Foreword to Rory Hyde’s ‘Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture’

Disruptive edges of new architecture and design practice

We had the Helsinki launch of Rory Hyde’s new book “Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture” today (September 11th 2012), featuring a panel discussion between Rory, Bryan Boyer, Jenna Sutela and me at the World Design Capital Paviljonki.

The wonderful Paviljonki in Helsinki that year / photo by Rory Hyde

Rory kindly asked me to write the foreword to the book, and as per usual, I’m posting an edit of that below. The book features interviews with a fairly stellar cast of Bruce Mau, Indy Johar, Reinier de Graaf, Laura Baird, Mel Dodd, Wouter Vanstiphout, Camila Bustamante, Steve Ashton, Matt Webb, Bryan Boyer, Todd Reisz, Marcus Westbury, Hedwig Heinsman, Hans Vermeulen, Martine de Wit, Jeanne Gang, Conrad Hamann, Liam Young, Arjen Oosterman, Lilet Breddels and Natalie Jeremijenko. You can read more about it here, in this nice reflective post by Rory (including a note on the book designer’s Robin Kinross-inspired insistence the book should lie flat, open, on a table.)

It’s an excellent book, exploring the most interesting practices in and around architecture today, and benefiting from a suitably open and broad reading of what that word ‘architecture’ might realistically mean. In doing so, it genuinely attempts to wrestle with the serious questions being asked of the profession’s current and future status. You don’t often get so many strong, intelligent, interesting, and convincing voices gathered together in one place.

Rory’s short introductions to each chapter are one of my favourite aspects of the book, too. Reading those pieces alone would give you a bracing primer in the challenges and opportunities within the field. The book’s genesis is also interesting, as it springs from a blog post that Rory wrote a few years ago, which exploded in the comments, almost like it was 2004 again; Internet alchemy, transforming blog post to book. You can pick the book up at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com — please do so!

The foreword is below, in which, inspired by the book’s subtitle concerning ‘edges’, I pepper the text with quotations from the great urban planner’s Kevin Lynch’s classic The Image of the City (1960).


The disruptive power of an edge

This is not a book of predictions. As physicist Niels Bohr once said, ’prediction is very difficult, particularly about the future’. This certainly now applies to trades as much as technologies. Occupations were once so static that we took our surnames from them: Smith, Cooper, Taylor, Fisher, Potter …

Not any more. Today’s combination of economic permafrost and pervasive volatility, peppered with black swans, means that even informed projections are more problematic than ever.

People within a profession can be least well-placed to see the disruptive challenge or the “adjacent possibles”, as Steven Johnson puts it. Don’t ask an architect about the future of architecture. Most won’t know. Just as few journalists, say, will know the future of journalism, or few retailers will be able to contemplate the future of retail. A hammer sees only nails.

From within, it is difficult to even perceive, and so question, the deeper values, motives, models or possibilities for the profession; hence, many professional bodies tend to be slowly fossilising within the compacting strata of their habits, discourse, and silent assumptions. Entire professions are now susceptible to creative disruption as a result.

This is not a book of predictions. But in lassoing together a set of interesting people and arranging them to define an edge of architectural practice, from both within and without the profession, Rory Hyde is describing a set of possible trajectories nonetheless.

Those selected from inside architecture are amongst those within the profession most likely to retain a critical distance, most likely to be capable of rewiring the guts of the practice from within, most likely to genuinely take forward the idea of spatial intelligence and practice, forging new relationships and positions.

Those drawn in from the other side offer up the most interesting connectors or alternatives, originating outside of architecture and free of its baggage, yet drawing from its history and practices when it is productive to do so.

The disruptive power of an edge must be reckoned with. (Kevin Lynch)

We still won’t know the x, y, z coordinates of this edge, and it is constantly moving. Yet designers at least have an almost instinctive way to find out what the edge might mean, and that is to prototype. This book offers a set of half-drawn blueprints, half-formed thoughts, tentative experiments, contingent structures, and false memories of alternative trajectories; in other words, perfect material to prototype the new edges of architecture with.

Yet Rory’s introduction to this publication starts with the word ’crisis’ rather than opportunity. We’ve been here before. That word is strongly reminiscent of the title of a 1974 publication by Malcolm MacEwan, Crisis in Architecture.

MacEwan described a profession labouring under a “world economic crisis” as well contributing to an ecological imbalance in terms of resource inefficiency in construction, whilst implicitly supporting the craven exploitation of land value and communities. He suggested “a return to first principles and the release of the latent skills and energies that are now being misused or frustrated.”

It could’ve been written yesterday, yet it is four decades ago.

The business model of architecture is still a mess. Most architects are poorly paid or work long hours to impossibly tight margins, and those practices with high profile projects seem to exist purely through a form of voluntary ‘slave labour’ from interns. US-based research recently found that architecture graduates had the highest rates of unemployment, of all graduates. (Even when they do gain employment, many will never actually work within the field of architecture.)

There has been no meaningful advance on architects working as developer/builders; source of income is still largely a percentage of construction fees, neatly limiting solutions to buildings, which is very limited indeed. In the main, ‘business development’ means waiting for clients to ask. The trade is trapped in the ‘build and sell, hit and run’ model of development and construction, according to Hans Vermeulen of DUS Architects, leading to architects inadvertently becoming “‘experts’ in typologies that we will never be asked to repeat,” as Rem Koolhaas once eeyore’d.

There has been no meaningful innovation around product or service models, or genuine advances in mainstream construction technologies. The idea of architectural intelligence embedded in organisations is no further advanced than it was in MacEwan's 1970s.

The lack of progress is galling, particularly as, again, we’ve been here before. Two decades before MacEwan was writing, in smoggy 1950s London, you could find the London County Council architecture department (a training ground for the Smithsons and Archigram) developing the notion of active and embedded design intelligence at the heart of government. You’d also find the hybrid model of Span Developments, positioning design excellence at the heart of architect-led property development. You’d find the multidisciplinary Design Research Unit, a practice that combined architecture, graphics, and industrial design to eventually become one of Europe’s largest design offices, and with a hand in shaping the fabric of everyday British life, from pubs, town centres and railways to the Festival of Britain.

However, despite those potential guiding stars, over half a century on we are still debating whether the potency of traditional architecture’s core proposition — spatial intelligence — is overplayed. As Wouter Vanstiphout discusses here, the deeper political strategy for the banlieues of Paris, and indeed our approach to cities in general, is more likely to be the progenitor of the seeds of their destruction than the particularities of the built fabric, even despite the apparent and much discussed ‘100% correlation’ between Corbusian-inspired blocks and riots (Ed. Some years later, UK prime minister David Cameron would attempt the same correlation, his limited architectural knowledge revealed, as he pointed the finger at ‘brutal’ blocks as poverty traps.)

That deeper strategy is not something architects currently get to engage with, or are particularly equipped to engage with. They are mainly perceived at working to create buildings and urban spaces, yet buildings are not why cities exist; they are simply a side-effect of cities.

Genuinely addressing urban strategy only partly involves spatial intelligence, amend there is no evidence to suggest that architects are necessarily well-placed to lead a serious exploration of the craft of city-making, at least currently. The interviews here suggest a new breed that have some of productive sensibilities, but for most architects, a thorough recalibration of their craft would be required to warrant their involvement in more meaningful aspects of city-making, beyond building.

The desire, as Liam Young puts it here, for architects to “set the agenda for builders and city makers (rather than) being beaten around by the planning legislation” is a laudable ambition, but must be earned. As the world became more complex, architecture’s seat at the table was crowded out, as one voice amongst many.

The conditions by which architecture has been marginalised — which have often been its own limited world-view and arrogance — must yet be understood and addressed. Until the edges of architecture sketched out by this book, and in a few other places, are transformed into meaningful activities at the heart of the business, architecture will continue to get kicked, and with honorable exceptions, rightly so.

Yet this book, and the emerging practices it describes, provides numerous clues as to how to back out of the cul-de-sac that architecture has constructed, and most of them rely in some sense on a deeper form of systemic integration and cross-fertilisation, supported by alternative business models.

While continuity and visibility are crucial, strong edges are not necessarily impenetrable. (Kevin Lynch)

The interviews here do not suggest a return to ‘first principles’, in MacEwan’s words. Going back to first principles would be, as Young points out here, “a regression”, and not a useful one. Instead, they are about figuring out ‘next principles’. They may even suggest a set of principles for design practice wider than architecture. The joy in this book is in seeing the range of practices, approaches and services in play now, from inside and outside of these blurry, cross-hatched edges.

A practice like British firm BERG, essentially outside of architecture, and enjoying free reign in terms of business models and design practices, actually has much in common with Design Research Unit. Similarly the ability to shape public opinion through crisp and engaging communication, as opposed to further withdrawing into the obfuscatory fug of ‘archibabble’, is shared by the likes of BERG, MUF, DUS Architects, and many others here. As Conrad Hamann’s reflection on the work of Robin Boyd makes clear, and particularly in Boyd’s collaboration with The Age newspaper in creating the Small Homes Service, this too is a faint but consistent line drawn from the 1950s.

Most importantly perhaps, we are beginning to understand that there are certain characteristics required for this new work, one that often concerns spatial qualities, but as part of a wider brief, with different drivers other than the building.

Here, this role is often dubbed the ‘professional generalist’, a leader-type that can talk convincingly with the wide range of people involved in a job — whether city, building, platform, product, service, business model — and then perform creative expertise in synthesis: projecting, not simply analysing; ‘synthesysts’, not simply analysts. They need to be able to design and deliver projects, and so work in multidisciplinary craft-oriented teams and contexts, as well as with users, but they must also zoom out of that production to survey from 30,000 feet. They are constantly oscillating between the matter and the meta.

Some architects will be particularly good at this, given the necessity for orchestration, scale, strategy, context, abstraction, communication, decision-making and detail. Jeanne Gang is a great example here.

But this idea of the professional generalist is not exclusive to architecture. It’s readily familiar to other design practices with a strategic bent and a multidisciplinary context, which are equally, if not more, complex: urban and landscape design, some industrial design, some interaction design and service design, and so on. They also work in collaboration with other disciplines and approaches. These might include those that have a deep understanding of people and their networks, as well as ecosystems : psychologists, artists, economists, biologists and sociologists, as well as whatever craft disciplines are relevant to the goal.

So while this is still a book about edges, and about an edge of architecture specifically, the nature of edges means that it will also describe some ‘not-architecture’.

From just inside the edge marked architecture, we will find Steve Ashton, Robin Boyd, Mel Dodd, DUS Architects, Jeanne Gang, Indy Johar, Liam Young. Waving from the other side are Camila Bustamante, Natalie Jeremijenko, Bruce Mau, Matt Webb, and Marcus Westbury. A few stand on the edge itself, and could go either way: AMO, Bryan Boyer, Todd Reisz, Wouter Vanstiphout, Volume. It’s a nicely balanced set, clustered around the edge whilst collectively pulling it further away from perhaps limiting definitions of architecture, whether concerning ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’, or the “masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”

In describing the roles contained within this set, we discover a different view of this edge. Despite their playful nature, Rory’s suggested ‘shorthand’ titles are both evocative and meaningful: yet they describe the edges of practices that are design-wide, not just limited to architecture: ‘Community enabler’, ‘Contractual innovator’, ‘Educator of excess’, ‘Double Agent’, ‘Strategic Designer’ …

Perhaps inadvertently, for instance, they’re reminiscent of Norman Potter’s descriptions of the functional roles designers play — ‘culture generator’, ‘impresario’, ‘culture diffuser’, ‘assistant’ and ‘parasite’ — in his seminal What Is A Designer, published in 1969 and 1980.

It could be that there is a new kind of generalised design practice delineated by this edge, stretching across disciplines and contexts. Perhaps these ‘vertical’ distinctions between design disciplines derived from craft practices will become less important. Instead, design stratifies along a different axis — in effect horizontally — with a consistent kind of practice performed by strategic generalists and synthesists, engaged in cultural invention, higher order question definition, multidisciplinary orchestration, disruptive change agency, and so on.

In other words, the ‘edge of architecture’ outlined here might be common to other contexts. While that makes the subtitle of this book a touch misleading, this is certainly a good thing.

Architecture can still share the lead, though. When Bruce Mau describes the practice as largely predicated on “synthesis informed by democratic civic values”, he is also right, then, to suggest that there may be “nothing more important (than architecture) right now.” But it’s the higher-order functions of synthesis, strategy and value creation that are be important — allied to that civic mission — rather than the craft of architecture as traditionally understood.

Edges may also … have directional qualities. (Kevin Lynch)

This is why it is relevant to look at the possibilities either side of this edge of architecture, encompassing, for example, non-architect Natalie Jeremijenko’s alternative approaches of “participatory research, participatory construction and open source” activism as well as the work of architect Bryan Boyer, who sees the culture of public decision-making and the social contract as the design challenge. Boyer moves from inside to out, whereas Jeremijenko moves outside, in.

These wonderful ambitions clearly create a tension at the heart of our new idea of architecture. If an architect, trained in the craft skills of building and spatial intelligence, turns instead to re-shaping the social contract then which aspects of their practice were useful? If a non-architect can end up radically and systematically shaping places and spaces, what aspect of their development is most useful? And are great buildings and spaces a necessary enabler of new approaches, or simply a by-product of far greater strategies, systems and local cultures?

The tension is not resolved by this book. Architecture’s core aim may still be the application of spatial intelligence, but if that outcome is not seen as valuable by the wider culture, then it doesn’t solve the two following problems, one small, one big.

The first problem is architecture’s marginalisation. This is not necessarily important in itself. Or at least, if the debates as to its value cannot be meaningfully resolved, it will only be of importance to architects.

But the second problem concerns how to access and deploy the considerable potential of architecture to solve genuinely meaningful and significant problems beyond the building. This one is important.

But it would be unfair to expect this book to neatly resolve these tensions, if not a little pointless too. These tensions generate the necessary friction required to generate debate, traction, and movement. What we need right now are a series of ambitious sketches indicating the edges of architectural practice, reinforced by case studies and role models amongst those who sit either side of those edges.

And that is what this book is for.

The thing about edges is that they lead to further edges. As you push through one edge, a shift in perspective reveals a further boundary on the horizon. The edges of architecture described in this book will have further edges on the other side; the pioneers talking here will have little sense of exactly what lies beyond the edge of architecture, as currently understood, but it is this curious and engaging mix of people both within and without the boundaries of the current profession that are best-placed to lead us there.

Edges are often paths as well. (Kevin Lynch)


Originally published at cityofsound.com on September 12, 2012.