Friday, 27 July 2012


Concerning Formations: the plasticity of practice

This article on practice in architectureau was copied and handed out to become the subject of a conversation over lunch. The promise made to colleagues to find ‘three words’ to clarify this messy and puzzling blurb has turned out to be ambitious. A quick summary has been made here and a commentary has been appended, as the article provokes thought and stimulates a response to its haughty, linguistic games.

The basic idea is that the practice of architecture is being changed by others, and other situations and circumstances outside of architecture; that practice itself has to change into an open, more flexible, collaborative structure, using its broad expertise more generally, generically, rather than remaining as isolated individual, design specialists creating ‘iconic’ buildings for glossy publications and awards. The proposition is that the traditional image of the architect is being perpetuated, perhaps with perceptions being limited, by habit, Acts, boards, Institutes, and insurance and other companies, while the world around it is changing dramatically and quickly - Google, Facebook, etc., making it appear obsolete - an anachronism. If one were forced to provide three words for this synopsis, they would be TRADITIONAL PRACTICE REFORMS.

It is what we all know. Questions about what and who is an architect have already been asked - see  The real problem is getting others to understand the situation. Articles like Formations: are indulgent and self-important. They help fill up CVs. The question is: what has to happen for real change? Any self-satisfied delight in a complex array of confusing words is not useful. Articles like the plasticity of practice only enhance the separation of architects from others in the community, isolating by reinforcing the cliché. Texts like this are self-defeating. It is the professional academic world communicating with itself.

 We need to convince insurance companies, corporations and governments, and the like, that architects have a unique expertise that can offer ideas and shape outcomes that can be important in any situation. Indeed, we have to persuade the ‘man in the street’ that architects have these significant skills, because basically companies, etc. are only a collection of such folk. To highlight ‘capabilities’ like Brown’s, as the article notes, we need to earn respect, not ridicule, from those in authority who manipulate power. This can be achieved with recognisable, responsible outcomes that erase the memories of the truism that defines and declares an architect’s arrogant disregard for expectations, results and their implications: c.f. ‘I thought I’d like to do a concrete house this time as I haven’t done one before’! Or: ‘I had a crumpled paper vision for this building.’

The situation brings to mind the student studying koalas. He enthusiastically sought and obtained the support of a well-known and popular singer/song writer to create what he spoke of as the necessity for government to act on the protection of koala habitat. This student had a grand plan to empower the public and embarrass the government, to make sure that this outcome could be achieved. The argument was persuasive, supremely logical and rational. The only thing he lacked was real power itself; and power was not moved. Nothing came of his plan - it just faded away, jaded, as others kept doing whatever they wanted, paying no attention to him. Power has the ability to ignore, discard, dismiss and forget, regardless of the evidence.

One can scream and yell, but power is required - one’s own power, or the recognition of the circumstance along with an appropriate co-operative response from another authority. How to get this power? How to get this power to take notice? How to make this power discover the importance of an architect’s involvement in a myriad of circumstances? How to get others to think: we need to get the architect in, instead of: we need to sack him/sue him; I could have done better than this expensive, foolish dilettante? These are the concerns that need consideration, not just the smartly clever, academic redefinition/rendition of ‘architecture’ or ‘practice’ and the timeless call for others to be ‘educated’ to admire unique talent and difference.

We know that architects can assist in many situations outside of building design, but how do we overcome the cliché that sees architects as costing one time and money - wasting it - while still demanding big fees for fantastically impractical, fanciful visions? How do we overcome the perception that architects design for themselves and create problems with their elitist visions; that architects should be shunned to steer clear of problems; that one should never have an architectural competition, as there are always problems with outcomes and costs: the ‘opera house’ problem? We all know it: one has to keep away from architects or have them carefully managed by some responsible person if they have to be used. Sadly the cliché is rooted in and feeds on ever-recurring facts.

Articles like this ‘plastic blurb’ text do not help. They reinforce the idea of the exclusive, snobby, elitist side of the profession. The use of ‘academic’ language only reinforces every prejudice that is currently held. We must start using ordinary language if anyone is going to start listening, just as we must start generating ordinary outcomes that are extraordinary if we seek any recognition and understanding of our potential role - the role of our potential - from others. Our continued delight with extreme difference will only aggravate matters. Architects continue to drool over and promote the unique, ‘creative’ original - the bespoke concept - as their ideal.

 Then there is the ‘local’ problem: this is Australia, with the ad hoc, DIY, ‘wouldn’t you have thought’ culture of disregard for things ‘learned’ and subtle; where the irony is that success means that one is sidelined rather than seen as holding a useful skill/expertise to be harnessed. Instead, achievement screams out ‘avoid’ and sets the stage for trampling. Potential clients are encouraged to seek talent elsewhere - interstate; overseas. Things are always better otherwise and in other places: (see the Central Park development in Sydney and its promotion; and the new School of Architecture at Bond University). Only actions and outcomes will change these things.

What is important is that the profession has to start supporting itself. The idea of the unique genius - that any other architect always could/would have done better and will challenge for all future work on this basis - is embedded in our own vision of ourselves: well, it seems, in the majority of minds. The stories are astonishing, as are the brazen lengths that this throat cutting will go to. It is rare that an architect is promoted or praised by another. The norm is the undermining of one another; and the demolition of all other ideas, and fees - cost-cutting - with seeming conceit and delight: of course, ‘colleagues’ apart, as awards show. This is the country of ‘mates’ - ‘g-day mate’!

If the profession cannot show respect for others inside it, what chance is there of others outside it holding any respect for it? One has to ponder what the cathedrals might have looked like with this nasty, competitive streak! Still, it helps us understand why we have the outcomes we are currently living with today; and why the profession is seen as it is. It is not merely a matter of what ‘practice’ has become or might become to those ‘academically’ disposed. We need to overcome the ‘smarty pants’ hero image with ‘good work,’ as Fritz Schumacher knew it and spoke of it in a book with this title, and in other writings too, like Small is Beautiful.

There is a problem if we can’t or are unwilling to help ourselves. We need to be aware that no one else will do it for us. We have talent, but it needs to be shown to be more than useful in practice. Skill needs to be exhibited in real practical terms to be understood and appreciated by ‘ordinary’ people. Then we might start being seen as a necessity instead of an indulgent frivolity and a waste of money. We need the education, not the others. We need to change so that they can change too. We should stop blaming everybody and everything else, for we create the vision of architects, architecture and practice that we choose to perpetuate by our own actions or inactions - maybe both.

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