Wednesday, December 8, 2010

72. A Compromise Manifesto: 50 Techniques for Aspiring Starchitects

It is a given that success for the average architect necessitates sacrifices. However, Starchitect-level success, the kind that so many ambitiously aspire to (and so few achieve), often requires compromise of an especially perverse nature - namely, of one's manners, ethical standards, objectivity, social propriety, mental faculties, and capacity for reason. As evidenced by the behavior of numerous Starchitects and their suborbital attributes to distract from real investigation into the work itself and undermine the process of design. For those preparing to enter into such and endeavor, we offer the following mission statement, based on years of observation, for achieving success in spite of yourself:

1. Profess a commitment to collaborative design. Proceed by designing what ever you want.

2. Promote employees who excel at flattery.

3. Disappear periodically, leaving your team to work unaided. Upon your return, destroy any progress made. Rinse and repeat.

4. When presented with a superior design not of one’s own making, ignore it. Regurgitate said design weeks later as one’s own- add camouflaging tweaks as necessary.

5. Delegate decision-making authority to the least cooperative member of the team.

6. Keep designers emotionally disengaged from the project by discouraging discovery of their own creative solutions. Rather, instill your leadership with ambiguity keeping designers focused on arguing, worrying, agonizing, and fruitlessly trying to read your mind.

7. Hold a design charrette open to all in the firm. Rule that no presented options suffice.

8. Create a design with great potential. Squander it.

9. Everything is due by the end of today.

10. Cultivate competitive factions within the office and silently watch as they busily undermine one another whilst no work gets done.

11. Model your design based on what someone told you the market wants.

12. Delay decision-making by ordering numerous iterations of superfluous design investigations. Shortly before the deadline, proclaim that, as anticipated, your first design impulse was correct.

13. Pick any employee, and publicly parade them as your exclusive favorite. Share meals, pillow-talk, socialize, and plot the future direction of Architecture together. Inexplicably drop them after six months. Pick another worker and repeat.

14. Cultivate team apathy and low morale by continuing to develop ideas and designs ten-to-thirty years out of fashion.

15. Drive your most intelligent team members off the design team and onto the technical team via wilful, impulsive critiques of their creativity. Proceed to design with an even less creative team.

16. Make your rhetoric not match your actions.

17. Develop multiple personalities. Deploy as needed.

18. Allow your drug, alcohol, or sexual addiction to interfere with your work.

19. When you have attained enough fame, rest on your laurels and lose your interest in architecture altogether. Focus instead on football.

20. Identify an outside person or entity that, due to their continual obstructive behavior, absolves the design worthy of your attention. Delegate the design to subordinates declare the project is “bread and butter” and forever ignore it. Collect fees.

21. Create a police-state within the office. Initiate procedures, audit reported hours, surveil computer screens, question in-out times., spot-check emails, restrict meals, increase workloads, reduce pay, threaten objectors, accuse suspects based on hunches, fire people at will, crush rebellion, and generally make employees think more about their exit strategy than designing buildings.

22. Bring your spouse in to assist in running the office. Watch your workers squirm when they cannot alert you that he/she is undermining the firm with his/her idiocy.

23. If a functional request, city ordinance or building code requirement threatens the viability of a signature design element, do one of the following: question the intelligence of the individual raising the issue, make empty appeals to “higher standards”, dismissively declare”just fix it”, or ignore it until it’s too late. Under no circumstances should you take the issue seriously.

24. Demonstrate your passion for architecture by unashamedly bursting into tears when describing the anticipated transcendent experience of your design. Just assume everyone else feels likewise.

25. Publicly act as a beneficent figurehead, a beacon of positive leadership for all in the firm. Privately direct a squad of your lieutenants to do all your firing, slave-driving, salary-cutting and other dirty work. Feign innocence of their actions.

26. Hire a talented new employee with an impeccable resume, trained in a firm more esteemed than yours. On their first day, give the individual a single chance to impress you with their abilities. The instant they deviate from your design affinities, crush them and declare them ruined by their former employer. ignore them until they quit.

27. Interrupt, interrupt, interrupt.

28. Announce to the office you intention to author a Groundbreaking Theoretical Tome. Do nothing.

29. Initiate loud squabbles with your business partner or spouse in front of all employees. Grumble about him/her under your breath. Act surprised when employees quit.

30. Request several color samples of an architectural element, material, or surface. Rule that the correct color is somewhere between Color 1 and Color 2. Repeat ad infinitum.

31. Change part of the design during project documentation. Next, forget that you made this decision. Upon encountering the change as built on site. Fly into a rage.

32. Optional addendum to #31: insist, INSIST! the change be corrected regardless of cost, schedule, or client desirability.

33. Should an employee quit your office, curse them, disavow ever liking them, disparage their abilities and thereafter ignore them. Upon encountering the employee years later, act as if you’ve remained good ol’ pals.

34. The photograph is paramount. Concentrate all your resources on areas to be photograph. Construction need only be durable enough to survive the photo-shoot, not actual use.

35. Brow beat your computer support fellow. Remember, your computer has never ever worked correctly, and “why must I ask you to keep fixing this?”

36. At least once per client meeting, directly question your project leader’s intellectual capacity. Apologize to the client for his/her ignorance (regardless of the validity of his/her remarks”)

37. When others are speaking, do not listen. Concentrate instead on what you will say next.

38. Assert that you work is better than (insert name of architect more highly-esteemed than your)

39. Hire a young attractive employee fitting your sexual preference, regardless of their intelligence or lack thereof. Never find any fault with them. Never fire them. Just leer at them.

40. Punctuate your speech with words for which you have created your own new, bewildering definitions.

41. When walking by an employee’s desk, briefly glance at whatever lies on top, declare it unsatisfactory, provide no solution, and simply continue on your way. Allow no more than 10 seconds for said exchange.

42. No office-wide staff meetings. This would needlessly give workers a sense for the future of the firm, and consequently, their jobs. Much better to keep them nervous, nervous, nervous.

43. Receive praise only. Never provide it.

44. Assume that the office runs on autopilot. New work arrives, contracts get signs, people get hired, people get fired, drawings get drawn, clients get invoiced, bills get paid, paychecks get printed, buildings get built and your Audi gets washed, all whilst you blithely sip chardonnay in first class.

45. Publicity is absolute. Yield to this axiom: if your name isn't in print, you simply do not exist.

46. Copy robustly from yourself. If it worked with a different client, on a different project, with a different building type, in a different time and in a different country, why bother creating unique solution for this project.

47. Cultivate a voice of condescension, a manner of aggression and an appearance of eccentricity.

48. Acquiesce to all of the following client requests, no matter how disastrous it may be to the firms financial integrity: major last-minute changes, reduction to your fee, reduction to your schedule, reductions to the quality of the project, endless design options, client request for delayed payments, pro-bono side-work, working with out a contract, cleaning up another architect’s failed design, or employing the client’s son or daughter in an internship.

49. Remember, inside you are just a child who needs to get his way.

50. Lastly, pass down you unconditional conviction of your own genius to younger generations, so that they too can nurture an unjustified sense of self (regardless of their accomplishments) and mutate their integrity in the pursuit of fame, thus perpetuating the twisted personality cult of Starchitecture inexorably into the future.

-by Anonymous (may be Conrad) may be you. Anonymous is an architect. Anonymous went to the Right universities, and there studied with the Right professors, and recieved the Right grades, the Right awards and the Right degrees. Subsequently, Anonymous earned the Right professional registrations. Anonymous has the Right architects on the Right projects, but that has somehow turned out Wrong. Anonymous has quietly endured in their little fiefdoms, and observed aghast at their often childish, irratinal behavior, yet inexplicable success. Anonymous is ultimately fearful that s/he may turn out just like them.

From Conditions Magazine, #0310

Sunday, October 3, 2010

71. Go after what interests you

While reading the morning newspapers a few weeks ago I came across the headline "McCain Is Now Running Just to Stay in Place". If anyone besides me was closely following the American election in 2008 saw the incredibly rough landing of the McCain Campaign as he fumbled, stumbled and bumbled making one fundamental mistake after another, and another.

He has long built a public image as a man of solid moral character. He doesn't play dirty, he is a veteran, former P.O.W. that would rather let his fellow P.O.W. colleagues be freed before him, etc. Then when Obama's numbers began to rise he outrightly stated "I am going to play dirty" and followed up with a slew of dirty political ads and misleading accusations. It went against everything he had branded himself as up until that point. But he figured it was a gamble he had to take. It barely got him a bump in the polls, followed by a dip which further torpedoed his campaign down like a sinking anchor.

Now that the campaign is over and he is up for re-election to keep his senate seat. He comes to the challenge with a long standing reputation and brand built around what his calls "maverick"; his ability to negotiate between parties and make alliances across political ties to get bills passed, even if it irks his own party. It told the world he was an independent thinker and has the ability to stand above politics. However when things got tough, he willingly threw all that out the door. The political climate in America now with the Republicans and the Tea-Party movement in full swing, is very hostile to the Democrats. In order to gain some immediate popularity McCain told a reporter that he never really considered himself a maverick. He was lampooned in the media and jeered on late night talk shows for days. He eventually went on to keep his senate seat. But for someone who was the presidential candidate for their party it was an embarrassingly close election.

The lesson I extract from all this is that it is really bad to change who you are fundamentally, your core values (or what you branded your self as) for any short term gain. It is just dumb.

Why am I bringing it up in this context?

Because it has everything to do with handling your career as an architect; especially a famous architect who's career is in the spotlight and is closely followed by the rest of us.

One of the best advice I have ever heard any starchitect gave was from Frank Gehy when he said
"Dont look over your shoulders, be yourself, find your own way, become an
expert in your own work."
Your best work is your expression of yourself. When you do that, you become more of yourself. To me that means a commitment to finding your own core values and building on them and expressing it. Finding out what is interesting to you in architecture and following it relentlessly and passionately no matter where it takes you.

I also heard Diller+Scofidio say that in this interview. when they said

" We always found things that interested us and that's where we went."

Joseph Campbell the famous mythologist puts it squarely when he coined the phrase-

follow your bliss

He spoke of the character in Babbitt who famously proclaimed 'I have never done a thing that I wanted to do in all my life.' Because he was doing all that society expected of him in order to climb the social ladder. He dutifully conformed to society but never followed his bliss.

The opposite of following your bliss is to go away from what you are really interested in, to go away from the thing that made you excited about being an architect in the first place for some immediate gain.

There is always a big temptation especially with a professon like architecture that is very suceptible to fads and waves of styles to jump on to.

The temptations are many:
-Oh that style is more popular right now so l am going to do XYZ because thats
what everybody is excited about and wants.
-We want to have more money - no one can argue with that we all want more money.
But in the end is it what makes us happy?
I sometimes see articles with titles like "10 hot careers that pays $100,000 a year or more and are in demand". My thoughts are always why would I want to dedicate a major chunk of my short life on this planet to doing something just because it is hot and pays $100,000 a year? Would I not just have a lot of expensive toys and an sad and hungry soul?
Don't get me wrong, money is good. I am not one of those who claim that money is the root of all evil - that's just crap. What I am saying is that you should not go into a career with the major reason being that it pays well. I say go after what you love to do, go after a career that makes you happy, and if it pays well too then great, if it doesn't then figure out a way to make money with it - if that is important for you.

I realy believe that the architects that are really successful or famous are the ones who stuck to their guns, who followed their bliss, and did what made them happy and excited about architecture and branded that interest so well that everyone else thinks it is cool.

It requires an unwevering conviction. If you don't have it get it. Some people are born with that conviction and thats good for them. For others it is developed. What ever you have to do, do it. Find what makes you passionate about architecture, believe in it, stick to it, and convince everyone else around you that it is the best thing since slice bread.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Thursday, September 9, 2010

70. What is important in STARchitecture school (part 3)

When I named The Bartlett school as an example of a STARchitecture school in my first note in this series it started a tiny wave of backlash against us. Simultaneously to our publishing of the article there was an article in the Times (who would want to be an architecture student) that was somewhat critical of the school, a link in the comment section pointed here (to the first note in this series) which seems to have exacerbated it. Later on, a post on Building Blog (link here) discussed the article quoting some of the commentary including the one made by Frank Murray which also linked here as well. The commentators on this Building Blog post also included the likes of Lebbeus Woods among others. The quote below is from one commentator Rob Holmes, who angled his Bartlett defending critique particularly at this blog. I would normally let it go by but I thought it was a particularly thoughtful and very well written comment and I thought I was worthy of a rebuttal. (I love the debate)
Some of the reaction reminds me of the passage from Leon van Schaik's Spatial Intelligence which Dan Hill quoted in his commentary on the Sentient City exhibition:

“To complete with this practical glamour our forebears went to the heart of making in architecture – its technologies of carving, moulding, draping or assembling – when they staked their claim to be caretakers of a body of knowledge for society. The architectural capacity to think and design in three and four dimensions, our highly developed spatial intelligence, was overlooked, and for the profession space became, by default, something that resulted from what was construction … What if our forebears had professionalised architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter? Might society find it easier to recognise what is unique about what our kind of thinking can offer?”
Interesting that the work at Bartlett is described, essentially, as an assault on the status of the profession as a body of technical knowledge (particularly here, which was linked in the comments at the Times) -- that if you have time to do these things in school and yet still go by the same title 'architect', then that implies that the technical knowledge is not essential to being an architect -- while, from another perspective, the strict delineation of architecture as that body of technical knowledge can be seen as the root of the marginalization of architecture.

That's a very interesting and provocative statement. It is a good statement to put forward in this discussion. It epitomizes the essential premise of starchitecture schools:"
we reject the profession being defined by technologies of shelter so we will redefine it around spatial intelligence"

That's the logical consequence of the question here isn't it?

What if our forebears had professionalized architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter?

So what we get is a jump form one extreme to the other. The implication is that we have to choose between spatial intelligence or technologies of shelter. Its basically a black and white issue, draw a line in the sand and stand on one side. Well... I don't see the world or this issue in that way. I think in vivid rainbow colors, with multiple hues and shades. I believe there is a place where spatial intelligence and technologies of shelter overlaps, and this is where good architecture exists. I think the proposal as you have it is just as lopsided as the reverse condition. Architecture can not exist as architecture without acknowledging shelter, I would offer a different proposal instead.

What if our forebears had professionalised architecture around both spatial intelligence and the technologies of shelter?

Its not "either you are with us or you are against us on spatial intelligence". You don't have to choose one over the other.

When I agreed with Frank that the Bartlett's teaching methodology is an assault on the status of the profession, I did not come to that conclusion based solely on the argument that it was because students have or spend too much time on rendering or presentation. That was merely a marginal observation. The substance of my argument was mainly that by divorcing or severely depleting basic issues of shelter from the studio projects, you divorce it from architecture as well. When you educate students in such a way and give them architecture degrees you devalue the profession. But of-course if you want to challenge me on the marginal observation, I am happy to discuss that too. My sources who have studied at the Bartlett in Unit 20 (the example I pointed to in the first articles) tells me that they start preparing final images a little after midway through the semester. They are pinned up and discussed, the bad ones are thrown out and the better ones are worked and reworked right up until the end of the semester. This is not to say that the design does not continue to develop after the final images have started, it does. However, the image/renderings becomes the primary determinant and the project develops around it there after. Just under half of the semester is devoted to image making. Does this fact alone then implies that they believe technical knowledge is not essential to being an architect in their view? Perhaps not, but it certainly gives some insight into how much image making is valued in comparison to the other phases in the cycle of the project's development: research, site analysis, concept development, design, structure, etc.

When I criticize the Bartlett for not demonstrating enough rigor in their projects, its not because I believe there is no place for such explorations in architecture school. They do offer value, they are exploring interesting territories of architecture where schools on the other end of the spectrum will never go, they are useful contributions to our profession, it is important that we have them, and it is important that they are supported . As I said they nurture imagination which we need as architects.

Let me make this very clear, when I criticize the Bartlet it is not because I support a world where architects only know how to put tender packages together, or that I understand the profession only as a body of technical knowledge or that I believe in over simplistic conclusions that Bartlett students will go on to make exploded buildings, or any of the likes.

There should be a place in architecture school for students who want to explore whatever they want within the confides of architecture. If that means loosening some of the considerations of basic shelter, fine. However, it should be student led not teacher coerced.

If you say to me that you are a student of architecture and I ask you
"what is your current project about"

...and you say "it is an embassy"
and I say "That's very nice! what are the countries involved?"
and you say "it is an embassy for cyborgs from outer-space",
immediately I will ask "did your professors put you up to this? does he have a fetish for science fiction movies? did you feel as though if you didn't do this you would be in for a hard time in the course?"
...The majority of students with projects like these will tell me yes. Then I will pat you on the back and say there there I know, I understand, your project and your education has been hijacked. The real modern day pirates are not floating around off the coast of Somalia, they walk among you in plain sight in the hallways and studios of Starchitecture schools around the world.

If you tell me "no, no, no, its all my doing, I wanted to explore some phenomenology and I thought that this was the best way to go. And here is why....
I have several projects in my portfolio that demonstrate that I can address technologies of shelter in a meaningful way."
Then I would say "well that's awesome, I am inspired. I hope that you find what you are looking for"

....If you say "absolutely not it was all my doing. This is my passion. I really don't fancy dealing with technologies of shelter. All that stuff is for plumbers, and engineers, and the likes."
I will say to you "son you need to go home to mommy and daddy and have a long conversation with them. You need to look them in the eyes and muster up all the courage you've got and tell them you are going to be an artist and that they should just accept it. You need to tell them that art is a wonderful, wholesome, respectable and serious profession and that they need to respect your decision. You don't need an architect's title at the back of your name to make you serious. The world will have more respect for you if you do that. I certainly will."

Architecture satisfies a program, it involves providing both physical and emotional shelter for human beings, it deals with both real and abstract spaces for the human condition and it is both pragmatic and conceptual. When you forget to confront the physical and tangible part in a clear and comprehensive way, not only does it become art, it becomes artsy-fartsy, because it doesn't know what it wants to be. Conversely when you leave out the imaginative, and abstract parts that demonstrates spatial intelligence it becomes engineering. I am not against spatial intelligence, neither am I against engineering. I am an architect, I am interested in a union of the two.

There are projects whose main point is to comment on society, or explore a phenomenon, or delineate an abstract vision, in doing so they are working more like an artist or a cultural critic. They are a useful contribution to the profession but ultimately it is outside it. An architect solves a program and puts forward a comprehensible solution: not just a critique, or exploration, or commentary on the problem alone. An academic institution can and should provide a sanctuary for exploration, commentary, and critique but this alone in not enough to prepare students for a career in architecture. This strategy fosters a disconnect between academia and the profession; between spatial intelligence and the issues of shelter.

Any good architecture school or architectural practice should always open itself to learn from and be informed by other disciplines, whether its artists, developers, engineers, critics, writers, poets, philosophers etc. Architecture schools should have practitioners from other disciplines come in and inform their students. But it should be clear that if an artist, graphic designer, or film-maker comes into the architecture school to lead a course, that it is clearly understood as an arts course and credited accordingly. If they come in to an architecture studio course it should be to inform the architecture not the other way around.

As a buffer to this kind of criticism, and as a tactic to legitimize art classes as architecture studio courses, I know there are some starchitecture schools (I don't know if Bartlett does this) that separate the engineering and technical courses from the studio courses. So when the institution is questioned about the academic standards in their studio courses they point to the curriculum and say "see we teach structures, we teach environmental technology, we teach all of that stuff". This way they satisfy the accreditation standards while freeing the studio courses from such nasty realities as gravity, economics, overpopulation, environmental pollution, in a meaningful way. These issues are safely quarantined and kept as far away as possible from the ivory tower studio courses. These side classes are often either superficial or overcompensating. They carry less academic credits, they are meagerly funded, and they are more of a necessary evil. They are sometimes referred to as nuisance courses.

This reminds me of the problems that Walter Gropius and company faced 90 years ago when they established the Bauhaus. There were artists who considered themselves as sort of an elitist bourgeoisie class of academics and free thinkers who were socially and intellectually way above the craft worker class. The Bauhaus sought to abolish this class difference and bring them together.

Something similar is happening today among architects. There is an elitist ivy league class of architects who somehow consider themselves above issues of shelter. They want to be free thinkers that focus on issues of spaces and phenomenology and to come up with wild crazy visions and pass it off to the lower class of architects that are more concerned with issues of shelter, economics, construction etc should it be required to be built. The Starchitecture school inadvertently nurtures this kind of class division.

On Building Blog, Geof Manaugh made the remark that "If architecture school is the only time and place in which you can have the freedom to explore that sort of thing, then I don't see any reason why you should be told not to do so."; that student work can often stand on the absolute fringes of incomprehensibility, charged with the energy of poetry, myth, or confrontational politics, even verging on functional uselessness"

I don't disagree, but understand this, if your architectural education is based primarily on projects such as these, where you have not been required to address issues of basic shelter in your studio course project, then your education is incomplete.

Remember architecture schools are first and foremost entrusted with preparing students for a professional career that engages both spatial intelligence and technologies of shelter.

If you are marginalizing technologies of shelter, then you are shifting the burden of education from academia on to the profession. That is downright irresponsible

The architecture field is so wide, there is so much room within the profession for all kinds of diversity. You can go out towards the artistic, critical theoretical end, you can go off and do more engineering or structurally oriented projects, hell if there is not a part that you like you can make one up. But when you go so far off to the artistic side and stop thinking about issues of construction, and shelter, you have stepped outside of it and you become an artist, or critic or commenter or something else (maybe a comedian). Conversely, when you go so far off to the engineering & construction end and you stop thinking about issues of culture, expression, space or poetics, then you have stepped outside of architecture as well and you have become an engineer or builder or maybe a real estate developer.

When you tell students that architecture is boring and you better do the crazy stuff while you are in school, you drown their hopes. It is no wonder they run off and become film makers, and video game developers. If this is what is happening, Bartlett, you have a problem.

We should bring in architects who have learned to realize their dreams in this world that we live in to teach courses on how to combat the forces of capitalistic greed, and commercialism etc to get wonderful things built.
There should be courses on networking, ethics and client management and the likes.

If we continue on this path we will continue to have our brightest minds marching right out of architecture schools into video game design firms, etc. Geof also pointed out the running joke that upon surviving their final day of project criticism, those students "can now get back to designing minimalist boxes." It is no wonder that they would do that. If they make these crazy things and have no idea how they can support them structurally, economically, socially outside of academia etc, then how can they suddenly go out into the world and miraculously make them happen? Maybe if Rem as a student had some courses on how to navigate the perils of commercialism he would have been different. I am not a big fan of Rem but one has to see that he (and quite a few of is offsprings, BIG, JDS, Work, REX) is making an effort to deal with and confront commercialism. He may not have been even close to successful but at least he tried.

The extremities between Rem and the Bartlett defenders reminds me of the scene from Stanly Krubric's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. As Rem is willing to try and engage commercialism, the Bartlett defenders see him as a sell-out of sorts, since he becomes wealthy and famous while doing so. Meanwhile, they are only willing to lament the predicament that the architecture profession finds it self in under commercialism. They ridicule anyone who dares to engage it. They see the task as impossible: If you attempt it you will inevitably become like Anikin Skywalker and get seduced by the dark side. So the only recourse is to huddle together and pass time in the comfort of academia; making idealistic, self-important, art-like projects on paper, with no intention of building anything. Mock and ridicule anyone who dears to build in the commercial establishment.

Another of the commentators reiterated the statement:
"We do crazy stuff when we're young because we know we're going to do boring stuff when we're old."

I have heard this a thousand times before in starchitecture school, always kind of tongue-in-cheek mind you. But it is repeated so often that you catch the drift all right. I find this sad, if you believe the future that the profession of architecture has in store for you is not exciting enough for you, why go into it in the first place? Gosh there is a million and more ways you can go.

To teach students only to criticize, or to bury their heads in a cloud of dreamy and fanciful projects that has no basis in reality, you teach them to disengage from the profession. It is a very pessimistic posture. It says that you have so little faith in architecture or its future that we should side step it. That you believe that capitalistic greed and commercialism is too powerful a force over architecture to overcome so the only recourse is to stay outside it and criticize.

I don't believe you have to go outside of architecture to find things that are interesting. You don't need to go on the fringes of incomprehensibility or verge on functional uselessness to do a project that is charged with the energy of poetry, myth, or confrontational politics for that matter. In fact it is an oxymoron to consider architecture as separate from poetry, myth or confrontational politics. Architecture is interesting and exciting enough on its own, you don't need to devoid it of its functional qualities to do so. Just look at its history and its present. Antoni Gaudi didn't have to leave architecture or be incomprehensible, neither did Louis Kahn, nor Greene & Greene, nor Peter Zumthor, nor any other past or practicing architects that pushes the boundaries and question the nature and perception of architecture. My God, look at Gaudi, this guy way doing fantastic groundbreaking stuff for the time that he was living in and all the while he stayed within architecture. The
Sagrada Família, was based on mathematically precise funicular engineering intertwined with the spatial sculptural imagination that we have come to know and love him for. That's what makes it meaningful, that it was not just some crazy stuff conjured up out of his head alone. Things were there for a reason. If you want to leave architecture and do research or explore a phenomenon, fine, go outside and do it but call it what it is. Le Corbusier painted to inform his architecture but when he painted he called it painting and when he made architecture he called it architecture. When you are done exploring you can always come back to architecture. But don't build and program architecture schools around this exploration and exploit students to do your legwork. Architecture school is about preparing students for the professional world and exposing them to what is wonderful about it and giving them the tools to stay clear of its pitfalls. Researching phenomenology is peripheral to that, not the other way around. I leave you with this interview that charlie rose did with Richard Serra

Richard Serra comes off as a guy with a chip on his shoulder. Clearly he holds architects in lower regard than artists. I don't. Neither do I think artists are above architects. Where I do agree with him however is that there is a clear distinction between what I do as an architect and what he does as an artist and yes, that there are aspects in buildings that deal with the province of sculpture or art or painting, but don't start telling me that buildings are works of art. Vise verse don't start telling me that art works that deal with the province of buildings are architecture because I don't buy it either.

I don't buy the notion of the artist as architect, or film maker as architect, or video game designer as architect, and I don't think society should buy it either. Architecture does not have to become art to be interesting. Architecture is interesting and beautiful and amazing on its own -period.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

69. Be Shameless about Asking for things

I am going to tell you a story which may disturb you, or even more, completely discourage you from what I am about to argue for, but its a good little story and I will tell it anyway. Who knows, if you are still convinced of my argument after this story then I believe you are truly material for being a famous architect.

Back in the days when I was in collage, I had an interesting classmate named Andrew. Almost everyone in the studio seemed to have a certain aversion towards him. Very few actually described him as a friend, and even these so called friends of his always seemed to have a problem with him. It is difficult for me to count the amount of times a friend of his would come up to my drafting table and start a conversation that begins with the phrase "Andrew is my friend but..." and then continue on to tell of the latest conniving thing that he did to them. The other problem with Andrew was that he walked around the studio with a certain air of superiority about him. If you met him at a party and had a brief conversation with him, chances are you would walk away with the impression that you are somehow beneath him.

The most interesting thing about Andrew though is that he always seems to have people granting him all kinds of favors, or doing something on his behalf, or giving him something. Even me!. The lesson of Andrew is that he was never afraid to ask for help or for anything. In fact he was downright shameless about it. It would not matter if you were laughing with him or arguing with him, there was no wrong time to ask in his view. If he needed help with anything he would just come right out and ask. If you just bought the latest CD, he would ask if he could copy it. If you just bought the latest gadget, he would ask if he could borrow it. If a starchitect was teaching the course, or visiting for a lecture, and he wanted a job at that office, he just went right ahead and asked.

I remembered Andrew because I had a realization just the other day, and that realization this:

Famous Architects are unashamed to ask for things.

They are not afraid to pick up the phone and ask. They ask of their employees, they ask of their colleagues, they ask of their friends, they ask whoever they see fit and they do it all the time. They do not hesitate, they do not waste time agonizing over it, they just do it. When ever they need something, they make decisions quickly, pick up the phone and get on with it.

So you might say “oh, they are used to it, because they have many people working for them so its just something they got used to doing”.
Well, I am not so sure about that. In fact, I don’t think so. I think they got an office, and employees, and became famous because they had no issues with asking for help or for anything.

I had the great fortune (or great misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of either being taught by or working with quite a few famous architects. I also know quite a few rising stars.

I can say with complete certainty that this is one of the few traits that connects all of them, no matter how different their works or philosophies.

One friend of mine whom I worked with on a project some time ago is a rising star. For reasons of privacy I will simply refer to him as Joe. Joe learned through a friend we have in common that I was working on a project that was potentially beneficial to his office and would give him some free promotion. Immediately he contacted me:

“Hey Conrad, how is it going?

I had a conversation with Jenny, she said you guys are working on this project... bla bla bla bla ...

Of course I suggested my office could be involved as a participant.

She suggested I talk to you.

Maybe you could work out something for us?

And here is how it could benefit you too... bla bla bla ...

What do you think?”

“Yeah, sure” I answered,

“I will just suggest it to the rest of the guys on the team and see what happens”

Reflecting on the conversation some time later, I thought about how it would be if it were the other way around? What if Joe was working on a high profile project and I saw that there could be some free publicity in there for me? What would I do?

Well before I figured out how to ask, before I learned what I am about to tell you, my train of thought would have looked something like this:

  • Oh, I wouldn’t want to be a bother or impose on him.
  • I wouldn’t want to be patronized, I don’t need that, if I want publicity I will get it when I need it, on my own.
  • He is probably not going to do it anyway, so why bother?
  • That might be too much to ask... I don’t want to put him in an awkward position.
  • What’s this going to cost me? Am I going to be indebted to him... I don't want that.
  • If I ask him, it may seem like I am begging and gosh I don’t want to come off as weak or needy or even worse: desperate.
  • I am a giver; I am a kind giving person and I would much rather give to others than to go around begging and leaning on other people.

In short, I probably would have talked my self out of doing it. I think most of us would too. I think most people simply don’t know how to ask and that’s a problem. We don’t want to be demanding or leaching like Andrew on one hand and on the other we don’t want to appear weak, especially guys; you know the proud smart self-reliant type that drives around in circles and would not ask for directions because they don't want to come off as incompetent or stupid. I don’t know about you, but driving around in circles with your head stuck up your ass is not exactly my idea of strength, competence or self reliance. From where I stand, it looks more like an image of insecurity and cowardliness, not to mention stupidity. Yet we do this with our careers, and worse we do this with our lives.

But I have news for you. There is a vast difference between people like Andrew who goes around and take, take, take and never give back and the so-called proud-independent who drives around in circles for hours afraid to ask for help. There is a middle ground between these two extremes.

Joe is a good example. I learned a lot during the short time I worked with him. Like any emerging firms we usually worked very long hours. Joe would spend the better part of the days on the phone making calls negotiating with people (That's archispeak for asking for help). He did this constantly for hours and hours, it was only later in the evenings that he would seriously switch his focus on to architecture. The other thing that really surprised me was that for a relatively young guy who have worked for some of the most celebrated starchitect offices around the world, he did not have some basic skills that you would expect from a person with that caliber of experience. For example, he did not know how to render and his photo-shop skills were a bit shabby. But that did not seem to get in his way. He was adept at delegating and readily acknowledged when he did not know something instead of pretending to be an expert. He was driven and motivated and when things got tough he asked for help right away.

What Joe lacked in photo-shop and rendering skills he more than made up for in asking skills. This is the single most important skill I learned from him and I would like to share it with you. You can look at that conversation I mentioned I had with him earlier as a case in point. It has all the ingredients of a good way to ask for help.

Firstly, make sure the person you ask is actually in a position to help you.
I had a project that could give him publicity and I had some influence over who could be involved in it. So naturally Joe came to me.

Secondly, Be confident and straightforward
No I did not say cocky. You should not go around expecting people to do you a favor or help you no matter how much you have helped them before or how good a friend they are or for any reason. Remember you are asking not demanding. At the same time don’t grovel or be wimpy about it. If you go and ask in the tone of voice of Doubtful Tom: “uhm... ahh... you wouldn’t want to help me on this would you?”
That’s not asking for help, that's a weak prayer or kind of a little psychological trick to prove to yourself that at least you tried. That is not a sincere effort, that’s a cop out. If you are going to do it half assed don’t bother wasting your time. Neither should you try to drop hints and expect the other person to kind of read between the lines. Then what you are doing is trying to make the person you are asking feel guilty and help you out of pity. That’s just lame and manipulative.
Just get to the point and state in no uncertain terms what you are asking for. You can explain why or argue your case later in the conversation as necessary.
When Joe asked me, he simply and directly stated what he wanted “could you work out a deal where my office is a participant in your project” no demanding, no guilt trip hints, no groveling, just a clean, clear, honest question. Then he went on to explain how it could benefit me, in other words how this could be a win-win situation. This brings me to the third point.

Look for ways to reciprocate: read the tone of voice and body language of the person you are asking. Is there a hesitation or reluctance in their answer? If so respond accordingly, remember you are really negotiating a win-win situation. You want to come out with an amicable outcome for yourself and the person you are asking whether you come away with a yes or no or a counter offer.

Of course there will be occasions where there is no point in offering something in return. Now at the risk of sounding superstitious, I will say this: what goes around comes around. You will find that people will come to you to ask for favors too; maybe not that same person that helped you, but someone else. Help them. Get in the habit of helping other people. Not because you want to build good karma or because you expect something back, but because it is fun. Do it to train your brain that its about giving and receiving. Develop that reputation. Think about the kindest, most helpful or generous person you know. How would you respond if they came to you for a favor?

Recalling the days I was working with Joe and hearing him “negotiate” on the phone, these three principles were always present in those conversations, whether he was talking to a potential client, another firm he was seeking to partner with on a competition, a contractor, or student he was asking to intern for him.

And by the way, when the time came that I needed a favor from him and I asked, he was very accommodating and even went out of his way to make sure I got the proper help that I asked for. In fact this is what defines our relationship. Even though we live in different countries now and we don't see or hear from each other for long periods of time, I have no reservations about picking up the phone and asking him for help and he of-course doesn't either.

Anyway, I will leave you with the final scene from one of my favorite movies: My Cousin Viney. Its about an inexperienced lawyer who has a lot of raw talent but wanted to win his first trial on his own; without asking for help from anybody. In short he wanted to do things the hard way, and unnecessarily hard it was. In the end he begrudgingly received a lot help along the way from his fiancée and others to win his first trial case.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Thursday, April 8, 2010

68. Take a lesson from SANAA

cartoon credit:

First let me extend my sincere congratulations to SANAA on the announcement that they will recieve the Pritzker.
One of the first things I did after I learned the news was to type in SANAA into Google to find out something more about them. I already know their work very well, but what about Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa? how did they become so famous? How did they do it? One thing I knew was that success leaves clues and I was intent on finding out.

My guiding question: what can we learn from these two?

Here is what I found:

1. Ryue will be only 44 years old when he receives the Pritzker. That's perhaps the youngest to ever receive the prize. He has beaten out some of the heavy weights who have been around on the waiting list for a long time, including Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Steven Holl, and even his former boss Toyo Ito. How did he do it?

First he worked for a famous architect while he was in school. An invaluable credential needed to become a famous architect yourself. Almost every famous architects have learned the trade under a master. Ryue did this early in his academic career. Both he and
Kazuyo apprenticed under Toyo Ito. When Kazuyo started up her own firm, he had the good sense to go off and work for her too. Another good reason to work for a famous architect; You will meet people who could become your future partner there.

Secondly he read my blog and took it to heart. When he felt the need to break out on his own he was able to be open and coachable. He must have understood at some point in his decision making process that to unite & conquer was better the one man against the world philosophy. He accepted the offer to partner up with Kazuyo where they were able to achieve much more together than apart.

2. We can see that there is some truth to Jeffery Kipnis' observation on the development stages of a famous architect. SANAA's history is but a variation on it.

  • STAGE ONE [unbuilt break through projects]: Although SANAA's break through came with multiple projects that were actually all built. They definitely had a break through stage where they were getting published a lot and it attracted the attention of just the architectural community.
  • STAGE TWO [Exhibitions]: we can see after 1993 the office was inundated with not just exhibitions but also awards. I would argue that stage two is as much about awards as it is about exhibition. Largely speaking, its about being recognized by outside entities: amassing symbolic capital. You will see that this also includes invitations to lecture and/or teach at renowned collages and universities as well. An invitation to teach at Harvard is pretty much a status symbol that every famous architect receives when they near or cross the line into fame.
  • STAGE THREE [a seminal built project]: Again, SANAA were never paper architects at any points in their careers unlike Peter Eisenman, or Zaha Hadid, so their work has always combined artistic, pragmatic and intellectual elements from the very beginning and then matured over time. However, one could point to the O-museum as a significant commission that gave them the opportunity to develop these elements in their work more freely.

3. SANAA remained true to themselves. In a climate where most firms kind of rush to follow the latest fad, they rely focused on becoming experts on their own way of doing things. Now that the climate is such that bombastic architecture is associated with the greed and excess that caused the financial crisis, the Pritzker committee is now turning its focus in the opposite direction which is just where SANAA happens to be.

4. And most importantly did you check out Kazuyo Sejima's eye wear. This lady paid attention to her glasses and her clothes and that's no joke.

Conrad Newel

Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Road Map to Fame : SANAA Architects

KAZUYO SEJIMA born in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan


RYUE NISHIZAWA Born in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan


KAZUYO graduates from Japan Women's University with a Masters Degree in Architecture & starts working in Toyo Ito's office

KAZUYO Established Kazuyo Sejima & Associates and hires RYUE as one of her first staffers

Kazuyo Sejima & Associates receives their first major award: Project selected for the Kajima Award - MCH House Kajima Prize

RYUE Graduated from Yokohama National University with a Masters Degree in Architecture
More accolades pour in as the office's work is selected for the exhibition "Last Scene in Architecture" (Touko Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo) and receives an Honorable Mention for the SD Award for La Maison de la Culture de Japon, Paris, SD Review

Awarded JIA Prize for Best Young Architect

The Office now begins to gain momentum in its popularity as they recognized for several awards and exhibitions: LABYRINTH New Generation in Japanese Architecture (Sezon Museum of Art, Tokyo, Hyogo)
Japanese Contemporary Design (National Museum of Modern Art, Seoul)
Third prize, Yokohama International Port Terminal Design Competition
Grand Prize, Commercial Space Design Award '94 for "Pachinko Parlour I & II"

Ryue Nishizawa expresses that he wants to go off and establish his own office. Kazuyo convinces him to stay and offers him partnership. Kazuyo closed Kazuyo Sejima & Associates and the two established a new office with the name SANAA [an acronym derived from the names of both partners.]
SANAA = Sejima + And + Nishizawa + And + Associates

Recieves the Kenneth F. Brown Asia Pacific Culture and Architecture Design Award
University of Hawaii for "Saishunkan Seiyaku Women's Dormitory"
Construction begins on the O Museum - 1995 to 1999 - Nagano, Japan

KAZUYO becomes Visiting professor at Japan Women's University, at Tokyo Institute of Technology, at Tokyo Science University

RYUE Established his own office [Ryue Nishizawa architect] for doing small scale works [private houses, etc] but still remains partner at SANAA

Wins the "International Competition for the World Buildings" in Salerno
K-Building, Ibaraki, Japan
N-Museum, Wakayama, Japan
M-House, Tokyo, Japan

De Kunstlinie Theater & Cultural Center - 1998 to Present - Almere, Netherlands

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art - 1999 to 2004 - Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan


Both are invited to become visiting Professor at Harvard GSD, Cambridge, USA

Erich Schelling Architekturpreis
Work was included in the exhibition "City of Girls" in the Japanese Pavilion at the 2000 Venice Biennale

Work exhibited in the Garden Cafe at the 7th International Istanbul Biennale, Istanbul, Turkey


KAZUYO accepts Professorship at Keio University, Tokyo, Japan & Visiting professor at ETH in Zurich

La Biennale di Venezia, 7th International Architecture Exhibition"City of girls" Japanese Pavilion, Exhibition Design, Arsenale, Venice, Italy
PRADA Beauty ISETAN, Tokyo, Japan (until 2002)

The New Museum of Contemporary Art - 2003 to 2007 - New York City, New York
Zollverein School of Design - 2003 to 2006 - Essen, Germany
Christian Dior Building, Omotesando COMPLETED \ Tokyo, Japan
Naoshima Ferry Terminal - 2003 to 2006 - Kagawa, Japan

Awarded the Golden Lion for the most remarkable work in the exhibition Metamorph in the 9th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia in 2004


Rolf Schock Prize in the visual arts
Recieved the 46th Mainichi Shinbun Arts Award (Architecture Category)

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion - 2009 - London, England
Rolex Learning Center at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne - 2004 to 2010 - Lausanne, Switzerland
kazuyo sejima appointed director of the venice architecture biennale 2010


Awarded the Pritzker Prize

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

67. all you need is a piece of paper, a pencil and a desire to make architecture

Architect Raimund Abraham, widely known as an inspiring educator among architects and former students fortunate to have been taught by him, was killed in a car crash in downtown Los Angeles early Thursday morning.[March 3, 2010]

"Earlier in the evening Raimund delivered a powerful lecture at SCI-Arc, re-stating his enduring love for architecture and his willingness to fight for the design discourse as he defined it," reported Eric Owen Moss.

Below are a few statements from that lecture:

R.I.P Raimund Abraham 1933-2010

  • architecture does not have to be built; it can be written, it can be drawn, it can put in model form
  • what happens when you build, you enter a domain which forces you to defend your ideas against unlimited number of hostile forces
  • When I talk about providing an alternative way to making architecture, what I means is you don't have to be a slave in a corporate office, or a groupie of a celebrity architect because all you need is a piece of paper a pencil and a desire to make architecture