Macho Work Culture

We burn out our students, and design firms often burn out their employees. There is an unrealistic expectation of the number of hours that need to be spent in the studio. I came across this article in the Guardian recently that goes into and debunks the myth.

There is a physical toll that impedes your mental ability when you don’t get sufficient sleep and exercise. Sleep is critical to humans. There are a small minority of people that can survive on much less sleep than the rest of us, but for most of us a minimum of 7 hours, and preferably that full 8 hours. Exercise is also shown to help the mind function correctly, and releases endorphins that help to elevate your mood, and actually gives you more stamina. And finally, eating correctly. This means a balanced meal, not sugar from the vending machine. Caffeine has a half life in the body of 4 to 6 hours, meaning that 8-12 hours after you drink that coffee, you’ve still got 25% of the caffeine still in your body. All-night work seldom yields progress equal to the number of hours.

Plan ahead. My teacher, Robert Mangurian, would ask what the final presentation was going to look like at the start of the project. I know what you are thinking: How can I know what my presentation is going to look like when I don’t know what my project is? Well, you do know what your project is. Typically, you have a site, you know the scale of the building, you know the scale of the drawings you are asked to produce. Do the busy work while you are developing concept. Set up your sheets for your final presentation. Think about the renderings you will be doing. As the concept develops, you’ll be able to apply it to your base sheets without having to create the entirety. And the busy work is something to do while you are still investigating concept. The work must progress, and typically it progresses by steady application.

Look, there is no doubt that any profession will make time demands to complete things on time, and any profession will require additional work to make that happen. Sh!t happens. You discover late that significant changes need to be made; you came up with a better idea; someone gets sick and you are short a team member; the list goes on. But if you (or your manager) are regularly requiring long hours, then you didn’t manage your project well. These should be exceptions, not the rule.

You need to learn to work smart, not just hard.


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“I do still stumble across things by accident. As I’m always telling my students: you won’t get anywhere sitting at a table thinking. You learn by doing. That’s how you move forward. And even if you do something wrong, the result may be much more interesting than what you went looking for.”

-Andreas Gursky

This little gem in a brief Gursky interview in the Guardian.

Always be open to possibility. Recognize when things are working and when they aren’t. We strive for intention, to follow our narrative, to complete our agenda. But that doesn’t always work, and we need to recognize when a project isn’t moving forward. At the same time, don’t be too quick to switch gears, especially at the final hours.

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4 Forces

There are four forces that shape a project: site, user, material, and the designer.

The site is a dictator. It exerts more force over the project than any other. The site is both the physical and conceptual. The physical is geology, geography, hydrology, climate, and all the other natural forces; it is the infrastructure, the roads, bridges, utilities, water supply, and the other man-made aspects of the site. The conceptual aspects of the site are the social, cultural, and political forces that shape the site. These are such things as property definition (boundaries), zoning, codes, neighborhood identity, history, ethnicity, class, wealth/poverty, language.

The user is represented by the program – for what is the project to be used? How are the needs of the user to be accommodated? These needs manifest in distinct spatial requirements for different kinds of uses, and all of this has to be organized in specific relationships.

Material gives the project form. Material has to deal with the site forces: gravity, earthquakes, water, temperature, fire safety, but also has to contend with the kind of meaning that we ascribe to materials. Materials are part of the vocabulary of the language of design. Marble says something different than wood; oak says something different than knotty pine.

Finally, there is the designer. The designer is the mediator of the other forces, interpreting the interplay, and ascribing values and priorities.

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For some reason in design schools we have adopted the term “iteration” for doing multiple versions. In writing this is called a “draft.” And I cannot enough stress the need for multiple drafts, especially early on when still forming an idea. Drafts are a way of clarifying your thinking. Drafts are a way of testing your ideas, to see if they work. Even the strongest 3D thinkers among us cannot fully envision complex space and form without using tools of visualization – whether hand or digital – to test the concept. Design is not so different from the scientific method, wherein a hypothesis is tested, the results analyzed, and a conclusion is made, which might result in a revision to the hypothesis, new testing, new analysis, and new conclusions. Or the dialectical approach (which I like better because it rhymes): thesis, antithesis, synthesis (idea, test/challenge, refinement). This thinking goes for any aspect of the design process, from the big ideas, down to the details, it is a constant process of refinement.

I like this article from another discipline by Fred Bernstein, the architectural critic, who started his career writing by studying and practicing law. Law is a profession where language is the foundation, and people go to great lengths to make sure their meaning is not misunderstood, and indeed, to make sure they themselves know what they are saying. Thus it is with design. Good design is a constant act of refinement and questioning, research, testing, and many, many drafts.

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Taking Notes

I have always suspected that the act of taking notes by hand reinforced learning – I know that it does for me. But I have also been suspect of my own suspicions – what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of the population. Now I have corroboration, from this article from Harvard no less.

It is clear on two counts that the use of laptops, tablets, and phones in the classroom need to be significantly curtailed or focused. First, is that these devices are significant distractions. Most applications are default set with a dizzying array of visual and audible notifications, many of which are hard to figure out how to turn off. Second, the processing of information is different when done by hand or keyboard.

This article from Treehugger puts the Harvard article in a different way, and focuses more on the processing that the brain is engaged in when taking notes by hand rather than with the keyboard. And this other article from Treehugger goes into more detail on the multiple benefits of writing by hand rather than on the keyboard, my favorite being the improved composition.

This is a conundrum, because these devices can be genuinely useful tools for learning, and in many cases now they are the instruction. I am currently teaching two classes. One is a presentation techniques class that is focused on digital representation tools. The other is a class in construction concepts for interior designers.

In the presentation class, the computer must be used. But I see the problems, and have experienced them myself. You are introduced to a new technique in an application, and you immediately get immersed in the act of trying to replicate or apply it. Meanwhile, the instructor is plowing on, and becomes a mere buzzing in the background. Finally, you pull yourself out of the machine. Wait what? What did I just miss? And unlike a YouTube or Lynda, you can’t go back. A learning opportunity has been lost.

The Construction class is a different matter. I have a lot of international students, and while their English is pretty good, they use their devices to look up words. Sometimes. Sometimes they are just checking text messages. Or Facebook. I’m still trying to figure out how to put these devices to good use in these kinds of environments. Treasure hunts on the internet is maybe one thing, but I can’t do that every class. It is a work in progress. In the meantime, turn off the dings, buzzes, pop-ups, and other distractions that keep you from your focus.


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To get things right requires doing things over and over and over again. I recently came across this article about writing: why you should aim for 100 rejections a year. Writing is much like any art, or other discipline for that matter. You constantly have to put yourself out there. You have to make things over and over. I particularly like the bit in the article about the ceramics class. The group was divided into two parts: quantity and quality. The quantity group had to produce many, and the quality group had to focus on perfection. It turns out that the quantity group also had the highest quality. The act of doing something over and over again is a learning process. (Of course, if you do something over and over in exactly the same way and expect a different result, I think that was defined as insanity). What happened was that the students who did things many times learned from each iteration, with the result that they were able to fine tune their craft much better than the students who focused all their energy on the single masterwork.

I think that this is the hardest thing to teach students. Failure is emotionally difficult, yes, no argument. But it is part of a process. The idea is to have many small failures and to learn from them. The more mistakes you make, the more you learn from them. Key here is recognizing your mistakes, where those mistakes are, and how to correct them.

Iterations are part of a process of testing. You have an idea, you take pencil to paper (or pixels or vectors to screen) and work out the idea to see if it has merit. Then you do that for the next idea, and the next, and the next, and the next (you get the idea). Then you can look at those ideas in relation to each other, and determine which ones have the most merit to move on to the next stage of development.

The article that provoked this train of thought was about submitting for publication, residencies, agents, and all the other aspects of the writer’s life. But you can say the same for competitions, trying to get clients, looking for a job that you want. Rejection is likely to be the norm. And it isn’t entirely about you. Whoever is looking at your submission has their own point of view, and is looking for specific things. So if you want something, you have to be in the game.



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to astonish

I saw this quote on David Turnbull’s facebook feed regarding upcoming thesis reviews at Cooper:

“What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?”

from: Perec, Georges; ‘Approaches to What’, in “L‘Infra-ordinaire” (1989)

I am not familiar with the writer, but I very much agree with the proposition. I just spent a semester teaching interior design, and the most difficult task was to move past making shapes and over-thinking a language-based “concept” and to engage with the body in space, material experience, light and air, and to further interrogate things like the nature of how people work, and the acts of bathing, eating, sleeping.

I’m all for form, but what and why? I remember seeing a T-shirt decades ago that read “subvert the dominant paradigm.” And I remember thinking “why?” “to what end?” Merely to subvert? Perhaps “question the dominant paradigm” would be a more appropriate slogan.

So, we should all be astonished every day by this world in which we live. We should question how we shape that world, and to what end. Our goal, as designers, should be to make things useful and durable, but above all, to delight, to astonish. And these need not be grand gestures, we can be delighted and astonished by small acts.

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Not one-size-fits-all

Architecture requires a great many different kinds of intelligence to function. The typical office is divided up into groups of design, technology, and management. And even within these areas, there are many different specialties. Yet typically within education, especially at the undergrad level, we have a one-size-fits-all approach. All students are expected to respond to the same problems, and are assess on the same basis. Students with different kinds of intelligence are often penalized within this system, and we frequently these people are lost to the profession.

I see a lot of different kinds of student. I have started a kind of taxonomy, and right now I have five basic genera within the family of architecture. Of course, each genus can be broken down further into different species. The genera I have identified are the Artist, the Gearhead, the Theorist, the Administrator, the Politician, and the Architect. The Artist excels at making form and concept. The Gearhead excels at technology. The Theorist excels at history and philosophy. The Administrator excels at organization. The Politician excels at engaging people. The Architect is the rare intelligence that can combine the qualities of most of the other genera.

We have a magically diverse world filled with amazing creative potential, and as a professional training ground, we have to figure out how to engage them all. This is one of the reasons I love group projects.Many of my colleagues don’t like collaborative work because they feel that the students individually aren’t displaying their mastery. I understand their point, but when in architecture is anything done by the single lone genius (other than in Ayn Rand fiction)?

Ordinarily 1 + 1 = 2. But in collaborative work I think that there is a kind of exponential condition where the work isn’t twice as good, but 4x. The students seem to complement each other. One of the best teams I had were the dregs leftover when everyone else paired up. These two seemed mismatched, but in reality the strengths augmented each other to arrive at a great result. It was a “hot mess” no doubt, but a thoroughly committed one. When it came time for grading, I was going to give one student a higher grade than the other, because I thought he was driving the bus. But he stood up for his colleague, and said the other more than pulled his weight.

I’m as guilty as everyone else in perpetuating the one-size-fits-all. In many a studio I have taught I have privileged the artist and the architect. The hardest are the poor first year students who struggle valiantly, but don’t have the inherent design ability. And we lose these hard working souls to the discipline, simply because we can’t find a way to include them.

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This is a tough call – do we bother to teach analog drawing technique in an age where the ability of the computer to produce potentially astounding images?

My feeling is that the act of drawing is more about the mind. Training in analog drawing is more about understanding the construction of space, and less about the application of an outmoded means of representation. It engages fundamental modes of learning: cognitive skills of knowing, understanding, application, and analysis; the psychomotor skills of perceiving, guided response, proficiency, and origination; and the affective skills of receiving, responding, valuing, and, one hopes, a change in character. And perhaps the specific skills are part of a dying art, but the meta skills, the discipline of thought, are universal.

I love the drawings of Jan Vredeman de Vries, a 16th century Dutch artist who wrote one of many treatises on perspective at the time. I came across a blog that has compiled parts of many such treatises. They are pedagogical, but he was clearly enjoying himself when he made them. I hope for that for my students. Drawing should not be a chore, but a release, a meditation, a joy.

Jan Vredeman de Vries - Perspective, 1604

Jan Vredeman de Vries – Perspective, 1604

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This is for all those students getting their first jobs, or even their fifth job. As per the NCARB requirements for professional licensure, approximately 3 years of interning are required. This is an extension of your architectural education. In school you learn certain basic concepts, and you get a well-rounded exposure to architecture. But another set of concepts is required and actually taught/learned in a professional workplace. I heard this great discussion about internships on the public radio program On The Media. As usual, they do their research. The interviews with interns were really quite illuminating. They describe the differences between paid and unpaid internships, but in general, this is a great article on how to work. The radio piece talks about the benefit of the internship to the intern. NCARB requires participation in a variety of different types of work in an office. You, the intern, have to be meticulous about keeping track of this, and advocating for yourself. The NCARB requirements are a tool for you, so that you won’t get handcuffed to the Xerox machine.

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