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one that resonates most with me is the observation that the business structure of traditional practice is hopelessly outdated.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

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!


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.

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.


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

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.

The totemic power of childhood landscapes

I have been contemplating today my experience as a playing child, growing up in Brisbane in south east Queensland, Australia. Brisbane in the 1970’s was a great place to be a child, and this had a lot to do with the abundance of swimming pools and the warm tropical swimming weather that persists for about 9 months of the year. More specifically, though, I had access to two landscapes that were instrumental in my development as a creative individual, and in shaping my relationship to the city and the environment in general in adult life. These were known to me respectively as ‘the creek’ and ‘the city’.

‘The creek’ was the Bulimba Creek, which winds through Southern Brisbane’s outskirts in rough bushland, or at least it did when I was a child. It has been largely contained by now, and lost its sense of endless extension into bush. In the photo above you can see that it is now more clearly bounded by developed areas - the creek is the trapezoidal green space in the middle of the photograph. My old house is indicated by the pink marker.

The creek was a landscape of wonder and endless discovery, and held such exciting features as the Mysterious Cube (a vast, rusting steel boiler canted on an angle in the actual bed of the creek); a number of rusting car bodies in different locations; the Big Tree that had fallen across the creek, providing an excellent and useful bridge; and slightly further afield, The Cliff, an escarpment around a gully. Even further afield - as far as Wecker Road, if you could bother to walk that far in the heat - you could find the Ruined Farmhouse, visiting which seemed illicit in some ill-defined way.

These landmarks loomed large, and their presence in the landscape of the creek was totemic, or mythological. It is not that I thought they were magical - it is just that they were definitive features, wholly specific, and more than a little dangerous in each their different ways. They were there, and they were a bit wild, and that was enough.

I would return home from School and go ‘down the creek’, and thus spent hours wandering the hidden tracks and paths, finding bolt-holes and uncovering those aspects of the place that were far from obvious to the casual (adult) observer. There was a tightly defined circuit, a network of paths that could be traversed, and many branches that could be negotiated to arrive at various destinations, each of which had a particular character different to the others. The bushland had fingers radiating into the surrounding suburb, and by navigating the creek paths you could get yourself to nearly anywhere you might want to be, passing into bushland here and out again there as if negotiating secret passages in an old house. In fact, it felt a lot like doing just that: a parallel world that had branches and outlets everywhere in the ‘real’ world, a way of bypassing the everyday and moving in secret.

If this was the home ground, its opposite number, no less exciting, was Brisbane City itself. At the relatively young age of 11 or 12 I was allowed to hop on a bus and go ‘downtown’, and having done so for years with my grandmother and mother, I could then visit the various different landmarks and territories of the city on my own, exploring at will. Brisbane has some grand architecture, and I was particularly drawn to the older sandstone buildings that were extroverted and urbane, buildings such as the Macarthur Building on Queen Street and the Brisbane City Hall on King George Square.

I would enter City Hall through the big doors, between the bronze lions, and walk the circuit right around the hall looking at the Alderman’s names stenciled on the glass in gilt letters, from the Mayor’s office to the various other chambers and spaces. I remember liking the fact that you could walk all the way around in a circuit and lose track of where you were, with doors to the offices on the outer side and doors to the great assembly hall on the inner side. Little did I know that years later I would be a close friend of the architect’s great grandson, David Bullpitt, himself an architect of no small ability.

The City provided the opposite of the creek in most respects, but in one respect they were identical: they both possessed a sense of danger, and a sense of the illicit, or forbidden. Need I say that this was their chief appeal? To a bookish, church-going little boy, both landscapes, and my pronounced freedom within them, offered endless possibilities.

I am now 39 years old, but the totemic influence of these two landscape archetypes is still strong for me. I am fascinated by their psychological importance to me even now. I now live in the inner city of Melbourne, right on the downtown grid, and it still gives me an ill-defined thrill, even if the ‘city’ of Melbourne is less ‘urban’, in its physical setting and atmosphere, than downtown Brisbane seemed to me as a child, with its dramatic plunge down into the River.

I sincerely believe that I could only truly feel at home living in one of the two archetypes from my childhood: a bushland setting, or the absolute inner city. Or, as a friend put it once, ‘either completely out or completely in’. Certainly I have gravitated to those extremes as an adult; for now I am living the latter condition, but perhaps at some point in my life I will revisit the former. It seems to me that a life spent moving between the two is nothing to regret.

A Project for the New Year

A new year begins, and the heart turns to the question: what is the creative project for this year? Of course, the day job keeps me in plenty of creative work - architectural and urban design, to be specific - but there is always a personal project or projects of some type bubbling away in the background, to be serviced after hours, run wholly on passion. First, the little stuff: I would like to learn how to use my beautiful Sony DSLR properly some time this year, and I am thinking of doing a private course at a local photography outfit. The shop is called 'Michaels' and they have been selling cameras and promoting photography in Melbourne city since early in the 20th Century. They run interesting courses for photographers of all levels. The city is my subject: Melbourne is very photogenic, and there is much to discover behind the lens. So that's strike one.

I would also like to attempt some random sketching and drawing around the city, something that I have neglected in the last few years. I always used to draw, but now I seldom find time to do so outside of work, which is not a good state of affairs. The tools need sharpening, as they say. Strike two: drawing.

The major project is neither drawing nor photography. My major project this year, like last year, is writing. Late last year I began to investigate the process of writing fiction. There is a book project inside my head, and I suspect that fiction will happen some time in the near future, but this year I want to expand my freelance writing activities into a related non-fictional project.

Here is what I know so far. The book will be about design. The book will be personal, and something akin to a personal philosophy of design as a process and an activity. The book will be an exorcism of some of the more noxious habits of thought and process that I picked up at University, and although that is now some 12 years in the past, I am still processing the lessons - good and bad - learnt at the institution. I recently described this post-educational state of mind as a 'hangover'. It is time to move on.

Such a quaint project would never have occurred to me before now, as I was raised academically on the gloomy post-structuralist perspective that subjectivity is unavoidable, but irretrievably flawed. In a world where all value is relative and all knowledge subjective, what is the point of staking out a personal territory? We might as well mire ourselves in irony, cynicism and the particularity of the banal, or so the argument goes. Now I am not so sure, and I would like to explore my set of values in relation to my native field, which is architecture. So using this as my starting point, my creative project for 2011 is to start digging back into my past, to re-engage with the less-burdened creative self of my childhood and teenage years, and rediscover the simple magic of making and discovering, unencumbered by the constant self-doubt of a post-structuralist education. This is indeed a personal project, and I can only take it on faith that there will be something in it for the reader, who may relate to my situation.

2011: here I come, ready or not.

A thought for Christmas

Christmas is upon us again, and I was thinking about the way that dressing up a house influences our experience of the yuletide season. Personally, I don't decorate my apartment. It is all I can do to keep a tidy apartment, and I know that if I decorated it there would be tinsel and bunting up until April. There is also something vaguely maudlin about a single-person household that is decorated - particularly when you don't entertain very often. I don't know why, but this seems to be the case. After all, the various animals I cohabit with would not really appreciate the effort, although my dog Lucy was seen last Saturday enthusiastically drinking water out of a friend's Christmas tree stand.

Part of me wants to decorate, or to get a tree, as I think a house becomes more of a home when you mark the seasons and cycles of the year, such as they are in our streamlined 24/7 society. Contemplating this put me in mind of the 'good' room - the idea of a room in the house, or in the case of many friend's houses when I was growing up, entirely half of their living spaces, dedicated to infrequent and selective use. Real estate costs significantly more now than it used to, as a percentage of our incomes, and certainly in apartment living the idea of having enough space to dedicate some to formal use only is something one can only dream of.

Nevertheless, I would like to raise a banner in defence of 'useless' or 'unnecessary' space, and I think that the matter has some bearing on the location of the Christmas tree. A house with a formal room or suite of rooms is to my mind enriched. Such a space is not only an excellent receptacle for seasonal and occasional decoration; it also brings a hierarchy to a house, a layering of personal territory whether used exclusively by infrequent visitors or not. I suspect that it makes the casual living spaces even more casual to have them contrasted with a suite of formal rooms. Nevertheless, in my rooms on Collins Street here in Melbourne, there will be only one class of space for the foreseeable future: the eclectic, quasi-casual, pleasantly-rumpled, vaguely untidy semi-catastrophe that is my personal habitat.

You may visit wearing shorts or a tuxedo: at Casa Marcus, one size fits all. And I thank the great Diane Arbus for the image above, reproduced without permission in celebration of the yuletide season.

Life in the cells

Lydiard Street, Ballarat

Yesterday I had to conduct some business in the country, dealings with a real estate agency that has been trading continuously in the same location since 1921. The building they occupy was built to house an earlier real estate agency in 1876. This means that I stepped into a building where real property assets had been traded for more than 134 years, dating back to the early years of the colony of Victoria in southern Australia. The staff who work inside this building do so in the most extraordinary of settings, the private office.

I know that this is apparently still reasonably common, but I was still surprised by my reaction. Stepping into a small room containing a desk, a filing cabinet and three chairs - only large enough for a single worker - seemed eccentric at best, and perversely isolating at worst. The room had a door that I sincerely hope is seldom shut, as the cell was not equipped with a window.

Of course, having no window in a room is an undesirable thing, but the truly remarkable part was the social dynamic of doing business in such a room. It was all a bit off-balance somehow, as if there might be something vaguely illicit or inappropriate about being cloistered away from other people. I sat opposite the agent, and this seemed to be alright until a third person entered the room behind me, stepping in momentarily to meet me. There was barely enough room to move, and we shuffled around in about one square metre, right on the threshold, discussing the weather and the drive up from Melbourne. As you do.

It was all vaguely comical, but I didn't feel like laughing.

Architects who work in offices generally occupy open plan studios, and so does much of the office-working world by now. To my eye, window or not, it all seemed very strange, and tradition aside I am glad I have not been sentenced to life in a private office.

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 ( 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.