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one that resonates most with me is the observation that the business structure of traditional practice is hopelessly outdated.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

Another face of Melbourne



It seems likely that later this year, my design practice will be pulling up its skirts and sashaying off to new premises. Thinking about it entirely from a selfish point of view, this will have several ramifications. Firstly, depending on the final location we choose, I may no longer be able to go home for lunch. Such a condition currently inflicts the majority of the working population. Being at home at lunch is luxurious, and I enjoy it very much - and my animals enjoy my presence too.

The second ramification of the move will be the opportunity - nay, the necessity - to acquaint myself with a new part of the city, immersing myself in the minutiae of a new location. The pedestrian trails between my house and the new office will also be a chance for discovery. I will have an opportunity to buy coffee each morning in new and better establishments, and explore the back lanes and stray shortcuts that reveal themselves to daily foot commuters. Melbourne city is excellent for such sport, and rewards close examination and random exploration. This potentially is a source of great pleasure, and by extending my commute beyond its current three minutes (literally) all manner of possibilities may emerge. At the very least, I will be 'getting out there' more - a state we are conditioned to believe is wholesome and generally good for us. I am not so sure, but I am willing to take a positive view.

One building we are examining for our new premises is a two-storey wedge-shaped commercial building dating back to the early 20th Century, and this is generally more appealing than our current building, which is best described as '1980's boom commercial on a budget'. Whether the light and layout potential of a triangular building is as abundant and practical as our current boring rectangular floor plate remains to be seen. Nevertheless it sounds like a challenge suitable for a team of architects. Controversially, the building in question is off Hoddle's city grid - albeit only by fifty metres or so. Psychologically, relocating our practice off the grid that comprises the Central Business District is a big deal, even if we are only just off the edge. I trust that our egos are robust enough to carry it off, and live without the absolute downtown address, and the cachét that comes with it.

On balance, despite the likely impending loss of my lunchtime privileges, I think the move is a positive one, and there may be a daily reward for carrying my camera to work. The chief beneficiary may be my Melbourne Urban Photography Project: my little MUPPet.

 

What am I? A professional brain-teaser



Late last year I did some work with a creative studio, thinking through roles, techniques for writing and presentation, and generally brainstorming their creative trajectory as a working organisation. This work was done under the banner of my private consultancy, Archimentor (www.archimentor.com.au). I puzzled over this work to some extent, as I seem to have launched Archimentor without knowing precisely what it is or does. All I did know for sure was that the work was fascinating, the results satisfying and the process of 'following my nose' quite rewarding. This was due in no small part to the head of the studio in question, who was tremendously supportive, inquisitive and a creative powerhouse of formidable abilities.

Recently things have come into focus somewhat, and I think I am now in a position to pin down exactly what we were up to, all of us together. I think we were engaging in a process of design thinking, the application of the techniques of design to a business context, coupled with building the design skills and capacity of the team as applied to what was perhaps less familiar territory: their work processes and roles, rather than their commissions. Writing and taking the design initiative were two topics that received some attention in our sessions.

Design thinking is undoubtedly a buzz phrase at this time. Nevertheless I can see its potential, and I can also see the seeds of something enduring amongst the hype. The techniques of design represent a potentially powerful method of problem definition, resolution or solution. Design thinking can establish pathways for alternative and unexpected types of investigation, and yield results that are equally unexpected and well-suited to their application.

I can see how businesses of all types could benefit from the techniques of design thinking, but I don't want to get carried away with definitions at this formative stage. Strangely, I have enjoyed the organic and slightly shambolic evolution of my consulting sideline to date; it forms a smaller subset of my own creative practice in architecture and design, and I am yet to bring the many strands together. In the meantime I would like to see my strange sideline continue to evolve, and I am not in a hurry to pin it down. At least, not yet.

Check out www.archimentor.com.au for some more clues. Comments and insights are welcome.

Another day, another diphthong

The blogger's tools: caffeine, free wifi and an ipad

The first Archimentor workshop was run successfully this week! Very exciting. It was an Articulation Workshop (writing and speaking) with the team at Gloss Creative, and it was a very interesting evening. We ran through three exercises, one writing and two speaking. I was impressed not just by the supreme competence and excellent attitude of the team, but also by the way that the bits I thought would be harder for them were easier, and vice versa.

The workshop process is so rewarding, as it is a ‘live beast’ - once it is up and running it really takes off in surprising directions. The process requires a thousand minute adjustments made on the fly - tone and delivery are very important, and I was yet again struck by the fact that the way a challenge is framed has a significant impact on the way it is received and carried out.

The essence of what I discussed with the team was that the different methods of articulation - of making clear, of laying out the parts - are all related. One of the evening's three simple rules was that participants were to use all their skills, and this was an allusion to the idea of 'parallel processing'. Parallel processing is the concept that the same ideas can be processed or expressed in different ways, but rather than one way being 'right' and another 'wrong', they can all exist in parallel. Valuable knowledge and insights are created by repeating the same idea in a different way, and registering the subtle differences.

To give you an example, an excellent technique for clear writing is to start by speaking what you intend to write. By explaining an idea in conversation you are provided with a ready-made logical structure, simply due to the fact that we have an intuitive understanding of how to talk to each other - where to start, what to say next, and so on. It might not be the perfect explanation, but it generates a structure that can be critiqued in a different medium. The structure can be used to lay out a piece of writing, or a diagram, an illustration, or as the backbone of a report. The technique also works in all directions. For example, for clear speaking you might start by drawing, or making a diagram, or writing, and so on. It is simple but effective.

We also discussed the process of distillation. Distillation is a reduction of the whole to its constituent parts, and it is a natural consequence of expressing an idea in different mediums or forms. Each idea may have a spoken part, a written part, an illustrated part, a photographic part, an emotional part, an economic part, perhaps even a musical part - and doubtless many others. Each part has a different value, so by jumping between the techniques of articulation, by running them in parallel, you begin to frame up a complex and subtle picture of overall idea. Just in case you are skeptical about the idea of a musical part, a friend recently used the concept in his teaching in urban design. Each student's project had to be given a theme song by the student, which was played before each presentation. It was fun, a bit silly, and genuinely instructive.

I wonder what theme song the team would nominate for the workshop? I should put it to the vote: I am sure I would be surprised.

A (very) small business launch



Hello gentle readers, I am happy to announce that I have launched my private consultancy, Archimentor. Archimentor is a loose-fit vehicle for me to provide private mentoring and coaching services, for want of a much, much better description. The list on my ultra-simple one-page website (archimentor.com.au) says it best, where it describes the Archimentor services as the provision of:

  • a sounding board

  • mentor

  • coach

  • think-tanker

  • one-man workshop

  • audience

  • adviser

  • confidante

  • listener

  • speaker

  • designer

  • writer

  • thinker


Such a business seems unlikely in the extreme, especially to me - a real hot-house flower. However, I am happy to report that I have one industry client and one student client, so I am off and running. My marketing strategy is a simple one, and will require patience: I want to work on a word-of-mouth basis exclusively. As such I will take it one mouth at a time and see where it leads.

Archimentor perfectly complements my role at Williams Boag Architects, where I am engaged in design, strategy, management and winning new work. I expect that each situation will feed off the other, and evolve into something truly interesting.

Good times ahead.