A building has six elevations

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

17. A building has six elevations

There is nothing less dignified than a building with a finely-crafted front facade flanked either side by blank walls built from the cheapest material available. Just as bad is one whose careless owners have replaced part of its tiled roof with cheap steel.

A building does not have only one front: it has a front that faces the street, one that faces the sun, one the sky, one the garden, many the neighbours. A building is an object in space, with each face worthy of careful consideration. It has not one, but six elevations.

There are the four external elevations, there is the roof and there is the interior. All form part of the one, unified whole. All should be well designed.

Like the human body, each element of a building should be uniquely designed and fit for its purpose. Even if a side elevation is never seen, or the roof, it should be well designed. The truth is that at some point it will be seen, even if only by a plumber coming to fix the hot water service. But even if this were not so, it is still worth doing because you, the architect, will know. It will be in your thoughts and memories forever, that dumb, cheap facade you could have done better but didn’t.

The symmetry of the new and old roofs at Basser House are best understood from a vantage point rarely seen

Steve Jobs had the signatures of the original Macintosh‘s designers engraved on the inside of its case, an inclusion on each computer that cost Apple money without making a cent of return. “No one would ever see the signatures, but the members of the Macintosh team knew that their signatures were inside, just as they knew that the circuit board was laid out as elegantly as possible.”

A building has six elevations.

Stick with it until the end

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

16. Stick with it until the end

A piece of insight a mentor of mine, Col Bandy, gave me years ago went like this: “I divide my fee into three thirds – design, documentation and administration. I make money on design, break even on documentation and lose on administration.”

What does this mean? Should I look only for projects without administration?

In short, the answer is no. Administration is the most important phase of the entire project. Glenn Murcutt and Tom Kundig both agree that it is in administration that a design is tested, executed and truly proven: the best design continues down to the very last detail, a truth that can only be realised by staying involved until the keys are handed over. Ian Perkins concurs, though for another reason. He told me once that he has never been commissioned for a second project by a client whose first project he didn’t administer. Telling advice for an architect whose whole practice is based on repeat work.

Administration is when design turns into making. It’s when you see how lines on a page erupt into three dimensional space; when you see which details work and which don’t; when you discover which opportunities were missed; and when you learn how serendipity always materialises when you least expect it.

Administration is also the best opportunity to have the successful execution of a project indelibly associated with your own efforts (you might have spent hundreds of hours on documentation, but this connection is far more easily understood once the building actually starts rising from the ground). Administration is a loss-making exercise yes, but it is also a loss-leading exercise. It’s how you will win your next project, and your next, and the next one after that.

Stick with it until the end.

Create a hierarchy of ideas

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

15. Create a hierarchy of ideas

Another lesson gathered from teaching a Design Thesis studio last year at the University of Melbourne involved the crafting of ideas. Watching a group of students initiate, develop and refine their projects, I was able to appreciate the pitfalls of confusion and the benefits of clarity.

A building is a complex beast, whose formation has the tendency to attract many ideas: one idea to define its urban presence, another to define its structure, yet another to define its programming. Without careful attention, these ideas become confused or even contradictory. The best students were those who were able to restrict this tendency and distill the entire, multifaceted complexity of architecture into a tiny group of driving ideas. This tiny group instructs a bigger group of secondary ideas which in turn instructs a tertiary group, a quaternary group and so on.

When executed well, even the most insignificant of details can trace its developmental lineage back to that first, core group of ideas. It’s called a hierarchy of ideas and, like a tree, has a clear logic:

  • All the research and early development of the design, the parts of the project never seen but nevertheless integral to its stability, are the tree’s roots
  • The core ideas are supported by this research – they are the trunk
  • Interpretations of the core ideas for specific facets of the project (form, programme, history, context etc.) are the branches
  • Tertiary ideas, for instance relating to space and sequence, are the twigs
  • Quaternary ideas relating to details are the leaves

This distillation requires serious effort but is rewarded when a stranger comes to the final design for the first time and is able to read its core ideas in its final spaces.

Create a hierarchy of ideas.

It’s okay not to know the punchline

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

14. It’s okay not to know the punchline

Teaching a Design Thesis studio last year at the University of Melbourne, I gained a previously unexperienced global perspective of the design process. Nurturing a group of sixteen students through their projects, I was for the first time able to appreciate the many different approaches to the student / tutor relationship and to design.

I learnt that the best students were those who were able to fully commit themselves to the reciprocal interaction between design, research and dialogue. In other words, those who first posed a design question, second undertook research into possible solutions, third engaged in productive discussion, fourth listened to our suggestions and those of other students, and only fifth made a design decision. The key to this process is in commencing it without yet knowing how it will conclude.

Good design is not a linear journey whose end point is already known. Rather it is a series of false-starts, u-turns, dead-ends and scenic routes. Good design does not happen during an A-to-B trip with a disengaged driver behind the wheel, instead it unfolds as a weekend expedition undertaken by a driver who places himself behind the wheel for the love of it.

Ultimately, the destination – the final design – becomes defined by many of the detours experienced during the journey, becomes enriched by them. You won’t know which will have a lasting impact until you pass through them, so don’t try to map your route before setting out.

It’s okay not to know the punchline.

Seeing is believing

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

13. Seeing is believing

Architecture, of all the arts, is the one most closely connected to the land and most influenced by physicality: to experience a building is to visit it. Make a list of the most impressive buildings you have ever come across and shape your grand tour (or tours) to take in some of them. Peter Zumthor’s baths at Vals (discussed in this previous post) was on my list: getting there involved renting a room for a weekend, hiring a car and driving 3.5 hours through mountain passes from Milan, but it was effort well-rewarded. The lessons learned from experiencing that building will always be more significant and reach more deeply than those I have only ever read about.

Once there, catalogue your experience any way you can. That you should take hundreds of photographs from every possible angle goes without saying, but you should also take the time to draw what you see. Draw the way the building rests in its environment, draw an interior space, a material or a detail. To understand a building, you need to take time to consider it, to unravel how it was conceived and assembled. Drawing forces you to take that time, to slow down the rushed exhilaration of the visit. You will be amazed how much you take away from 20 minutes sitting in the same place and drawing a window.

Seeing is believing.

Tomorrow is defined by what you do today

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

12. Tomorrow is defined by what you do today

The inestimable Glenn Murcutt has said that an architect’s future is defined less by the projects he accepts than by those he doesn’t.

Let me illustrate this advice with a story:

A young man is starting out in life as an architect, running his own studio. His passion is for designing environmentally-friendly family houses and hopes fervently to make a future name for himself in that typology. However, of greater immediate importance the young architect must eat, must pay his mortgage, pay his bills, clothe himself. So he grudgingly accepts a commission to design a simple factory for a wealthy industrialist. The fee is good, but the project is mindless. Perhaps the industrialist, happy with the young architect’s work on the factory, will give him another project to design – maybe even his own house. But the industrialist does not. Instead, he tells his industrialist friends about the excellent job the architect did on the factory. With no environmentally-friendly houses on the horizon, and bills mounting up, the architect has no choice but to accept the inevitable factory projects that come his way. 20 years later, the architect is an expert in factories, wealthy because of it but unhappy.

With word of mouth playing such a large role in defining any architect’s marketing strategy, you cannot underestimate the influence your current activities will have on those of your future. The projects you are working on now are your greatest marketing devices – they are combination billboard, business card and testimonial. But they are also proof of expertise – a happy client will give you a better recommendation than one you could ever fabricate yourself, but it is common sense that they will only recommend you for the same work you did for them.

So choose your projects with care. Chase the ones you want and have the courage to say no to those you don’t. And when you win a project, design conscientiously but market shamelessly.

Tomorrow is defined by what you do today.

Look back in order to move forward

The process of writing How to steal like an architect last year, a series of 10 articles based on Austin Kleon’s How to steal like an artist, made me consider other lessons learned over the years. What further lessons would I teach my younger self, given the opportunity?

11. Look back in order to move forward


Self-reflection is a time-consuming activity easily left in the wake of the rigours of architectural practice, of deadlines and invoicing and cash-flow. Yet how can you design buildings without understanding your own works?

There is great discipline required in sitting down to examine a completed project, to sift through all its grand ideas and form making gestures, its fine details and even its administration to determine what happened and why. Most importantly, this process offers the possibility of discovering something worth holding onto, something worth repeating or developing for the next project.

An architect is not judged by any single project but by his whole opus: Santiago Calatrava is recognised for the evocativeness of his structure, Bjarke Ingels for his decisively cerebral interventions, Peter Stutchbury for his immaculately crafted detailing. Establish the discipline to reflect on your works, to create common threads and themes between them and your opus will benefit greatly.

Look back in order to move forward.