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Architecture’s Star Making Machinery April 17, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, architecture industry, books, career, change, technology.
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A couple things I came across in the mail last week got me thinking about my start as an architect…and whether there’s any real, lasting importance with rubbing shoulders with famous folks.

And whether the way we go about rubbing shoulders today, however different from the past, changes anything.

We could talk about what it means to be an architect today vs. 30 years ago, or wherein power in the industry resides.

But at a time when the term “starchitects” has anything but positive connotations, what value does it have, in terms of one’s career, to have access to well-known, publically recognized architects today?

My mail, in other words, got me wondering whether architects are better off today with the social access we have vs. the way we went about meeting the well-known in years past.

Two Items of Note

You may have already seen the two items I’m referring to in the mail or online.

One item, the current (April 2011) issue of Metropolis Magazine celebrates the past 30 years by taking a look back at architecture movements.

And, the other,

The East edition of the ARCHITECT’S NEWSPAPER (04.06.2011) takes a nostalgic look back at the New York think tank, the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS), which you are probably most familiar with by Oppositions magazine, the journal put out by IAUS between 1973 and 1984 and talked about ever since.

After grad school, I arrived in Princeton NJ at the tail end of Opposition’s reign, just as Steven Holl’s Pamphlet Architecture was gaining popularity.

Working as an architect by day, I attended Princeton University architecture school lectures at night, where it was not unusual to find oneself in the same room, sometimes seated in the same row, as Diana Agrest, Stanford Anderson, Alan Colquhoun, Francesco Dal Co, Peter Eisenman, Kurt W. Forster, Kenneth Frampton, Mario Gandelsonas, K. Michael Hayes, Fred Koetter, Rem Koolhaas, Léon Krier, Mary McLeod, Rafael Moneo, Martin Pawley, Colin Rowe, Denise Scott Brown, Jorge Silvetti, Bernard Tschumi or Anthony Vidler.

Dean Robert Maxwell would introduce the evening’s speaker, then would seemingly sleep through the entire talk, only to awaken at the right moment, rise to the lecturn, recite a perfect, insightful, witty summary of the presentation and ask if there were any questions at which time someone would invariably raise his hand and say he had one, then go on to ask a question that was almost as long as the presentation and that almost always contained the word “contentious.”

It was school after all. For many soon-to-be architects, school represented the most likely place they’d find themselves in the presence of famous architects.

Today we have Facebook

On the weekends, I’d head into New York City, to visit galleries or attend a book reading. One particular book signing stands out from this time: at Rizzoli in NYC attended by Robert Stern, Philip Johnson among many others, all seated at separate tables, signing fresh copies of their Rizzoli books for starry-eyed architects.

Handing him a book I had brought with me from home, I asked Peter Eisenman to “deconstruct” his signature (which he did, remarkably, without so much a skipping a beat, as though I had just asked him for the time.) I had everybody sign my book of architect interviews because I was too poor at the time to buy each of their books.

In Princeton, I twice lived in or next to Michael Graves. When I first arrived in Princeton, I lived in his former office that had just been converted back into a rental apartment. The landlord, only days prior to my arrival, had painted over a Graves mural on one of the walls, saying that the tenant had defaced the property by drawing on the walls. I spent  the better part of the next year attempting to restore the Graves mural to its original condition.

The unit’s best feature was a wall made up of 75 white painted cubes that Graves created in which I displayed my bounty from the previous summer abroad (books, sweaters, Aldo Rossi espresso maker, etc.) comprising at the time all of my earthly possessions.

A couple years later, I lived next door to Graves – in fact, we shared a driveway. The house he had designed for himself was on the rear of the property where I rented. Like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, I would find myself from time to time a guest at one of his lavish parties.

At the time, this was novel. Today, it would be considered stalking.

Prior to my arrival, Graves was known in Princeton as The Kitchen King for his series of inspired rear lot modern house additions, and had won the Fargo-Moorhead cultural center bridge design competition, which he had ostensibly designed years earlier in my then walk-in closet.

When friends would visit, I’d take them to see Graves’ house additions – Benacerraf, Snyderman, et al – which you could only do at the time by walking into people’s backyards, then run for your life when the homeowners came to the door.

Today, that would be trespassing.

Graves’ tea kettle had just come out and while known previously as one of the original Whites, he was still making a name for himself, signing autographs in local housewares shops in Palmer Square and appearing in Dexter shoe ads (which you can still purchase today, on eBay, for a mere $7.49)

I would sit in on Graves’ lecture course on campus and on Thursday nights, head home and watch for his car in the driveway, ostensibly so he could catch that week’s episode of thirtysomething. Anyway, his lectures would always end at 8:30PM, he would arrive at his door at 8:59PM and his TV would turn on moments later. (I’m only saying.)

It was a heady time

Just as there are guides for those who want to be a famous actor or slightly famous author, there are a disproportionally large number of books for those who want to become a famous architect: here and here and here, where, according to author Garry Stevens, successful architects owe their success not so much to creative genius as to social background and a host of other factors that have very little to do with native talent.

Even when the architect is oozing with brains and talent, as in the case of Jeanne Gang, FAIA, of Studio Gang, we have to ask how much of their success has to do with social factors?

For example, since Gang had not ever designed a high-rise before Aqua, let alone an 82-story tower in Chicago’s downtown, how much did it help that she and the building’s developer, James Loewenberg of the Magellan Development Group, first met in 2004 while seated together at a Harvard alumni dinner?

2004: the same year Facebook was founded.

Yesterday we had Harvard, Today we have LinkedIn

How many have “stars” among their contacts who at any other time in history would have seemed unapproachable – but today, online – seem almost to be within reach?

How many find themselves from time to time conversing with a well-known talent in blog comment strings, in online forums, on Facebook, by email, texting and on Twitter?

For example, in my hometown Bruce Mau is a neighbor and attends local events like everyone else.

Am I more likely to get a chance to talk to him before or after an event – or online via social media? What do you think?

All of this was unthinkable 30 years ago. The proximity social media affords us to players in our field ought to create opportunities that architects didn’t have before.

Do you agree?

When the Road Map is more Complex than the Terrain March 2, 2011

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, books, change, function, questions, technology.
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Simplicity is a myth whose time has passed, if it ever existed. – Donald Norman

We’re grappling as an industry with larger and more complex projects and work processes.

As are our teams and work flows.

Our construction document sets have over time become obese.

The world is becoming more maze-like every day and so, in an effort to address the compounding (and confounding) complexity, our tools become more complex.

It’s as though complexity begets complexity.

But like fighting fire with fire, must we address our complex problems with equally complex tools, processes and solutions?

As I write, the states of Florida and Texas are burning.

Thankfully, nobody is suggesting using fire to squelch the flames.

It’s a saying, thanks to Shakespeare, that means to match the solution to the problem.

Architects may be able to see the big picture and think in terms of detail simultaneously, but how about on complex projects?

Are there another set of tools and abilities – such as those of the conductor, arranger or orchestrator – we need to turn to?

How much sense does it make to use extremely complex tools to solve complex problems?

More importantly, in these digitally sophisticated times;

How much sense does it make to use extremely complex tools to solve relatively simple problems?

That is a question I posed the other week in the form of a metaphor.

At a recent Lean Construction event where a talented designer had presented his technically sophisticated building design with a fairly simple program, I asked:

Can the road map be more complex than the terrain?

From the audience’s complicit silence one suspected they were thinking the same thing.

(Click on image above to witness beauty in complexity.)

Much of our design work – in an effort to make a statement – errs on the side of complexity-for-complexity’s sake.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t it be simpler?

What we really mean when we have these thoughts is:

Why can’t it acknowledge people? Why can’t it admit me?

Why must it aim for popularity or posterity into perpetuity on sites such as this or this? 

Why do we as designers make projects harder than they need to be?

As designers, despite our good intentions, we sometimes trip ourselves up by making things more difficult than they are.

Why we do it

We do it for any number of reasons, not all of them rational:

1. We do it because we feel we need to do so in order to innovate and move the design ball forward.

2. We also do it because we can.

  1. 3. We do it because we mistakenly equate complexity with sophistication.

4. We do it because we’re afraid if we didn’t there would only be silence – like tumbleweeds – on the other side.

5. We’re do it because we’re afraid that, without our intervening, our projects won’t speak; they’ll lack meaning and even purpose.

6. We do it because we’re exercising our designer muscle and in doing so, keeping our designer cred fit and alive.

Our world is already too complex – we would do well by not creating more than is necessary.

In this sense I’m suggesting a form of voluntary simplicity.

There is no question that architects need to develop new abilities to address the increasing scale and complexity of projects and work processes.

Why can’t these skill-sets be simple ones?

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, in his excellent new book Living with Complexity, sees complexity not as a problem but as an opportunity.

While many of us feel like we’re bombarded by too much information, we can ironically benefit by seeking information by hearing what others have to say about their experiences dealing with complex systems.

How do we deal with complexity in our world and in our work?

One way is to tap into our networks.

Simple Resources for Dealing with Complexity

A good place to start is by joining, observing and participating in any one of the complexity-related groups that can be found on social networks such as these on LinkedIn:

Systems Thinking is a group for systems thinking and organizational transformation practitioners to build links and experience. One of the very best groups on LinkedIn.

Systems Thinking World‘s purpose is to create content which furthers understanding of the value of a systemic perspective and enables thinking and acting systemically.

Complexity goes beyond today’s solutions.

And there are other related LinkedIn groups and subgroups: Complexity Science is a network connecting scientists dealing with complex systems; Systems Thinking & System Dynamics is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of systems thinking and system dynamics around the world; Complex Adaptive Systems group is about Complex Adaptive Systems theory applying to social sciences, aiming to bring professionals and academics together, and Systems Thinking for Managers is a networking opportunity for people interested in radical effectiveness and efficiency improvements in private and public sectors.

Some great blogs on complexity here, here, here and here

Some great books on complexity here,  here,  here and here

&

One brilliant book on (myth or not) simplicity here.

Now it’s your turn: Do you believe it is possible to successfully address complex problems – such as those brought about by working on large-scaled projects – with simple means and solutions? How so?