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dancing about architecture March 15, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in attribution, change, collaboration, credit, integrative thinking, IPD, the economy.
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Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Laurie Anderson

Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.                                                                      Steve Martin

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.                                                                                                                                                                   Elvis Costello

This memorable quote has been attributed at different times to none other than Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, Laurie Anderson, William S. Burroughs, Elvis Costello, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Nick Lowe, Martin Mull, Miles Davis, George Carlin and John Cage. The earliest verifiable source seen for this quote is in an interview by Timothy White entitled “A Man out of Time Beats the Clock” Musician magazine No. 60 (October 1983), p. 52 attributed to Elvis Costello. Does this matter? Especially when you consider the fact that Costello has no recollection having uttered these words?

We experience buildings everyday without giving a second’s thought to whom the design might be attributed. Despite this, architects demand to be recognized in both subtle and more overt ways. Evidence of this is the prizes they bestow upon themselves as a profession. With a new way for the design and construction team to work collaboratively together on the horizon, could we be upon the Age of the New Anonymity?

As defined by the AIA, Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is a project delivery approach that integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to reduce waste and optimize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication and construction. These teams include members well beyond the basic triad of owner, designer and contractor and very frequently involve everybody at the table day one, ideally including attorneys and insurers. At a minimum, though, an integrated project includes tight collaboration between the owner, architect/engineers, and builders ultimately responsible for construction of the project, from early design through project handover.

In the near future, when work picks-up again, role clarity and ego-suspension are going to be critical for team-making. Choosing the right people to begin with is where it all starts. It’s about chemistry and respect, and it helps when team members grow to like to work together. But the issue of credit goes beyond these niceties, touching the very core of the architect’s vision of himself as the project’s design leader.

Architects everywhere are reeling from the steep cliff the economy has fallen from and they are about to go thru an equally exasperating credit crunch of their own. Here I’m not speaking of graduate school credits nor LEED credits but the credit architects feel they deserve for their artistic and creative contributions. I am not talking exclusively about ownership of the plans, one of the issues that is sometimes neglected in architectural agreements – where the owner is paying for a unique structure and does not want to see the design replicated elsewhere – though that too will come into play in coming years as IPD becomes owner’s delivery method of choice.

Nor am I referring exclusively to architectural drawings and completed architectural works being entitled to copyright protection under the Federal Copyright Act where the owner of the copyright has exclusive rights to reproduce the copyrighted work and to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.  Generally, copyright protection extends to the “author” of the work, unless there is a written agreement to the contrary or the work is a “work for hire.” 

By credit, I am talking about Authorship – not in a legal sense so much as an ego sense: the need architects feel to be the “author” the work. Why is this a problem and why now? Because of the previously mentioned tight collaboration between the owner, architect/engineers, and builders ultimately responsible for construction of the project, will require trust from each player and a selfless regard for the project above all else – including that of the architect’s sometimes sensitive ego.

For many who have been practicing this way for some time this will be easy. Whereas for others it is going to come as a shock to their very core and a personal offense to their understanding of what an architect is and does. I have seen it already, in public venues where civil lecture halls turned into arenas, where architects became almost violent, as though their livelihoods were on the line. And, in a sense, they were. For, as Thom Mayne FAIA forewarned his fellow architects four years ago at the AIA Convention dedicated to IPD – “Change or Perish.” If architects use the downtime of the current economic situation wisely, to their advantage, by learning to collaborate better with trust and respect for all involved – including trusting and respecting themselves as design professionals and trusted advisors to all – once things turn around economically they will once again have reason to be dancing about architecture.