Para-architectural is the new architectural

Three months into the year of ‘YES we can do it!’ and I am getting a bit fired up for new adventures and strange possibilities. Not sure where the future leads, but it is bound to be somewhere interesting.

Adding fuel to my speculations, I recently stumbled upon this interview on Archinect with Melbourne-based architectural photographer and non-practicing architect Nic Granleese, a man who is a practitioner of a decidedly different stripe. He has coined the rather useful phrase ‘para-architect’ to describe his own mode of operation, which exists ‘beside, near, alongside and/or beyond’ architecture - hence the prefix ‘para’.

There is much to learn from this interview, and I am particularly interested in Nic’s rethinking of digital rights licensing in relation to his images. The open licence would be anathema to the traditional photographer, but there is much to recommend a new approach in a world dominated by the fluidity of social and web-based media.

Of the other ideas he puts forward in this wide-ranging interview, the one that resonates most with me is the observation that the business structure of traditional practice is hopelessly outdated. He further asserts that architects have existed in ‘slavery’ to that model for too long. Strong words.

While I believe that both observations are true, I am unsure of what that means for the medium-sized practice, which seems to be the organisation most severely impacted by the rapidly transforming global situation. This is of particular interest to me as my current base of employment is in just such a practice.

Can the operating model be adapted in response to the forces of change, or is it destined to disappear altogether? If the worst eventuates, how will the disappearance occur: with a whimper or a bang? The industry in Australia is certainly struggling at the moment, with fee bidding rampant, and competition fierce for the few projects that are being tendered. With financial and organisational survival the question, what are the answers?

One answer might be parapractice, and there are any number of examples of non-traditional practices seeding themselves like weeds in the cracks of the profession. Nic mentions one in particular, the practice Openhaus, started by my clever friend Tania Davidge with the multi-talented and charming Christine Phillips. Openhaus has a radically different approach to practice and architecture, and has won the Institute of Architects media award for their efforts so far.

Another answer might be to re-examine the fundamentals of the medium sized practice’s relationship to communication and intellectual property. Once again, the traditional models seem to be rigid and literally exclusive: what could the alternatives be? Much to ponder.

A Song of Welcome to a Darker Season

autumn streets

It is Autumn in Melbourne, and I am already revelling in the steely grey skies, leaf-strewn pavements and regular showers of rain. During Winter last year, I described the darker months as my personal peak seasons of creativity. Today has been relatively warm, but the skies are big over Carlton and they have, to borrow a phrase from The Orb, "little fluffy clouds". So here is a nod to the darker seasons that are coming upon us: I for one welcome them.

Commonplacing for beginners

let optimism rein

I have just finished reading Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", an excellent exposition of a theory of innovation that focuses on the processes, platforms and techniques that support the emergence of creativity and ideas. His ideas are well researched, and in keeping with the subtitle (A natural history of innovation) Charles Darwin makes a sustained appearance in the text. There are far too many exciting ideas embodied in this book to give a comprehensive overview here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular: the concept of the Commonplace Book, its use as a tool of innovation and creativity, and the form it takes in the digital era.

The Commonplace Book was a ubiquitous tool of any Enlightenment scholar and gentleman, and its use extended from Renaissance Italy (the Zibaldone, or 'hodgepodge' book) up to premodern and modern England and America, although the forms varied in subtle and particular ways. The essence of the form was to carry a book that allowed one to capture words and sketches in many diverse and varied forms, types and purposes, creating a singular journal. Nowadays we would call it a personal journal or sketchbook, but the emphasis in Commonplacing (as it was known and taught in Oxford and even Harvard - Thoreau was taught to do this) was to combine quotations and extracts from found material with personal reflections and insights. The older form, the Renaissance 'Zibaldone' was even more diverse, and could include a record of tax rates, payments, debts, doodles, recipes, quotations from the greater and lesser poets, sketches, drawings and just about anything else you could imagine.

Johnson points to the benefits of Commonplacing as a tool of innovation and creativity, and attributes this to its ability to net and trap 'hunches' and subsequently allow the unexpected collision of different ideas. This process takes advantage of what he and others have called the 'adjacent possible'. Indeed, he elevates the humble 'hunch' to the level of proto-concept, an essential larval form of innovative ideas, albeit one that is more likely statistically to be abandoned and wither than bear fruit. As the story goes, we have a lot of hunches, and we need to have a lot, and not lose track of them: some lead us somewhere, but all of them have value. Even the ones we abandon are essential to 'trap', as they may form the seed of further ideas. Personally I prefer the term 'seed' to 'hunch'; to me, 'seed' captures the emergent potential of the stray idea, while acknowledging that it may fall on either barren or fertile ground - amount to something, or nothing at all.

I am no stranger to journal-keeping, nor to the fruitless/fruitful recording of stray hunches, but thanks to Mr. Johnson, I have a clearer view of a personal practice that had been intuitive up until now. He has filled out the creative, utilitarian and historical context to what was in itself a hunch - a desire to keep and maintain a record of thoughts and found materials.

More than this, Johnson was able to put the practice of commonplacing in an up-to-date framework through a discussion about the software tool DEVONthink. Like Evernote, DEVONthink is a personal database tool ideal for capturing words, notes, images, documents, voice recordings, web links and pages, in fact anything that you might wish to place in an imaginative or useful framework for future reference. In essence, they are both commonplacing tools, updated for a web-centric digital age.

The power of DEVONthink, and the advantage that it has over the conceptually similar but simpler Evernote, is embodied in its search algorithm, one that intelligently considers the context and proximity of words and meaning as well as the explicit search terms. It is also capable of intelligently classifying new material in relation to material you have already trapped in the database, a revealing and creative process in itself. With DEVONthink, storing items and ordering the database over time is fruitful, but the act of searching also becomes an active creative process, one that forces possible adjacencies between words and concepts in a way that is just a little unpredictable. And in that unpredictability is a strangely resonant mimicry of the seemingly-random connections between ideas and concepts that can emerge from, or inform, our subconscious and conscious minds. In this way the software acts as an extension and augmentation of our thinking process, if not our mind itself.

I have in the past used Evernote as my de-facto digital commonplacing tool, but I was far too intrigued by the possibilities of DEVONthink's search and classification algorithm to resist it. As a result I spent much of the long weekend transitioning my database of material from Evernote into DEVONthink. This labour-intensive process had the added bonus of allowing me to revisit much of the material I had saved into Evernote, and this in turn presented a range of new connections and concepts, new potentials, new seeds.

I look forward to new taxonomical habits yielding creative new insights, augmented by my newly adopted commonplacing tool.

The year of YES

let optimism rein

I am determined to start 2012 off in a positive frame of mind. I recently met a charming Australian woman who had lived in Portland, Oregon for several years. She reminded me of that most endearing of American traits - of American people, that is, not American popular culture - an unbridled and vibrant capacity for positivity and enthusiasm, and a corresponding lack of the cynicism and pessimism that is so prevalent in Australian culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this - which is I suppose the point - but instead, I have decided to be inspired and wide-eyed. This doesn't come easy to a Melbourne pseudo-intellectual, but I am giving it a go. So rather than looking at the glass half full, as I seemed to be doing for much of 2011 (everything was problematic), I am beginning the new year by counting the positives and moving on from there. Things are good. Uncertainty is a fact, but I am learning to live with it.

On this basis, I hereby declare that 2012 is my year of 'YES'.

I, too, am suffering from electronic ennui...a first world problem

So here we are: I am bored with my iPhone. I find myself surfing sites with Android smartphones, even Windows Mobile units, and wondering what it would be like... This strange turn of events is an outgrowth of my recent holiday dalliance with Ubuntu - I am in a hacking frame of mind. No fun doing that with an iPhone.

To help you understand what I am currently feeling about my iPhone - and just how insignificant and ridiculous such a state of mind is - I have found this blog post from almost exactly one year ago that PERFECTLY sums the matter up. Speaking quite literally, I couldn't have expressed it better. Check it out here. Thanks to the author.

Christmas bustle in Melbourne Town

There is a good vibe in town today, it is really busy but not frantic, and people seem to be behaving decently. Makes a change for the Christmas period. Here are some men at work at David Jones, in the food court. I liked their hustle.

Oh, and ignore the Youtube suggested videos that show up after you have played the little movie - I don't know how they select them, but they are nothing to do with me!


Memory is a strange thing. Just the other evening I had a sudden flash of remembrance, not of something profound, but of something more mundane. I remembered a cobwebbed string of brass bells, Indian in provenance, that I had tied up outside the window of my bedroom in Canberra, many years earlier.

My father had kindly built a deck outside my window at my request, and I liked to sit on the deck and look at the distant hills surrounding Southern Canberra. Those hills were a comforting presence, and they represented an 'other' place, a counterpoint to the suburban sprawl in the valley in which I lived. I had walked up those far-off hills one day, many years before that, crossing the border into New South Wales and winding up through a pine forest to break into the paddocks on the hilltops. The views of the Brindabella Mountains from up there were expansive, and served to elevate the otherwise drab suburban expanse of the Tuggeranong Valley in the foreground.

These elements formed the landscape of my life at a difficult time, and I am forever grateful for the calming presence of those distant hills, and indeed those closer to my home, where I used to walk for hours on end. I would walk for up to three hours at a time, climbing to the highest point above the suburb of Monash, and sit underneath the trig station on the crown of the hill. This was important personal time, and intensely creative - I would work through ideas, and imagine different realities, as if testing out fictional settings. The experience was formative.

If I am lacking something in my life on Melbourne's city grid, it is perhaps the presence and view of distant hills, or an appropriate substitute. There is something dream-like about engaging with such a view, and the reverie it inspires is rich sustenance to the creative mind. I still associate those bells with this strange, floating, inward-looking feeling.

Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat: A bleak but entertaining Melbourne

When we peer into the future of the cities we live in, the only one thing we can know for certain is that there will be change. Melbourne has changed markedly since I moved here in 1995, and the mind boggles to think of the transformations that longer time periods will unleash on the complexion of our fair city. In fifty years, who knows what Melbourne will be like?

One person who has allowed his mind to boggle in the aforementioned fashion is Andrez Bergen, ex resident of Melbourne, current resident of Tokyo, and author of the noir homage novel Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat. Andrez offers us one imagined future for Melbourne, and it has to be said that things don’t look so good. The dystopian Melbourne of TSMG, pitched at some distance into the future, has the unique distinction of being the only city left in the world. Unfortunately, things are not going terribly well in terms of civil liberties, the political climate or the environment. In fact, things are comprehensively fucked up on all fronts, and the portrait painted is of an overcrowded, polluted metropolis groaning under the control of a government vested in corporate interests and busy herding non-conformists and misfits into extramural death camps styled as ‘hospitals’.

Despite this undeniable grimness, the novel is also pretty amusing, and it mines the noir vein with gay abandon, to use an old-fashioned phrase. Andrez wears his pop-culture influences on his sleeve, and the result is a compote that mashes up a plethora of fictional frameworks into a believable, seamelss whole. Readers who know Melbourne will enjoy seeing the geography of the city rezoned and remapped, polarised by the presence of a dome over the CBD that shelters the wealthy elite. And god help you if you find yourself in Richmond, which Bergen transforms into a demilitarised wasteland; Abbotsford and other inner suburbs don’t fare much better.

I for one appreciate someone taking the time to imagine an Australia of the future, as it is a welcome change to the ubiquitous North American setting of much popular fiction, and science fiction. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t be enough to recommend it. Happily, TSMG is also a ripping yarn in the best dystopian, gumshoe tradition.

Oh, and on a final note, you will thoroughly enjoy the company of the protagonist, Floyd Maquina - he is ruggedly handsome and generally ruined; witty, self destructive and self-effacing with his air of gracious defeat. He has a weary charm that is impossible to resist. If only he were real...

Farewell Steve

Steve jobs launching the ipad

He was, by all accounts, driven, uncompromising and difficult to work with. Still, he did some cool stuff. I have to confess to being a Mac Tragic. I use Mac products for work and for personal stuff. At last count I have owned about 9 iMacs/MacPros/Macbooks/Macbook Pros of various vintage, and a range of iPads, iPods and iPhones. I still have four iPods in current use, including a Classic with everything on it, and an older nano that lives in my car and talks to my car stereo. This post was written on a 27 inch iMac, and chances are you are reading it on a Mac.

Yes, Apple has made its mark, and I have personally contributed an uncomfortable amount to Steve's estate. Not that I hold a grudge about that. So, anyway, thanks Steve - glad you could make it to planet Earth. Sorry you had to leave so soon.

On the steps of Bundoora Homestead, 1905

Smith Family, on the steps of Bundoora Homestead circa 1905

I found this image in our archive, we got hold of it when we renovated Bundoora Homestead, and it always struck me as a haunting photograph. The Homestead has a sad history in a way, it was only lived in as a house for a short period, following which it was converted into a repatriation hospital for shell-shocked WWI veterans. It later became a mental hospital, but some of the diggers who took up residence there during World War One lived there for the remainder of their lives, and at least one was still in residence in the 1980's.  This photograph is reportedly of the Smith Family, the original inhabitants of the Homestead. My new header at the top of the website - showing the vintage car - was also taken at the Homestead around 1905.

A farewell to Winter

I wanted to revisit something that I have previously thought to be of great importance, and that is the concept of negative capability as defined by the poet Keats. This popped up in Orna Ross' blog on creative intelligence ( While I am not really in sync with Orna's design aesthetic, or I suspect her fiction, some interesting things turn up in her blog from time to time, and I enjoy her regular email.

Recently Orna reminded her readers of the concept of negative capability, which Keats defined as being ’when a man (sic) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts — without any irritable reaching out after fact and reason." I knew this quote well, and have long considered that negative capability is one of the most underrated and overlooked thinking concepts of the last few centuries. This is a powerful counterpoint to the searching, visually probing, post-enlightenment scientific gaze, a dissenting voice in a time where scientific thinking sought nothing more than a constant, exhausting and 'irritable reaching out after fact and reason".

Keats himself clearly understood the capacity of his concept to offend the man of science, when he said that 'what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet."

It gets better. I had never read the later part of the quotation, where Keats goes on to say the following: "It [negative capability] does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one, because both end in speculation." What a fantastic appeal to the aesthetics of the Gothic: to joyously relish the dark side of things. This is the essential nature of my love of the winter season, that it is the time of darkness and brooding fascination. Now, of course, Spring is upon us, and so we bid farewell to the darkness for another year. Nevertheless, it will be good to keep hold of Keat's negative capability as we enter the new seasonal cycle. This is a potent time of year creatively, when darkness turns towards light, and the days lengthen - and I look forward to the coming regeneration, hopefully without an irritable reaching after facts and reason.

Melbourne No. 1, but for the chosen few?

Collins Street, late WinterSo Melbourne is on the top of the list of the World's Most Liveable Cities once more, having pipped Vancouver (with its touch of rioting) from the top post. This is all fine and good, and certainly from the point of view of a person living in the CBD or on a tram route (like my good self), there is some truth in the rating. However, what if you spend two hours a day in a car, just getting to and from work? Is that one of the most liveable experiences in the world? After all, that is hardly a rare circumstance. I merely pose the question, for your consideration.

Some reassuring facts about

Well, I knew attending a church service was radical - an act of subversion, even - and this was reinforced by the reaction I have received from friends and readers in general. Let me lay down a few home truths.

1 - This isn't about to become a blog about spirituality or religion. Thinking, design and the city - those are the three themes.

2 - I don't have any belief in a supernatural god, although I think the role of religion after the philosophical 'death of god' is worthy of further investigation. Don Cupitt's post-religious theological/philsophical ideas - the idea of a 'religion of life', which is affirmative and resolutely complete in the absence of god - is of interest.

3 - I am far more likely to become a practicing magician than a religious observer in the traditional sense.

4 - Jung's archetypal psychology is more interesting than the bankrupt structures of organised religion, and potentially more relevant to the concept of design, particularly in architecture. Investigation into this might surface on this blog in the future.

So relax, everyone - no conversion on the road to Damascus.

Today I did something radical

I did something radical this morning. I went to Church. Now, I don't want to alarm the people who know me well, I haven't undergone a sudden conversion to this or that creed or dogma. I have certainly not been 'born again', at least not in the last 25 years. This isn't Dylan goes electric.

What I have done, though, is realised that the spiritual dimension of my life needs some attention, and I am interested in particular in what one might call the spiritual dimension of creativity. This is a quiet feeling, and one that I can scarcely account for. In this regard I have recently been reading a lot on topics as wide as kabbala, witchcraft, paganism, ritual and high magic, meditation, Epicureanism, depth and archetypal psychology, and indeed the life and thoughts of Carl Gustav Jung, the master of the archetypes himself.

The strange crossover between psychology and spirituality led me in a roundabout way to the figure of Dr. Francis McNab, Melbourne's very own radical cleric - albeit of the apparently mild-mannered, Uniting Church variety. Interested in hearing first hand what Dr. McNab had to say, I wandered up Collins Street to St Michaels. The experience was quite engaging. Not a bit like paganism or witchcraft, it must be said, although some of his critics might suggest that it is a slippery slope. I was made very welcome, I got to sit in a beautiful space and listen to some glorious Bach and cheeky Mozart, and I found the sermon intriguing.

There was also something deeply reassuring and engaging about using my city in a new way - entering and using a sacred space for its intended purpose, even if only for a while. Well, it's new for me. From this little outing - unexpected as it was, even to me - I have much to think about. More in due course, my faithful pagan readers.

Infirmity in the city

A cold, lowering sky

It seems that I am not to get out of winter without a minor bout of sickness, and at the time of writing I can hear nothing at all in my right ear, and I am nursing an insipid, dry cough. My infirmity is minor in the extreme, and indeed in some ways it is nice to be reminded not to take good health for granted. The city seems to be echoing my inner state, with the afternoon closing down beneath an indecisive, rainy and cloud-streaked sky. It would be an ideal afternoon to be in bed, but alas I plod on through my daily chores. I am looking forward to the close of business, so I can retreat to my private rooms and snuggle up beneath a rug with my dog. Even when I am sick, I love winter.