It’s Gonna Happen Now: An Interview With Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett

Athanasios Lazarou
Jul 11, 2016 · 9 min read

(7th May 2016, as published in How Now Is Soon)

“There’s the risk that we’re going to give up design thinking in the same way we gave up place-making before it, and in the same way we gave up project management before that.”


Two of How Soon Is Now’s creative directors, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett (with baby Anu in tow), joined us at Larry & Ladd for a long chat to reflect on the conference. We discuss the role of design thinking and the merits of the conference itself, before reflecting on the Riverbank precinct.

However we begin, like all things must, with a return to Morrissey


Athanasios: We started our interview prior to the conference with a discussion on music, and I want to begin again with that theme. How Soon Is Now, The Smith’s song and the conference title (which opened and closed proceedings), is an anthem for the alienated and the socially isolated. Do you see the profession as alienated?

[laughter]

Sam: I don’t think we should answer that!

[laughter]

Ben: I think the profession sees themselves as alienated. I think the profession resorts to that description, or sense of themselves, in the first instance.

However, when you push people and when you give them a little bit — like what I hope the conference was about — they reflect further and they realise they’re actually not alienated and they can actually do something about that sense of alienation.

What we are seeing is a shift from the older generation of the profession, who are saying that we’ve lost our influence and our importance — to the next, younger generation actually saying ‘there are some any opportunities, we have to do things differently, we have to be agile’.

Interestingly, people are already doing a lot of what Thomas Fisher spoke to.

Sam: I don’t think architects in general either want to be, or see their role as, the disenfranchised Goth, bad boy kids who sit in the back row and feel the existential angst of the world more keenly than anybody else.

However, I think it’s a role that a lot of them take on.

Ben: It’s a default -

Sam: — It’s a default position.

For us the conference demonstrated serious earnestness involved from people that were not actually taking on those roles, but were just rolling up their sleeves -

Sam & Ben: — and getting on with it.

Sam: And they’re doing great work, and they’re doing real work, and they’re not the ones who are complaining about the marginalisation of the profession.

Sam Spurr

Ben: That’s people equally like FAKE Industries; who were supercritical, and are a North American trained practice with a very political background (demonstrated from their work in Spain). They’re not critiquing everything and stagnating from the outside, they’re on the inside, and they’re doing it through critical practice.

Athanasios: The nature of what that critical practice forms is interesting The key theme of the conference was that buildings are just one part of what architects do, and that in fact, the ways in which we think about space are equally important to how we practice. A clear theme I took was a message about where discourse originates and how it emerges, and this was reflected in the conference structure itself, where each day began with Keynote’s from practitioners, followed by panels with larger scale policy makers, before concluding with thinkers and academics. The choice to deliberately corner both days with ways to think about architecture was significant in formulating the take-home message.

Are you trying to say that buildings are an output of certain discourses?

Sam: I don’t think buildings are simply an output, rather, they’re a part of those processes — but they’re not the only thing.

Ben: We are trying to say that it’s less about the profession and its more about the discipline, and if we’re inclusive about understanding how people contribute into the discipline, then the discipline will have more reach — and by virtue of that the profession will have more reach.

That’s my fundamental take on it.

Sam: A really key thing for architects to take on is getting away from the idea the idea that it’s the process of a product. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady pointed to this during “Critics Corner” (at the end of day one) when she talked on ‘what is the role of architects in a neoliberal economic society?’. In terms of the last ten years, this questioning is more and more prescient with the whole birth of the star architect, where we’re product makers and were talking about muses and where the language becomes completely set up for the kind of way in which we educate students.

Athanasios: But in terms of education, Fisher’s penultimate keynote (a tour de force of techno-utopia)presented architecture as a pedagogy of multidisciplinary systems. A lot of the conversations — and well received conversations which filtered through from the stage to audience members — were in relation to how design based approaches, or design thinking methodologies, were and could be utilised to address different problems the profession faces in creative ways.

How important is it to present design thinking differently?

Sam: I think it’s really important.

The issue about design thinking is the issues involved. It’s the fact that a whole lot of other disciplines — particularly disciplines in business — have taken on methodologies from design and architecture: they’re utilising them and their owning them. Designers and architects generally have been quite dismissive of design thinking by seeing it as some sort of provocation of the way in which we work and the way in which we think.

As a result, they have given up on owning the area and they’ve stepped back from the opportunities design thinking affords — including its reach across so many disciplines. Instead, what you see is design thinking being taken up in government, in business, in law, across education — and the people that started it off complaining from the sidelines saying ‘that’s kind of what we do’.

Ben: I think you’re spot on. Now there’s the risk that we’re going to give up design thinking in the same way we gave up place-making before it, and in the same way we gave up project management before that.

And so the profession goes: ‘it’s a little bit too hard, too complex’, but more so we hear: ‘I just want to design buildings; I really love the craft of making a building’.

When it became too complex we gave up project management, and then when it became community-based we gave up place-making. What’s occurring now is comparable to giving up design thinking.

This is particularly what we were trying to do with the Integrated Design Commission (IDC). In our experience we were offering up design thinking processes to government and to the profession itself. Seeing the design thinkers who have been trained from business school’s coming in was like chalk and cheese. They were just running through their manual of what you do next: ‘insert a quote that is inspirational’, ‘use post-it notes’, ‘do a roundtable’.

It just plays out — 1, 2, 3 — in sequence that is totally and utterly structured beforehand. Whereas I think anybody who is involved in our creative processes and has been trained in design and architectural thinking understands that every moment is contingent, every moment you are responding to what’s happening. You may have a sense of the bigger picture, or somewhere where you might get to the end, but you are actually totally comfortable in the messiness -

Sam: — the messy complexities, diagrammatic thinking -

Ben: — and also the iterative nature of it: that you have to go forward to go back, to go forward you go back. Also the very synthetic way of thinking that is not breaking it down to parts to prove a theory.

It’s actually putting things together (putting destructive things together), and as a result learning something. Sometimes you have to come back from that — and sometimes you have to go ahead — but when you have people that are trained in it, they’re the ones that can make the real difference with this idea of design thinking as opposed to business school training.

Ben Hewett

Athanasios: I finished my conference with the Riverbank precinct tour. I thought it was quite a responsive way to conclude considering it has been 5 years since the IDC was formed and where a lot of those discussions around the precinct emerged. Did you see the IDC as a precursor to that type of design thinking.

Ben: No, I see that as just trying to provide government and bureaucrats with basic design process. When we started they didn’t want to do a master plan for the precinct. They just wanted to deliver the oval.

And they wanted to deliver the bridge.

Then they wanted to deliver the convention centre.

They saw no need for a master plan. I’m not exaggerating here, it took six months of advocacy to bring them to do a master plan. And then once they had the master-plan, to actually use it. It was dropped a number of times and we had to bring it back up and hold people to account to it. And so the now that you finally got this tool — which is just basic thinking in terms of getting a good urban result — you use it. And here is how to use it.

I see the Riverbank precinct as 30% of what it could be. Certainly 30% of the vision that’s actually being described.

Athanasios: Part of that tour was Festival Plaza, which has a whole range of influences forming on it: ARM, TCL, the Casino, Hassel, the Walker Corporation.

Ben: The main forces at the moment are the financial and political ones — and this is where urban design needs to be stronger. There needs to be a voice for urban design and public domain and design quality and there isn’t at the moment. We’re not hearing anybody talk about the fundamental importance of that in relation to the political and financial climate.

And for the cities prime cultural place, that’s just so important.

Athanasios: To finish on the conference itself, the decisions made by the creative directors: more women -

Sam: — for the first time we had gender equity, and without talking about it. That was a really important thing.

Athanasios: We only became aware of it after the fact upon we were reviewing our content -

Sam: — and that was an absolutely key thing about doing it without looking like we were doing it and without making a big deal about it. It’s about saying that this is just the way we have to do it these days.

Ben: That’s right.

Athanasios: All these decisions, cheaper student tickets, speakers from a whole range of disciplines, the blog itself — speak to an attempt to provide conversations that can be expressed by alternate voices existing conversations within the discipline. Having had the conference now, how fulfilled were those conversations?

Sam: It’s not the end of the story yet, so that’s a key issue.

Ben: We are currently planning about where we take this next.

Sam: There has got to be a push. We will be pushing it but there has to be a push as well from students, from recent graduates, as well as practitioners, about the fact that the information and the ideas that are generated within the conference have a wider impact and have a more ongoing impact. We’re happy with those elements, we’re happy with how they played out, but I think that its absolutely essential that we don’t just sit around and feel good about that now.

Ben: And we need to know that there is interest as well -

Sam: — and appetite.

Ben: I was very keen on the idea that the institute is fundamentally changing its structures at the moment. When we first spoke to them they said ‘yes we’re interested in this in forming our direction in an ongoing way, but I think what we will also have to do is understand that the institute members drive that as much as those who are the representatives at board level and national council. It can’t be us and them, it has to be more together.


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