With all due respect

You might remember that Koolhaas discovered in his research on Manhattan a modern American architecture that, unlike its European counterpart needed no manifesto, no vanguard elite to be realized. Instead, the modern architecture that blossomed in Manhattan unfolded according to a complex logic far beyond the capacity of any vanguard to understand, let alone harness in the service of their utopian aspirations.

And yet, the manifesto and the vanguard that produce them are not only still with us, they have become the norm of experimental practice. That is so, I believe, because we confuse ‘the new’ with innovation. Forged by an all-knowing vanguard, manifestos are abstract principles meant to govern the production of ‘the new’. Vanguards, with their five points, seven principles and ten theses for a new architecture, draw a line that leads straight from the manifesto to ‘the new’. And because the completion of this line is the best that can be hoped for, there is nothing new about the ‘new’. No value added, no creativity engaged, just a job completed or aborted along the way. This is because the new is the product of what management thinker Peter Drucker calls problem-solving. Problem-solving accepts the problem given, in this case by the vanguard, and works on it until a solution, ‘the new’, is realized. Innovation, Drucker tells us, works by a different, more entrepreneurial logic where, by rigorous analysis, opportunities are discovered that can be exploited and transformed into innovations. While problem-solving works within a given paradigm to create ‘new’ solutions to known problems, innovation risks working with existent but unknown conditions in order to discover opportunities that could not have been predicted in advance.

In his essay, ‘A world full of holes’,1 Alejandro Zaero Polo of London-based Foreign Office Architects, constructs a market-based map of contemporary practices, the purpose of which, he suggests, ‘is not to discover ‘what’s cool’, but rather what is yet to be exploited.’ Zaero Polo proposes that we need such maps and other devices that can be used to create innovative practices flexible enough to respond to the new market reality of globalization. I completely agree with this. Zaero Polo’s example also suggests that innovative practices differ from problem-solving vanguard practices in their different approach to research. Vanguard practices research to find the best concept that can be completed in a final design. Research, data, even philosophical and scientific concepts, in such vanguard practices, are treated as fetishes and become design objects in their own right. Once the right concept is seized upon, design is simply a matter of completing the concept in a final, ‘new’ design. Research as innovation, on the other hand, attempts to discover solutions unimaginable under the conditions of the problem given. Research, conducted in this way, adds value because it offers something not given by the problem. Practices, then, are innovative when they encourage opportunism and risk-taking rather than problem-solving. Research of this latter variety has become the foundation of the post-graduate, Metropolitan Research and Design (MR+D) program at SCI_Arc. One of the signature features of the program is scenario thinking, a non-linear approach developed initially by Royal Dutch Shell and later by the Global Business Network that encourages rapid prototyping of possible futures through storyboarding and other narrative techniques. Research drives the production of these scenarios, which in turn informs the decision-making process of planners, managers, urbanists and designers, allowing greater flexibility in negotiating the complex conditions thrown up by the forces of globalization.

Many experimental offices like Zaero-Polo’s have broken with the avant-garde model that sees practice as problem-solving and have begun to work as innovators. We at SCI_Arc encourage our students to develop such practices of their own. One example, @NCD (At No Cost Design), was prototyped in a thesis project by Kai Riedesser and Ted Ngai. Modelled more on open-source software developers such as Red Hat than on the club model of the avant-garde, they sought collaboration among a variety of practitioners inside and outside of architecture. Their aim was to create a company that could rapidly prototype new designs by having others collaborate on the designs via the web. Though the company has yet to be launched, it provided a platform to develop complex design solutions by rapidly prototyping its research and then testing it with other designers. As this latter example suggests, our most promising students are developing new models of practice that have altogether outstripped even the most progressive school curricula. We need be attentive not only to the development of new skills and design techniques, but also to new forms of practice. In an effort to do just this, in our MR+D Program we have formed a parallel consulting practice that will function as an incubator for programme graduates to develop their own practices. All graduates automatically become members of a global consulting consortium available, as are all the programme resources, through the mrd.to web site.

If we are to keep pace with the changing nature of architectural practice, we cannot continue to teach and operate as though vanguard practices are the only models of experimentation. I would even go so far as to suggest that they are harmful, especially in schools of architecture. For in schools, the manifesto degrades into style and then even more rapidly into dogma. Rather than pausing briefly to enjoy its temporary celebrity before moving on, architectural style more often than not hardens into dogmatic adherence. This seems almost inevitable in schools where the cut of the suit is the smartest. More often than not the smart cut brings into relief the haggard visage of its vanguard wearer, proclaiming yet another version of ‘the new’. This is an unfortunate waste of talent and an embarrassment, for there is nothing more unseemly than an aging, overdressed vanguardist with a youthful mate on the arm. Let us dare to be as stylish as possible without falling prey to the limiting vanguard tendencies that we all harbour. That would be my manifesto if I were to write one.

Michael Speaks
1. Alejandro Zaero Polo, ‘A World Full of Holes’, El Croquis 88/89, p. 323.
Michael Speaks is Head of the Graduate Program and Director of the Metropolitan Research and Design Postgraduate Degree at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.

A computer lady’s perspective