Gallery: "politics"

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…

By • Galleries: politics

I recall wandering through the New Town a few months back, putting off time ahead of a meeting with a consultant whose offices are spread across a couple of townhouses in a grand terrace.  I tried not to be nosy, but couldn't help noticing that many of the living rooms I passed had heaving book shelves on show through their undrawn curtains.

It reminded me of the antique dealers who sell "Books by the Yard" to stately homes and upmarket hotels.  These fine bindings aren’t so much for reading as to signal how learned the owners are.  Arguably, at least some of that show is a display of virtue.

Reading the manifesto of the Future Architects Front gave me the same feeling.  “Future Architects Front is a grassroots organisation of architectural workers and students. FAF campaigns to end the exploitative practices that have come to define the world of architecture. We work both within and without existing institutions, we collaborate with unions and collectives, and we act as the loud abrasive voice of those at the bottom of the professional hierarchy.”

The FAF is a pressure group largely made up of Part 1 and 2 students, architectural assistants and young architects, who are currently trying to get a representative voted onto RIBA Council.  “Front” in this context has a strangely para-military, passive aggressive ring to it, and it's been reported that the RIBA have changed their voting rules and that may hinder the FAF's social justice objectives.

I've never been an RIBA member – as a student, they were singularly unhelpful when I tried to use the RIBA Library whilst researching my dissertation, although I later met someone who worked there, and she was the complete opposite.  Likewise I have no connection to the FAF and wouldn't even have been aware of them without the AJ headline which led me to their website.

There's an age-old problem in every profession where graduates spend years climbing an academic ladder with their peers, finally reach the top, collect their degree and take up employment – then find themselves at the bottom of the pile again.  Only this time, within a hierarchy of people ranging from their 20's to their 60's, and some of the greybeards have vast amounts more experience and wisdom, which equates to earning power.

This transition from top dog to bottom dog is swift and brutal and hurts the ego.  It also results in confounded expectations regarding self worth when it’s measured using a starting salary.  Every profession from law to medicine to veterinary science seems to be the same, and young professionals tend to have a keen sense of being short-changed.

Arguably the only thing that's changed is the banner of social justice to march behind and the trumpet of social media to toot.  But as I read through the open letter which the Future Architects Front wrote to the RIBA, I reckoned that around 95% of the contributors’ citations concentrated on low salaries and unpaid overtime, while very few mentioned gender and racial discrimination.  The sense of financial injustice is amplified in an era when student loans are almost inevitable, and students south of the border also shoulder five years’ worth of tuition fees – and some cited in the letter feel that architectural assistants are debt slaves trapped in menial jobs.

The main issues appear to be low salaries relative to the high cost of living in London, and the expectation of some big name practices that unpaid internships are an acceptable way to treat students and graduates. But … by conflating a legal right (for everyone to be treated equally regardless of sex, gender, race, creed and so on) with a discretionary quantum (where people are generally paid according to experience and qualifications), the message sounds like an appeal to self interest. Then again, where money is concerned, everyone has a degree of self interest.

Who decides how much architects are paid? Is the RIBA Salary Survey a useful guide or a waste of time? Professional associations like the RIBA and RIAS have never been like trade unions, and trying to use them to improve graduate salaries is unlikely to work.  The best they’ve achieved in recent years was to require RIBA Chartered Practices in the UK to pay at least the Living Wage, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation, to all staff, including freelancers and students. Not every practice is RIBA Chartered, though.

The RIBA and other professional associations don’t have the power to set industry-wide salary levels, far less to set the fee scales which could pay for them; Thatcher took those away decades ago, and that arguably sent architects’ salaries on a downward spiral. A better way might be for junior architects to join a union, as local authority architects generally do, since they can deploy collective bargaining. Or to join a practice which is employee-owned and has a different ethos to the big names of the “star system”.

So far, so pre-rehearsed. However, at the very end of the FAF’s open letter to the RIBA is a powerful quote from Whitney Young Jr., who was a Civil Rights campaigner in the US and addressed the American Institute of Architects at their 1968 conference in Portland, Oregon. “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights … You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence.”

It seems slightly out of place here.  If the FAF’s primary concern is salary levels, why is the quote there at all?  Does “social justice” really boil down to paying folk a bit more during the first few years of practice?  Alternatively, if the FAF’s purpose is to make society as a whole more just, Young’s words should be a statement of intent at the very start.

As it is, Young’s quote seems like an attempt to buttress the reasonable argument that young architects should be paid a bit more for their efforts, which practice bosses won't find particularly compelling, with the righteous fire of someone who fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960’s to end racial segregation in America's southern states. No-one can argue against a cause for which millions of people fought for decades, and many died in the process, including Dr King himself.

Perhaps the best thing that the FAF have achieved so far is to draw Whitney Young to the attention of Europeans; whether Young felt he was fighting on the same side as predominantly white, middle-class professionals-in-the-making who feel they should earn larger salaries is a different question.

By • Galleries: politics