Coffee cup conversations


Isn’t it interesting, how when you first encounter an unknown subject, there is always something magical about it?

As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his 1973 revision of “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. It really is, isn’t it? For example, that is exactly how I related to computers before I embarked on my thesis journey: computers and the internet were anything but obvious; they worked (or not) depending on their own will, and their inside workings were, well – magical – to me. Once I embarked on my thesis effort, though, they started losing that magical ambiance. I got to know the nuts and bolts of those machines, why they worked and why they didn’t. I became much more informed about how one went about fixing (or crashing) them. They became machines – controllable, understandable, banal – something they have actually been from the start. (I wonder if the same realization would have helped Garry Kasparov during his match against Deep Blue back in 1997..?)

But it’s not only technology in it’s hardware guise I am talking about. For example, right now I am standing in front of the magical technology of human relations and, specifically, business success. Starting one’s company is weird: from one point of view, it’s all clear – “You just start a company and if you’re good enough, you succeed! What’s so difficult about that, anyway?” But once you step a little closer, you are suddenly blown away by the complexity and, here we go – magic – of the thing’s workings. People magically start successful companies, find themselves on the cover of WIRED and FastCompany, magically make their zillions. They must be lucky, hyper-smart or in some other way radically different. I find myself staring like an ape at the monolith of the business world (think “2001: A Space Odyssey”), not sure what to make of it: is it good, is it bad, should I even approach, is it going to kill me? The way it works is indistinguishable from magic.

Feeling curious to know what the thing is, I take an in-depth entrepreneurship course, which includes developing a business plan for my future business as a part of the graduation requirements. In the middle of Market Research, Marketing Strategies and Financial Planning, all my architectural schooling is rendered useless and my own ignorance is, once again, revealed to me. But what is even more fascinating, is that while doing all of this, I am terrified – not as much of whether the monolith will kill me – but rather that once I start truly examining it, there’s no going back: as things before it, it will start loosing it’s magic-ness… And it will inevitably become a machine.

Maybe, the secret to (worldly) success is realizing from the start that everything is a machine, and all you need to do is to decrypt it? There is no magic, no Santa, no architects reaching fame by the virtue of their talents alone. It’s plain mechanics. The sooner one realizes that, the better. And I am doing it with different things every day, learning more and more about the world around. But I won’t lie: the little kid somewhere inside me is still a little sad… Why couldn’t it just be magic?

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It’s weird, how I keep re-discovering architecture. Why haven’t I gotten it straight yet?

When I got into architecture school, all I knew of it were the housing blocks of post-soviet Estonia, the mysterious (“does it really exist?”) Flatiron building and the (“I guess it’s like a thousand years old!”) Sagrada Familia. A few years in, I got convinced architecture was an “art”, taking it one step further at Tech by buying into the slogan “Architecture will save the world!” Talking to some of my ex-classmates, I got introduced to the idea of “architecture as a business”, while realizing after OMA that it was more of an “industry”. Working at Alver’s place, I discovered it was what got actually built, while after visiting the exhibition of work by Nieto Sobejano at the Estonian Museum of Architecture today, I am kind of swaying towards “art” again.

Go figure.

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!

When I was in school, I remember our professors telling us that only about 10% of the people educated to be architects will actually end up being architects. I never really understood how that can be, but already now it seems to be true. Out of all my ex-classmates, few are actually practicing architecture. Instead, they tend to focus on auxiliary fields, related, but not strictly speaking architectural. A couple folks have started a joint CAM outfit, 3D-printing objects, laser-cutting models and such. Another couple of people I know started rendering businesses. Others focused on code and architecture, programming presentations and digital models, or doing spatial installations. A good number switched to interior design. And all that in addition to countless people I know who just changed their professions altogether. I guess it’s pretty hard to be an architect-architect after all – actually produce projects and build buildings. Don’t think we are dying out – there are just too many of us for the current market. Plus, the financials of architecture are complicated, provided the difficulty of defining the “product” of architecture and why we charge this and not that for projects. All this makes a lot of us reconsider our professional trajectories, and some of us simply fail. Something to think about for some of us on the first day of school.

For us – architects – it is important to somehow live out our insanity. Many of the things – in fact, most of the things our profession actually craves to do – are just not possible in the world that is trying to be rational. All the curved, angled, huge, megalomaniac stuff that many of us dream about (and the schools are promoting) is just not going to happen. In our daily practices we need to produce buildings – not boundless spatial play. So, how do live out our insanity?

Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind, Micromegas

Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas, Zeebrugge Terminal

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Leisure Club

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Leisure Club

Doing architecture, I believe, is a balancing of acting out this insanity and adhering to the needs of rationality. The more insanity we are able to incorporate into our built designs, the happier we are as professionals. Perversely, architecture – the profession of spatial play – is not able to satisfy our craving for molding space. For that we need other media – media allowing for less responsibility. And may-be that is for the better, too. Would we actually want to live in our dreams? I doubt it. Other media help us keep our denial of reality at bay, and cope with our madness. It’s not that architects “can draw, and do sculpture, too”. We have to do that in order to stay sane.

Ivan Sergejev, Utopia

Ivan Sergejev, Utopia

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City – a three-dimensional city grid

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City detail

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City detail

Ivan Sergejev, The In-between

Ivan Sergejev, The In-between

There are two types of people: those who do and those who don’t. I mean there are people who by the end of their life will have added something to the world, and then there are those who won’t. It is indeed that binary.

In addition, I feel that within the second group – of those who don’t – there is a subgroup of those who appear to be doing, but there is nothing concrete coming out of their “efforts”; an appearance of doing, deceiving both the “pseudo-doer” and everybody else.

I feel like so far in a lot of ways I have been a member of that sub-group.

It’s time to start doing.

It seems to me that a large pert of life is spent waiting. Waiting for that phone call, for a reply to an important e-mail, paperwork, for a project to go through all the administrative loops and start construction.. Patience is one of main virtues to have in life, I reckon.

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