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Being of Three Minds June 7, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architect types, career, change, essence, identity, software architects, technology.
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I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Technology is […] a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.

C.P. Snow

While being interviewed the other day for an article about my blogs, I was asked about their genesis: What had provoked me to write them?

Explaining how my other blog http://bimandintegrateddesign.com/ came about was easy.

Architects and other design professionals have to deal with change from new disruptive technologies and work processes.

My other blog exists to help fellow professionals confront the forces that create an immunity to change – forces brought about by fear, hesitancy, uncertainty or misinformation.

What makes an architect an architect?

The original purpose of this blog – Architects 2 Zebras – was different.

It came about in order to identify and discuss what it is exactly that all architects have in common.

In other words – what makes an architect an architect – irrespective of what type of architect they are.

Instead of focusing on who stole who’s thunder and identity and reclaiming “our” title back, this was to be a blog focused on what architects of all stripes have in common and what we can learn from each other.

In the 18 months since the first post, the term “architect” has become increasingly common with non-design entities and many design architects resent this.

But it is not just the title design architects are concerned about – nor the inconvenience of doing a job search only to come up with IT positions.

Some design architects wonder if software architects have not only usurped design architect’s title but in doing so their mojo?

A Tale of Two Bookshelves

One only need visit any of the big box bookstores in the U.S. to witness two very different circumstances.

On the one hand, books on technology, computing, software and social networking are thriving.

Where sold copies are replaced as soon as those on display are depleted.

At the bookstores I’ve visited architecture-related books told a different story.

The shelves where architecture, interior design and planning books are displayed have been decimated, the few remaining titles left in disarray.

This could be seen as a positive sign – one, say, of strong sales – were it not for the fact that these shelves remain unreplenished.

Or perhaps a reflection of the buying power of the two architects at this time in history? Perhaps.

A situation all the more disconcerting for someone like myself who plans on having a book published and displayed on such a shelf in the coming year.

A Third Culture

“The third culture consists of scientists and other thinkers who are taking the place of the “traditional intellectuals” in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

John Brockman, The Third Culture

Good packages – like omens and wishes – come in threes (BIM, IPD and LEED come to mind.)

Thirds in fact seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

With owners and contractors, architects often feel like the Third wheel.

There are the Third world impacts from globalization to contend with.                                          

Architects focused on the design and inhabitation of Third places – such as bookstores, cafes and bars. 

We’re planning the Third chapters of our careers.

Our current focus in architecture on the virtual representation of the Third dimension.

The Third Teacher (a marvelous must-have book on design of schools and education by Bruce Mau with OWPP/Cannon Design)

A Third Way

And some less relevant to our discussion:

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien; The Third Reich; The Third realm

and

Why My Third Husband Will be a Dog

A Tale of Two Cultures

Design architects like to say that architecture is both an art and science – both of the humanities and of the sciences – the two cultures first identified by C.P. Snow in his seminal lecture and subsequent essay The Two Cultures published 50 years ago.

It’s a reflection based on the premise that intellectual life was divided into two cultures: the arts and humanities on one side and science on the other.

Software architects on the other hand associate themselves with technology, a culture not yet represented by design architect’s two cultures.

Until now, that is.

In the intervening years since Snow’s lecture, third cultures of course have been proposed, generally termed “social science” and comprised of fields such as sociology, political science, economics, psychology, and anthropology.

As mentioned earlier in this post, my other blog focuses on this third culture: the social implications of technology on design professionals, firm culture, organizations, and the profession and construction industry as a whole.

But the social impacts are a result – a symptom that needs to be addressed – not the cause.

The cause is the technology that seems all but inescapable in the practice of our art and science.

So I wonder if for architects our third culture is something closer to that of technology?

To be sure, one could argue that technology has been with us all along, as the so-called science of architecture is building science, otherwise known as building technology.

But there’s no mistaking the fact that with the advent of BIM and other IT-related tools, architects have started to wonder:

Whether our profession now comprises all three cultures: art, science and technology?

And if it does – does one take precedence over the other?

Or is it – like Vitruvius’ triumvirate – more a matter of maintaining a balance?

firmitas, utilitas and venustas

Commodity, firmness and delight – structural stability, spatial accomodation and attractive appearance – have been called architecture’s ultimate synthesis.

Roughly speaking – these three terms mirror architect’s three cultures: art, science and technology.

Could it be with the advent of new technologies and the collaborative work processes enabled by them that we as professionals are finally in a position to achieve Vitruvius’ ideal?

Perhaps it would be helpful for architects to think of themselves as being of three minds?

To think of ourselves as having an art mind, a science mind – which we already possess – and a technology mind.

To see technology as less of a threat and rather as something that was there all along – helping us to stay balanced.

And in doing so garner some of that technology mojo for ourselves?

delightful, delovely, design

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

R. Buckminster Fuller

Building science and digital technology both require that the architect have a strong grasp of how buildings are put together.

One cannot use digital tools, let alone practice architecture, without a thoroughly understanding – in minute detail – how buildings are constructed.

With technology and building science covered – let’s turn our attention to Vitruvius’ venustas or beauty, art, appearance.

You could argue – with Bucky Fuller – that once structure and function have been addressed the resulting building will inevitably be beautiful.

But I’m not going to do that here.

I’m going to suggest you do something else instead.

This week – I am going to ask you to acknowledge and honor yourself and as an artist and as a designer: your art mind, if you will.

What resides deep inside – after the documents have been coordinated and submitted, and work out in the field has been observed – what in you remains.

You know what I am talking about.

It has gone on for too long underserved, unacknowledged – by others, certainly, but admittedly by yourself as well.

How to go about honoring ourselves as designers and artists that we as architects truly are?

Each of us has our own way of going about this.

Pour a cup or glass and flip through the pages of The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture.

Or a book on Italian Hill towns.

Or head out to visit your favorite building in person. And really spend some time there.

Or volunteer at one of the many architecture boot camp summer programs taking place at many of the colleges and universities across the states.

Or attend the AIA National Convention (Design for the New Decade) in Miami this week – in person or virtually.

Fill a sketchbook with ideas you have been meaning to explore.

However you choose to honor yourself, take the time – this week – to honor the small, still voice that resides in you that wants to be heard.

What have you done lately to address and honor your artistic side?

Architects have been criticized for being “artists” when others needed us to be responsible constructors and business partners.

We’ve convinced ourselves to work clandestine as artist/architects, under the radar.

So as not to let on that we’re duplicitous in our motives, representing not only our clients but also the call of our higher selves.

Do this one thing for yourself this week.

As with any threesome, art is threatened to be overcome by the two bolder – and seemingly more objective – of the three cultures: science and technology.

Art almost always loses out to the larger, more vocal forces.

We tell ourselves that – as with Fuller – art will be served by our working within constraints, meeting objectives, representing the health, safety and welfare of the building’s inhabitants.

This is just something we tell ourselves. But it never is.

Next week you can be an architect of three minds – art, science and technology.

This week – go out and let your inner architect play.

For those of us who don’t get to design every day, it remains critical to our identity, role, essence – our satisfaction, well-being and happiness – that we honor our artistic side.

Our art mind.

So get in touch with what truly mattered to you when you first started out.

And matters to you still.

Do this one thing for yourself this week.

Next week you can go back to the rigor and challenge of living and working within the three cultures.

If not now, when?

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Design March 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, collaboration, creativity, essence, IPD, management, marginalization, problem solving, questions, software architects, technology, the economy.
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Design. Noun or verb?

Building design? Noun.

Architects design? Verb.

So why do architects keep treating design like it’s a noun?

What architects talk about when they talk about design – is mostly buildings.

Design strategies, initiatives, options?  Design criteria, benchmarks and objectives? Leave these for MBAs.

 “Hiring an AIA architect,” says the AIA website, “could be the best decision you’ll make for your design project.” Yet no client considers their project a design assignment. That’s framing it as an architect sees it.

Design – the noun – is a tool architects use to plan and solve a client’s or owner’s problems: they need more space, they need to move and they need to attract more students or customers or retain the ones they have. They don’t have design projects – we do.

And note: the emphasis is on action  –  not thing.

To a client, an architect may help you to realize, recommend, guide, clarify, define, orchestrate, and help you get the most for your construction dollar. All verbs.

If that’s what we mean by design – then why don’t we say it? Why don’t we remind others that that is what we do?

And with the 2010 AIA Convention on the horizon why don’t we remind ourselves of this meaning of the word?

That said, if design is our core competency – what distinguishes us from pretenders –the act of design takes up a relatively small part of our day.

Over the past 25 years I have worked on several projects where I might design the building in a day – and then spend the next 3-5 years fleshing it out – and everything else that’s required to see to its realization. Some would say fleshing it out is someone else’s design development and another person’s iteration and still another’s level of detail. Sure – there is a great deal more design to do once the client says go. But again – the emphasis is on action – design as a verb – and not on the building.

One of the advantages of the new technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) – the collaborative work process enabled by it (the subject of my other blog www.bimandintegrateddesign.com)– is that design occurs early, involving many stakeholders, and can come from just about anywhere. Yes, the architect may orchestrate the effort – and may be the one person qualified to do so – but she’s still applying for that position, it has not been awarded yet. Design in the near future will happen sooner in the process, by many – including considerable contributions made by non-designers and designers alike.

In fact – architects have been threatened by the role of the “designer” that has been appearing more and more in industry diagrams illustrating construction project teams. Where in these diagrams is the architect? The architect’s very survival instinct kicks in when this happens and what ensues can be unnerving. I have seen chairs fly and voices rise. Someone else is moving in on our territory and the instinct is to attack.

When we talk about design – who is our intended audience? By calling attention to design are we thinking that this will remind others on the construction team who really has the corner on design? Is this the meta-message for making this the year of design? “Don’t forget – architects design, too.” By calling attention to design, are we primarily reminding others that we design? Or – and at the same time – are we reminding ourselves?

Because many architects haven’t designed a building since the immersive studio experience in school and are in need of reminding. All but buried in building codes, zoning regulations, contractor’s RFI’s and change orders, lean construction, green building rating systems –  not to mention BIM, IPD, VDC and a hundred other acronyms that come our way – it’s almost as though instead of announcing to the world who we are, we are announcing it to ourselves. It’s almost as though we’re experiencing a form of professional amnesia or Alzheimer’s – and can’t remember who we are and what we do.

Design: Who we are. What we do.

Part of the problem is that the word design has become ubiquitous. Architects, of course, don’t have a corner on the design market.  Yes, architects design, but so do web designers, product designers, urban designers, environmental designers, business designers, set design, packaging design, game design, exhibition designers, landscape designers, graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers, fashion designers and all the other T-shaped designers to name but a few.

If design is the planning that serves as the basis for the making of every object and system in the universe, then what are we talking about when we talk about design?

How can our purpose, our heart, our core – as design professionals – be such a small part of what we do?

And – if the new technologies and work processes have their way – we’re about to do even less of it.

Or do more of it in our heads.

Or conceptualize in the monitor, using the program’s built-in metrics to ferret out the most cost effective options.

The problem with the word design isn’t that it too narrowly defines what we as architects do. The problem is that the word design is overused, vague, appropriated by too many industries and domains – from MBA’s to makers of medical devices. I can understand the need for a convention to have as its subject a sweeping or enveloping concept to allow for the myriad specific entries and presentation-. As the convention material puts it, the weft through which a number of threads—sustainability, diversity, professional practice, technologies, leadership, communities, typologies, and others—will be woven. Last year’s was diversity. Next year’s – you can imagine – will be selected from amongst the remaining threads.

That design is not enough of a differentiator, whether building, city or global design.

To go from diversity to design isn’t to return to our roots.

Better we should ask ourselves these questions:

  • What distinguishes the architect?
  • What is unique to the architect?

Is it design or is it design thinking?

Is it design or is it problem identifying and problem solving?

The word design has too many connotations and is appropriated by too many industries. Earlier, I did my best to answer these questions here in Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect.

10 Questions Architects Need to Ask Themselves

So, before heading off for the AIA Convention in Miami, ask yourself: What do we talk about when we talk about design?

  • Are we talking about design as a competitive advantage over our competition, namely design-builders and construction managers and other design professionals?
  • Is design enough of a differentiator? Others on the construction team see themselves as designers – including some owners and fellow design professionals.
  • By separating design from the rest of the process are we reinforcing others’ firmly held notions – however erroneous – that architects are elitist, arrogant, isolationists, rarified in some way.
  • Will architects who gather to celebrate design – and celebrate themselves – be accused of navel gazing, reinforcing the scourge of being labeled out-of-touch aesthetes?
  • Will architects be seen by others – disenfranchised and disillusioned architects among them – as reinforcing their already perceived irrelevance in the construction process, by meeting to talk about design they’re proverbially rearranging deckchairs while the rest of the profession goes down?
  • Will meeting to talk about design further sharpen the architect’s already considerable edge by playing-up their cool factor and wow factor?
  • If design can’t be taught and is something you intuit – that you either have it or you don’t – why meet to talk about it?
  • By talking about design do architects risk alienating teammates by remind them of their increasing irrelevance?
  • While the rest of the world is knee deep in design thinking will architects be perceived as focusing on design without the thinking?
  • By talking about the design of buildings as objects as opposed to systems, flows or solutions, will architects – with the Wal-Marting of the world and Targeting of design – reinforce the commoditizing of their skill-sets?

Thomas Friedman perhaps brought this point home when he wrote

If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use Amazon.com to handle fulfillment. I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.

Are architects talking about design like fish talking about water?

A San Francisco architect, Ted Pratt, Principal and Founder of MTP Architects, wrote to me today

The idea of Design Thinking is really taking hold here with business.  Last week I attended a panel discussion focused on the topic of Design and Business.  The event was held at Swissnex here in San Francisco.  All of the panel members were business people.  I commented to my business partner that we needed to be on the panel alongside the persons from Clorox and Nestle.  There was an administrator from the California College of Arts’ MBA program.  They have an MBA focused on Design Thinking.

Architects are already seen by many as the makers of pretty pictures. By getting together to talk about design will we be perpetuating this perception?

As Ted wrote, we needed to be on the panel.

Architects – working at many scales, from GIS to doorknobs – are first and foremost design thinkers. Design thinking is a term that some feel is the latest buzzword and by the time you read this will already be past-tense. But the truth is – whatever you call it – design thinking is something we as architects have done for centuries. You can learn more about it here.

What should our message be?

In the AIA’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, under Vision, it is written:

The American Institute of Architects: Driving positive change through the power of design.

Sooner that contrarian author and Design Futures Council board member, Richard Farson, author of The Power of Design, should speak at the convention.

And under Goals:

Serve as the Credible Voice: Promote the members and their AIA as the credible voice for quality design and the built environment.

Quality design. There you have it. With the focus front and center of the product and not the process.

The planet will always need quality design. But what the world needs right now is not more buildings but the creativity and ingenuity that goes into their design applied to the problems and forces at hand.

We love buildings – we love architecture – that is why we became architects: to be part of their design and realization.

But, as IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez says, Stop Treating Design as A Noun.

Is design even the message we need to be sending? At this time in history, shouldn’t our message be on collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, making our teammates look better, improving the process for all involved, playing well with others and our trustworthiness?

Design for the new decade

The 2010 AIA Convention has as its theme Design for the new decade. Design, a return to design. Getting back to our roots. Reprioritizing. Do what we do best. Which is namely,

Cool buildings, innovative form and materials, sustainable design.

With the selection of Dan Pink as keynote, the message appears to be that we have been spending too much time in the left hemisphere – with all of our focus on the left-brain thinking required of practice – and seek some Florida solace in the sun and respite in the right.

Once architects leave Miami, their brains newly balanced and their hemispheres aligned, perhaps we ought to consider the fact that what distinguishes the architect is the mercurial interaction of our left and right hemispheres. Design is not the domain exclusively of the left or right brains – but the back-and-forth interaction of the two. Our real value as architects occurs in neither individual lobe but in the space between.

Architects already do what the world needs most right now – they don’t need to emphasize one hemisphere over another – they just need to get the word out there a little louder in a world that’s already screaming for attention; that this is what we already do, this is who we already are.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Pink. He spoke back to back at the Design Futures Council’s summit AND my kid’s middle school last Fall. He’s moved on – driven – past design onto more intrinsically motivated pastures. And we ought to take a clue from him and follow his lead.

So it should be clear by now. Design isn’t what we do or who we are. But instead Design thinking. Design deliberation. Design countenance. It’s not design – that’s shared by far too many to have any meaning – but what we do with it. Design isn’t a skill but a modifier for who we are and what we do. We ought to start acting more like it and let others in on the secret.

So go ahead – re-commit yourself to design as the architect’s primary mode of thought and action. Just don’t be fooled by the siren song of designed objects be they places, projects or things. What you are re-committing to is making design thought and design action a priority.

Design thinking and design doing: who we are and what we do.

This is the crux: for the present time – to reinforce the notion that we are team players, that we are relevant, that we are necessary – we ought to emphasize our positive impact on the process, not the end result.

We are designers in that we are design managers and design leaders.

We are designers – we are design thinkers – gathering to re-commit to helping to define and solve our clients’, city’s, community’s and neighborhoods’ problems.

That is design for the new decade.