Happy 5th birthday

Panfilocastaldi, Happy birthday, Anniversary, Blogging

Today, Panfilocastaldi turns 5. I have survived another full year of blogging. Over the years, my focus has gradually shifted and sharpened, away from art, photography and the environment, and towards the culture, practice and business of architecture. I’m proud of the content I produce, and the way it has struck a chord amongst the Australian architecture profession.

This year, I published on average one post every nine days, helped along somewhat by my August series of daily lessons for design students. I’ve had articles co-published in Parlour, Architecture & Design and Interns Australia. My favourites of the past 12 months:

Once again, I’ve synthesised this year’s key statistics into a series of infographics:

Blogging, Statistics, Blogging categories, Architecture, Architecture Practice, Lessons

Blogging, Statistics, Months

Blogging, Statistics, Australia, United States of America, United Kingdom

Blogging, Statistics, Months

And some highlights in plain English:

  • 41 new posts, with a maximum of 17 in August of this year.
  • 20 post categories, 7 of which received new articles. My most prolific category this year, Lessons, received 22.
  • 106 new tags, bringing the total to 1,346 and ranging from Stratosphere (1 post) to Australian Institute of Architects (33 posts).
  • 86 new comments, bringing the total to 533.
  • 4,320 new spam comments, bringing the total to 29,616.
  • 39,730 new page views, bringing the total to 180,649.
  • An average of 109 page views per day. Our busiest month this year was August with 6,942 page views or an average of 224 per day.
  • Visitors from 153 different countries, ranging from Belize (1 page view) to Australia (14,333 page views).
  • 12,347 referrals from search engines, comprising thousands of unique terms. Lots of Some great practice-related long tail search terms this year included disadvantages of negotiated tendering process and design brief for construction a house.
  • 5,861 referrals from 128 other websites, with a maximum of 3,112 from Facebook. This smashed Twitter for social media referrals, which only provided 479.
  • 175 blog followers, increasing our count by 40 over this time last year, with a further 22 comment followers and 739 Twitter followers.

Thank you for your support this year. Who knows what 2016 will bring, or how Panfilocastaldi will evolve? For now, it continues to be a labour of love, self-sustaining because it is enjoyable for its own sake. If you promise to keep reading, I’ll promise to keep typing.

Yours sincerely,
Warwick Mihaly

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Liveable Yarra

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The City of Yarra recently undertook an engagement programme to canvass community opinion on future planning. The programme, Liveable Yarra, gathered local residents together for four half-day sessions to discuss and analyse the built environment, transport, housing and business. It asked participants to consider the shape of Yarra 20 years from now, by which time the local population is expected to grow from 85,000 to 115,000.

The programme, or people’s panel, covered a broad range of topics including urban density, streets, car parking, active ageing, job opportunities, heritage and housing affordability. It marked the early stages of a lengthy process that will eventually result in a new municipal strategic statement for Yarra.[1]

My involvement with Liveable Yarra began after a random mail drop to 10,000 Yarra households and an open invitation distributed via council newsletter. I was among 150 people who volunteered to take part, and the 60 selected to represent the diverse demography of Yarra.

Being an architect likely had no influence on my selection, but it is why I volunteered in the first place. I was eager to offer my expertise, and have a meaningful impact on planning policy within my neighbourhood. Like most architects, my primary contact with local council is at the statutory end of the planning spectrum – seeking approvals for projects on which I work. This is often an adversarial form of engagement, and one I’m happy to do without. Liveable Yarra was a chance to get involved at the strategic end, to help shape the broad principles that will govern Yarra’s future urban fabric.

I was fascinated to learn that I wasn’t alone in my eagerness: I met two other architects taking part for similar reasons to my own. Statistically, this is an enormous anomaly: there is only 1 architect for every 1,500 Victorians, yet here were 3 in 60.[2] For a profession that is most comfortable talking to itself, it was heartening to discover two fellow practitioners volunteering to step into planners’  territory.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

Liveable Yarra was impressively coordinated by the City of Yarra and community engagement specialists, Capire. I felt they executed a well-conceived and well-funded event: this was clearly no publicity stunt, but a serious commitment to the local community and our diverse opinions.

Indeed, by describing the people’s panel as merely four half-day sessions, I really do it an injustice. Liz Mackevicius, part of the City Strategy team at Yarra, explained that council began work on it almost a year ago. Staff from multiple departments prepared comprehensive briefing documents on the main discussion themes, then worked collaboratively with Capire to design the panel format. Handling the call for interest and subsequent applications would themselves have been a huge logistical challenge.

The sessions were spread across August and September at two-weekly intervals, throughout which both the Yarra and Capire teams worked to keep participants informed, craft panel activities, and synthesise results. Council staff led a crash course in Planning 101, were on hand to answer technical questions, and provided ongoing feedback between sessions.

Effort was even directed towards filling in blindspots: community groups poorly represented amongst panel participants (the very young and the very old for example, or migrants from non-English speaking countries) and special-interest advisory groups (cyclists, business owners, visual artists) were co-opted to provide insight into their specific needs by way of detailed reports and summarised recommendations.

The data gathered each session was dutifully and thoroughly analysed. Hundreds of ideas, arguments and comments were distilled into thematic groups that were then distributed to participants and used to structure the subsequent session’s activities. While I sensed that the trajectory of Liveable Yarra was carefully designed, the content for each session was driven by the participants, so could only be locked down after the preceding one yielded its results. I imagine that Yarra and Capire were extremely busy throughout the panel period, absorbing and directing this flow of information.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

The issues covered by Liveable Yarra were complex and without clearly right or wrong answers. This was emphasised repeatedly by Yarra and Capire, who wanted the greyness of the issues to provide a challenge to think creatively, as well as a crutch to fall back on when ideas weren’t easily forthcoming.

Yarra and Capire employed a number of different methods to help us tackle this complexity. The result was that no two sessions were alike, each approaching the panel themes from different directions. A common thread perhaps was an urging to think big but consider the real-world consequences of our proposals. This reinforced the idea that nothing in planning comes free of cost. If we vote for more parks, we’ll end up with fewer houses. If we want more pedestrian-friendly streets, we’ll have less car-parking.

During session #2 for example, the panel was divided into small tables and asked to identify the biggest planning challenges facing Yarra. We were also asked to consider the ways council could address these. By placing each challenge on an xy matrix, we were able to prioritise those that we felt were both most important and most difficult to address. Support for the stickiest ideas was then tested using the Poll Everywhere app, allowing us to vote for ideas via our mobile phones, and see the results in realtime on a projector screen at the front of the room.

During session #3, discussions at each table were provoked by leading questions like: “What is the most important transport change you would like to see in Yarra by 2035?”, “How can council actively plan for this change?” and “What would the positive and negative implications of this change be?” This spawned dozens and dozens of ideas and counter-ideas, which were later distilled into a limited number of action statements like: “Allow modernisation of some heritage areas to enable continued viable use of the property” or “Close local residential streets to through traffic to create living streets”.

During the final session, we were asked to consider this collection of planning proposals. We showed our support, neutrality or opposition to each statement by way of green, yellow and red stickers. Pinning these to the wall resulted in a visually rich colour field of ideas. Popular ideas, of which there were surprisingly many, were mostly green. Unpopular ideas, of which there were surprisingly few, were mostly red.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

As Liveable Yarra progressed, I grew curious about its endgame. In particular, I was worried that somehow we would be expected to reach consensus. As the rabbinical proverb goes, when you ask two people for their advice about something, you inevitably receive three opinions.

This was made awkwardly apparent to me during one of the sessions when I sat next to a particular gentleman with very car-centric, and dare I say outdated, ideas about the city. His solution for poor accessibility to amenities was for council to purchase large tracts of land and convert them into multi-storey carparks. His even more radical solution for congestion was to submerge all the radial train lines across Melbourne and build freeways over them.

With minds like this contributing to a discussion otherwise populated by a wonderfully forward-focussed group of people, how could we ever agree on anything?

Luckily, Yarra and Capire had this issue covered. The aim of Liveable Yarra turned out not  to be consensus, but provocation. They didn’t want us to reduce our ideas to a couple of sparse recommendations to council, they wanted us to proliferate them. Our job was to provide insight into the diverse needs of a community, it will be council’s job to decide which ideas to throw away and which to champion.

That said, I was struck by the resounding agreement revealed by the colour field experiment in the final session. Of the thirty or so action statements presented, barely a handful featured any red, and almost all were dominated by green. The ideas came from us and were thoroughly explored during our discussions, so perhaps it’s only natural that they be met with support. I think this success was also testament to Yarra and Capire’s proficiency, as well as the panel’s enthusiasm for the issues covered.

The panel participants need to be recognised here. Of the 60 who started, only 11 dropped out. This meant that 49 remained committed to lively conversation and visionary speculation across four precious Saturday mornings. It felt like there was a great deal of goodwill in the room: we could all sense that Yarra and Capire had invested heavily in us, so we responded by wanting to make a positive contribution.

If there were any shortcomings at all, it was the scarcity of time. I acknowledge that there are only so many hours you can ask of people, but we always seemed to run out of time just when we got to the juicy part of a discussion. During the final session, I asked acting Yarra Mayor Geoff Barbour whether in an ideal world he would have liked more time for the panel, six sessions maybe or even eight. His rather sage answer was that no matter how generously you plan an event like this, you always want more time.

City of Yarra, Community engagement, Urban planning, People's panel

If I sound overly enthusiastic about the panel, it’s nothing more than is deserved. Yarra CEO, Vijaya Vaidyanath, claimed Liveable Yarra was among a select group of engagement events pioneering new modes of community consultation, and among the first people’s panels convened by local government in Australia. For my part, I felt that the panel was open, ambitious, well-executed and sincere.

As a community engagement initiative, I think it was a resounding success. It extracted unexpected consensus on a complex series of issues. It educated a motivated group of people about the nuanced balancing act of planning. And I imagine it created a few citizen advocates for more planning vision from council.

Of course, the real test comes over the coming years, as Yarra absorbs our input and formulates its new strategic statement. I hope to be part of a small group of panel participants who will remain involved beyond the initial engagement phase, and present our ideas to council. With luck, I’ll even get to see the ideas find their way into policy and then action.


  1. The current City of Yarra Municipal Strategy Statement was instituted back in 2009 and outlines a soon-to-expire vision for 2020. It comprises sections 21.01 – 21.11 of the Local Planning Policy Framework, an aspirational and detailed series of documents that covers a similarly broad range of topics.
  2. Warwick Mihaly; Why I’m a member of the AIA; Panfilocastaldi; May 2015

Image sources

  1. Liveable Yarra, copyright City of Yarra. Modified from the original by author
  2. Liveable Yarra conversation, author’s own image
  3. Liveable Yarra learning, author’s own image
  4. Liveable Yarra feedback, author’s own image
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Architecture and compromise

Make Architecture, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Melbourne, House

Local House by Make Architecture

The Robin Boyd Foundation‘s winter open day was held last month, with ten recent Australian Institute of Architects award winning projects open to visit. The unseasonably warm August Sunday was filled with at least 600 architects and architecture lovers roving around Melbourne, enjoying houses and apartments converted for the day into temporary museums. With our 3 year old and 7 month old in tow, my wife and I were grateful to at least make it to three of them:

Local House and House 3 firmly belong to a Melbourne way of making architecture, in their use of space, materiality and detailing. They felt familiar to visit, perhaps because the design challenges they address – a temperate climate, tight sites, ResCode, the changing needs of growing families – are the ones I face everyday in our practice. Sometimes these challenges are inspiring, sometimes they’re painful, but they always imbue a project with a certain Melbourne DNA.

As I nosed around each house, I found myself nodding in agreement. I could understand their design moves, the intent beneath the surface. I recognised both the challenges Make Architecture and Coy Yiontis would have faced and their accomplished solutions.

Each is a clear example of doing plenty with little. Local House cleverly matches a simple form with rich detailing, concentrating the money where it can do most good. House 3 seems hindered less by a limited budget than limited space, tiny bedrooms exchanged for a generous and varied living environment. They are both Melbourne in a nutshell, strong contemporary expressions of Kenneth Frampton’s critical regionalism.

Mexican Contemporary House is, in contrast, an exercise in otherness. Commissioned by an Australian Mexican couple after living for a time in Mexico, it was designed by a protégé of the great Luis Barragán and then documented and administered locally. That it is located in Melbourne seems more of a coincidence than a catalyst. It pays scant heed to climate, planning controls or even the desire for comfortable living. Its DNA is international, even its house-ness is questionable – as much a monastery as a family home.

These are not criticisms, just observations. I loved it. I loved the voyeuristic quality of visiting it, witnessing how the other half live. I loved the quality of its materials and strangeness of its details. I was amazed and delighted to discover that it even smelled like overseas (I still can’t figure this one out: was it the enormous Pine timber floorboards, the Cedar timber joinery, the concrete walls? Whichever, the scent reminded me nostalgically of the convent where I lodged in Rome as a student).

Finishing on this alien masterpiece put the familiar concerns of Local House and House 3 in context. It highlighted how important place, culture and shared experiences are in shaping our regional language. It also reminded me that there are many other ways to execute a building, and much more to domestic architecture than what we make here.

Coy Yiontis, Architecture, Design, Timber screen, Swimming pool, Melbourne, House

House 3 by Coy Yiontis Architects

There is a second taxonomy that groups Local House and House 3 together on one hand and Mexican Contemporary House on the other. As the title of this article indicates, it is the way in which compromise influences an architectural outcome.

Irrespective of whether a client has a few hundred thousand or a few million to spend on her house, it is a universal truth that she inevitably wants more than she can afford. I’ve discussed the tense relationship between budget and brief before, but what it boils down to is that somewhere during the design process the two need to be reconciled. Sometimes (rarely) this means swelling the budget until it matches the brief, sometimes (just as rarely) it means cutting the brief until it matches the budget. Most commonly, the two meet somewhere in the middle.

Such a compromise does not necessarily infer an undesirable outcome, quite the opposite. Managing this process is one of the things that architects do best. Compromise is just another way of saying balance, a quality to which every project should aspire. How can the design solution maximise the most variables? How far can the budget be stretched? Which goals should be prioritised and which sacrificed?

Visiting another architect’s project is a unique opportunity to analyse how she achieves this balance. I imagine my experience in this regard is much like a director watching someone else’s film. Instead of an action-packed chase sequence, she sees the number of stuntmen involved, the cars that were destroyed, the technical requirements of camera angles. Likewise, because I understand how architecture is conceived and executed, I am able to see some of the machinery that lies beneath the skin.

Make Architecture are particularly savvy in understanding how to spend money well, to strategically sacrifice parts of a building in order to spend up big in others. I don’t mean to say that they employ Boyd’s hated featurism here, rather that a modest building can punch above its weight when focussed parts of it have more going on.

Local House has done this through a very clever juxtaposition of expensive materials (the off-form concrete fireplace and benches, the elaborate timber screen) and humble ones (inexpensive bricks, routed MDF cupboards in the wardrobe, site painted cupboards in the kitchen). It is also much smaller, and its rooms more sparsely furnished, than I had expected. There is commendable economy here: tucked behind the kitchen, where you might normally find a generous butler’s pantry, there is not just a pantry, but a laundry and a study nook also. The payoff is the grandness of the double height space, the intimacy of the fireplace and concrete surrounds, the beauty of the timber screen.

With House 3, Coy Yiontis had a different challenge to address: how to fit a family with four teenage children on a tight Balaclava block. Space is the primary commodity here. Providing generous bedrooms would have inevitably compromised the living areas, so the reverse compromise has been made instead. All five bedrooms are crammed in upstairs, much smaller than is typical, with the entire ground floor left for living.

The planning of this living environment is intriguing, with the front door pushed back into the centre of the block. Sandwiched between new and old is a courtyard and swimming pool that are the house’s welcome mat, a source of light, and the centre of communal living. Ranged around the courtyard are the living rooms, each with its own character: a sunken family room, cool meals area, plush carpeted library (an adult space recently appropriated by the children, as evidenced by the games console poking out from under the television), and my favourite, a corridor that counter-intuitively doubles as day bed and retreat.

I appreciate the decision making here, and the clear order of priorities: 1) courtyard 2) living 3) sleeping. Coy Yiontis would have had to work hard to make sense of these priorities, negotiating the strict planning limitations of suburban building. The house is consequently a triumphant expression of its design process.

Andrés Casillas, Evolva Architects, Architecture, Design, Concrete, Melbourne, House, Luis Barragan

Mexican Contemporary House by Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects

In stark contrast, Mexican Contemporary House is entirely uncompromised, and the result of an unwaveringly singular vision. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it possesses such a powerfully monolithic form, austere material palette and reductive detailing. It is an epic manipulation of form, space and light with direct lineage back to Le Corbusier. A 2.1m high entry corridor opens onto a triple height living room; corridors and staircases are barely shoulder-width and loop over and around each other to create continuous circulation routes through the house; every detail is stripped back to its most minimal form.

Digging below the surface, I discovered that everything about this project seems unlikely, or as Walt Disney liked to put it, plausibly impossible.

Its design architect is an 80 year old protégé of one of the great 20th Century architects, perhaps one of the last living connections to that golden era of hope. Its design was undertaken entirely in Mexico, without Casillas ever visiting site or even setting foot in Australia. Its construction techniques and detailing are fastidiously monolithic. Its unapologetic design demanded a nationwide search for an agreeable energy rating consultant. It is located in an unremarkable suburban street on a flat plot whose main quality is a land area large enough to render issues of neighbourhood character moot.

It was a truly mesmerising building to visit, the be-socked crowd of architecture lovers hushed and in utter awe of its majesty. But it is also completely alien to the local demands of Melbourne architecture.

If Local House and House 3 are superb examples of contemporary Australia art, then Mexican Contemporary House is a Caravaggio. The former are rich, engaging, intelligent and accessible. The latter is stark, powerful and unquantifiable. In retrospect, I’m glad I visited it last because the reverse order would have unjustly diminished the others. Life is generally such a negotiated experience that when true freedom comes along, it comes as a surprise. I suppose this is the nature of compromise: its absence exerts a reality distortion field on everything around it.

Robin Williams, Architecture, Cantilever, Water, Swimming pool, Melbourne

Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect

Such freedom in architecture is rare, occasionally witnessed in projects like Mexican Contemporary House when a client evolves into a patron, or more commonly when architects design houses for themselves. Villa Marittima by Robin Williams Architect is such a project, a multi-level house entirely without stairs. In their place is a continuous ramp that zigzags back and forth from the front door to the rooftop. The entire floor of the house is sloped, including everything from bedroom and bathroom to kitchen and swimming pool. From what I’ve seen in photos, it’s a truly bizarre building and a forceful experiment in the fuzziness of field architecture.

Happily, the Robin Boyd Foundation winter open day extends to include a visit to Villa Marittima in early November, along with Sawmill House by Archier a few weeks later. The Villa Marittima visit will coincide with an Australian Architecture Association event, At Home with the Architect. Williams will be in attendance late in the afternoon, providing what I’m sure will be engrossing insight into the thought processes that underpin his project.

Stay tuned for further discussion.

Image sources

  1. Local House, Make Architecture. Photography by Peter Bennetts
  2. House 3, Coy and Yiontis. Photography by Peter Clarke
  3. Mexican Contemporary House, Andrés Casillas and Evolva Architects. Photography by John Gollings
  4. Villa Marittima, Robin Williams Architect. Photography by Dean Bradley
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Better to finish an imperfect project than perfect an unfinished one

finished and imperfect

This is the last of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I’ve published one lesson each weekday for the last month and now they’re done.

21. Better to finish an imperfect project than perfect an unfinished one

It is 2am in the morning. You are sitting in front of your computer screen, inspecting your SketchUp model with critical intensity. You measure each of the treads on your staircase to ensure they are even. You export your model once again to Artlantis and run a test render. It doesn’t look quite right. You alt-tab across to Photoshop and open your timber stair texture map. There are some inconsistencies in the grain that have been annoying you. You spend an hour zoomed in at 2000% rubber stamping them out of existence. Back to Artlantis again for another render. This time it’s perfect. It’s also 5am, so you fall into bed exhausted.

Does this feel familiar?

Computer programmer Tom Cargill said in the 1980s, “The first 90% of the work accounts for 90% of the time. The remaining 10% accounts for the other 90% of the time.”[1] If you are one of those rare students who arrives at the end of semester with time to spare, then you need not read on. Perhaps for you, a project that is both finished and perfect is within grasp. For the other 99% of the world, read on.

Like coal and uranium, time is not a renewable resource. All the more-so when semester lasts just 12 weeks.

Spending night after night as I’ve described above is a great way to never finish. The reason for this is simple: there is always something more that can be done. More adjustments to your design, more alternatives to explore, more lines to add to your plans, more renders to run, more work on your texture maps, more detail in your model. When I was a student and there was a week left of semester, I’d think I’d do anything for an extra day. Then when there was a day left, an extra hour. An hour left, just one more minute.

If you’re anything like me, you will find yourself drawn to perfection at every step. You’ll think to yourself that if you can just get this bit right, you can move onto the next stage. But what you can’t see, what nobody can see when they’re deep in the zone, is what’s important and what’s not. Instead of the forest, all you see is trees. This is as true in practice as it is in university, but I benefit from something you don’t: a cashflow incentive. I have no choice but to keep a lid on the time I spend on a project because otherwise my expenses outweigh my income at the end of the month and I don’t eat.

So you need to develop a strategy for moving forwards. I have a few ways you can think about this, hopefully you’ll find one that works for you:

  • Your entire manifesto for life need not find its way into this project. Hopefully, this is but one of many: you’ll have plenty of opportunities to test out other ideas in the future.
  • Forget about the million could-be projects and focus on the one will-be. Making the right design decisions can sometimes feel like a mountainous exercise, but this is the very nature of creation. The more you do it, the more confident you’ll be that you’re right.
  • Embrace the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. It’s a worldview that accepts transience and imperfection, pursuing beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.”[1] In other words, imperfection is actually okay, don’t stress.
  • Test your project on your fellow students. Ask them to tell you what they think is important. You might be surprised to discover that your perfect staircase doesn’t even rate a mention.


  1. Tom Cargill quoted in Jon Bentley; Programming PearlsCommunications of the ACM; volume 28, issue 9; 1985. Cargill’s ninety-ninety rule is a riff on the Pareto principle, also known as the eighty-twenty rule i.e. that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
  2. Leonard Koren; Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers; Stone Bridge Press; Berkeley; 1994

Image source

  1. Better to finish an imperfect project than perfect an unfinished one, author’s own image.
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Bring your A-game

bring your A game

This is the 20th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

20. Bring your A-game

This may come as a surprise, but in design you are distinguished first by your commitment and only second by your capacity.

I’ve chosen my words carefully here. I’m not saying that to produce a great project you need commitment more than you do capacity. Nor that commitment is more important than capacity. Rather, I’m saying that whether you like it or not, your design studio is a competition. You are competing with your fellow students for my time, my attention and my trust.

In an ideal world, or perhaps one run by intelligent robots, I and my fifteen students arrive in class at the allotted time. I divide our three hour session into fifteen equal periods and spend exactly that time with each of you. My advice is dispassionate, objective and constructive. I am perfectly fresh and alert for the entire studio, and you each receive precisely the same input from me.

It goes without saying that this is not an ideal world.

I regularly run over time with some students, usually with the best and the worst of you. I must confess that I sometimes even miss out on getting to all of you, and have to make up for it the following session. I am more constructive with some students (usually the best) and more critical with others (usually the worst). I am without doubt less fresh and alert with my last student at 9pm than I am at 6pm with my first.

I am merely human. Which means our teacher / student relationship is as complex and imperfect as all other relationships.

Fortunately, there are ways you can manipulate me.

If you produce plenty of engaging work, and respond to what I and your peers have to say about it, then you earn my time. If you are committed to the studio culture, help others and are prepared to voice an opinion, then you earn my attention. And if your design work is consistently good, evolving steadily from week to week, then you earn my trust. Basically, if you are committed to the design studio, I will be committed to you.

If you can do this, then by the time you arrive at the end of semester you will have had more minutes from me, more enthusiasm, more constructive feedback and are more likely to gain the benefit of the doubt. An uncommitted student has to prove herself in her final examination, she has to fill in all the blanks to demonstrate that she’s addressed all the assessment criteria. In contrast, I fill in the blanks on the behalf of a committed student, and advocate on her behalf when a guest critic fires up.

So, do good design work and don’t do it half-assed.

Image source

  1. Bring your A-game, author’s own image.
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A great project succeeds at every stage

success at every stage

This is the 19th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

19. A great project succeeds at every stage

In my fourth year of study, I produced a project of which I was immensely proud. Unfortunately, my studio leader disagreed. In a tense conversation about the disappointing grade that followed, he commented that my design hadn’t hit the mark on a number of assessment criteria. I was incredulous: couldn’t he see what I was trying to do with the project!? Shouldn’t I be assessed according to the ambitions I set for myself at the start of semester!? Didn’t he realise that I was a prodigal genius lightyears beyond his limited capacity to understand!?

I never ended up challenging my grade, but I’m glad now I didn’t.

What my younger self failed to grasp was that all great projects succeed against all the assessment criteria. That’s how it is in life, that’s how it is at university.

Part of the reason is practical: my ambitions for the project were important to me, but ultimately it had to be judged against all the other students’ projects. Standardised assessment criteria are really the only way to do this. They are also good at acknowledging the breadth of a semester’s worth of work. Sitting on the other side of the fence these days, this is precisely how I establish my criteria. I look at your research, your siting strategy, your form making, your attention to craft, your communication technique. To achieve a great project, you need to succeed across the board.

The other part of the reason is aspirational: a design is greater than the sum of its parts. As alluring as they can be, a pile of sexy renders are only part of the story. Like the human body, you can’t point to any one element and say that’s its best bit. Both the body and a design project are holistic exercises where all parts balance and compliment each other: legs, building massing, arms, windows, eyes and stairs all do their own job within the greater whole.

Image source

  1. A great project succeeds at every stage, author’s own image.
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Show it don’t say it

show it don't say it

This is the 18th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

18. Show it don’t say it

This is another subject I’ve discussed previously. It first popped up almost three years ago, arriving 21st in a series of lessons to my younger self, a series that now numbers 47.[1] I wrote it after attending an atrocious lecture given by Spanish architect, Francisco Mangado, who disobeyed the only two rules of this lesson:

  1. Use less words
  2. Use more pictures

As I observed at the time, Mangado in fact had the two confused. He spoke for many minutes without advancing slides, and rushed through the few slides he did have as though they were insignificant. It was such a blatantly poor presentation, I wondered if he was doing it on purpose.

So there’s a lesson hidden inside this lesson: if you despair of gathering the courage to speak publicly, if you mangle every opportunity, if you get so nervous you pee a little, know that an architect as widely respected as Mangado still hasn’t worked it out.

In contrast, Bjarke Ingels has this facet of his craft entirely under control. His diagrams are legendary: he is the king of using less words and more pictures. I saw him present a number of years ago at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. He was merely famous then, and I tuned in with polite interest only to be entirely engrossed by his proposal for a future of driverless cars. His project was a thinly veiled marketing campaign for his project partner, Audi, but I was hooked.

What Ingels understands is that words are insubstantial puffs of air. They’re pretend, they could have been made up a moment ago. Pictures committed to the page are proof, they’re evidence that you’ve worked all this out before.

Not only are they convincing, pictures force you to achieve resolution. To draw a good diagram, you need to have distilled your ideas to their simplest forms. To assemble a good plan, you need to have considered all expects of your programming and spatial arrangement. To render a good image, you need to have thought through space, volume, light and materials. Words leave too much room for speculation, pictures tell the whole story.

Pictures have one other bonus: for those of you bad with words, they are a great crutch. I do want to hear what you have to say, but I’m content for most of the talking to be done by your slides. An IT friend of mine recently mentioned pacing his presentations at 2 minutes per slide. For an architect, this is glacial. I aim for 20 seconds a slide, and often move through them more quickly if they link together into a sequence.


  1. I was a late bloomer.

Image source

  1. Tell a story, author’s own image.
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