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one that resonates most with me is the observation that the business structure of traditional practice is hopelessly outdated.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.