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.

Here’s a little piece of pro-bono work I did recently for CoffeeBar 10133 in Tallinn.

CoffeeBar 10133 has been the place that I’ve been going to for my after-lunch-coffee-and-a-cigarette breaks ever since I returned to Estonia. Liking their coffee and atmosphere, I talked to one of the co-owners, Kaspar, to see if I could be helpful. This is what came out of it – their customer cards:

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CoffeeBar is located in Old Town Tallinn, and has a pretty distinct facade. That facade served as an inspiration for the design of their customer cards.

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After a few discussions with Kaspar, we figured a technical-drawing-like front accommodating the stamps and the holder’s name, and a very minimal back with CoffeeBar’s logo and contact information would work best for their card. The deal was that if you got 14 coffees at the Bar, you got stamps for each of those, and then got your 15th coffee for free. The facade of the Bar accommodated the idea perfectly, given there are a total of 14 glass panes on it. Because the individual “windows” on the card ended up being pretty small, we decided that the stamp was going to be a single coffee bean from their logo – an elegant and clear solution to the “stamp problem”.

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Nothing too special – I admit – but I was glad to help out a CoffeeBar with “Probably the best coffee in Old Town” Tallinn. If you ever find yourself in Tallinn, Estonia, I highly recommend paying them a visit. If you’re interested, you can also find out more about them here.

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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!

Hello everyone,

When a year and a half ago I published a blog post on my experience at OMA on my blog, I wrote a personal reflection on my experience which I thought might be interesting for people “out there” to read. Later, as I submitted the post for publication with Arch2O.com, I could have never imagined the backlash it would have resulted in. With this post, I want to publicly apologize for the hurt feelings it has generated. I did not intend for this to happen.

I agree, my post has featured strong (offensive) language, and I apologize for using it – especially in the context of a “joke”. I will rework the article in order to respect the hurt feelings of so many people who reacted to it. My use of the word “rape” was metaphorical and only there to effectively bring across my point: that working at one of the leading offices for architecture is not easy, and certain things (absence of time for oneself outside work, specifically) need to be accepted without much control on one’s behalf. It was not intended as support of male supremacy or anything of sort. Now, though, I understand that the use of such “metaphors” is inappropriate. I apologize for that.

In addition, I do have to clarify two things.

First: my blog post was meant as a reflection. It can not be taken for fact, and is a personal interpretation of my experience.

Second: the original title of my blog post was “What I’ve learned at OMA”. The “20 Tips for Being a Successful Architect” was later added to the article by Arch2O without my consent, and has thus skewed the intent of the post. As I said above, the post was written as a reflection – not advice, warning, etc.

Again, I apologize the post generated such a backlash. Apart from what I said wrong, I hope that readers will be able to see and appreciate what I said right. I am grateful to the blogs like The Funambulist for looking beyond point nr. 8 and using my post for trying to analyze the broader condition of the profession of architecture as a whole.

Sincerely,

I am sorry.

Ivan Sergejev