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Succumbing to Convenience and Expediency May 29, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, integrative thinking, survival, the economy.
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I’m concerned about design and its place in the world today. The likelihood that it will still be around in the future when we come out of our present circumstances.

I’m concerned as we continue to adjust to belt-tightening, hovering ever so near or just above the bottom line, that we will lose appreciation for the admittedly more ephemeral, hard-to-describe and ever harder to justify, seemingly less necessary on an evolutionary scale, design.

It’s even hard just to say the word right now.

Design was a hard sell when things were going well. Cynically, and no more accurately, design was what you added to a product after R&D, engineering and marketing had their say. Design was what was said to blow off in a hurricane. “The buildings were untouched, but all the architecture came off.” One has to wonder how hard it will be to defend design moving forward.

It just may be that a more inclusive definition of design would hold up better to the gale forces of the current economy. Design after all isn’t the final coat but everything that goes into a making of a product, layout, building or place. Design that is built-in, integral can’t be blown away.

It used to be that if you wanted a lake in your master plan you presented two lakes. That way, through value-engineering or politicizing, one was removed and the lake you wanted in the first place remained intact, in place. Now, even that lake is not safe – in part because there are fewer master plans, in part because the necessity of lakes like everything else must be reconsidered from a practical standpoint. So making your lake – making your design – integrated, purposeful, rooted into other systems and flows, will help to assure its continuing existence. To the extent that we are able to embed it and in doing so give it a reason – ideally multiple reasons – for its existence, the lake will take root and be there on opening day. The justification is in the embedding.

That is the true meaning of justification – invoking, embedding, connecting with the outside  world in some meaningful way. Architects are exceptional rationalizers. We’re rationalizing when the seam becomes apparent, between our motives for designing something one way and the reasons we give for its existence. We’re taught to explain a design decision in terms of how it benefits others, whether the client/owner, user or neighbor. Sincerity aside, some are better at doing this than others. With the appearance of the seam comes the erosion of trust.

There is much we can be doing now to substantiate our decision making by making our recommended courses of action evidence-based and by providing metrics to back them up. Design must remain front and center and top of mind if it is to survive the current onslaught of practicality, lean thinking and exclusionary accounting.

On this point I have been reading about the Kindle, Amazon’s popular reading device. Several critics, spoiled by the got-to-haveness of the iPhone, have been disparaging about the design of the electronic tablet. No matter. I am more concerned here about what reading on a Kindle says about the future of design. Charles McGrath reporting in the NYTimes on his own experience of using the device might as well be talking about the future of design as it applies to graphics, products and architecture. And the future, as he describes it, is a bit scary:

“Most of us have become so used to reading on screen by now that we’ve probably become brainwashed a little. Compared with your computer screen the Kindle actually looks a little more like real ink on real paper. Essentially the device presents you with a tradeoff. You endure sensory deprivation — sacrificing the pleasure of spreading the newspaper out on the kitchen table, forgoing the feel, heft and texture of a book, or the crispness and shimmer of a well-designed magazine — for the sake of portability and convenience.”

Here, the twin monsters of convenience and expediency – not the triumph of technology – trumps design. He continues:

“And if you’re at all like me, it’s surprising how easily you succumb to convenience, and how little you miss, once they’re gone, all the niceties of typography and design that you used to value so much. Those things still matter, and I don’t think that books will ever disappear — newspapers and magazines are another matter — but it may be that in the future we will keep them around as fond relics, reminders of what reading used to be like.”

Books. Buildings. Those things still matter, right? Do you believe that architecture, like books, will disappear as owners, users and the public at large get used to the expedient and convenient? Could it be that in the future we will keep architecture around like fond relics, the way we now preserve collectors’ books and historic buildings, reminders of what the carefully, purposefully designed built environment used to be like? We have a great say, right now, in determining what will in fact prevail.


BIM and the Elephant Problem May 28, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect types.
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“With notoriously bad eyesight, forest elephants tend to follow their trunks, using the appendage as a blind person might use fingertips on a stranger’s face-to identify, visualize, gather clues, communicate.”    John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) on the famous Indian legend

“Over the last couple of years, the term ‘Building Information Model’ or ‘BIM’ has gained widespread popularity. It has not, however, gained a widespread consistent definition—it’s like the blind men describing the elephant. But there’s a lot of fuss being generated over this particular elephant.”    Jim Bedrick AIA, Director of Systems Integration, Webcor Builders


No matter your stripe, architect, we’ve been hearing and reading a lot about BIM of late. This blog is no exception. (Those of you who are reading this and are heavily engaged in it can skip the rest of this sentence. All others read on.)

BIM is many things to many people. Short for Building Information Model (the thing) or Modeling (the activity,) depending on whom you ask or where you look, BIM is the process of generating and managing building data during its life cycle. Or, if you prefer, BIM is the 3D, real-time, dynamic building modeling software used to increase productivity in building design and construction. Oh, did I mention BIM is a common name for a digital representation of the building process to facilitate exchange and interoperability of information in digital format. Got that? And that’s just three of several dozen descriptions and definitions .

One complaint I’ve been starting to hear is that BIM is something else to everyone who uses the term. Forget interoperability, the logic goes, we can’t even agree on what it is or what it means. As one plucky architect put it the other day, BIM is like Obama: it’s whatever you want it to be.

Two analogies might help clarify. One, the story of six blind men that try to describe an elephant. The second comes from Italo Calvino’s ethereal fiction, Invisible Cities – a favorite among architects everywhere.

From a familiar (and rhyming) version of the legend of the blind men trying to describe an elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”…

The others go on to describe the elephant as a spear, snake, tree depending on which part of the 3D model, or elephant, they happened to grab hold of. The message for those of us wrestling with BIM is clear: like the blind men, it is all in how you approach it. (And, like BIM, there are Jainist, Discordian, Buddhist, African, Sufi and Hindu versions of this tale.)

Charles Darwin used elephants to illustrate the point that organisms produce more offspring than can survive in the world. He called this The Elephant Problem. Analogically, BIM has produced more definitions than can possibly survive. Something must be done about it. But what?

In Italo Calvino’s resplendent fiction, Invisible Cities, as Marco Polo describes the cities visited on his expeditions to Kublai Kahn – about the city of Armilla, which “has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be,” or the spider-web city of Octavia and many other marvelous cities – he is actually describing details (and different takes) of his native Venice. Kahn believes he is learning about many cities when in actuality there is only one.

One city. Many descriptions.

And so there you have it: Many definitions, but only one BIM: a mercurial and multivalent wonder!

BIM and the Human Condition May 15, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, BIM, collaboration, IPD, problem solving, Revit.
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Craft is the pride one takes in making – making things – with one’s hands, mind and imagination. Two books that address craft – one recent and one published 50 years ago – help make clear the predicament architects find themselves in today as they face an uncertain future.

In The­_Craftsman, author and sociologist Prof. Richard Sennett asks what the process of making concrete things reveals to us about ourselves – what people can learn about themselves from the things they make. Craftsmanship here is defined as an enduring, basic human impulse, the skill of making things well. The pride one takes in work – whether making a wood model or a computer model – requires focusing on the intimate connection between head and hand, establishing effective, sustainable habits and a rhythm between problem finding and problem solving. It is an internal dialogue every craftsman – and architect – conducts in practice.

Craftsmanship, by combining skill, commitment and judgment, establishes a close relationship between head and hand, man and machine that Sennett asserts is vital to physical, mental and societal well-being. Combining a “material consciousness” with a willingness to put in years of practice (a common estimate of the time required to master a craft is 10,000 hours) and an acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism, should be familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Dean Simonton’s Greatness and readers of this blog. Sennett asks whether our commitment to work – our craftsmanship – is merely about money, or about something deeper and more human. His answer implies that commitment – the skill, care, late nights, problem solving and pride that goes into our work – is about something greater.

Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary, as another critic noted, it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, “so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system” – or, in the case of architects who take part in integrated practice, their work in BIM. The subject of craft has been all but excluded to date from discussions about building information modeling (BIM) and this poses a liability and potential hazard for architects – for therein resides our dedication, passion and resolve.

Hannah Arendt’s book, The_Human_Condition, published 50 years ago, distinguishes between labor, work, and action, explores the implications of these distinctions and affirms the value of human beings speaking openly and candidly to each other. In the book Arendt (1906-1975) famously distinguishes between Animal laborans and Homo faber, between labor and work. Labor is, according to Arendt, those human activities whose main aim is to allow men to survive, belong to the private sphere, and while the human being strives painstakingly to perform them, is not free. As Sennett – Arendt’s student in the 60’s – points out Animal laborans is akin to the beast of burden, “a drudge condemned to routine.” Here the derogatory term “CAD-jockey” comes to mind, one who envisions spending their working lives in front of a monitor churning out construction documents. Animal laborans: they’re the ones who, working alone, take the work as an end in itself.

With Homo faber, on the other hand, one imagines men and women doing work together and in doing so making a life in common. This is the public sphere, where men, after having provided for themselves and their families what was needed to continue, can at last be free. The name according to Sennett implies a higher way of life, one in which we stop producing and start discussing and judging together. It is in this word – together – that we find the seeds for collaboration and for integrated practice.

BIM is More Artifact than Fact, More Art than Artifact

Look around your office – it is easy to spot those who see themselves as Animal laborans and conversely those who see their role as Homo faber. You can sense it in their attitudes toward their work, their mindset in the way they tackle the challenge of learning –or familiarizing themselves with – new technologies and workflows. If you observe carefully, you can even detect it in their posture, in the way they approach their work and each other. As Sennett argues, as with Gladwell and Geoff_Colvin, motivation matters more than talent. The architect must imagine herself engaged with the model, the input of information no less an act of the imagination than the shaping of clay into new worlds for others to engage in and be inspired by. The architect has to find her inner, intelligent craftsman. If it can be reduced to a formula, as Arendt would have it,

bim = Animal laborans

BIM = Homo faber

where BIM enables integrated practice. The combination of speech and action the book calls for is the perfect prescription for integrated practice or IPD: architects working together with others, collaborating toward a common goal.

Sennett sees it differently and challenges his teacher’s definition of Labor as being too limited, slighting the practical man and woman at work, and offers a more balanced view – where thinking and feeling are contained within the process of making. Such is the student’s prerogative. Some architects complain that BIM – in being so fact-based and answer-hungry – makes them less creative, describing their work as “feeding the beast.” Here again we find Arendt’s Animal laborans, for whom the mind engages once the labor is done, and Sennett is right to push further.

When Sennett writes “leaving the public to ‘sort out the problem’ after the work is done means confronting people with usually irreversible facts,” and “engagement must start earlier, requires a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things,” he could have been describing BIM, and IPD, the process it enables. IPD fulfills the promise and dictates of BIM just as Homo faber provides something for Animal laborans to aspire to.  

One of Arendt’s great themes is her sense of the decline of the public realm, the realm where action takes place. With the growing use of BIM, and through it integrated practice, architects once again have an opportunity to find themselves working in – and positively influencing if not creating – the public realm.

From AIA to FAIA to GAIA: A Final Warning May 8, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, creativity, problem solving.
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To what does an architect aspire?

Or, to paraphrase Freud, What do architects want? A leadership role in a design firm. To design a large-scaled international project or a diminutive, well-detailed, well-accoutered house, unimpeded by client input. For some it’s to make a comfortable living doing what they love while having a positive effect on the built environment with no harm done to the natural. For many while they scale the heights of their profession there is no higher calling than to garner the esteem of their well-regarded peers and allies. In times of suppressed expectations – when our aspirational selves are reality-checked at the door – any of these look attractive.

Last weekend, when architects gathered for their annual convention, the 2009 AIA Jury of Fellows honored at an investiture ceremony at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco 112 AIA members elevated to its prestigious College of Fellows. No small accomplishment, statistically out of a total AIA membership of nearly 86,000, fewer than 1 in 32 are distinguished with the honor of fellowship. The FAIA tag is an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to the profession in education, volunteer work, service to society, practice, leading the institute or related organization, design, alternative career, preservation, urban design, government/ industry, volunteer work and research. Election to fellowship not only recognizes the achievements of architects as individuals, but also their significant contribution to architecture and society on a national level. That said, noticeably absent this year from this distinguished list of significant professional contributions were categories for “saving the earth,” “protecting the environment,” and “solving global warming,” all significant contributions to architecture and society on a global – as in the globe or planetary level. And all addressing our immediate eco-emergency, perhaps the most pressing problem of our or any age.

Which brings us to GAIA, named after the Greek goddess who represented the earth, and like architects, brought forth order from chaos. Just as AIA architects today aspire to become FAIAs, fellows of the institute in turn could leverage their considerable respect and esteem, power within the profession, leadership and experience to lead the profession to accomplish nothing less than protection of the earth and healing of the world, effectively saving the planet in one fell swoop. Imagine when architects gather in New Orleans the 2011 that the AIA Jury of Fellows elevate FAIAs to GAIA. The critieria that would entail would need to be determined, but once FAIAs have taken their well-deserved year-long victory lap they would then get down to the brass tacks of becoming GAIAs. In doing so they would evolve from being custodians of the built environment to keepers and protectors of the unbuilt environment. Whom better than those we have already honored to lead the charge to right what is wrong with the earth? FAIAs in elevating to GAIAs essentially become Fellows of the Earth. Many factors – population increase, global warming among them – are contributing to upset the balance of forces that make earth conducive to life. FAIAs would lead all architects to turn their attention to innovatively address housing for population growth, sustainable land use in urban areas and beyond and preservation of existing resources. Imagine a design competition where you were asked to submit, on three 30×40 boards, a scheme to save the earth from extinction. That’s the challenge we have before us – and who better to get us there but FAIA-turned-GAIAs? A challenging yet solvable assignment. This is no time for small thinking.

The world needs leaders and the architectural profession has them in droves. In becoming GAIAs, FAIAs could leverage their considerable problem solving ability, effective verbal and graphic communication, brainpower, creativity, comfort with ambiguity and legendary grasp of the big picture coupled with granular detail.

In fact, DesignIntelligence is hosting their annual Summit entitled Voice, Influence and Power: Taking the Reins of Leadership, Sept. 30 – Oct. 2 this year in Chicago. One hundred delegates from the world’s most influential AEC firms will convene to identify change drivers, analyze emerging data, and explore innovation in sustainable design at this unique meeting, which is co-hosted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Speakers at the by-invitation-only conference include some of the most celebrated thinkers of our time including A Whole New Mind’s Daniel Pink, Moshe Safdie, Foster + Partner’s Stefan Behling, TED Conference founder and architect Richard Saul Wurman amongst others. With Chicago’s Mayor Daley’s Chief Environmental Officer Sadhu Johnson and AS+GG’s Adrian Smith present no doubt the subject of leadership in sustainability will be addressed. The Design Futures Council is currently seeking nominations for Emerging Leaders.

While GAIA places nature before humanity, the natural environment ahead of the manmade, this is not a call for architects to become horticulturists but rather to shift priorities for the near term. The economy and situation we find ourselves in should support this effort. GAIA envisions the earth as a self-regulating living system and was the title of James Lovelock’s 1974 book as well as a recently issued final warning for those who did not heed his claims. It is a holistic, total system to produce environments conducive to life. Architects already do the same and should be naturals at it.

Living in the Margins May 6, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in creativity, marginalization.
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Today many people – not only architects – are feeling marginalized and when the word appears of late in the press it is often negative in connotation: “I was made marginal by my boss;” “the marginalization of newspapers;” and the like. To be marginalized is to be denied power, and – for many groups – this powerlessness can result in deprivation and even extermination. So marginalization is a serious concern. But as we learned from the Dodo, the marginalized in nature as well as in society often have no one to blame for their self-extermination but themselves.

If architects these days are feeling particularly marginalized – sidestepped, overlooked, underappreciated – it may well be because when architects meet to talk they talk to themselves in a language that only they can understand. And when they present their ideas they too often do so with drawings that only they can read. They flee from risk whether on the construction site or by “fleeing up” to the heady heights of design where they don’t have to be accountable to anything as mundane as gravity.

Marginalia (plurale tantum) is the term normally used for notes, scribbles, and enthusiastic editorial comments (“How true!!!”) made in the margin of a book. Book margins are where we write some of our most inspired thoughts, relate to authors, co-write and co-opt authorship, our way to participate in the creative process of reading by writing – a form of analog hyperlink to the self. As in this from Billy Collin’s poem, Marginalia

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive –
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” –
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Like Endora  (Agnes Moorehead) in Bewitched, perched indelicately atop the raised panel kitchen cabinetry, observing from the perimeters, remaining without, looking in, architects – like all artists – try to keep one foot in the midst of things while standing on the sidelines, stationary and scot-free. We can’t make up our minds whether we’re masters of the Big Picture or Keepers of the Godlike Details – so we’re accomplished at both. Architects are not constructors but rather observers of construction. We are indeed arcontours, living in the outskirts, like the proverbial dog in repose stretched across the threshold of the open door: in or out? Living marginally – how many architects these days are just getting by? We’re at heart outliers, in search of a way in. Benched on the sidelines, as much by our own volition as by circumstances, we so badly want in. (“Let me in!!”)

For many of us we’re living marginal lives in marginal times and, you know, we really ought to be enjoying it more. I’m of the mind that if architects have gradually lived on the margins they must be doing so for a reason. We must be getting something out of it – otherwise, why bother? So what then is the payoff?

I believe our payoff is this: it is here, on the margins, that our best ideas are found. It is here, away from the pressure of commerce, where we think best, and in doing so, live perhaps a little more deeply. It is here on the outskirts of business that we enjoy the panoramic views of life stretched out from a distance before us. To me at least margins represent places of opportunity, where we can allow ourselves to unfold. It is no coincidence that a book as great as The Great Gatsby was written, in edit, largely in the margins. Our thoughts, ideas and ideals are indeed overflowing and where else – but in the margins – can they overflow? If paragraphs are cities then margins are like greenbelts – inhibiting sprawl yet at the same time in themselves contain – effluvious, fertile – worlds within. Just like ourselves.