, it’s likely that you work in one of the many global architecture offices who practice in the style of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Your work may look different but that’s not the focus of this discussion. The operations follows a similar logic.

Amongst the most critically acclaimed offices of the last two decades, OMA has consistently produced innovate architectural ideas, methods, and as we will see below, organizational models. This much is undeniable. The question at hand is whether the almost contagious ability of OMA to replicate itself in the habits of other offices is the result of duplication by admiration, a legitimate response to the challenges of globalized architecture practice which OMA may have pioneered, or the charismatic quirk of OMA’s success overshadowing other possibilities.

This essay is written without any direct knowledge of the inner workings of the offices in question. It’s largely a mythology of the habits of organization, production, and decision making that one office has pursued, written from the outside, aided by accumulated anecdotes.

If the OMA style of working has become a popular drug, this is an attempt to figure out what we’re all taking, why, and what other options may exist. It’s a story that begins in the British countryside 39 years before the founding of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Computing Success

Half way between the brain trusts of Cambridge and Oxford sits Bletchley Park, a spunky but anonymous building that came to house one of the most important British installments of World War II. Inside, a team of scientists and mathematicians were focused on breaking the codes that the Germans used to protect their communications from the prying eyes and ears of the Allies. With some of the brightest minds in the country assembled, the task was difficult enough to still evade them, leaving the Allies no choice but to employ a technique called brute force code breaking.

When a message is encrypted one must have the password— or cipher—to decrypt the message from a jumble of nonsense into legible text. The right password returns sensible text, while the wrong password merely turns gibberish into a different kind of equally useless gibberish. If one cannot obtain the cipher they must devise a way to get it. In other words, if you can’t find the right password, another way to break through is by trying every… single… one… of the wrong possible passwords until you’re left with the single, working, correct option. Those at Bletchley and others in the community of cryptographers call this a brute force attack.

A young mathematician named of Alan Turing was working on a bruce force code cracking machine called the Bombe. It was like playing a game of “guess what word I’m thinking of” by starting on word one, page one of a dictionary and going from there. Except in the case of the Turing’s team their dictionary had up to 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 ‘words’ that had to be tested before the right answer could be found.

When it’s not possible to intelligently find a flaw in the algorithm used to encode the message, the brute force attacker simply tries every possible option until one proves useful. It’s the same technique that lends hackers access to email accounts today: attempt millions of different passwords and one is bound to work. This is why banks and other sensitive sources encourage us to use c0mpLic4t3d! passwords. Each extra letter, number, or punctuation mark expands the possible number of combinations, or “search space”, and makes the password exponentially harder to guess.

As the name implies, brute force attacks are uncomplicated and rely on the most basic ability of the computer to do repetitive tasks ad nauseam without stepping out for a smoke. The faster all the wrong answers can be eliminated, the sooner the correct cipher will be revealed. Two variables determine the speed that a cipher will be broken: the time it takes for each break attempt, and the number of attempts you can make simultaneously. The latter is akin to dividing up the dictionary into sections A-H, I-N, O-Z and giving them to three people to work on at the same time. Parallel processing, as it’s called, only works in situations where the overall task can be neatly divided and the piecemeal portions worked on in isolation of each other.

Decades after Alan Turing and others who made Bletchley Park a famous mansion of mathematics, the same methods were being put to in another industry altogether.

Through the unlikely combination of innovations in drawing and model making techniques, combined with a new theoretical understanding of architecture, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) rewired their office of the late 1990s into a brute force computational device whose efficiency would become wildly contagious.

OMA has been one of the most consistently interesting offices during the past couple decades but we’re more concerned with the how than the what. In probing these depths we want to gain a more sophisticated understand of this engine of success, and perhaps discover some ways in which the downsides may be minimized without losing the potency of its output.

Keeping everything in play

Lesson number 36: Abstraction is a requirement for design because you just can’t take everything into account.

—OMA Progress exhibition pamphlet, curated by Rotor

Architecture can be a hard thing to discuss because it’s an art of integration. The difficulty of separating the overall design task into smaller units of work is at least part of the reason that the stereotype of the architect is one of obsessive detail-oriented control, the Maestro, the creative genius. The lead designer is often one of the only people privy to the way that all of the cumulative decisions in a project come together; seeing, as it were, the many narrowly avoided conflicts that any matter battle is riddled with.

The factors that go into an architectural proposition run the gamut from calculable aspects such as structural performance under gravity loads, financial constraints under a given budget, and the practical realities of human ergonomics as much as they rely on the cultural and symbolic meaning of forms and materials, or even the individual whims of the client. Looking at any of these elements in isolation leads to woe, yet integrating all of them all of the time leads to paralysis.

The design process in most offices follows a general progression from a prompt, to wide range of options, to narrowing in on one or two promising possibilities for further refinement. At the beginning a lead designer offers their team a design question such as “how should this building sit on the site” or “how will people move around this structure” and the team work as individuals to sketch a variety of proposals that answer the question. This basic process is repeated again and again at successive levels of detail until the ‘scheme’ for the entire building has been resolved and can be drawn up as construction documents.

In architecture offices that discuss design proposals as integrated and holistic, these design cycles are drawn out into discussions can take a long time because even the smallest detail, such as a handrail, must be coherent with the logic that defines the whole building. Idea generation and evaluation phases tend to be less distinct in these kinds of offices, as there is an ongoing dialog among colleagues about whether a particular design tactic is appropriate to the project, and to the office’s work in general. Such discussions are often lengthy and full of nuance, consideration, and coffee breaks. It’s a perfectly good model, but it’s one that works best when everyone on the team share a similar level of acumen and are present for the full duration of the design process—if possible in the same room. This is the classic mode of the design atelier complete with a strong-willed lead designer at the helm.

OMA’s invention was to turn lead designers into grand editors. For an office who had global aspirations and highly mobile directors, a more efficient way of working was needed that would allow idea generation phases to happen without extensive indoctrination of young designers to the office’s philosophy and stylistic interests, and without constant supervision of the frenetic leaders. Diversity within any design cycle would be maximized and the ‘time cost’ of decision making would be lowered. Together these two changes made OMA more efficient at iterating through proposals until a viable one could be found.

OMA’s first breakthrough came in the writing of Rem Koolhaas. Initially as analytical observations in Delirious New York and later in a theoretical essay entitled Bigness, Koolhaas describes buildings as related collections of ideas rather than integrated wholes. If previously a building’s outside and inside were meant to add up to one coherent thing, in Koolhaas’ logic they are free to be separate, each with their own logics. This essential cleavage was levied against all aspects of the building. The old model of seeing a building as one integrated design task was now shattered into a family of many individual tasks.

The Dis-integrated building

“Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”
—Rem Koolhaas, Bigness essay in S,M,L,XL

Although post modernism had already legitimized the collage aesthetic that this approach encourages, Koolhaas’ writing made it OK for designers—especially those in his office—to treat the design of a building as many separate, smaller design tasks and the outcome of each did not necessarily need to bear clear resemblance to the others. On the contrary, buildings that displayed multiple ideas, forms, and materials became central to the aesthetic of OMA.

Koolhaas’ radically dis-integrated approach to architecture relieved junior designers from having to understand the full nuance of the overall project and freed the lead designer from the burden of providing constant ongoing feedback to keep their team on track with the big picture. Instead, feedback need be applied only at specific points (such as internal reviews) where a range of options are evaluated for their intrinsic value more than than their appropriateness to an external, overriding logic. In this operational model the lead designer need not play the role of Maestro. Rather, they initiate the design process with a provocation and continually curate the results. It’s more like editing a live broadcast than it is painting an image.

With the theoretical means to suspend disbelief during productive phases of idea generation, the individuals on a design team were free to go wild. If the review after a period of wild design proposals did not yield anything satisfactory the process could be repeated again. And again. And again until something useful came out.

The phases of production and evaluation were allowed to become distinct and extreme. Production phases could involve maximum divergence, and evaluations could be viciously binary. Here we find the basic mechanism of brute force hacking: find success by exhausting failure. As many former employees could tell you, it could also be the motto of OMA (and the many offices that now use its model).

The quicker a yes/no decision could be made, the quicker the search space of answers to a given design problem could be iterated through by a group of young designers, even working almost at random. But how to accelerate this process even further?

Blue Foam

New and faster ways to evaluate architectural proposals were needed, namely new means of drawing and model making that shortened the time it required to definitively say yes or no. The answer was blue foam.

OMA is famous for its use of blue foam as a model making material, a technique that uses polystyrene foam cut into desired shapes with a heated wire. Working with foam is a skill that one learns relatively quickly and it allows quick and easy iterations that would be more time consuming to achieve in cardboard. For instance, making a cube from foam can be done with as few as two or three cuts. The same shape out of cardboard would require 24 cuts and the gluing of 6 pieces. Whereas working with cardboard requires planning ahead and some translation of ideas into a workflow of making, with foam the workflow and ideas are collapsed into one. Making is thinking.

One can picture the spark that must have lit up in the eye of a young model maker as their tired fingers parted with a bright yellow Olfa knife and embraced the electrically charged wire of a foam cutter, slicing effortlessly through a block of cool blue foam for the first time.

Working with foam instead of more traditional materials allowed the design teams at OMA to model their ideas quicker, which in turn allowed more ideas to be considered in the same span of time. The adoption of this new technique was akin to upgrading the processor speed of the office.

More so than cardboard or other model making materials, blue foam erases the signature of its creator allowing for an easier ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The anonymizing uniformity of the cut surfaces and alien blueness of the foam itself allowed multiple workers to prepare options in parallel without the differences of personal craft becoming an element of distraction during moments of evaluation. The cumulative effect means that a table covered in foam models all produced by different individuals can be assessed for their ideas rather than the quirks of who made them or how they were created. What’s on display are the ideas themselves, without any distracting metadata or decoration. This is the model making equivalent of Edward Tufte’s quest to eliminate chartjunk.

With extraneous degrees of difference eliminated from the process, the signal to noise ratio of the discussion could be as high as possible. Under these conditions the person making a decision is set up to compare and execute quickly. Once a promising option is chosen, the team can quickly produce an entirely new table of variations based on that as a starting point. The time required for each cycle of development is reduced as much as possible such that a maximum number of iterations are seen, tested, and discarded on the way to finalizing a design proposal.

What blue foam did for model making, the diagram did for drawings. Traditional architectural drawings are laden with detail whereas the diagram is all punch. Favoring diagrams over more traditional means of plans and sections, even in sketch form, allows for the essence of an idea to be transmitted in as compact a form as possible so that it can be iterated as quickly as possible.

This is the essence of brute force architecture. To test and discard as many ideas, produced as quickly as possible, is a luxury that is only afforded to an office that has a theoretical framework allowing design tasks to be simplified and separated, the right tools to do so, and a large pool of able and willing hands to put those tools in motion.

Geography, language, labor, and practice

Thanks to the clarity of roles, the relative degrees of freedom afforded to junior designers, and the reining effect of the blue foam and diagram tactics, brute force architecture is a mode of working that is more resilient to participants coming and going. OMA’s office in Rotterdam could be humming with proposals for the facade of a hotel in Manhattan while Koolhaas and was lecturing in Seoul, without being impeded by the low bandwidth media of international telephone calls and grainy intercontinental facsimiles. The media of decision making was already so compressed that it could survive even the most dreadful of landline connections and thermal paper.

OMA is famous for two things: its astounding output, and the extent to which its operations chew through the majority of the human capital that walks through its doors. As an office that had already made a name for itself and was lucky to enjoy a steady flow of applications from aspiring young interns, OMA could organize around a workflow that depended on the maximum variety and quantity of design explorations before electing one to carry forward. Like Turing 60 years prior, OMA’s operations are based on brute forcing through the search space. Whereas Turing relied on something that would later come to be known as computing power, OMA relies on employees who willfully work long hours to be part of the magical machine.

This maximum variety is the direct output of the bloodshot eyes and over-caffeinated bodies of the legion workforce pushing themselves to create just a few more iterations before calling it quits. Now taking advantage of the very globalized condition that brought it into being, the diversity of the individuals in the office (nationality, language, design background) further enhance the spread of the collective design iterations they churn through, effectively expanding the ability of the machine to exhaust possibilities at an accelerated pace.

The simplification of the way in which ideas were presented through models and diagrams smoothed over the difficulties of running an office with many different mother tongues by giving preference to image over language, in effect turning a potential hurdle into a mechanism to bolster the brute force production system.

The sum of this way of working is one where the search space of ideas is exhausted seconds before the individuals doing the searching. If so, success has been achieved. If not, the office collapses under its own entropy. So far OMA has been able to keep the lights on, but at significant cost. Particularly to the lower ranks who put the “brute” in “brute force”.

OMA has been singled out because their contribution has been so definitive to the last couple generations of professional practice. Although the offices of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and others are on similar or perhaps even higher levels of success in terms of productive output, none have had as large an impact on the practice of architecture as OMA.

From the point of view of architectural practice, the dominant story of the last twenty years of architecture has been one of OMA-ification. It’s hard to walk through an office nowadays without feeling some shadow of OMA. If not the obsessive model making, then the diagrammatic drawings as idea telegrams. If not the masses of interns, the hands-off yes/no interaction between junior employee and lead designer. Beyond these high level similarities, the specific tactics of OMA are contagious: sections with oversized text stuffed into different programmatic zones, barcode diagrams, unrolled plans, renderings collaged with glib inhabitants, etc.

The pervasiveness of OMA’s habits in other offices are so extreme that one is tempted to ask whether this way of working is a logical outcome of globalized practice, but the dearth of competing operational models hints that perhaps this is not the case. At a moment when formal, tectonic, and material diversity are at the extreme, we as a community of architects lack a healthy discussion of operational models. OMA’s model trundled into a second generation with firms such as MVRDV, BIG, and REX but who else has proposed a coherent idea about how to operate an architecture firm?

Yes, there is interest in potential futures for architecture as a discipline, and this is incredibly important work, but there remains room for innovation in the most traditional of practices. How else might the idea of an office that designs and oversees the construction of buildings be articulated in a way that’s relevant to a global market, and able to survive its wiles? The search space for ways of working hardly seems exhausted, so what’s next?

When thinking about the future of practice after Brute Force, one wonders what models we may employ to develop not only the next generation of architectural ideas, but the next generation of architectural offices as well.

How does an office represent ideas to itself? How do they evaluate proposals as fast as possible? How does an office continually challenge itself by entertaining the most divergent set of propositions it can muster? What mechanisms does an office use to know when they are producing good work?

In a way, these are the easy questions. Or at least the ones that architects and designers have battled with implicitly or explicitly for centuries. The challenge that will define the next generation of architecture is one of organization and operation. How do offices effectively divide tasks? How do they honor a commitment to both community and client? How do they contribute both hard and soft value to the world?

New models of organizing work, new business models, new income streams, and new value propositions are the rich territory for tomorrow’s architects to figure out. As the global market struggles with deleveraging, architecture’s connection to the real economy is an asset waiting to be articulated.

Those who dare to do so assume all the risk of taking the leap away the dissatisfying-but-known practice of brute force architecture. If they’re lucky, and if we’re lucky, a few will land on solid ground.

Please In My Back Yard

You can take the boy out of the startup, but apparently not the startup out of the boy. If I weren’t super fulfilled by what I’m working on here in Helsinki I might be exploring something along these lines right now:

On the ground floor of my apartment building is a small shop that just went out of business. It used to sell snowboard clothes but during two years of residence I never spotted a single customer inside. Lacking a great cafe in my neighborhood, I would love the next person thinking about hanging their shingle to have a way to get an idea of what the market might be interested in.

What dreams does our neighborhood have for the erstwhile snowboard shop?

Now that we have a tiki bar down the street, surely there’s something else that would compliment the existing offerings on Uudenmaankatu, or the broader neighborhood of Punavuori. The thing is, the shops and services in urban centers have very weak feedback systems. Without the support and coffers of a syndicate that is able to conduct market research, an aspiring shopkeep has few tools to use other than subjective asking around. Mostly they test their hypothesis on the mean streets the old fashioned way: scraping together some cash and giving it a go.

A website called Kickstarter has grown into a community that made 386,373 investments in 2010 for a total of $27,638,318 dollars committed to capitalize projects ranging from iphone accessories to epic dance films. One thing I like about Kickstarter is that it turns entrepreneurship into a tool rather than letting it be the endgame. It’s not about building an enterprise, but using entrepreneurship to manifest an interest that is shared by creator and investor/customers. It turned the often-brutal realm of entrepreneurship into a more supportive, community oriented way to manifest new bits of reality. This is what community-scale rapid prototyping looks like.

From the buyer’s perspective Kickstarter is a marketplace of freshness, packaging specific deliverables with an extended aura of pay as you go DIYness. It allows customers to buy something that doesn’t exist yet—to vote on the specific future they want to live in, one product at a time. This brilliantly taps into the market trends that seem to be reacting to globalization by craving the unique, the limited, and the local.

But from the producers’ side Kickstarter is something much different: it’s  a demand aggregator that de-risks entrepreneurship. By allowing would-be entrepreneurs to collect commitments, they are able to look before they leap, as it were. Thereby expanding the pool of possible entrepreneurs to include individuals and groups who may never make the leap without some reassurance.

So here’s my proposition: what would happen if you took the Kickstarter strategy and applied it to the city. How could we de-risk new shops, restaurants, cafes, services, institutions, and even government outposts by aggregating commitment in advance of capital investment?

One of Helsinki’s many under-utilized spatial assets.

What would the Kickstarter of real estate look like and how might a similar demand-aggregator offer a productive counterpart to the dreaded “not in my back yard” syndrome? Is there a “please in my backyard” platform that could act as a spatial happiness engine, better empowering individuals to inflect their own corner of the city to meet their personal desires?

Could a platform such as this translate land use and zoning decisions into terms that are more personable, assessable, and ultimately arguable? Would that make the city more or less democratic?

Using a database of vacant real estate in a given city and a platform for collecting propositions or pitches, we allow entrepreneurs a marketplace of ideas that is able to match their own predilections and interests with “please in my back yard” demand. Individuals vote on the future land use and spatial assets that they want to see in their own city and their own backyard. If that voting is done with the wallet, similar to Kickstarter, would it be enough to usefully bootstrap entrepreneurs?

In practical terms this might translate into giftcards or other pay-in-advance schemes which would then be converted into a debit account if a project was funded and realized. There are a lot of very risky “ifs” in that statement, but let’s just see if this pencils out. (Using a hodgepodge of unverified sources, of course):

In 2004 Starbucks sold 21,000,000 gift cards totaling $312,000,000. That same year they had 8,569 stores globally. Assuming that the gift cards were available in all locations, and purchasing was distributed evenly, that’s a total of $36,410 spent on gift cards per store. If we divide it evenly across the 6,132 US-based locations it yields just over $50k per store. Not too shabby.

That might be just enough to change the mind of the future antique dealer who’s eager to move in downstairs.

Valuing Architecture

First off: I’ve re-jigged this site a little so you might need to update your RSS feeds and such. Sorry about that, but now everything should work much more smoothly.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of architecture and trying to make sense of it in relation to the other professions which together might be called the “built environment practices” including the usual engineers, contractors and consultants of various kinds as well as developers, bankers, politicians, and others who have a more distant—but no less important—impact on the built environment.

Inspired by my previous experience steeping in the startup culture of Silicon valley, I’m trying to dig into the difficulties of running an office, especially small offices, and how these difficulties might be thought of as symptoms of a misformulated profession. Or more simply: how can we hack architectural practice to make it more effective?

This is part of the puzzle:

The difference between these graphs can be read either of two ways. On the one hand it’s depressing. The size of the design fee for a significant project, relative to the income of a small office, is often substantial. This puts the office at risk should the project be stalled or canceled, and therefore increases the likelihood said office over-extends itself to satisfy their big client.

When an office’s portfolio is dominated by one client the dynamics of satisfaction begin to change. Because of the importance of the dominant client, their needs begin to eclipse the needs of others, including the development of new clients. Losing the client can mean losing the office, so what else can be done?

The diversity of an office’s portfolio is useful as a hedge against the risk of losing any particular client, but it’s also a useful way to maintain a healthy understanding of the minimum viable product (MVP) which then, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop flowing the opposite direction, increases the office’s availability for self-initiated research and business development.

MVP is a kind of strategic laziness: it’s a reminder to be focused and only develop those threads or ideas that are relevant at the moment. If laziness is choosing not to work, MVP is about choosing when and where to work.

On the other hand, the size of the design fee relative to the overall project makes half of an excellent argument about the leverage of design and its role as a multiplier that can, in the best cases, deliver value beyond its cost. This would be a reformulation from design as spending to design as an investment. Unfortunately the missing half is hard to come by: evidence of the returns. The shining example of Bilbao is often trotted out, and someone somewhere has done real calculations on how much income has been generated by the rebirth of the town (€168 million euros in 2001 alone, according to Forbes).

But this argument is not very useful when made on a case by case basis. It’s especially useless for young offices that have none of the reputation or cache that Gehry does. The more perceived value accumulates on behalf of starchitects, the more it is drained from the profession at large.

My question is how the practice might begin to develop and keep track of small indicators. How much does a renovation increase the resale value of a home, for instance? And by what percentage does a good renovation increase it over a less good renovation? How do we define “good” in a way that non-architects can understand?

How do we measure value in financial and social terms? There’s triple bottom line accounting, which works within the confines of a firm’s balance sheet, but how do we think about the perception of value from the outside? How do we find better ways to see and understand the value of architecture and spending in the built environment in general?

If I had interns they would be reading about contingent valuation and searching for ways to instrumentalize this branch of economics within the context of the built environment. But since I don’t have any interns, I will leave you with this excerpt from a paper subtitled “How to stop worrying and learn to love economics” (PDF link) which makes mention of the difficult task of valuing the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Can the impact ever be valued in an exact way? No, but it can be rigorous. And what’s instructive about this small vignette is the use of contingent valuation to assess the indirect perceptions of value which compliments more familiar ways to value the catastrophe directly.

The method has also been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, one of its biggest tests being its use to estimate the environmental damage caused by the supertanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in March 1989 off Alaska. This led to careful scrutiny in the profession, given the enormous interests and large sums of money involved. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hired two Nobel prize-winning economic theorists – Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow – to chair a panel to assess the methods. The report (Arrow et al 1993) concludes “that contingent valuation (CV) studies can produce estimates reliable enough to be the starting point of a judicial process of damage assessment, including lost passive-use values”. This last term refers precisely to the non- use values of the environment consisting of existence, option, and bequest benefits – the very same benefits which we have just been discussing in connection with the valuation of art.

This post is an expanded excerpt from a lecture presented at Aalto University Department of Architecture on February 24th, 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!

Losing (Our) Edge?

[These groups interested in architectural territory] 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?


Fred has a thought provoking post over at 765. The comments are also worth your time, I was certainly inspired to respond.

See also: this and this and this.

I Saved Latin

I’ve been dealing with email these past few days, tidying up shop and whatnot. Found this, which was in response to a post on my old website.

From: adonis
Subject: Architects
Date: July 12, 2004 8:33:22 PM GMT+03:00
To: Bryan Boyer

How many buildings did Le Corbusier build? Almost nothing. Have your ever hear of Frank Lloyd Wright?

On Ignorance

Sloterdijk on horse lovers and inter-ignorant systems:

The concept of “society,” [suggests] a coherence that could only be achieved by violent-asserting conformism. The conglomerate of humans that has, since the 18th century, called itself “society” is precisely not based on the atomic dots that we tend to call individuals. Instead, it is a patchwork of milieus that are structured as subcultures. Just think of the world of horse lovers–a huge subculture in which you could lose yourself for the duration of your life but which is as good as invisible if you are not a member of it. There are hundreds if not thousands of milieus in the current social terrain that all have the tendency from their own viewpoint to form the center of the world and yet are as good as nonexistent for the others. I term them “inter-ignorant systems.” And, among other things, they exist by virtue of a blindness rule. They may not know of one another, since otherwise their members would be robbed of the enjoyment of being specialized members of a select few. In terms of their profession, there are only two or three types of humans who can afford poly-valence in dealing with milieus. The first are the architects, who (at least virtually) build containers for all; the second are the novelists, who insert persons from all walks of life into their novels; finally come the priests, who speak at the burials of all possible classes of the dead. But that is probably the entire list. Oops, I forgot the new sociologists à la Latour.

Scharmen on the architect as anti-ignorant:

You can call yourself an ‘X Architect’ (where ‘X’ is information, product, solutions, flavor, etc.) if you can answer yes to the following questions:

Are you self critical?
Do you have a coherent set of ideas that parallels production and allows you to talk about why you make the choices you make?
Are you able to position those ideas relative to the ideas of other peers and define a space for conversation or debate?
Is the task large enough that it requires a division of labor, a
split between concept and execution, and the continuous maintenance of
evolving consensus between multiple stakeholders?

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