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A Little Bit of Difficulty is a Good Thing

In a recent issue of the Economist, I read an article that captured some very powerful ideas, ideas that I hadn’t realized I supported and incorporated into my work. The article is called “The uses of difficulty” by Ian Leslie, and it postulates that small obstacles may boost the creativity of the brain. He cites several studies and anedotes, and my favorite one is a neuroscience study that found that handwriting activates more areas of the brain than typing. Ian suggests that the act of trying to make your hand do what you want it to creates a tension that produces a denser expression, as opposed to using a keyboard where letters can flow out easily.

This leads me to speculate that one reason that architects cling to hand drafting – and the reason I still do it – is because it’s the most effective way for me to get my initial thoughts out of my brain. Though once I’ve worked those thoughts out, I switch over to the computer, because I can do so much more through those tools. But even using the computer doesn’t necessarily mean that the process is easier.

Ian recounts the situation of the Beatles, who weren’t able to come to America to record, where the equipment was more advanced, because of their contract with EMI. So they had to find ways to make the older equipment at Abbey Road work in the ways that they wanted the songs to sound. And it required considerable ingenuity and effort to make that happen. Also, he notes that Jack White purposely uses cheap instruments that don’t hold a tune because he finds that when it becomes too easy to make the music, it becomes harder to make it good.

I’m reminded of those nights trying to finish projects for studio, when pens run out and supplies dwindle, and you are forced to find alternative solutions that will still allow the idea to come though. And those skills that we develop, those improvisational tools that we find, they go into our bag of tricks for later in our careers. So that we know that we could finish drafting something with a ballpoint if we had too. Not that we’d want to.

Some Thoughts on Architecture School

I recently finished reading “One L” an autobiographical recounting of Scott Turow‘s first year at Harvard Law School. In the Afterword he discusses his thoughts about law school after spending many years in practice – and what he says is strikingly similar to the discussions around architecture school and its role in the profession.

He makes the argument that law school isn’t lawyer school, that it doesn’t exist to teach students what it means to practice law. Law school is about training legal scholars – teaching them to think like law professors. The judicial opinions of cases are studied, not the briefs or arguments from counsel. Students don’t spend time discussing the remedies that the law can provide, or how it can be applied – issues that are fundamental to law practice. However, since many professors have never practiced, expecting them to teach fundamental skills is pointless. Those skills are best learned from those who use them every day. The downside, Turow concludes, is that

“… while the students learn about the capacity of all arguments to be undermined, they are taught nothing about the ends to which that skill is meant to be applied. Little about the profession is held up to them for scrutiny – or admiration. The result is that the powerful minds of the law faculties bypass the opportunity to contribute more directly to the formulation of the ideals of the profession, and students depart having undertaken little refined reflection on the complex values which guide and inspire legal practice.”

Turow does feel that it is important for law school to spend time thinking about the law, and to explore its historical development, policy rationales, and its fundamental assumptions about our culture. What he wants is for the schools to apply the same focus to the profession, much like medical school has courses on public-health.

I am struck by the similarities between his description of law school and my experience with school. I think the statement that architecture school isn’t architect school is great. And I agree that part of the role of architecture school is to expose the students to the larger world and history of architecture. The apprenticeship of a graduate is still an effective way to learn the skills of the profession – though the effectiveness can vary widely from firm to firm.

I wonder how things would be different if the minds of architectural school faculties turned towards the profession and studied it as much as we study the Renaissance.  Certainly there are a number of practitioners that are advancing the profession, but not always through in the rigorous methods of the academic.

For me, personally, I feel that the separation of the architectural education into school, internship, and examination suits it well. I never got bent out of shape that school didn’t give me office skills, or that internship didn’t provide me with everything that I needed for the ARE. They are separate things, and while they overlap some, they seek to instill in the aspiring professional the various parts that are required for practice.

Finally, Turow captures perfectly the internal conflict of the practicing architect when we must be our clients “unhesitating advocate, the keeper of the client’s deepest secrets, and also someone who must call to the attention of a court controlling authorities that damn his client’s position …” This professional duty to both client and society is something should really be the focus of more time than it usually gets in either school or the office.

I Learned So Much at the AIA Convention – Now I Need to Change Things

I just got back from the 2012 AIA (American Institute of Architects) Convention in Washington DC. The weather was perfect, and the sessions were extremely valuable. The two that stand out were on disruptive innovations in architectural practices and blogging.

The blogging session was very funny because it had Bob Borson (Life as an Architect) and Jody Brown (Coffee with an Architect) but also very informative because they recounted the process that led them to blogging and the lessons they’ve learned. The two big ideas, and they are both things I need to be sure that I’m focusing on, were 1) make sure your blog has your personality, and 2) don’t expect the blog to generate work. I will certainly be keeping those ideas in mind as I blog.

The session on disruptive innovation was affirming and invigorating. Affirming because the presenters thesis is that the next phase of architectural practice will be to design solutions to problems, with designing buildings as a sub-specialty. When I first started working for myself, I had determined that what architects did was solve problems, so this was great to hear. The invigorating part was learning about how disruptive innovation works by entering a market at the lower end, where the larger players don’t want to go, and then growing from there. His example was MP3s, which is a crappy format for music, so big players like Sony didn’t want to touch it. And they ended up late to the party. My innovation is the Personal Architect model, where I work with clients on very small problems, so small that most architects wouldn’t bother to go after them. My hope is that these small problems, and the relationships that develop, will grow into a solid body of work.

Looking forward to the next convention and what I might learn there.