School of Life

In the commercial world it matters little if the people who can speak most convincingly about a project aren’t those who know most about it. I’ve watched people present projects while seeing the drawings for the first time across the table from a client going through them. I’ve witnessed people with no knowledge of a project give public presentations and not only win the crowd over but also field questions. These are the ones called “good presenters”. Some of their skills come naturally but most are acquired.

For example, if one is in a country or city not one’s home, it’s always good to begin with some praise for a locally famous building supposedly glimpsed from a taxi on the way from the airport to the hotel. It establishes rapport. [I remember Rem Koolhaas opening some biennale talk here by saying Dubai World Trade Centre was a fine building. Whether it is or not, it certainly made an impression to many local people.

Immediately after the initial loosening up of the crowd comes a mild self-effacing joke which, these days, in its laziest form is usually a pseudo-apology for some silly powerpoint slide. We’re barely thirty seconds in but the audience has already been expertly manipulated to grant the speaker their trust. And then there’s the hands thing.

It’s easy to find links to articles or videos such as 20 Hand Gestures You Must Use!.

The least popular TED Talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18 minute talk. 
The most popular TED Talkers used an average of 465 hand gestures—that’s almost double!”

This will come as no surprise if you’ve ever watched a TED talk and wondered to yourself what is wrong with these people. Hand gestures don’t represent sincerity or emotion – they’re substitutes for it, and more than a little creepy. Never trust a person who does the hands thing. 

The science has it that persons whose hand gestures stray “outside the box” tend to be perceived as a bit unstable.

Bjarke Ingels’ hand gestures give the impression of a person passionate about what he’s talking about. You can watch a Bjarke Ingels video with the sound off and not feel like you’re missing anything.

TED talks and YouTube videos are passive infotainment delivery systems that combine graphics and stand-up presentation skills and have little to do with instruction or explanation. This is what the public face of architecture has become and when we have an architectural culture that values visuals and perception management above everything else, we can expect everything else to decline in importance.

It is.

In many countries around the world the fall semester ended with design juries apportioning grades for content and for presentation. Content was almost certainly assessed as the appropriateness of the solution with respect to [one can only hope] its location, purpose and stated objectives, while presentation will have been assessed as a combination of graphic presentation skills most likely taught as part of the curriculum but also on oral presentation skills and other dark arts in which the students were never instructed but will be graded on anyway hey-ho.

Digital technologies will have been apparent in the gathering and processing of data to the generation of the design and everywhere until its eventual expression in two or three dimensions and possibly audio. These days, the only analog skills that matter are the ones that can’t be digitally replicated. It’s not for nothing that verbal presentation skills are the core component of perception management. A student who cannot stand up and appear to speak convincingly about a project is never going to be business development manager or head of a starchitect regional office. These positions go to the slick talkers. Any student who can effortlessly sweet-talk an audience with plausible bullshit is a hot commodity and the new whoever-you-care-to-name.

Meanwhile, everything NOT TO DO with perception management is fast disappearing from architecture curriculums. 

  1. Drawings are no longer regarded as the basic unit of architectural communication. Instead we have posters that can be used to impress an audience, whether it’s a board of directors or parents on open day. Posters don’t have title blocks, borders or a scale.
  2. Spatial planning is no longer regarded as a core skill. My guess is because it’s on the develpment gain side of things and the job of the architect of record. 
  3. Structure, or at least a sense for it, is being downgraded as core knowledge because too much concern for it is deemed “uncreative”. The mindset is that structural engineers can make anything work (and they mostly can, in a separate Faustian bargain). The problem is that there’s no-one to teach what’s a good structural decision and what’s not.
  4. Construction is also being downgraded as core knowledge because, again, too much concern for it is deemed “uncreative”.
  5. The importance of integrating various disciplines at as early a design stage as possible.
  6. Professional practice in general but, in particular, the many ways of practicing architecture are not being taught. The sole practitioner is no longer presented as a viable career option despite having all the above in their skill set along with marketing savvy and cashflow acumen. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #34: The Sole Practitioner]
  7. Project management and the importance of budget and delivery.
  8. Ethics.  

Presentation of the idea is becoming all that’s left and though the presentations may be slicker the ideas aren’t getting any better.

One day, the concept of the parti will make its way back into our lives and be presented to us as something new and amazing. Whatever it will turn out to be, this new way of building will be detached from anything to do with the building life cycle and have everything to do with its media life cycle. This new way of organising buildings is probably with us already and called something we already know – like “interventions,” “critical spatiality,” “pop-up architecture” “ad-hocism,” “digital architecture” …

If students aren’t being taught how to have an idea for how to configure a building I don’t believe it’s because it can’t be taught [c.f. Concept Conflict] but rather because it’s not wanted. The general expectation is that over the course of several semesters of design studio feedback students will somehow get better at having concepts but, instead, what happens is that students become more skilled at using the slightest hint or signal from their instructor to divine what is wanted, while studiously avoiding delivering what’s not. This is neither teaching nor learning. It is merely the classroom-studio adapting to deliver the kind of employee design offices want. Some say that architecture schools are divorced from reality but my view is that they are adapted all too well.

Architecture education adapts to meet the requirements of the economic order. The Beaux Arts system of learning by copying universally accepted templates was, for the times, reassuringly elitist but at least it was intellectually honest in having a consensus as to what represented excellence.

The early 20th century cult of instructor personality led to evaluation metrics that had their very lack of justifiability presented as proof of their worth.

We’re used to seeing this new system of architectural education as a positive thing but rather than encouraging creativity and innovation like Maria Montessori did for junior education in the 1920s, it commodified creativity more along the lines of what Henry Ford was doing for automobiles around the same time.

Here’s #6 from an online article titled “10 Things You Can Learn While Working For a Starchitect.”  

That last sentence shows how the system of doing someone else’s bidding replicates itself. The most highly evolved are starchitects extremely adept at delivering architecture that pleases the economic system that rewards them, while diligently avoiding addressing any problem caused by that economic system.

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1 thought on “School of Life

  1. jonathan

    fortunately I am nearing the end of a very minor career. Never having had to be bothered with the whimsy of a starch itect, I feel satiated.
    providing a solution that actually works and more than satisfies the client seems like an admirable goal.
    producing non solutions that are at best designed to compete with the perceived opposition seems such folly.
    the bullshit that starchi tects invented the notion of a “recognisable design language” oeuvre, pure toss, the prime aim is the beatification of themselves by themselves

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