Close but no dice

31/07/22 17:17

An acquaintance tells laypeople that architects learn something new every day – and it’s true, sometimes we do.  There’s no upward limit to the knowledge available about all the buildings for all the purposes built during all the periods of history. Conversely, there comes a point in your career when you realise the enormous extent of what you don’t know.

Sometimes we’re confronted with a single problem that seems to consume everything else. In a way that makes the world simple, for a little while, and it’s almost comforting. In a working lifetime you might develop an expertise in a specialism – but even that only helps you to map the extent of all the things you don’t know in more detail. Eventually you’ll realise that your knowledge will only ever be fragmentary.

Of all the subconscious traits our little ape-descended brains exhibit, one of the most telling is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Soon after I left architecture school and began work, I recall an offhand comment from someone much older that architectural graduates embody a dangerous mix of ignorance and arrogance.  If that sounds cheeky and judgemental, it's underlain by research which shows that people with a lack of experience sometimes overestimate their ability and knowledge. 

That's the Dunning-Kruger effect, and put simply it states that you need to know a reasonable amount before you understand how much you *don't* know.  We tend to learn by designing buildings, taking lessons directly from the process, discovering significance as we go along.  Perhaps that’s the best way to learn – a gradual accumulation of knowledge and expertise. 

At the time of hearing that comment, I would have argued that other attributes make up for a lack of experience.  Perhaps that proves Dunning and Kruger’s thesis.  However, two or three years later I did begin to acknowledge the extent of just how much I didn't know.  I've written about that epiphany before, and the dangerous implications of a special type of ignorance: while a lack of knowledge can be fixed by learning, denying the need to learn is a special kind of ignorance. 

So I have a soft spot for Dunning and Kruger.  Their work, like that of many other sociologists and behavioural psychologists, seems to be the preserve of stock investors, psychometric analysts and management consultants, but it should really be at the heart of everyone's self-knowledge, especially when we embark on learning something new, such as BIM, Passivhaus design or the like.

Mere technical knowledge takes time to accumulate, but give it a few years and a few projects, and it happens. Much more difficult are finding strategies to deal with people. Particularly those well practiced in trying to get one over everyone else – such as politicians. For example, somewhere in Spencer Walpole’s History of England he mentions a government minister – it may have been Palmerston – who justified his passive approach to a foreign crisis by characterising it as one of “masterly inactivity”.

That phrase was originally coined by Sir James Mackintosh, who apparently did much of the research for Macaulay’s similarly titled History of England, and used it to describe parliament’s traditional stance. Soon masterly inactivity became a catchphrase, rather like “economical with the truth” has more recently. Amusingly for the people who wrote History of England, Macaulay had Scots parents and wrote for the Edinburgh Review, and Mackintosh was a Scot, full stop. It seems the masterly inactivity of English writers in those days prevented them from writing their own book for themselves…

In practice, masterly inactivity can be helpful, especially on occasions when angry emails arrive from contractors or clients, usually late in the afternoon when you’re starting to think about dinner. It’s dangerous to react instantly and provoke a whipsaw of actions and reactions, culminating in furious back-and-forth accusations. Instead it’s better to stop and draw breath, and preferably sleep on it before replying calmly the next morning.

So masterly inactivity has potential, especially when paired with fait accompli. You know the script, when architects tussle over a detail with contractors. Sorry mate, too late - it’s already been built! Both sides know that un-building the detail is likely to be impossible given cost and time pressures, and the sly look on the contractor’s face tells you that he thinks he’s won. But just occasionally you can condemn the work, and that may utterly change the relationship – paradoxically, sometimes for the better.

Another ploy was spotted a while back on a political blog. “I recently heard a story about an architect who would feature massive stone lions in the atrium of whichever building he was designing, knowing that the client would focus on getting rid of them from the plans, distracting them from asking for other changes.”

That’s called a diversionary tactic, and I suspect the lion architect was Edwin Lutyens. Its effect is much the same as presenting a “strategic” scheme at the PAN stage of a project, knowing that the number of houses or parking spaces will be negotiated down by the Planners. If you want 60, ask for 100: in the end, you might be able to split the difference.

Masterly inactivity, fait accompli and diversionary tactic aren’t terms I'd normally use here, but they form three sides of a Rhinehartian decision-making dice (along with pwned, fluke and chance). That ingenious device helps us work out what the pro’s would do, when faced with the same situations.

In the cult novel The Dice Man, the narrator Luke Rhinehart decides to hand his life over to randomness. His biggest decisions will be made by the dice. In one episode, he leads a mass escape from a secure mental hospital. In another, he tucks his young son into bed and then, after consulting the dice, leaves his wife and family for ever. It’s an unsettling book, and Rhinehart is an exemplary anti-hero whose behaviour leads to his ruin.

Sometimes rational thinking doesn’t come up with the goods. So where did I put that dice…

This entry was posted by and is filed under politics.
By • Galleries: politics

No feedback yet