January 2015


Ehituskunst_2015_Ivan-Sergejev

Recently, I got invited to submit an article to “Ehituskunst” – an annual bilingual Estonian magazine, investigating architecture and theory. The topic, this time, was materiality. If you are interested, you can see a short abstract and download the PDF of the article below.

“What is architecture’s stance on materiality in the context of our modern digitized world? Featuring both personal reflections of the author and a general philosophical discussion, “Embracing materiality” takes a conservative approach, calling materiality the lifeblood of the profession of architecture, and arguing that it is capable of serving as an idea for architecture in the world obsessed with ephemeral concepts. The article is published in both Estonian and English.”

Sergejev, I. (2015). “Embracing Materiality”. Ehituskunst, #57. pp 30-37

In one of my recent posts I referred to an article in the Guardian, called “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’” by Scott Poole. A great article overall, this one quote chained my attention:

As the tech companies bid for contracts, Haque observed, the real target of their advertising is clear: “The people it really speaks to are the city managers who can say, ‘It wasn’t me who made the decision, it was the data.’”

This “it wasn’t me, it was the data” attracted my attention not only because it referred to a potentially large topic in the future of city policy and planning, but also because it is directly related to architecture.

I have a feeling that us, architects (and yes, me included), often have a hard time deciding on our designs. It is not surprising, considering the complexity of our profession, responsibilities it implies (as, for example, for whatever reason designing something people will abhor, but which will stay to “pollute” the face of the Earth for years to come as a reminder of our failure [dramatic music here, and an image of a failed architect, please], not to mention all the health-and-safety stuff), and the fact that a lot of times it seems like we are forced to draw a design out of pure ether. Thus, we invent excuses, allowing for, and justifying, our designs. I wrote about this a little bit earlier, but it still seems to me that sometimes we invent strategies for design that we hope will lead us to a design without making decisions. For example:

– “It wasn’t me, it was the random generator in Grasshopper”, or

– “It wasn’t me – the site ‘spoke’ of it”, or

– “It wasn’t me – it was the program…”

And so on. The reality is – architecture is a decision game. And it is largely irrational – at least the formal part of it – whether we like it or not. You need to make decisions, and then face the consequences. And the faster you make those decisions – the better.

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Ultimately, I think, the trouble with making decisions has to do with risk – we want to avoid it at all cost. So we delay making decisions that may ruin us. In the end, though, that “waiting” ruins us anyway. I’ve experienced this a lot of times while doing competitions at various offices, or in my own academic work – most painfully while doing my thesis, for example. But here’s a surprise for you (and all of us) – we can’t avoid risk – it is going to be there regardless. So, the only thing we can do – is change our attitude towards it.

I like the way Michael Ellsberg puts it in his “The Education of Millionaires”, when he is describing the successful people he interviewed for the book:

“I don’t believe the people I feature in this book simply took a bigger bet than everyone else and happened to get lucky and win. Rather, I’ve seen that they have systematically and intentionally developed a style of working that allows them to take lots of small bets – bet after bet after bet after bet – all the while making sure that they don’t get wiped out of the game if one or many of them go south” (p.53). “People who have been successful are still as likely to get it wrong as right going forward. They just try more things” (p.55).

How does this apply to architecture? Very directly: do more stuff, faster! Do that model right now, in 15 minutes! Photoshop that collage now and show it to your professor tomorrow, not in a week. Look at alternative scenarios and designs now, because you do want to know if your great idea doesn’t actually work earlier than that final push 48 hours before the deadline, when it’s to late and you will have to accept the silent defeat of “could have done better” deep in your gut. I think, a student (or professional) of architecture needs to give up the attitude of “holiness” that he/she oftentimes has towards his/her ideas, and regard all of them as little bets.

And guess what: no amount of analysis or benevolent considerations will save you from a bad design. Architecture in a lot of cases is not a rational thing – it is based on gut feeling. Nothing will happen – and you will not know the truth – until you actually run that algorithm, make that line on paper, or cut through that foam. So do it NOW!

Nobody says it better than Dilbert..

architect dilbert

He-he-huhh.. =\

As some of you know, I am a big fan of all things “future”. Reading a smart cities themed article on The Guardian’s web-site recently (Steven Poole: “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy'”), I remembered this one book that I’d like to share with you: The Machine Stops, by E.M.Forster. It was written back in 1909, but it’s incredible as far as portrayal of the flip side of our by now all but inevitable future is concerned.

Enjoy!