Creativity is subtraction

This post is part 10 and the final instalment of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

10. Creativity is subtraction

Back at university, I was often shackled by the need for each of my design projects to somehow encapsulate my entire philosophy of architecture, to express every thought I had ever had and would ever have on the subject. But this is not how good architecture is made. Good architecture is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. Some of the best architecture I have ever experienced engages with only a few simple ideas, resolved thoroughly and with conviction.

One of my lecturers, the insightful and generous Alex Selenitsch, once taught me an invaluable lesson I have since come to call the teacup principle.


Architectural ideas require a reference frame to be understood. If your idea is to take a shape and transform it into something new, using an unidentifiable blob is no help at all. Instead, use an instantly recognisable form, like a teacup, so that the changes you make can be perceived as having originated somewhere.

This principle holds true for all architecture – subtracting the peripheral ideas that confuse or compromise your central idea will make your design more rigourous and your ideas more legible. In this age of abundance, the challenge central to all our lives is to cut out the white noise: less is most certainly more. If you can figure out what to leave out, you will be the one to get ahead, because you will be concentrating on what’s important to you.

Creativity is subtraction.

Fin.

Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)

This post is part 9 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

9. Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)

History is littered with architects whose works were exceptional but whose lives were eccentric, destitute, a shambles or all three. Le Corbusier was so infatuated by contemporary Eileen Gray that he purchased a property overlooking hers so that he may survey her, then later graffitied one of her works and photographed himself doing it. Antonio Gaudi was hit by a tram on his way to church one morning, but carried no identification documents and looked so shabby he was left unconscious by the side of the road – the delay in getting him to hospital cost him his life. Frank Lloyd Wright had six children with his first wife, Catherine, whom he left for the wife of a client, Marnah. Marnah and her two children died in a house fire lit deliberately by a servant. Wright married again, but got a divorce after only a year, then once more again. Louis Kahn had three wives and three families, simultaneously. He died on a train platform, an echo of Gaudi’s death – shabby and penniless.

But the romantic depiction of the struggling architect is a picture from past eras. Good architecture takes a lot of time and a lot of energy – don’t waste them on a rollercoaster life. Here’s what works for me:

Look after yourself. With obesity unprecedentedly rampant, this is clearly not something we recognise enough anymore. But the Romans had it figured out millenia ago: sanus corpus, sanus mentis = healthy body, healthy mind. Go for a run, eat well, get to bed on time. Look after your body, and the mind will follow.

Follow a routine. I work from home, with the many distractions of television / household chores / couch / refrigerator added impediments to productivity. To help keep me focussed, I try to keep regular hours. I shower, shave and get dressed every day as though I were heading out to an office. I maintain a dedicated work area that is separate from the rest of my life – I open the studio door in the morning and it’s time to work; I close it in the evening and it’s time to shut off.

Make lists. An architect designing a house will work on it for 1,000 hours across six or seven project phases and two or three years. Such an undertaking is not achieved with a few great leaps but many small steps. Set goals for yourself and make lists: of things to prepare for meeting, of things to complete on project, of things to do today. Your lists will help you measure the incremental progress you make on your projects and give you the satisfaction of completed tasks and ticked boxes.

Be boring, it’s the only way to get work done.

Be nice (the world is a small town)

This post is part 8 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

8. Be nice (the world is a small town)

Being nice can sometimes be difficult, particularly when confronted with all the greedy pigeons you will inevitably meet in your professional life, however it’s an unfortunate truth that positive recommendations spread slowly while negative recommendations spread like wildfire.

Besides, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how brilliant your ideas if you can’t find someone to pay for them to be built. This is another way of saying, to be an architect you need clients.

Your next client could be your old high school teacher, the girl who looks after your books, the guy who makes your coffee. You never know how who you know will matter until you answer the phone one day and receive that most rare and satisfying call: an enquiry about a new project.

So be nice and, eventually, ye shall be rewarded.

Geography is no longer our master

This post is part 7 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

7. Geography is no longer our master

Last year, we lived in Milan – part of 18 months of travel around Australia, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and even a quick dip into Africa. Once upon a time, such an experience would have cut us off from our friends and family back home – a true exploratory pilgrimage. But for better or worse, this is no longer the case. Via email, Facebook, Skype, smartphones and internet roaming, we are always in touch.

The same is true when you stay in one place, working. As architects, our bodies are tied inexorably to the land on which we are building, but our minds are free to roam the world. We can learn about, be inspired by and connect with every corner of the globe – a planet-wide network linked not by geography but by shared interests.

Subscribe to architectural journals, news bulletins and online blogs (like this one). Attend lectures, festivals, exhibitions and performances. Inject yourself into your local, regional and global communities wherever you find people talking about the things you’re talking about.

Geography is no longer our master.

The secret: do good work then put it where people can see it

This post is part 6 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

6. The secret: do good work then put it where people can see it

Like it or not, buildings cost money, lots of money. Of all the arts, architecture is in many ways alone in this respect – concrete, timber, glass and steel all cost far more than the architect can afford himself. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how brilliant your ideas if you can’t find someone to pay for them to be built.

Knowing people with money and the need for architectural services is an important ingredient to starting an architectural practice, but so is having your work seen by your prospective clients, that is, the rest of the world.

In architecture, where word-of-mouth is king, your best advertising weapon is your work itself. So the not-so-secret secret is to do good work and put it where people can see it. The first step is hard yakka and there are no shortcuts – do work, seek feedback from your peers, improve, do more work. The second step used to be hard but is easier today than it has ever been, all thanks to the internet. Putting up your shingle (simply being available) and a handful of local architectural journals are no longer the only outlets for your work: there are online building databases, international awards programs and ideas competitions happening all the time, in every corner of the globe. Submit every project, both paper and realised, as often as you can and to as many places as you can – you never know where one good win will lead.

True story:

We submitted one of our finished projects, Hill House, for the House of the Year competition held by World Architecture News, an English architectural resource, where it was long-listed. A scout for a Canadian television show, World’s Greenest Homes, saw the project and contacted us via American social network, Facebook. After it aired, we received enquiries from potential clients across Australia – here in Melbourne, in Canberra and in Perth.

Do good work then put it where people can see it.

Side projects and hobbies are important

This post is part 5 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important

Time and time again, history has shown that side projects can turn up trumps. Google Maps is famously the result of a side project, Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout poetry started life as a side project, my first ever building, Hill House, was a side project – designed, documented and built while I was still a student, and the foundation of our architectural practice today.

Side projects and hobbies occupy a unique mental space – no matter how difficult or serious they are, they never feel like “real work”. They are the things we to do relax, but can nevertheless be extraordinarily productive.

I have two such side projects: I write this blog, an activity that is cerebral but requires far less diligence than the work I do as an architect. The articles are short, simple, easy – I write them while I eat lunch or instead of reading before bed. I draw a lot too – I am up to the 32nd volume of my sketchbooks, a constant companion since my first year of architecture studies in 1999. Both contribute actively to my architectural work and who knows, one day we may get famous because of them.

Side projects and hobbies are important.

Use your hands

This post is part 4 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

4. Use your hands

The computer is an amazing tool that has opened up brave new worlds for the architect to explore. But these worlds are artificial, separated from the human body by a membrane of screens and keys and mice that translate between the real and the virtual reasonably well, but far from flawlessly. Your hands have no such membrane. In fact, the flow of ideas from mind to hand and back again, on a continuous feedback loop, reinforces your ideas like sound waves on sympathetic frequencies.

Sketch, draft, shape concepts, draw details. Use ink, graphite, marker pens, watercolour. Craft with cardboard, balsa wood, clay, polystyrene. Visit factories, warehouses, workshops and above all, building sites. Architecture exists in the physical world, you cannot avoid it.

Use your hands.