The Graduate of Architecture

Jun 12, 2014
  • Article by Online Editor

A recently released report revealing that only one in forty Australian architecture practices seeks new tools and design methods has got this graduate questioning how it is that one’s employment perspectives are so limited by software knowledge, and which software determines not only the practice, but your role in that practice. One of our online contributing editorial assistants, Joanne Taylor, conducted research into “the tools used within the design process and the methods applied to them” in order to understand if tools are having an influence on design, culminating the intriguing proposition: is the architecture industry caged by software technologies?

Text: Annabel Koeck

Photography: Tony Less Photography

When interviewing 10 recognised London-based architecture firms, it was found that only 1 practice offered positions based on the graduate’s excellence in the field, undeterred by what software they may or may not know. In an industry where the graduate is pitted against drafting technicians and investing personal time to apply value to production, the profession needs to consider the costs of a one-week CAD training course with that of a workforce with incredibly limited skills. With architecture’s archaic mentorship programs, if any, how will graduates develop into adequate architects?

Yes, sadly, a graduate is often merely a body to be used and abused, but when did it become more necessary to have IT skills as opposed to design skills? Architecture seems to be the only profession in which IT experience trumps academic excellence. This is severely limiting the introduction of critical and creative thinkers into existing architecture practices, and appears rather short-sighted. Do we want our critical thinkers taking refuge in educational institutions? It could be argued that we should be calling for a return to principles first, Grasshopper scripting second.

There is a prevailing view among Australian graduates that to enter practice is to sacrifice, or put on hold, the skills that have taken five years acquiring as a creative and critical thinker. To fill this gap there are ever increasing numbers of young professionals who actively seek university involvement whilst practising. It appears that in the context of Australian contemporary practice what we are being taught translates not into a “well rounded architect” but into two very different jobs.

In Taylor’s research, it appeared that only a quarter of practices interviewed had strong ideological positions. This translates to only one quarter of practices limiting the use of digital tools to production only, or rather not allowing the tools to effect design. In practical terms, in 75% of practices it is the graduate who is typecast as “the rhino guy” that is having, albeit usually unwittingly, a huge impact on the outcome of design investigations. No wonder it is often difficult to see any trend in mid to large size practices’ architectural ‘legacy’. As a result of this removal from any driving ideology, whether you are a natural in Revit or have mastered Grasshopper, you’re tasks and even the stages of projects you are involved in are pre-determined, and – according to Taylor – vary little from office to office.

I’ll admit, I’m the Revit guy, who is very lucky to have had experience with world class BIM projects, however I can’t help be jealous of the Rhino guy, whose experience is entirely limited to visualisation, feasibility studies, and endless reiterations – I envy the possibilities. Combined, perhaps we will be half the architect of the twentieth century.

In the contemporary architecture practice, we need to invert the value we place on production versus design innovation. With contemporary Australian practices placing increasing value on production, an ideological position is avoided. Perhaps it comes back to the tall poppy syndrome in Australia, or dare I mention our isolation from global design centres. Whatever the reason, a design method with its loose outcomes and exploratory nature does not equate to, or substitute, a manifesto, a declaration of intent. Ironically, as the monuments we erect grow in size and number, the Australian architect is increasingly reticent to take a stand.

The multitude of new technological methods of practice, and the prolific form-based production they facilitate, has brought abstract architectural form, which lacks any obvious theoretical construct to the forefront of design discourse. With the loss of the manifesto, critical thinkers are searching for some theoretical coherence in an attempt for our profession to understand and validate contemporary practice and its intent, or lack thereof. This lack of intent has driven the architecture graduate into the realm of abstract IT support. Within an architecture infatuated by form, an architecture where design is a mere by-product of technological method, it is intent that will save the graduate. Intent has the power to return the role of the graduate back to the tasks of design documentation, preservation, and progression.

The dilution of architectural intent, and corresponding absence of the manifesto, can interestingly also be somewhat attributed to the changing structure of architecture practices as a result of the proliferation allowed for by these new technologies. Interdisciplinary collaborative teams are larger than ever, roles are increasingly specialised, vision and revision are in constant flux as production speeds up and multiplies, and the there is no room left for the singular visionary architect. As a result, the guardian of a singular intent is lost.

As the architecture profession grapples with a huge surge in fascinating technologies with previously unimagined design outcomes, the loss of the manifesto is disastrous. Scripting substitutes principles, the graduate is part of the BIM machine. To our despair, it was the previous generation’s principles that allowed them to traverse scale from masterplans to furniture, not a reliance on software.

Note: this article has been updated.

Conversation • 5 comments

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13 Jun 14 at 3:05 PM • Travis

Certain age groups are there for certain jobs. Can’t expect a fresh graduate to talk like a 10 year experience senior and yet, can’t expect old grumpy senior to work with Grasshopper easy peasy like he’s only wiring some simple series circuits. Each takes turn. Also tech and thoughts are now too closely intertwined that they’re becoming one, there’s no separation. Tech are tools to get your thoughts paid. It’s not the architects to blame but the clients, the ones who no longer care for well thought but flashy design.

13 Jun 14 at 4:59 PM • ST

Annabel’s 7th para is the key issue here. As a director, I often ask: “what’s happened to simply picking up a 2b pencil and thinking?” That’s where the true kernel of any intent is germinated. The space to quietly devise is imperative. What happens after that can be assisted by technology; however to assume that technology & software can direct design is, well, lazy. Therefore graduates of architecture can and should play a crucial role in guiding the project intent through the electronic process, keeping the concept intact, while using that technology as a tool to solve and even enhance – but never dictate. Travis is right, we all contribute according to our age and experience – and the combination and mutual recognition of both graduate and director can be powerful. However many graduates are frustrated (particularly in larger practices)that their critical thinking and contemporary skill-set is being underutilized; and in many practices it probably is. Larger practices are typically under huge pressure from many angles to deliver much in the shortest possible timeframe for a negotiated fee. At that stage of a project, little is about intent or being exploratory. Yet it is mostly those types of practices (the 75%)that have the capacity to employ and secure significant commissions. It is the minority of (more bespoke) practices that can both deliver projects and allow graduate staff the time they deserve to explore throughout the process. But they also face the same challenges. So, yes, it is the largely the clients to blame – as craftsmanship is lost, in favour of haste and cost cutting. Individuals and Governments want architecture, but they don’t want it to cost too much or take too long. This is a vast issue that goes to the core of our values as Australians i.e. what do we value? If our profession as a whole can drive hard to enlighten our society to the value and importance of quality in design and delivery of that design (at all levels) then we may begin to see a shift in how clients view the importance of carrying through the intent. This in turn may flow into the practices, allowing greater freedom for design exploration & critical thinking, bringing craft to the fore. It is a utopian ideal, but one worth fighting for as we move into a digital century. Current and future graduates have an important role to play in this regard, as they begin to take the reigns of the profession over the coming decades.

14 Jun 14 at 12:42 AM • myth

“I often ask: “what’s happened to simply picking up a 2b pencil and thinking?” That’s where the true kernel of any intent is germinated. The space to quietly devise is imperative. What happens after that can be assisted by technology; however to assume that technology & software can direct design is, well, lazy.”

I think you’ll find that particular thinking is rooted in your understanding of design and is itself lazy. There are myriad design methods, yours is not necessarily correct.

Do you have any research to suggest that big offices or bespoke offices operate in any particular way collectively? I have experience to the contrary of you claims, and I’m sure others have various experiences.

14 Jun 14 at 1:45 PM • Mark Bell

There’s a lot of truth in what Annabel writes given the demand by industry to standardize and deliver more in less time and for less fees. I’m a director in a mid sized firm in Darwin and see one of the biggest misunderstandings with today’s graduates is their belief all an employer is looking for is 3D modelling and rendering skills, and/or using Revit. I’ve been practicing architecture for over 25 years and remember the stigma at uni to use CAD. I was one of three out of about 65 in my year who took the challenge and didn’t follow the crowd, instead investing time to understand CAD and use it to supplement my skill base. Unfortunately for the other 60+ who didn’t, soon after graduating most found that to get a job you had to know how to use CAD.

The problem we now face is “everyone” now knows how to use CAD, but only a few have any understanding on construction knowledge and how to prepare competent drawings that’s suitable for a contractor to build from. The pendulum has swung too far in one direction. We’re now seeing another shift towards ‘facade-ism architecture’ where developers employ graduates with little practical experience but good 3D CAD + rendering skills who design proposals that have a certain wow factor on the outside but fall short on basic good design principles of natural light, ventilation and circulation. I think there is a role for graduates to contribute once they find work in a practice; they probably have to learn some patience and not expect to fulfill all their aspirations in the first few years of employment. A five-year double degree is a good starting point, but graduates also need to appreciate the commercial realities and fluctuations in a market driven, competitive environment. We can’t all be a Norman Foster et al, every day of the week!

Getting back to Annabel’s article, we maybe one of a minority that actually do employ staff based more on their attitude and construction knowledge (or willingness to learn) and not what CAD package(s) they can use or how many renders they have done. We don’t even use AutoCAD or Revit but have continued to win projects based on the work we do and our good name around town….and for the record, every employee we’ve put on over the years has quickly learnt DataCAD, which may not be the industry standard, but then again, architecture is not about conformism, it’s supposed to be about being creative…and not following the crowd.

Mark Bell
Bell Gabbert Associates

20 Jun 14 at 5:31 PM • Chris Knapp

Referring back to AR134-Authority, one need only read the interview with Preston Scott Cohen who states that “the problem today is that architects don’t know what they want” – and as such, technology exacerbates this problem when it attempts to be the generator of the idea, rather than the tool in the service of the architectural motivation. It is great that this author highlights how important clarity of intent is, and that the core of what we do is to realize meaningful synthesis of ideas with material realities.

That technology is pigeon-holed into specific domains of an office is more a problem of how an office decides to leverage tools in a particular way, or becomes stuck in its ways. If only one software is used exclusively, this too is a problem as it indicates that design is only conceived and approached through a single lens. Graduates and architects of all ranges of experience need to, at the very core, hold expertise of a wide array of tools that includes both the analogue and digital kit.

What is actually much more exciting about the digital tools available today is the way in which they are liberating knowledge through investigation and precise description. The architect no longer has to be at a distance from assembly – the parametric tools in particular that link the architect directly to the fabricator – or allow him/her to become the fabricator – points to a future where architects will be known as the designers of process rather than the designers of objects (ref: Achim Menges interview, AR134). It also sounds as if the “Rhino guy” mentioned above is being utilised for completely the wrong task. Yes, it can be a generative tool but its real strength is in the link to rapid prototyping and precise fabrication output.

A generation ago, an architect could dream up any shape they wanted – blob or otherwise – but they had no means to genuinely validate how to construct that work and in the 80s or 90s, for example, they probably didn’t see that as a problem either. Today this is readily achievable, and if underpinned by clear and substantial motivations, it means the architect can leverage the digital in service of the ‘manifesto’ irrefutably and profitably.

Chris Knapp
Abedian School of Architecture
Bond University


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