Melbourne Open House 2011

July is such a busy month! In addition to the State of Design Festival, Melbourne is also hosting Melbourne Open House 2011. You can check them out here. Melbourne Open House is a rare behind-the-scenes event, where you get to tread where the everyday man or woman in the street does not typically get to tread. I am covering MOH for Artichoke magazine, and as such I will be blessed with a media pass to cut through the crowds. Bliss! This year I will be focusing on corporate spaces of now and yesteryear, with Bishopscourt (the oldest house in East Melbourne) and an enormous underground substation thrown in for good measure.

State of Design Festival 2011

It is the Victorian State of Design Festival, and I am pleased to say that I am participating in the Write On Design programme, as a mentor to two emerging design writers who will be covering various Festival events. Expect to see links to their posts over the next few days, as they publish their reviews to the official Festival Blog, the link for which I will provide when it goes live. The Write On Design brief can be found here. Happy Festival everyone!

 

Distance in Australia

A comparable journey by the kilometre, if not by the hour

Distance is a strange thing, relatively speaking. Today I travelled the geographic equivalent of a trip from Edinburgh to Plymouth, although the trip from Melbourne to Canberra takes approximately half the time. I just wanted to point out that the density of western history between Edinburgh and Plymouth is infinitely greater than that between Melbourne and Canberra. Somehow, it is more difficult for me to fathom the 40,000 plus years of human occupation I crossed today, whereas 2,000 years of history in England and Scotland is far less opaque. I think this is a personal failing, but it is not only that. Something else is going on, something about the differences between oral and written histories, and between the marking of time and distance in the cultural west as compared to that of the aboriginal cultures that were so rudely displaced by the cartesian division of Australia. That's a lot to get out of seven hours of uneventful driving, but still, it makes you think.

 

 

A thought experiment: discovery/design/drawing

Something that doesn't exist

We all want to get ‘better’ at design. Here’s a thought experiment that might help. Suspend your disbelief for a while, and read the following as if you agree with it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t: this is an exercise in pretending.

It has been said (by me, just now) that design and discovery were at the opposite ends of the scale, but somewhere along the line the ends of that scale were bent around into a horseshoe shape so that they are now actually quite close together, even while retaining all the qualities of an opposing pair.

Whew! I am glad I got that out. The simile might be clumsy, but it carries a grain of truth: when you are in the zone, design can sometimes feel more like discovery, or uncovering, than making. It can feel like heading down a path and discovering interesting things along the way. I suggest that the opposite is also true, and that to uncover or unearth - to discover - has many of the qualities of making, of design.

Think about it for a moment. The person who discovered the gas oxygen in the mid 1770’s (the Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele seems to have won that historical race by a whisker) certainly uncovered or revealed it. However, in a very real sense he also ‘invented’ it -  designed it - insofar as the concept or idea of oxygen had no existence before his definition. (Actually, to be precise, Scheele actually invented ‘fire air’, as he named it, correctly acknowledging oxygen’s role in combustion.  The word oxygen is a later and less accurate nomenclature, taken from the French oxygéne, which means ‘acidifying constituent’ according to the OED.)

The components of oxygen might exist atomically independent of language, I’m prepared to concede that they do, but in practice that fascinating gas is embedded in a dense mesh of invented and ascribed meaning, and such things are entirely cultural and historical artefacts. In other words, they are ‘made up stuff’ - the product of intention and design. (Quantum physics goes further and throws into question whether phenomena even exist independent of observation, but that’s way over my head and a story to explore another time.)

So, if you subscribe to this view (and remember you are pretending that you do) then designers are merely in the business of discovering things that are already there; and conversely, it follows that he or she who discovers things is actually making them up or inventing them, in some sense at least. If this is the case (keep pretending) then design as an activity must proceed under the assumptions and conditions of discovery, as well as making. And, as we know, the first condition of discovery is the principle that there is in fact something there to be discovered: that in theory at least you need only look in order to find, however hard the looking might be in practise.

Keep pretending a little while longer, and take our thought experiment with you to the drawing board. Can you design as if it is merely discovery, and nothing more? Can you design as if the product or solution already exists, and that all you are doing is digging it out of the earth? I think that if you try this with a little imagination, if you continue to suspend your disbelief and ‘just pretend’, a whole range of alternative techniques will suggest themselves to you.

For example, I know that I draw things I am inventing differently to things that already exist, particularly things I can see when I am drawing. I don’t know why I should do that, but I do it nonetheless - could that change if I pretend the imagined object already exists? Perhaps. I had better try it and see.

There ends the experiment. Let me know how you go.

Welcome to our new home

Exciting times, people. If you blinked you might have missed it, but if you are observant you will have noticed that you have been secretly redirected to the new home of my blog, the subtly renamed "The Flawed Mind". The transition from "A" to "The" is part of the refinement of the intent of the blog, in anticipation of some exciting professional and personal changes that are on the way.

I can't tell you what those changes are yet, but suffice to say that "A Flawed Mind" is singular, whereas "The Flawed Mind" is more generalised, and hence more pluralistic. So apart from anything else, expect some more voices to be heard on this site in the future. I will maintain my editorial role on the site, and remain as the principal author, but a few more flawed minds will eventually be turning their thoughts to the business of entertaining you with insights and observations.

Stay tuned.

The ripe fruit of design failure



When we design objects such as furniture, joinery and buildings - in fact, almost anything with utility - we attempt to anticipate the circumstances of its use and shape the object or form accordingly. We all know this, and assume that it should be so. It is certainly a practical approach; and yet, no matter how hard we try to anticipate the future lives of our design products, the attempt frequently fails, in part if not in whole.


Our world is littered with the fecund evidence of such failures, scattered about our lives like so much fallen and rotting fruit. The question I am interested in is this: what becomes of these failures? The language of design is imbued with morality. We hear of 'good' design and 'bad' design, rather than 'useful' or 'useless'. The greater good is always assumed to be design that is fit for its purpose - design like a glove that fits a hand. Anything bad, on the other hand, is summarily dismissed from consideration.

Nevertheless, if you look carefully at these mistakes - these orphans of intention - they possess shape, form, colour and materiality. They typically also have pattern and proportion, scale and very possibly a mysterious utility outside of their original intended purpose. In fact, these errors possess all the qualities of their more successful cousins, the 'correctly' designed element; they have merely been cut loose from their moorings, drifting from their intended purpose into a no-man's land of extraneous or needless things.

The example shown above is a perfectly round hole cut through a serving bench at a local café. The hole was evidently intended to convey the cash register's cables into the joinery, but times have changed, and the register has been moved 400 millimetres to the left, making the hole superfluous. I find this hole fascinating. It is so carefully made, and so materially satisfying - there is something delicious about a nice, even hole cut through laminated materials. The edge of the hole as it passes through the stainless steel skin has been filed smooth, and the ply substrate is visible beneath, with its tooled striations.

Nevertheless, this particular hole is currently useless. One can take all manner of lessons from the position of this hole, and pontificate about the unwise nature of some decision-making processes in detailed design, but really, who cares? Perhaps, as the hippies did to the barrels of the guns, we should put a flower in the hole. Then again, perhaps not.

Ultimately, the world has another hole in it: all is well.


 

Almost enough to make solitary confinement appealing

I just had to share this: Al Capone's so-called 'Park Avenue' Cell in Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. If I had to spend time in prison, I couldn't possibly imagine a more accommodating space. It seems as if it were tailored to the needs of a writer. I am not sure if Al Capone was much of a correspondent, but it is hard to imagine what else you could do in such a room - apart from read, of course.

Stardom and its alternatives



It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars."

- F. L. Lucas

Stepping around the gender exclusivity, I found in the quote above much to consider, and reassurance to be found. It seems to me that a necessary condition of the 'inconspicuous triumph' is to aspire to stardom, but it is somehow heartening to be reminded of the enormous value of cultural work, independent of fame and fortune. It would seem important to know and to value those 'few who know us', and to avoid taking them for granted. Of course, the corollary to this is to make a mark on the world - to leave a record of progress, of the process of maintaining the 'ancient values'.

This is a kind of immortality, or at least endurance beyond our short allotted span. I am drawn to this sort of thing, and I have in my possession two documents, one written in 1451 and one written in 1494. (My documents are archivally framed, and difficult to photograph; the image above is of an English document a century older, but the handwriting is similar.) I am yet to have my documents translated, but I know one to be a letter of recommendation for a young man, and the other is a passport, the documentation required to cross the feudal borders of 15th Century Italy. I love these documents, I love that they have survived intact and legible on their tough parchment, and I find them inspiring. Certainly, the handwriting - small and tight, yet flowing and lyrical - brings the presence of the scribe close to the surface of the document.

I aspire to this kind of endurance, this modest form of immortality: it seems far less fleeting, and more achievable, than 'stardom', to use Lucas' terminology. This also lies at the root of my fondness for good paper, bottles of ink and fountain pens. I will continue to write, transcribing my thoughts and aspects of my mundane, workaday world, and we shall in time see what comes of it.

A 'pure' design problem?



I am about to embark on a design project that I am tempted to call a 'pure' architectural problem. What is important about this observation, apart from the details of the job, is my impulse to refer to it as a 'pure' problem. This implies that some architectural problems are 'impure' or contaminated in some way, a condition that this project somehow avoids through a convergence of circumstance, siting and brief. The distinction is false: a phantom idea that seems solid at first glance, but becomes progressively more vapourous the more it is examined.

My impulse to call the project a 'pure' architectural problem comes from it being relatively unencumbered in certain ways, but it is a lazy taxonomy. The brief is to design a library and community services building for a township outside a regional city here in southern Australia. The township is sorely lacking in public institutions, buildings and spaces, and as such the new building will provide an important social function. Stay-at-home parents will be important beneficiaries of the project, as it will give them space to come together in public, in a non-commercial setting. As such the project promises a lot for a growing community, and the social performance of the buildings must be outstanding or an opportunity will be missed. This social factor, and the project's limited budget, are the chief encumbrances.

The project is relatively less encumbered by its setting, and this is where it departs from my usual work. The building will be built on a greenfield site - one that is literally a green field at this time. Construction vehicle access will be direct and easy; the site slopes consistently but not steeply to the west, and access to services such as sewer and electricity is straightforward. The subsoil is a bit shifty, which causes some complications in the design, but on the whole it will be a straightforward build. Conceptually, the building will be an object in a field, a condition that many architects would view as ideal, a chance to 'strut their stuff'. After all, the quintessential architectural project is the heroic object positioned 'in the round' like a sculpture, with its sublime body visible, and hence consumable, from all angles. Isn't it?

I think my impulse to call this a 'pure' architectural problem comes from an awareness of this apparently 'ideal' condition, that of the unencumbered architectural object 'landing' on the big, empty site. It is curious that I might be tempted to call this 'pure', as I tend to think of the ideal as something quite different. With my team, the ideal project is one that is heavily encumbered - by a complex and dense urban setting, a built-up site, or even an existing building that needs to be accommodated in the new works. The energy of our architecture at WBa comes from the charge of highly constrained problems, which is why we love working with heritage buildings so much. We are not motivated by the desire to create heroic architectural objects - we are more interested in subtlety, nuance and insinuation. In our best projects, texture, surface and materials play more of a role than objects and sculptural gymnastics.

This library project is a very different beast, and yet it is perhaps still encumbered, albeit in different ways. Because the setting is so resolutely suburban, the user's understanding of the building will be more informed by visual iconography rather than a small-scale pedestrian experience. The iconography will inevitably be informed by somewhat inauspicious but familiar building types: the fast food restaurant, seen from behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, is the most obvious example. This hardly sets my world on fire, but some elements of that archetype are interesting. These include the 'friendly' roof form that marks the building in an otherwise homogeneous and horizontal landscape, and the need to carefully choreograph the transition from vehicle arrival to pedestrian entry.

On balance, I would now like to rephrase my description of this project. It is not a 'pure' architectural problem, but neither is it an 'impure' architectural problem: it is just another design problem, one that demands a typically specific response, albeit in different terms than those I usually work in. Others would relish the opportunity for some architectural heroics set against a big sky and dominant horizon. The challenge is to bring the sensibilities of my more typical work to the greenfield site. Let's see how that unfolds.

For more sketches, check out the project in my portfolio
 

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.

 

A visual refresher

I was musing on something the other day. It occurred to me that I am personally equipped with a formidable arsenal of tools for recording and trapping aspects of the world around me, and through this blog and a host of social media channels, I have a live outlet for broadcasting my observed world to the greater universe. I am not alone in this regard, as the tools I have assembled are ubiquitous in the developed world: high resolution still and video cameras, image and film editing software, word processing, document compositing software - and of course simple pen and paper, self-sharpened observational skills, a nice shiny blog and plethora of social media sites to post to. The thought I had about all this was simple. I have so much hardware and software - the full kit of a digital warrior - and yet I feel like I have a deficit of things to say, an acutely felt shortage of things to report using all these lovely tools. In short, I feel all dressed up, but with no party to go to.

I was wondering if this is a shared feeling. I can post about all manner of things here, but what is really essential? What really rocks my world, and might rock yours? When I started this blog I described it as a slow blog, with the intention to post only when I have something to say or an observation of real interest to share. I think that the phenomenon of extraneous posting is rife in the blogosphere, and all it does is contribute to the deafening informational cacophony we are all engulfed in. I hesitate to contribute more noise to the mix.

Despite my reticence, I remain enamoured of, and inspired by the tools in the bloggers kit. The notebooks, the pens, the paper, the cameras, my ipad, its little wireless keyboard, my voice recorder: all of these things seem to vibrate with potential, waiting to be tapped. To me they are like a blank canvas to a painter, challenging and exciting and confronting all at once. All I need now are compelling subjects: but I am careful not to tempt fate, and wish too hard. History has a habit of intervening with momentous events just at the point where it seems nothing much is going on, and people are beginning to complain about things essentially being good. The war correspondent is never really short on subject matter, but I wouldn't want my life and times to become quite that interesting.

All of which is merely to announce that I am relaunching the site with an excellent new template. The old template was austere, which appealed to me, but in retrospect I think it was a little too stripped out - a little too restrictive. It was excellent at focusing the reader on the written word, but it didn't handle photographs particularly well, and aflawedmind.com is at least half visual. Enter Graph Paper Press (graphpaperpress.com), an excellent wordpress template outfit geared at creative publishers with a heavy emphasis on visuals. I have decided to trial the Base template - it is perhaps the most 'bloggy' and text-friendly of the GPP templates.

Let me know what you think of the new threads.

 

A day at home spent writing



I just wanted to share the writing corner I have set up in my apartment. I finally got my act together and tidied up the writing desk, and stopped it being a dumping ground for stray items, something I am prone to inflict upon all horizontal surfaces. I have moved the lamp to get some decent light on the page, and I have my digital photo frame scrolling through images of my trip to Italy.  A beautiful etching by my printmaker friend Anita Bragge hangs above the clock; the clock used to belong to my grandmother. The window to my immediate left when I am seated gives me a view of the heads of pedestrians bobbing along the street; this is Little Collins Street, and it is busy on a week day, quieter on a weekend. I am slowly assembling a homely, cosy haven in my little eyrie above the street - the next addition is going to be a fireplace suitable for apartments. I have sourced one that will complete my winter picture nicely, when I can scrape together the money for it. All in all, not a bad first day of winter, and warm enough and sunny in Melbourne, even if the light is a flat cold blue outside.

The seasons of the mind


 

Melbourne is settling into a brooding late Autumn mood today, and it makes me glad. I am a gothic at heart, and as such I like it when the sky is low, the sun is blacked out by a blanket of towering clouds, and a cold rain is falling. This has very little to do with being an 'indoors' person, as I find that it is a fine thing to be tucked up indoors under a blanket, or out stalking the streets wrapped in coat and scarf and beneath a large umbrella.

I find this weather, this season, conducive to both idle contemplation and diligent thought. I can imagine more, and more effectively, when it is cold and grey outside. This time of year is all about closing down - about people scurrying off into their homes, and the summer things being shut up and battened down for the cold time to come. Spring and Summer are all about the body: Autumn and Winter are all about the mind. In short, these seasons are my seasons.

The Melbourne Urban Photography Project (MUPP)



I took this photograph yesterday while having lunch on Collins Street. The photograph was taken with my Nikon P90 camera, a favourite that travelled with me all over Italy in 2009.  It is not as special as my Sony A550,  but I love it nonetheless. The Melbourne Urban Photography Project is a personal project of mine, something that I tackle from time to time, usually on weekends but in this case during the working week. I'm going to start taking my camera with me to work, because I do tend to go all over the city when going about my daily business. I have meetings, I have site visits, and then of course there is lunch. I like the idea of documenting what is merely my everyday reality, for posterity but also for my own personal reference. It is good to have something to look back on, as the days tend to  blur together. In a way, it is a process of marking time as the year progresses through the seasons. The day I took this photograph was the coldest May day in three years.

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.

Once were dinosaurs

 

The horned cassowary bird

I had an idea for a story the other day...now it is gone like a dream. Only fragments remain. I know that it isn't really very helpful to record this, but then again, it is good to know that ideas do come, even if they evaporate just as easily. I need to get in the habit of writing them down in the moment. It was a good idea, too - a grasping of something aesthetic and singular, a moment of converging circumstance, (Jeff) Noon-like in its strangeness.

As always, it was something about reality being different, somehow encumbered by some strange rule or rules...something about a man using a handheld device, one that is an encumbrance rather than an aid...a device, the use of which is endured like a disease, rather than enjoyed like a trend or a consumer fad. This device is always with him, and it imparts obligations rather than pleasure or even the vague promise, however unfulfilled, of freedom. He takes it like medication. It is like any other addiction: it loads him with strange and uncomfortable social responsibilities. Strangely, a cassowary* was also involved somehow.

[*For my non-Australasian readers, a cassowary is a large flightless bird, third in size only to the ostrich and the emu, with a strange, hard crested form on its head. It is found in New Guinea and northern Australia. The cassowary is primal in its appearance: it is one of those many birds that remind us that birds in general are nothing more than evolved dinosaurs.]

In praise of frameworks





 

There is something about pens and paper that inspires me to think, and to write. Receiving a new pen, or a new stock of paper or notebook, fires my mind. A myriad possibilities seem open to me, and I positively hum with anticipation when a new package arrives. Tomorrow I receive such a package, and it will contain french paper by Rhodia, a stock of Uniball pens (cheap but excellent), an O-Check slim leather notebook and a collection of other goodies. Tomorrow's package does not contain a Platignum pen, but last week's package did. It was inexpensive but remains quite satisfying to use.

I have a strange, creative compulsion to stockpile such goods. I have more than I need at any one time, and the miserly puritan on my right shoulder tells me that I should be more economical. Somehow, I can't stop, though - and having a selection available for spontaneous use seems to be encouraging and comforting in some way. Comfort is important, and I think this is because writing hurts. Not to say that it is corrosive, or destructive, or diminishing in any way. It's more the case that something gets exposed in the process, like a bandage coming off a wound. The air is good for it, but the exposed flesh is vulnerable.

For those in Australia, I can recommend Notemaker and Manifesto Brands to feed the habit. Luckily for them, I won't be easing my compulsion to hoard anytime soon.