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Stay, Architect, Stay January 27, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, architect types, BIM, integrative thinking, problem solving, productive thinking, Revit.
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The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

One attribute that distinguishes architects from nearly every other professional is their comfort with ambiguity. As workplaces become threadbare, virtual marketing firms chasing after anything that moves, architects are alternatively encouraged to get up to speed with the latest technology and software: ostensibly so that they will be all the more valuable to their firms, or the marketplace (if it comes to that,) depending on timing and luck.

Roger_Martin’s concept of integrative thinking, as described in The Opposable Mind, beautifully illustrates that the longer the architect remains in the problem – the more likely a well-resolved solution will be discovered. Tim Hurson, author of the bible of productive thinking, Think_Better, instructs the reader to “stay in the question.” That is essentially what architects do so well. While engineers keep an eye often on immediate results and the first-best solution, the architect tends to take the longer route. Architects working with a number of competing forces, wishes, contingencies and constraints, habitually wait until the last available moment before honing-in on the most favorable solution.

Architect Nathan_Good juggles these variables for as long as he can. “We live with a high degree of ambiguity during the early design phase, because we want to give credit to the site, to the client’s needs,” he says, “to the structure, to what is it going to take for the inhabitants to be comfortable. It’s kind of like we’re juggling these things for as long as we can, and then there’s this flurry of activity right at the end of the design to pull it all together.”

One concern that some architects have is that the latest software and design tools, such as BIM, and design processes, such as IPD, require so many decisions upfront, potentially killing this quintessential quality of the architect. With every material and building system assigned, defined and specified in the early stages of design, how will the architect remember how to juggle, keeping so many balls – however unreconciled, unresolved, uncoordinated – in the air? Will working with BIM leave out the fermentation, the leavening of the loaf, resulting in the flat, dry cracker of design?

No fear, architect. No matter how efficient and detail-oriented, BIM is still just a tool. A tool to create in 3D (and beyond) what already exists in the architect’s mind. Instead of architects having to gradually give-up their core competency – comfort with ambiguity – in time BIM will become more comfortable with ambiguity. Just as architects in the past switched from hand drafting to CAD software, and now CAD to BIM, they adapt the tool to them as they adapt to the tool. We will continue to grow with the technology as it, with each new version, becomes more like us. And perhaps it is the architect’s very flexibility, juggling their variables, that will allow them to adopt to the new frontier awaiting them.

Kudos to architect extraordinaire Bradley Beck for his contributions to this post.


Architects Bridge the Gap January 24, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, collaboration, infrastructure, the economy.
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With all this talk about chasing after infrastructure work, architects – at the start of the New Year and the administration – have bridges on the mind.  This is understandable for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves architects finding themselves in survival mode until credit starts flowing again. Likewise, in order to survive professionally and creatively, architects must find ways to convincingly span between the world as they knew it to the world-in-the-making they are beginning to witness in the new year.

Architects are masters at bridging – in the linking of two disparate worlds on a regular basis. On the one side is the real world of contingency: people, time, politics, ethics, mess. On the other resides the utopian ideal every architect secretly carries around in her head: one dependent for its very existence on things outside itself – on autonomy, purity, and control. In other words, in essence, architecture is ideally independent of the real world, and the architect – with each heroic architectural act – attempts to bridge the gap between the dependent and independent.

Author Jeremy Till, Dean of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Westminster and a partner at Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, has just written a fantastic and fantastically funny book, Architecture Depends, that addresses this very conundrum.  The fairly straightforward premise of the book is that uncertainty, contingency and circumstances invariably intervene to upset the architect’s best-laid plans—at every stage in the process, from design through construction to occupancy. Architects, however, tend to deny this, fearing contingency and preferring to pursue perfection.

Books such as Architecture of the Everyday speak to our everyday world as a disordered mess. Till argues that it is this very messiness from which architects have retreated—and this retreat, says Till, is deluded. It is a hopeful and positive statement that this book proposes architects must face reality and engage with the inescapable reality of the world. And, perhaps more importantly, in that engagement is the potential for a reformulation of architectural practice. Contingency should be understood as an opportunity rather than a threat. As MIT_Press so convincingly stated, Elvis Costello said that his songs have to work when played through the cheapest transistor radio; for Till, architecture has to work (socially, spatially) by coping with the flux and vagaries of everyday life.

And this is where the last bridging occurs: in a collaborative effort, between architects. Architects, Till proposes, must move from the autonomy still sometimes instilled in school with its reliance on the impulsive imagination of the lone genius to a confidence in the collaborative ethical imagination. From clinging to notions of total control to an intentional acceptance of letting go, ironically the architect can find a way to successfully hold on, spanning the necessary distances.

Architects: Take Eye Off of the Ball January 20, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.
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On this date of the inauguration of America’s first African American chief executive, architects from two firms gathered in our company lunchroom to watch the events projected on the big screen in prolonged anticipation and silence. On some level it felt like an architect’s inauguration as well. So today begins our turn, as architects, to try and reinvent ourselves before history forgets us. When Obama addressed all Americans today with perhaps his speech’s most memorable words, “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America,” one sensed that the gathered architects took heart. Because remaking America is in the most literal sense the work of architects. But more so because architects everywhere deep down know, that in these times of economic uncertainty, they need to remake not only America but themselves as well. Before urban renewal there has to be self-renewal.

Not part of congress’s economic stimulus plan, architects everywhere feel left out, marginalized, on the outside looking in, not invited to the ball. Bit players, they ask, Don’t bridges need bridge houses? Highways need toll booths, right? We can do the toll booths… The palpable fear is that proposed projects will go directly into construction, bypassing the design stage altogether. Getting our hands busy at the expense of our brains. At the expense of the long-term vision of the architect. AIA’s original message to congress last autumn was geared to get architects designing again. Their most recent plan to stimulate the economy and create 1.6 million jobs (including 14,000 for architects) addresses five key policy areas for immediate attention: 21st century schools; green buildings; historic preservation projects; transit-oriented mixed use development projects; and tax relief for businesses. It is good that architects speak-up for themselves, defend their turf, and fight for their slice of the pie. But there is something about our timing that feels reactive instead of proactive, a little too little, a little too late. As though we’re asking “Hey, isn’t there something in it for me?” Instead of pleading for opportunities to design and construct 21st century schools, architects prior to the economic crisis could have built stronger strategic alliances with educators and advocates, the modern-day equivalent of when architects played golf with the school district provost in the off chance that the topic of a school project arose. Architects are often accused of being product- or object-oriented (if not –obsessed) instead of process- or relationship-focused. If ever there was a time for architects to take their eye off the ball and turn their attention to where the ball needs to go next, and how the ball will get there, it appears to be now.

Architect’s Silver Lining January 17, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, architecture industry, creativity, employment, the economy.
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No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.  Einstein


We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.     also Einstein


A recent report in Archinect, a top online destination for progressive-design oriented students, architects, educators, and fans, entitled Checking_the_Pulse of the Architecture Industry Part II: the Survey Results, discusses the economic crisis and how it has impacted the architecture industry. What is particularly troubling about the report is that the survey_results for unemployed architects indicate that nearly 50% of all respondents are “actively seeking a job, and open to taking a job outside of the architecture industry, as long as it’s related to architecture in some way.”

A year ago suggestions for architects such as bolstering their practices in other areas like health care and education, looking for work abroad and even developing their own projects seemed helpful – but not any longer. At the time “a recent report by the American Institute of Architects forecasted that despite troubles in other fields related to real estate, job levels for architects in 2008 are expected to be similar to those from last year.” That was February 2008. Today, less than a year later, nearly half of all architects are actively seeking a job according to the Archinect survey.

Few of those reading this report have noticed, almost as a rebuttal, the alternate reality of the rather lengthy column of current architect_job_postings running from the length of the article (with 133_current_positions listed at the time of this posting.)

Alternate Realities

All of this speaks to the need to get out of one’s mindset and see things differently than the way they are currently being looked at. Creativity, as Woodrow Wilson stated, is a fresh pair of eyes. Two architects, Harris Stone in his unjustifiably out-of-print Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect, and Young Lee formerly faced a similarly dire situation yet found ways to reinvent themselves. In the second case, Young Lee, a South Korean bouncer turned architect, partnered with Shelly Hwang, a USC graduate now in her mid-30s, to convert a failed LA teahouse into a frozen yogurt shop. The rest, as they say, is history. Pinkberry  opened in January 2005 and today there are now 50 Pinkberry locations. Part of Pinkberry’s success – painted in bright colors, filled with modern decor from Philippe Starck and Le Klint – is the store itself.

Architects of Abstraction January 13, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types, principles, software architects.
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One of the things this blog tries to do is find common ground between various types of architects. There are perhaps no two more different on the surface than software and building design architects.

Architects 2 Zebras is happy to recommend a new book that will go a long way toward bridging these otherwise seemingly disparate architects. Edited by one of the world’s leading open source architects, experts and book authors on enterprise computing, 97-things will be published in February. Until publication date, a galley found online –  97-things_the_list – focuses not on the more esoteric technical details but rather the fascinating principles shared by architects. Or, as editor Richard Monson-Haefel puts it, the principles that the best software architects have pulled out of their experience. In fact, it turns out that these principles apply to architects of all stripes. Just two of the book’s takeaways: communication trumps technology and skyscrapers_aren’t_scalable. This last principle describes how

“We often hear software engineering compared to building skyscrapers, dams, or roads. It’s true in some important aspects. The hardest part of civil engineering isn’t designing a building that will stand up once it is finished, but figuring out the construction process. The construction process has to go from a bare site to a finished building…there are some important ways that civil engineering analogies mislead us.”

Ignoring the detail that building design architects design buildings and not civil engineers, the short essay concludes  

“Once designed, the skyscraper isn’t supposed to change its location or height. Skyscrapers aren’t scalable. We cannot easily add lanes to roads, but we’ve learned how to easily add features to software.”

In fact, in the past year, skyscrapers designed by international architects for Dubai regularly change their location and height – one proposed skyscraper was to skim across the water on a floating island – whether they’re supposed to or not. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the principle.

It seems an hour doesn’t go by that we stumble over yet another architecture analogy that doesn’t go quite far enough. They’re everywhere to be found, some more rigorous – therefore useful – than others. One I saw earlier today from the exceptional marketing marvel book_yourself_solid serves as a typical example (emphasis added)

“The exercises in Module I step you through the process of building your foundation so that you have a platform on which to stand, a perfectly engineered structure that will support all of your business development and marketing, and – dare I add – personal growth.”

The real secret ,of course, is for us architects to continue to abstract sharable and relatable principles from our experience, erring neither on the overly general and generic on the one end or overly detailed and specific on the other. S.I. Hayakawa in Language in Thought and Action describes the relations between levels of abstraction in his ladder of abstractions pictured here. It takes the principled architect’s most focused discernment and best judgment to know where to land on this ladder – for, as everbody knows – ladders aren’t scalable.

Big-A and little-a architects January 10, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types, creativity.
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Big-A, little-a, what begins with A? I recently had the pleasure of participating in a stimulating online discussion on the CSTC forum concerning the artificial construct of, or all-to-real divide between, big-C creativity and little-c creativity. To author and psychology professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the big-C creative person is a towering figure, a person whose work is well known to people in a particular field, whereas the little-c creative person is not. Big-C creativity leads to the transformation of a domain such as Architecture. Little-c creativity is used in everyday life, as in problem solving or placement of the proverbial bicycle shed.

This got me thinking about whether there is a similar difference between big-A architects and little-a architects. It would be natural to assume that Big A’s, at least in the building design field, are the Starchitects familiar to media, stage and screen – and the little a’s, well, the rest of us.  The comparison I have in mind runs deeper, involving a lower and higher order of magnitude – but of what? Talent? Creativity?

Perhaps the biggest difference between big-A architects and little-a architects isn’t measured in degree but in kind. Let me illustrate:

Little-a architects                       Big-A architects                        

Talk                                          Listen

React w/o reflection                   Reflection-in-action

Focus on selves                        Focus on the problem

“Green” solutions                       Sustainable

Cradle to grave                         Cradle to cradle

Concerned with image               Concerned with substance

Have an agenda                        Are open and flexible

Come to a solution ASAP          Comfortable with ambiguity

Appeal to constraints                Appeal to their higher selves

Describe and explain                 Justify

Speak architect                         Translate for others

Work in teams                          Orchestrate

Generalist                                 Polymath

Coordinator                               Integrator

Analyzer                                  Synthesizer

Continuing education                 Lifelong learning

Big-A architects appeal to their higher, or if you prefer, aspirational selves. Their high-octane, fuel-injected selves when confronted with an intractable problem, assignment or opportunity. As Architects to Zebras is a blog (Blog?) covering architects from A-Z (or is that a-z?) I hope for this to be the beginning of an ongoing discussion. I would be interested to know what items you would to add to the list.

The Architect’s Dream? January 6, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect.
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Here resides the architect in repose, poised and alert to what is before him, yet at the same time isolated, with the Dark Ages of George (W) the 2nd receding to the left and the bright, mercurial promise of the Obama administration’s Washington inaugural beyond on his right. And yet, even here, hovering over the hope for an enlightened and prosperous future, one can make out the feint, ominous shadow of the pyramid scheme and all we associate with it lurking on the horizon.

The Essential Architect January 3, 2009

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It has been some time since the architect has felt essential. And by that I mean – felt necessary and not marginalized. Felt critical to the equation – and not just convenient to the process. If only the architect were essential.

Essential to whom? To society? To the client? By essential – there are two meanings I am after. The first: as in indispensible. Not take-or-leave, marginalized, disempowered. If not the team leader – it would be nice to feel central – then at least necessary, required, a must.

The world has given us The Essential John Denver, Wong’s Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, The Essentials of Corporate Finance, The 99 Most Essential Beethoven Masterpieces and Essential Daryl Hall & John Oates. And yet I live peaceably, and fulfilled, every day without reliance on these so-called essentials.

A recent post in Icon featured “20 Essential Young Architects.” All were young, yet not all were architects. But essential? To whom? For whom?

A second meaning of essential has to do with essence. With the essence of the architect. What – at essence – is essential to the architect. Without which he would be something else. The architect i am thinking of lacks for nothing essential – of, relating to, or constituting essence. Down to what matters, is cental, at heart. less here is more, not more or less.

The Complete Architect is an essential architect – a basic, fundamental architect of the utmost importance. Complete – but not necessarily exhaustive. Vital and cardinal.

Essential here implies belonging to the very nature of the architect and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying what makes the architect or her character. Fundamental applies to something that is a foundation without which an entire system or complex whole would collapse. The essence of the architect is the soundness of the foundation upon which, and around which, is built.

This blog is about and for the essential architect, the attributes and skill-sets that are, in essence, part of the architect’s arsenal. Future posts will elucidate the features essential to the Complete Architect.

We Architect Types January 3, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Uncategorized.
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“In Cairo I have seen buildings which were falling down as they were being put up, buildings whose incompletion was complete.” – William H. Gass

Just who is this architect? In its broadest sense, we’re people who translate a user’s requirements into a built environment, applications or services within an organization.

The title “architect” – as seen on a business card or LinkedIn – is unregulated and so anyone can use it and it appears often does. This weblog has been created to address this very audience – anyone who by name, practice, or calling calls themselves an architect – including those would-be architects who haven’t yet.

So who are we? To name just a few, Building design architects (Residential architects, Commercial architects;) Solutions architects (Application architects, Software architects, Data architects, Integration architects) who work with Enterprise architects (Strategic architects, Chief architects, Business architects) and Infrastructure architects (Technology architects, Systems architects…) and so on.

From here it begins to approximate Borge’s famed (and hilarious) Chinese encyclopedia’s virtual taxonomy of animals. We can’t be sure that our own very own taxonomy of architects is not equally skewed. Perhaps we are so accustomed to our categories that they seem natural to us, beyond question even, but are they?

Jorge Luis Borges describes a certain Chinese encyclopedia in which it is written:

(…) animals are divided into:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
5. mermaids,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
12. others,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

As Michel Foucault intimates in The Order of Things, Borges expresses doubts about any attempt at a universal classification for, in Borges view, all taxonomies are arbitrary. The Complete Architect is no exception. That’s just part of the challenge and provocation…

When we speak of The Complete Architect, we’re addressing a certain level of abstraction – so that what we have to say here applies to all architects, from all walks. On social networking site LinkedIn the following architects can be found by title or situation:

Resource Architects, Out of work architects, Lead Active Directory architects, Knowledge architects, Business Process architects, Architects of the Eisenhower administration, Good enough architects, Difficult architects, Landscape architects, Chief enterprise architects, Information architect, IT infrastructure architects, Principal Digital architects, Brand architects, Distinct architects, Disaster recovery architects, Conversion architects, Data architects, Senior java architects, Creative architects, Poor architects…

As for the complete architect., te world has given us The Complete Peanuts, The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You, The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. But not the Complete Architect. Why?

What would a complete architect look like? An architect having all necessary parts, components, or steps? An architect having come to an end of his search i.e. retirement and most of us know the architect does not retire. In fact, he only gets rolling after age 50…

Certainly the complete architect would be skilled, accomplished, thorough, consummate. The word “complete” here implies a goal for the architect to strive toward or after. For the Complete Architect is in a perpetual state of becoming. To be complete – to complete oneself – as an architect one must first know what one is missing. My aim with this blog is to point out some of the gaps in our understanding and share with you some tools that might be of use to you as we work our way toward personal and professional mastery. For, as Winston S. Churchill said, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”