Sunday, 17 August 2014


I am occasionally exhilarated by the wonders of great architecture, big or small.  But I am also very frustrated by the culture of the architectural profession and even more so by the dominant paradigms of architectural education.

This blog is about issues like the relationship between rhetoric and evidence, the necessary coexistence of artful innovation and careful logic, an embrace of information about real people who will use buildings which are increasingly produced by, and working like autonomous machines. I hope it's obvious that I am committed to the primacy of a humanist view of the world.  But equally, I have an almost absolute respect for the western scientific method as the way of uncovering explanations for how the world is, so that one may more reliably predict how the world may be.

Lately, in my day job as an architecture academic, I have been forcefully reminded just how far out of step I am with the majority of my colleagues.  The culture wars in Australian architecture schools were won long ago by the history/theory acolytes, without the science/technology academics ever realising that there was a war in the first place.  The trouble is that as a consequence, the unequally matched factions not only look at architecture differently, but we can barely communicate.

Words like 'theory' have become highly problematic, and words like 'models' even more so.
In my world, theory is usually the best available explanation for something. Models are abstractions in any form, which when used have predictive power in the real world.  Theory and models are for asking 'what if' questions. Models can be physical, or mathematical. They can be digital or analog. Importantly, they are always partial – any one model may only work within very strict limitations, representing one small part of reality. That is why investigating the likely way a building will 'work', one employs a multitude of models and infers the overall behaviour of the prototype from the results.

For my history/theory colleagues, 'theory' appears to be certainly an explanation; but they seem to feel obliged to distinguish it from 'instrumental theory', the kind that I have described. 'Models' are commonly understood to be physical scale models, usually for purely visual exploration. I suspect that only a very few understand that even conventional architectural drawings are actually a partial model, notwithstanding that until the very last rhetorical flurry, that is how they are generally used.  And almost without exception, my history theory colleagues still buy into the old German art historicist tradition that a photographic image is  an adequate representation of almost any kind design reality.
Perhaps most disturbing is the common ineptitude of architecture faculty in engaging with the burgeoning digital toolkit, and therefore the outright hostility to employing those performative computing tools which encourage evidence based design processes rather than ego-maniac rhetoric.

In my 'second job' as a consultant, lately I have been particularly frustrated by some parallel experiences.  It is all very well to be treated as the expert of last resort on analyzing the solar access and likely natural ventilation of apartments. But most of the time, I am called in to try and magically explain away why designs are achieving relatively poor amenity compared to the local planning guidelines, and worse, why the architects did not realise this during the weeks or months spent on the design.

In the end it is always the same explanation.  The designers were using half remembered rules of thumb, and usually primitive 2D analysis – when working with their own 3D models would have shown them what was going on. If this is so with something purely geometric like solar access, it is doubly so with something like daylighting, and infinitely more so with something genuinely complicated like natural ventilation.

I have taught literally thousands of students those environmental control fundamentals in architectural science subjects, while running studios in which it was very clear that getting the science right did not get in the way of the poetic or the beautiful. I would have thought that at least locally here in Sydney, Australia, the message would have got out. But of course, my students working as recent graduates rarely have their knowledge gainfully employed by most architectural practices. More characteristically, they are appreciated for their skill and speed in using visualisation software to produce presentation imagery. It doesn't take them long to forget half of what they knew, and to join the architectural mainstream.

What will it take to change this? At the moment, I feel like I have been pissing in the wind, to use a great Australian metaphor.

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