We look for sights that offer a new perspective by which to
understand the emerging conditions we are designing for,
landscapes where we find the future in the present tense.
Liam Young, Tomorrows Thoughts Today
Rory Hyde, Routledge, 2012
Future Practice. Conversation from the Edge of Architecture, a book published in the second semester of 2012, alongside two major events, The Venice Architecture Biennale and the Istanbul Design Biennale, surveys the rise of new architecture practices. New, maybe not. But different from the 20th-century architecture practice, certainly so.
His author, Rory Hyde, is an architect, born in Australia, a long-term resident of Amsterdam — he recently announced to go back to Australia. He also defined himself as a researcher, writer and broadcaster — he and the Architects on Triple R (with Stuart Harrison, Simon Knott and Christine Philipps) broadcasted live during the first week of the latest edition of Venice Architecture Biennale. He is also on the editorial team of Volume Magazine.
Rory Hyde | Future Practice. Conversation from the Edge of Architecture || Routledge, 2012, 280 pages.
Available in paperback and kindle edition.
Rory Hyde knows his milieu; he works with, speaks with (as an editorial member) practitioners. He is himself an example of the rise of new forms of architecture practice.
But what is practice? This should be the first question one may ask when opening and turning the first pages of Future Practice. What does an architect mean with practice? On his blog — the new generation of architects is, for the most, also blogger —, Rory Hyde defines practice as a context for production. The architect might be mumbling that he knows this already. But, and this is partly what makes his book informative for not only those who work in the architectural-urban field (architects, critics, historian, et cetera) but also those who are not practitioners (we should probably redefine the term of practitioner) while operating on the built environment.
Based on a series of conversations with practitioners, Dan Hill's foreword aside, Rory Hyde undertakes a meticulous survey on new forms of architecture practices. Hyde justifies his choice for interviews:
Where Potential Futures pieced together the various roles largely from others' descriptions of their own work, to get closer to the reality of these people and practices necessitated speaking to them directly. An edited book of contribution by each of these people may have also worked, but it's important to note that — with some exceptions — these are all doers, not critics or writers. And doers are, by definition, busy doing stuff, not writing about doing stuff. In this sense, I also saw it as important to get these (busy) voices on the page, to discuss their work in a way that they might not feel compelled to write down themselves.
Note, however, that some of the interviewed also write while not being officially writers or critics or theorists.
Various profiles, backgrounds, point of views are gathered in Future Practice: from Bruce Mau to Wouter Vanstiphout; from Steve Ashton/ARM to Marcus Westbury/Renew Newcastle; from Jeanne Gang/Studio Gang to Natalie Jeremikenko/xClinic. Architects, Editors-Architects, Educators-Architects. In addition, artists, historians and activists. Renew Newcastle (Marcus Westbury) is an example. Marcus Westbury, one of his members, is not an architect. We learn that he was a director of arts festivals and a cultural commentator. And yet his role is as (if not more) important as that of the architect in his contribution to re-think, improve a public space in Newcastle. He "illustrate[s] the potential of nonarchitectural strategies in achieving very architectural outcomes", writes Hyde. Hence the Community Enabler who "deploys the ample resource of people as a catalyst for change, where spatial improvements may be ineffective."
He is not the only one not being architect but whose role is as important and (not to say identical) as that of architect: Camila Bustamante described as the Urban Activist and Natalie Jeremijenko as the Environmental Medic. Considering the Environmental Medic. Jeremijenko is an artist and associate professor of art (at the New York University) with a background in science, engineering and art. Considering the Environmental Health Clinic, a service which function is to provide "individual "prescriptions" for changes to personal environments, and the potential for widespread, aggregated change." She calls her work as being socio-ecological systems design,
I actually think my work is quite specific, although it does look it comes from all over the place. It's really socio-ecological system design. I don't know if this is a prescription for all designers, but I certainly think that part of the work of problem-forming — as opposed to problem-solving which designers pride themselves on — is really about thinking through the challenges that we face in the 21st-century: re-imagining our urban infrastructures, promoting biodiversity, getting beyond 19th century hygiene myths. We need to further apply ideas of biodiversity and complexity — not towards LEED points or awards, but towards possibilities that are very specific, particular and local, and that can aggregate for significant effect.
Or x-design, or o-design, very difficult to seize but quite significant of this new form of practice, that is "very opportunistic in the sense that it's about framing the problem". And here we are back to the the definition of practice that Rory Hyde proposed. It seems to me that, beyond the practitioners in this book, the common denominator to the 21st century practice is that its role is to "frame the problem". The core element to these new forms of practice is that the architect, now, will be problem-forming (or problem-addressing) rather than problem-solving. He will no longer have the solution…, but will cope with the issue. To a certain extent, this can be a form of adaptation in a time of economic crisis and to an uncertain future.
A new form of business model, as Dan Hill wrote in the foreword. For, an evidence: architecture needs a new business model. We are reminded of a few sentences of Jeremy Till's essay Scarcity contra Austerity published several months ago on Design Observer (an essay that needs to be read again and again):
For the large majority of the profession — let's say the 99% — the wider context of economic leanness is profoundly influencing every stage of the process. In architecture, this has meant that the choice of architects is largely determined by procurement managers making crude calculations that effectively exclude smaller practices and those who produce value through design rather than spreadsheets. Once selected, architects are then increasingly asked to take the hurt during the early stages by working on speculation; if the job lands, they are then paid at ever-reduced free levels, set against projects costs that are continually pared down through value-engineering. When the job goes on site, the contract is endlessly subdivided in order to pass risk down the contractual chain, and there is ever increasing reliance on off-site and standardized construction. Nor is the architectural academy exempt from the drive to austerity, given the ever more strident demands for market-ready students, often conveyed in terms of the irrelevance of theory or experiment, and revealing an anti-intellectualism that threatens the very basis of educational values.
No, Rory Hyde's Future Practice does not spotlight this new generation of architects' hidden daily reality, this generation confronting with current crisis and lack of opportunities. Not directly. But if you read it twice, or more, it is not too far from what Till wrote in this passage. Both say the same — with different approach and point of view — that, as Hill smartly noted, architecture is in need of a new business model. Indeed, Future Practice "provide clues as how to back out of the cul-de-sac that architecture has partly built."
Hyde's book resides in the fact that it capture this vulnerability that characterizes architecture. Yes architecture has been marginalized. And yes architecture needs recalibrate its field which supposes a new look at innovative forms, approach to building, city-making. A collective practice can be a strategy. The case of Tomorrows Thoughts Today is an example. As Liam Young co-founder of Tomorrows Thoughts Todays (and co-founder of Unknown Fields Division) stated in the book:
For us, Tomorrows Thoughts Today is more like a music producer who marshals different people together; we bring in people from science or from technology to build a team depending on the nature of the problem or project, allowing us to be dynamic. It's a kind of "post-bust' office model that is less connected with the economy of building, but more connected with industry, technology, ecology or development at different times. And instead of operating as a service, producing optimistic views of things to clients in order to get paid, we develop self-initiated projects and operate more resilient forms of practice and this is our attempt to do so.
Put it simply, the ambition to Tomorrows Thoughts Today is to "break that cycle, and to operate in a more dynamic way with a new business model", said Liam Young.
In the same way does architecture need a new approach in terms of education. Put it simply, even architecture school needs a new business model. What toolkits, instruments, methodology to educate strategic designers? This does not necessarily limit to building or city-making but to provide the future architect knowledge enough to operate in the world, Liam Young said. "[W]e try to use the studio as a place to develop strategies by which they can work independently as designers when [the students] leave us". Studying architecture does not spontaneously lead to the profession — if you consider the act of building as the unique way of being architect. You can become a writer, an educator, a publisher, a curator.
And, allow me for formulating a critic, this is probably what is missing from this book. With the emergence of a new profile that of the curator — see Pedro Gadanho, Geoff Manaugh, in the United States, or Beatrice Galilee, Ethel Baraona Pohl, in Europe (to limit to these two continents) as examples of curatorial practitioners — who brings up new modes of representation in the architectural field, it would have been great to have the inclusion of the Curator in this book. But this is my personal view…
Rory Hyde's Future Practices argues in favor of elaborating new architectural trajectories, new forms of architecture practices, new modes of operations and in urgent need of analysis and debate.
Note: I warmly encourage to read Rory Hyde's post Potential Futures for Design Practice, and the comments that follow.