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The Last Architect? May 21, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, BIM, career, change, creativity, essence, integrative thinking, optimism, pragmatism, questions, technology.

Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today.

David Bohm

Think laterally and simultaneously

Redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy

Meet virtually but also face-to-face

These. according to Renée Cheng, Professor and Head of School of Architecture at University of Minnesota, are some of the ways we as a profession will proceed boldly into the future.

Cheng, an expert in emerging technologies in construction, recently talked with Markku Allison, Resource Architect at The American Institute of Architects, in an AIA – Architecture Knowledge Review podcast revisiting the 2006 Report on Integrated Practice that can be found on iTunes entitled: 2009 and Beyond “Suggestions for an Integrative Education.”

While the entire interview is generally excellent, I’d like to focus on the final third of the podcast, because these last 8 minutes of the podcast are like gold.

It is not that Markku and Renee go off-script – it’s that Markku allows Renee to riff on the question of “What’s next?” in a way that we seldom hear or see in our industry media.

Gratefully pragmatic without a whiff of academic jargon, what ensues in the latter part of the interview is a true dialogue, marked by a calm cadence – with much wisdom – found only rarely, if at all, anywhere.

Perhaps the last time was in this video of an interview where soft-spoken philosopher J Krishnamurti asks physicist David Bohm: Would you go into your chosen profession today if you had to do it all over?

On Crowdsourcing

Markku asks: What’s next? What developments are currently underway that you feel will have the most significant impact over the next three years?

Cheng acknowledges that it is always difficult to project into the future.

Renee: Things I’ve been keeping an eye on are things like crowdsourcing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Netflix competition?

Markku: Yes.

Renee: Crowdsourcing, where you can put out a query and get multiple minds working on it. Not like a wiki where you can let anyone post but more like invited experts working in somewhat of a hierarchy, somewhat of a system.

Cheng went on to describe how her school has run some studios based on social networking platforms.

Renee: We’re going to start to get some pretty highly specialized people that need to be brought in at very specific times and not end up having everyone in the room all the time. So if there can be some way to streamline some of that – how to keep communication going without necessarily having everyone be face to face.

But isn’t face to face collaboration critical to the successful outcome of a project?

On Virtual Interface vs. Face-to-Face

Renee: The more I’m getting into this the more I am realizing that face to face is a really critical part of this. And yet there are huge opportunities for virtual interface. So how do we as humans overcome the fact that face-to-face is still the best means of communication? And how can some of these virtual environments or virtual tools begin to – not replace – but supplement it, potentially making things go faster and involve more voices? That is something I will be looking for in the next couple of years.

On The Role of the Designer

Markku: I’m curious to hear you expand just a little bit on what you perceive as the role of the designer in this new future that may involve much larger numbers of stakeholders input into design. How do you think that crowdsourcing and other trends you describe will affect the role of the designer?

On Utopian vs. Dystopian Futures

Renee: There’s a utopian and dystopian way of looking at this (laughter.) In the dystopian way architects become just one of many, many voices. The hierarchy is lost and it becomes very difficult to get good design. You just get a lot of compromise. That would be the dystopian future I would not like to see.

On the Architect as Advocate for Design and Design Thinking

Renee: The utopian future that we are trying to prepare our students to lead and for this role is architect as – in some kind of manner of – not necessarily master builder but potentially something more in the Kieran Timberlake model, the central figure, the connector – someone who can be the advocate for design. And for design thinking. Can think laterally and simultaneously. And can help others to make decisions that make sense. Ideally there is some role for the architect that is different than the role of any other experts, clients or users – or whomever is adding to this future design process – that are coming in. Because of the training.

On the Architect’s Training

Renee: The training is not that they know how to make a zero-energy building. Or that they know how to manipulate a BIM model. The training is that they know how to see things laterally and simultaneously.

See laterally and simultaneously.

Renee: Very few people know how to do that. And when you can see things laterally and simultaneously, envisioning multiple options at the same time, you have an enormous ability to redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy.

Redefine the problem, reframe the questions and direct people’s energy

Renee: So that’s what I would hope would set the architect apart from others in the crowd. As crowdsourcing or social networking or larger number of stakeholders begin to be part of the process.

Markku: The ability to position the conversation within a framework of multiple, possible realities.

Renee: Exactly. And to be able to frame and reframe the questions. Because it’s not about trying to find answers or solutions to things. It’s really about precisely defining the problem – and then the solution becomes self-evident. And any designer who has had that moment happen – or visited a building where it all comes together and makes sense – that solution didn’t come from someone saying “make this museum function in this and this way.” It came from a variety of things that were juggled at the same time. A lot of tangible and intangible things that get fit into that process until you reach a result that is so beautiful and well-designed it becomes inevitable. But it wasn’t from trying to solve a problem. It comes from framing the questions.

On Preparing for the Unknown

Markku: Do you think that that ability to frame the problem in such a concise way that the solution becomes self-evident is possible in the realm of the academy?

Renee: we’re trying to develop and nurture that skill in our students. It’s both a blessing and a curse to have this ability to constantly frame questions and prolong the period of not jumping to conclusion or solution…If we’re asked to prepare students to meet these grand challenges that are coming forward for their generation, then we’re going to need to think about how we’re going to instill all of these skills that we’ve always counted on architects having, yet prepare them for a future that is extremely different than we knew when we were in school – or that’s even existing today. It’s a tough thing for a curriculum to do. A challenge that I would say architectural education has not faced ever before.

On How We’re Going to Get There

Markku: An interesting time for you.

Renee: It’s always good to be living in interesting times. Sometimes I do wonder how we’re going to get there. The creative thing is when you go into the studios and see the students and how enthusiastic they are in accepting the goals of carbon neutrality and low energy design and just aggressively and idealistically tackling them. And very, very thirsty for the tools that will allow them to get there. I don’t think, in student’s idealistic minds, they’re thinking of the billions of dollars cut from waste in the building industry. They’re thinking of a future where all buildings are efficiently built, with a good use of resources, hopefully with well-compensated designers and clients that are knowledgeable and willing to take risks on things that are willing to move the technology forward and buildings forward. Communities that are livable and walkable and promote healthy living. Students are aiming for the moon – which leads me to think it is a tough problem – but that’s our role as educators and our role as professionals. To show them that yes it can be done. And that we’re just taking it step by step.

Markku: Well I think we’re in great hands.

We are, indeed.

Renée Cheng is a graduate of Harvard’s GSD and Harvard College. A registered architect, her professional experience includes work for Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners and Richard Meier and Partners before founding Cheng-Olson Design. She taught at the University of Michigan and the University of Arizona before joining the faculty of University of Minnesota in January of 2002 where she is currently Head.

Professor Cheng has written on the topic of architectural education in the context of emerging practices and technology. These writings have appeared in the 2006 AIA Report on Integrated Practice and the Education Summit at ACADIA in 2004. 2006 “Suggestions for an Integrated Practice” in AIA Report on Integrated Practice, ed. Norm Strong, Daniel Friedman, Mike Broshar, also excerpted in AECBytes, Viewpoint July 2006.

Look here and here for more on IPD at AIA.

Listen to Renée Cheng’s interview with Markku Allison on AIA Pod Net

Look here for the AIA’s review of 2009 and Beyond | Revisiting the Report on Integrated Practice, “Suggestions for an Integrative Education,” by Robert Smith, AIA.

Each essay from the 2006 Report on Integrated Practice is being re-released as part of the 2009 and Beyond series. The re-release includes new commentary as well as podcasts from interviews with the reports’ original authors.


Read or Perish: A Summer Top 10 List June 11, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in integrative thinking, management, software architects.
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I recently discovered a new section of the bookstore and my life has been all the more enriched for it. For all the time I’ve spent amongst the shelves I somehow overlooked a veritable treasure trove of bounded and unbounded delights. Today I am going to share this life-changing discovery with you.

Computer books are to bookstores as milk is to grocers: you have to walk past everything else in the store to get there. Past fiction, history, gardening and cooking – you’ll inevitably find them in the farthest reaches of the store, the most distant point from the store entrance.

I’ve visited the section before – to brush up on Excel, to learn some software tips and tricks. On this one occasion there was something else that had drawn me to the computer technology book section. A book I had been looking for – on project management – suddenly appeared on a shelf near the geographic center of the long expanse of computer books: Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun. Not just any book on managing people, one’s self, clients, time, work processes, schedules and budgets – written by the Microsoft alumnus and program manager of Internet Explorer – this book has gone on to be my all-time favorite book on the subject. I’ve returned to this shelf in computer sections of new and used bookstores on several occasions in the months since and have been rewarded every time by fabulous titles with evocative cover art. None of these are dry technology doorstoppers – but instead they’re each in their own right works of art and pleasures to behold. They’re each entertaining, deep and rewarding reads. They’ll teach you something you didn’t know – not about software or programming – but about the work you love, the work you’re passionate about, the work you do day in day out. You’ll come away from these books richer, larger, more expansive – and more interesting. For each serves as a metaphor applicable to what you’re already doing and the time invested will be rewarded a hundredfold.

Many of these books are published by Tim O’Reilly (his Twitter tweets are some of the best, most informative, authoritative and most followed http://twitter.com/timoreilly). Although his more familiar and most popular books, updated hourly, can be found here, some of his lesser known titles have made my Top 10 including 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know; and the urgent and important Devices of the Soul. The “beautiful” series cannot be missed, with such tantalizing titles as Beautiful Security, Beautiful Code, and Beautiful Architecture: Leading Thinkers Reveal the Hidden Beauty in Software Design by Diomidis Spinellis and Georgios Gousios. The all-time favorite among pleasure-seeking adventuresome readers, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, comes as close to seductive non-fiction as any book you might come across at the beach. If there is a more enjoyable summer read than Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) I have not found it.  In addition to the previously mentioned Making Things Happen, Scott Berkun has written a wonderful book on the creative mind, the myths of innovation. Microsoft Press’s near-perfect Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction tops-off the list.

Lastly, I would be remiss in not mentioning the self-explanatory and hilarious underground cult classic The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. No beach bag should be without it.


Summer Top 10 Lists


Making Things Happen

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams

the myths of innovation

Beautiful Code

Devices of the Soul

97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know

Subject To Change : Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World: Adaptive Path on Design

Code Complete



At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz  

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Then We Came to the End: A Novel by Joshua Ferris

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz  

*You thought you were going to make it through summer without reading any fiction? Guess again!

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.

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.


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.