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What’s the Hardest Thing You’ve Had to Do as an Architect? June 19, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in books, creativity, problem solving, questions, survival.
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5 comments

What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an architect?

Some might say it was taking (or retaking) the licensing exam.

For others, it was the late-nighters before a major deadline when nerves were on edge.

For still others, it was biting their tongue while their boss took credit for an idea that only moments earlier they themselves had uttered.

When I think of the hardest thing I’ve had to do as an architect, it is something completely different.

It’s not even something that occurred in the past.

It’s something that is happening right now.

Because, for me, the hardest thing I have ever had to do as an architect is to be an architect.

Today

Merely being an architect today is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. Period.

As it turns out, architects are uniquely equipped to deal with our current situation.

In an earlier post I listed the many well-known attributes of the architect.

Architects

  • are optimists
  • balance multiple intelligences
  • are wired to care
  • do more with less
  • are strategists
  • think in terms of systems, not just things

There are 101 more.

One I failed to call attention to is the ability to think on their feet.

What MIT professor Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, called reflection-in-action.

In the book, Schön examined five professions—engineering, architecture, management, psychotherapy and town planning—to explain how professionals go about solving problems.

The best professionals, Schön maintains, know more than they can put into words.

In other words, tacit (or embodied) knowledge.

Know-how

Tacit knowledge, in being intuitive and experience-based, is hard to define.

Nonetheless, it is regarded as the most valuable source of knowledge.

And the most likely to lead to creative breakthroughs.

To meet the challenges of their work, professionals such as architects rely less on rules-of-thumb and methodologies learned in school than on improvisation learned in practice.

The improvisation that occurs when we’re giving an extemporaneous presentation and, afterwards, don’t know where our words came from.

This unarticulated, largely unexamined process – the subject of Schön’s book – shows precisely how ”reflection-in-action” works.

And how this vital creativity might be fostered in future professionals.

Detractors of Schön’s notion of “reflection in action” point out that there is seldom time for reflection when a person is engaged in work.

But it is this very absence of time that renders the architect’s ability to think on their feet all the more remarkable.

And necessary today.

Urgency

Our goal as architects is to move our situation from being dire to one that is manageable.

Urgent, but no longer an out-of-control crisis.

A sense of urgency is important for architects to experience.

Urgency provides momentum and evidence of motivation.

The problem is that we remain in a crisis state and – like the proverbial frog that doesn’t realize it is in gradually boiling water – we no longer realize it.

Because – whether through fear or utter exhaustion – we have lost our perspective on our situation.

This is where one of our most critical attributes comes in: our ability to think in the midst of a crisis.

For practicing architecture presents us with an almost unrelenting state of crisis.

In Elaine Scarry’s new book, Thinking in an Emergency, she draws on the work of philosophers, neuroscientists and artists, to prove decisively that thinking and rapid action are compatible.

In this light, practices that we dismiss as mere habit and protocol instead represent rigorous, effective modes of thought that we must champion in times of crisis.

How is our profession – and individual architects that constitute this profession – acting in this crisis situation?

Why do we seem inclined to abandon rationality, debate and deliberation, allowing others to take the reins of responsibility out of our hands?

Architecture is an institution that relies on engrained training and cooperation to succeed.

Scarry’s argument is that forethought and the inculcation of virtues form the only bulwark against panic when disaster strikes.

And in order to think on our feet, we need all the bulwarks against panic we can get.

Don’t Waste a Good Crisis

So while thinking on one’s feet is a useful ability and talent, use this time for forethought and the inculcation of virtues.

This is the time to prepare your thinking – and those you work with – to prepare for inevitable professional states of emergency.

We all have a great deal we can learn during lean times.

And we may never see a better time than today to do so.

For a good crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

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Maybe What the Architecture Profession Needs is a Small Heart Attack July 27, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in change, collaboration, environment, survival, the economy, transformation.
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4 comments

What will it take for us to change?

That’s the question I posed recently to a psychologist and a professor.

First, it’s important to recognize that architecture is a conservative profession.

We’re looking out for others – protecting the health, welfare and safety of the public.

We take a lot of risks and by nature are risk-averse.

So when we hear change knocking – it’s not often we’re first in line.

And yet – as the world is making clear – our job now is to change.

The biggest challenge is recognizing that we need to change.

What will motivate us to do so and how will we benefit by doing so?

Motivation vs. Benefit

Think of a recent change that you have made in your diet, lifestyle or habits.

What events, experiences, knowledge or people motivated you to change your behavior?

Where did this motivation come from?

Within you? Or from without?

What were the payoffs for making the needed change?

The reason I ask is this:

Unless there are clear benefits, we won’t change.

If the reasons are big enough, architects will change

While conducting research for my book, BIM and Integrated Design (Wiley, 2011,) I asked a psychologist and a professor each what it will take for architects to change.

With the new technologies and collaborative work processes upon us, do these call for the redesign of the architect?

And if so, how will we go about making our necessary changes?

The psychologist responded,

“How?” is about 10% of it.

90% of it is “Why?”

With an architect, if the reasons are big enough, they’ll change.

Unless they feel hurt, depressed, angry, upset, disappointed, without that there’s no leverage to change.

People change when they can no longer stand the way they’re living and architects are no different.

Architects are going to have to change when they can no longer stand to practice the way they’re doing it and realize that they have to change.

They’ll be forced into it.

When the reasons are big enough, they’ll change.

Unless the feared pain of changing is less than the feared pain of not changing, I’m not changing.

It’s not “This is good for you.”

I’ll fight you to the death on that one.

People don’t change because it’s good for them.

They don’t change for people.

I’ve come to appreciate “negative” feelings. I need those. That’s the leverage.

Architects are Always Changing

The professor took a different tact.

I asked him if this is an important question or is change in the profession and industry inevitable, a given?

The professor responded:

It comes back to the question whether people think it is productive for their own roles or place in the profession for change to happen.

People who are asking that often feel threatened because they may be in positions of power and for them status quo is beneficial. So they don’t want a change.

Whereas people who want to make a place for themselves are often the ones who are trying to change things.

Change is inevitable.

The idea that architecture has ever been a consistent type of practice is a myth.

It has always changed.

There will always be people for whom change will seem alluring and filled with opportunity to advance and position themselves better.

There will always be this element of change.

We cannot predict when things will change in various contexts – but change is always this element in there that’s at play.

In a pretty amazing book succinctly summarizing the recent economic crisis, author John Lanchester borrows a concluding metaphor from climate scientist James Lovelock who observed that

What the planet needed was the equivalent of a small heart attack.

In Lanchester’s view, the recent economic crisis is the equivalent of capitalism’s small heart attack.

Such an episode in a person’s life is often beneficial because it forces the person to face unpleasant facts and to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Perhaps it could have a similar effect on architects and the health of the profession?

Sometimes it takes a dramatic event to shake things up and to make people wake up.

So maybe what we are going through right now – with the economy, environmental challenges and technological changes – is a small heart attack?

Not so large so as to kill us.

But big enough to get our attention.

And get us to make the necessary changes.