Rethinking Culture, Communication and Boundaries

5 November 2018

Michael Lewarne offers prognostications and provocations about cultural change and leadership in the architecture profession.

5 - Culture.ML

Changing the culture

I used to live in an old house where a surly stain wrestled with the carpet, the face of a prophet stared down from the ceiling and the hint of smelly shoes had claimed the air rights. I could have cleaned the carpet, painted the walls and emptied the air freshener. Issues solved, or at least for a while. If, however, I took a moment to stand outside, I would understand that there was a hole in the roof and instead fix that first. Sometimes, we need to stand outside.

What's happening in architecture? What symptoms are apparent? It’s facing issues in and around gender equity, unreasonable fees, decent wages and hours, mental health, the lack of a public voice and numerous more minor symptoms of a profession in potential decline. Strategies are therefore being devised to address each and every one of them.

Architects love a good strategy. If, however, they were to stand outside for a moment, they might recognise that this is an issue of culture and leadership. Without leadership and cultural change, the strategies look to be only a temporary fix.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Strategies are important, but without strong leadership and culture, delivery and realisation of even the best strategies can be a challenge to implement. It makes me curious…

How might the architectural profession forge a better culture? A culture that drives change, that shapes and encourages leadership at all levels, rather than assuming leadership from the top.

Breaking down the silos

We all linger in our silos, on social media, in social groups, in our consumption of news and media, potentially in all aspects of our lives. Our silos aren’t singular. We have many – our political silo, cultural silo, generation silo, professional silo…

What of the architects (in) substantial silo? You’ll notice it’s constructed of an aggregate of professional knowledge within a slurry of design imperative, reinforced by dogma, fabricated upon a foundation of self-importance and impervious below a layer of jargon finished with honed rhetoric (phew!). Impressive isn’t it?

Some consider the architect’s silo a beacon in isolation. In truth it’s located among an oddment of silos, all more craftily wrought by other institutions within a culture of building.

The thing about a silo is that once you’re inside, it’s very hard to see out and no end of shouting is likely to be heard. It makes me curious…

Is it possible to be a true leader from within a silo?

Maybe it’s time to implode the architectural silo or more realistically punch some holes in it, shine the light in, let the stuffiness out and to turn it into a more contemporary edifice.

Puncturing its skin will better facilitate the profession to hear, to listen, to communicate. The profession should invite others in to diversify the thinking, to add to the skill base, to build a bigger community. It would inspire opportunities to build bridges between other silos, for connection.

Connection, that’s what the profession seems largely to miss. Conscious connection. Curious connection. Empathetic connection. Sure, connections exist within the silo or with those who at least have their ears hard-pressed against the side, but with the public at large – perhaps not. It’s a public that sees the profession as elite, self-interested and aloof.

Time to break down the silo.

1 - Silo.Michael Lewarne

Discarding the jargon

Archispeak: Large, made-up words that architects and designers use to make themselves sound smarter than you (you being the client or the confused observer of design). It does nothing to inform or enlighten the consumer of architecture and mostly serves to numb them into obedience or self doubt. Urban Dictionary

Architects love their Archispeak, their own special jargon. Jargon, however, obscures meaning. It is a language of exclusion. In Architecture, a public act, exclusion is a problem. Yes? So why use it?

Jargon has value. It renders a clarity of thought and communication that may not otherwise be achieved by the inexactitudes of non-specialised language.

Architecture (the built work) is a language too, a visual language. A language of materials, a language of proportions, of visual composition, of spatial or functional relationships. It’s a language understood and interpreted consciously and unconsciously in a myriad of ways. Architecture’s and architects’ consideration and realisation of a visual language has, however, fostered jargon, exclusion and elitism.

Elitism is not, in itself, a problem or indeed unreasonable. We admire elite athletes, chefs, artists, and so on. In literature the writing of Nobel prize winning author (elite of the elite) Patrick White is highly lauded, but more people read and connect with JK Rowling.

If it’s not the elitism of the architecture that’s the problem, then what is? It’s the exclusion of everyone else as a consequence of Archispeak. No communication. No connection. It makes me curious…

How might architects talk about the value of architecture in a language free from jargon?

2 - Archispeak ML

“Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.” — Christian Morgenstern

Finding empathy

People need their tribes. We’re a social creature. Tribes are affirming of status, of belief and connections. They begat world views, and world views are grounding. Challenge those world views and the ground falls away. People will tend to retreat to a defensive position and in that position, are more likely to become increasingly dedicated to their tribal world view.

Facts do not change people’s minds. They challenge world views. Ever considered why Trump’s approval rating has never dipped below 35%? Why there are many that steadfastly refuse to believe climate change is real? Why there are still those that believe the earth is flat (really)? If you’re interested to go deeper on this, there’s been a great deal of research and writing on this. This New Yorker article is a great place to start.

Too often architects will argue: We just need to educate people. We need to better articulate the value we bring. We need to back it up with research.

It’s not likely to succeed. Not like that. Awareness does not make change happen.

“Changemaking happens when people fall in love with a different version of the future.”— Seth Godin

Architects need to become more empathetic. Find empathy, find connection, make change happen.

Perhaps it’s time to reframe the thinking. How might architects educate themselves about how they are perceived? How might they utilise this new understanding to help form a better connection? What do people value? How might architects deliver that better, and introduce what they value too? How might research reshape architectural practice?

It makes me curious…

How might architects change minds? How might architects become more empathetic?

Asking questions 

If I was to ask, “Who is your favourite architect?”, would you know the answer? It may make you think, but I’m sure you’ll have an answer. Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes? How about Toyo Ito? Andrea Palladio? …? The problem with focusing in on answers is that often there is no right answer.

If I was to ask, “What is important when designing a home?” There are many, many answers. All of them right. All of them wrong. But that’s not the point. The point is that this is a very good question to ask.

If I was to ask, “Is design important and why?” For many architects, the answer is perhaps self-evident. I’m not sure, however, that all of them would be able to answer in a way that was meaningful and one that makes a connection with a majority.

Far too often architects may think that they have the right answers. They further compound this misapprehension when proceeding to explain or expand upon their answer to those who apparently don’t understand or may disagree.

Two problems with this. It’s patronising. And, importantly, when people think they know the right answer they stop listening. They stop seeking other answers or viewpoints. Sometimes they need to listen more. Sometimes they need to ask more.

Asking questions is a generous act. It leads people to a more meaningful answer. It helps people bring their own answer to light. It makes me curious…

How might architects ask more questions? How might architects ask better questions?

6 - Asking questions

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” — Naguib Mahfouz

Architecture … Where are the edges?

Architects are like hammers. When you’re a hammer, everything you see is a nail. In the work that architects do, every solution is seemingly a building. Why should this be the case? Architects are talented professionals with a broad range of skills at their disposal. It just so happens that they also have an enormous amount of specialist knowledge in and around the construction of buildings.

Why then do architects presume that their work must be a building? That the realisation of a building is all they can do? It’s the story they tell themselves. Their story is that they realise buildings; it is what they do and all that they do. This is the boundary imposed around their work. A boundary that is all in their head. What they realise, inside the boundary. What they can’t realise, outside.

One of the problems with boundaries is that they often don’t easily adapt to change. What if change were to occur? Change typically comes with a desire to defend the hard-won territory. It can be a torturous battle, one that can be costly, distracting from more important tasks, and may ultimately prove to be futile. We only need look as far as media companies as an example to open our eyes to the failure to adjust boundaries in the face of change.

Change is already coming to the architecture profession. The best way to adjust to change, or to make change happen, is by shifting boundaries and leveraging assets. How might one consider an architect’s assets? As a professional their predominant assets are their skills and knowledge. An architect’s mastery is broad, covering many domains. Designer, creative thinker, spatial thinker, technician, politician, manager, lawyer, historian, able to take myriad requirements and resolve them into a creative and resolute solution. The thing is, they’re also highly knowledgeable, with specialist knowledge in construction and buildings.

They know about construction and buildings. That is their story. What if they were to develop specialist knowledge in other fields? What might their story be then? Where might the boundaries be positioned then? It makes me curious…

If architects were to redesign their boundaries, what is it that they might be able to do?

What if architects didn’t design buildings?

4 - Where are the walls?

“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the centre.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Changing the culture: redux 

Effecting change is an issue of culture and leadership. To make change you need to make new culture. Culture drives change. Change takes time. People will not act before they’re ready and many will need to be led.

The interesting thing about leadership is that it’s a choice. Leaders take responsibility; they choose to lead. The other interesting thing about leadership is that it doesn’t have to come from the top – it can happen at any level – but you have to decide to lead. The problem is that to lead, you must be willing to stand out. If you don’t want to stand out, you’ll need to fit in and by fitting in, you’ll never change anybody.

It takes just 10% of people to drive a revolution (it’s science). Just 10% of people to effect change. Who wants to stand out? Who wants to change the culture? Who’s with me?

Michael Lewarne is Director at Redshift Architecture & Art, the Vice-President of the NSW/ACT Committee of the ACA, a Coach in Seth Godin’s altMBA and about to launch Ed Shift, assisting people to lead and do their best work.

This article is based upon a series of posts Michael first published on Medium.

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