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Para-architectural is the new architectural

Three months into the year of ‘YES we can do it!’ and I am getting a bit fired up for new adventures and strange possibilities. Not sure where the future leads, but it is bound to be somewhere interesting.

Adding fuel to my speculations, I recently stumbled upon this interview on Archinect with Melbourne-based architectural photographer and non-practicing architect Nic Granleese, a man who is a practitioner of a decidedly different stripe. He has coined the rather useful phrase ‘para-architect’ to describe his own mode of operation, which exists ‘beside, near, alongside and/or beyond’ architecture - hence the prefix ‘para’.

There is much to learn from this interview, and I am particularly interested in Nic’s rethinking of digital rights licensing in relation to his images. The open licence would be anathema to the traditional photographer, but there is much to recommend a new approach in a world dominated by the fluidity of social and web-based media.

Of the other ideas he puts forward in this wide-ranging interview, the one that resonates most with me is the observation that the business structure of traditional practice is hopelessly outdated. He further asserts that architects have existed in ‘slavery’ to that model for too long. Strong words.

While I believe that both observations are true, I am unsure of what that means for the medium-sized practice, which seems to be the organisation most severely impacted by the rapidly transforming global situation. This is of particular interest to me as my current base of employment is in just such a practice.

Can the operating model be adapted in response to the forces of change, or is it destined to disappear altogether? If the worst eventuates, how will the disappearance occur: with a whimper or a bang? The industry in Australia is certainly struggling at the moment, with fee bidding rampant, and competition fierce for the few projects that are being tendered. With financial and organisational survival the question, what are the answers?

One answer might be parapractice, and there are any number of examples of non-traditional practices seeding themselves like weeds in the cracks of the profession. Nic mentions one in particular, the practice Openhaus, started by my clever friend Tania Davidge with the multi-talented and charming Christine Phillips. Openhaus has a radically different approach to practice and architecture, and has won the Institute of Architects media award for their efforts so far.

Another answer might be to re-examine the fundamentals of the medium sized practice’s relationship to communication and intellectual property. Once again, the traditional models seem to be rigid and literally exclusive: what could the alternatives be? Much to ponder.


A Song of Welcome to a Darker Season

autumn streets

It is Autumn in Melbourne, and I am already revelling in the steely grey skies, leaf-strewn pavements and regular showers of rain. During Winter last year, I described the darker months as my personal peak seasons of creativity. Today has been relatively warm, but the skies are big over Carlton and they have, to borrow a phrase from The Orb, "little fluffy clouds". So here is a nod to the darker seasons that are coming upon us: I for one welcome them.


Commonplacing for beginners

let optimism rein

I have just finished reading Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", an excellent exposition of a theory of innovation that focuses on the processes, platforms and techniques that support the emergence of creativity and ideas. His ideas are well researched, and in keeping with the subtitle (A natural history of innovation) Charles Darwin makes a sustained appearance in the text. There are far too many exciting ideas embodied in this book to give a comprehensive overview here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular: the concept of the Commonplace Book, its use as a tool of innovation and creativity, and the form it takes in the digital era.

The Commonplace Book was a ubiquitous tool of any Enlightenment scholar and gentleman, and its use extended from Renaissance Italy (the Zibaldone, or 'hodgepodge' book) up to premodern and modern England and America, although the forms varied in subtle and particular ways. The essence of the form was to carry a book that allowed one to capture words and sketches in many diverse and varied forms, types and purposes, creating a singular journal. Nowadays we would call it a personal journal or sketchbook, but the emphasis in Commonplacing (as it was known and taught in Oxford and even Harvard - Thoreau was taught to do this) was to combine quotations and extracts from found material with personal reflections and insights. The older form, the Renaissance 'Zibaldone' was even more diverse, and could include a record of tax rates, payments, debts, doodles, recipes, quotations from the greater and lesser poets, sketches, drawings and just about anything else you could imagine.

Johnson points to the benefits of Commonplacing as a tool of innovation and creativity, and attributes this to its ability to net and trap 'hunches' and subsequently allow the unexpected collision of different ideas. This process takes advantage of what he and others have called the 'adjacent possible'. Indeed, he elevates the humble 'hunch' to the level of proto-concept, an essential larval form of innovative ideas, albeit one that is more likely statistically to be abandoned and wither than bear fruit. As the story goes, we have a lot of hunches, and we need to have a lot, and not lose track of them: some lead us somewhere, but all of them have value. Even the ones we abandon are essential to 'trap', as they may form the seed of further ideas. Personally I prefer the term 'seed' to 'hunch'; to me, 'seed' captures the emergent potential of the stray idea, while acknowledging that it may fall on either barren or fertile ground - amount to something, or nothing at all.

I am no stranger to journal-keeping, nor to the fruitless/fruitful recording of stray hunches, but thanks to Mr. Johnson, I have a clearer view of a personal practice that had been intuitive up until now. He has filled out the creative, utilitarian and historical context to what was in itself a hunch - a desire to keep and maintain a record of thoughts and found materials.

More than this, Johnson was able to put the practice of commonplacing in an up-to-date framework through a discussion about the software tool DEVONthink. Like Evernote, DEVONthink is a personal database tool ideal for capturing words, notes, images, documents, voice recordings, web links and pages, in fact anything that you might wish to place in an imaginative or useful framework for future reference. In essence, they are both commonplacing tools, updated for a web-centric digital age.

The power of DEVONthink, and the advantage that it has over the conceptually similar but simpler Evernote, is embodied in its search algorithm, one that intelligently considers the context and proximity of words and meaning as well as the explicit search terms. It is also capable of intelligently classifying new material in relation to material you have already trapped in the database, a revealing and creative process in itself. With DEVONthink, storing items and ordering the database over time is fruitful, but the act of searching also becomes an active creative process, one that forces possible adjacencies between words and concepts in a way that is just a little unpredictable. And in that unpredictability is a strangely resonant mimicry of the seemingly-random connections between ideas and concepts that can emerge from, or inform, our subconscious and conscious minds. In this way the software acts as an extension and augmentation of our thinking process, if not our mind itself.

I have in the past used Evernote as my de-facto digital commonplacing tool, but I was far too intrigued by the possibilities of DEVONthink's search and classification algorithm to resist it. As a result I spent much of the long weekend transitioning my database of material from Evernote into DEVONthink. This labour-intensive process had the added bonus of allowing me to revisit much of the material I had saved into Evernote, and this in turn presented a range of new connections and concepts, new potentials, new seeds.

I look forward to new taxonomical habits yielding creative new insights, augmented by my newly adopted commonplacing tool.


The year of YES

let optimism rein

I am determined to start 2012 off in a positive frame of mind. I recently met a charming Australian woman who had lived in Portland, Oregon for several years. She reminded me of that most endearing of American traits - of American people, that is, not American popular culture - an unbridled and vibrant capacity for positivity and enthusiasm, and a corresponding lack of the cynicism and pessimism that is so prevalent in Australian culture.

It would be easy to be cynical about this - which is I suppose the point - but instead, I have decided to be inspired and wide-eyed. This doesn't come easy to a Melbourne pseudo-intellectual, but I am giving it a go. So rather than looking at the glass half full, as I seemed to be doing for much of 2011 (everything was problematic), I am beginning the new year by counting the positives and moving on from there. Things are good. Uncertainty is a fact, but I am learning to live with it.

On this basis, I hereby declare that 2012 is my year of 'YES'.


One Week in Japan