The teacup principle

the teacup principle

This is the 9th 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.

9. The teacup principle

Today is not the first time I’ve written about this principle here. I first discussed it four years ago, within an article inspired by Texan artist and writer, Austin Kleon. That article was the 10th in a series of lessons to my younger self, a series that now numbers 38, this article included. I discussed it again two years ago, within another article exploring the nature of experimentation and its role in the work of my practice.

Clearly, it’s a principle close to my heart.

The teacup principle was taught to me in my third year of architecture studies by Melbourne University academic, Alex Selenitsch:

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 concerns itself with the intersection of your design process and your form making. To be precise, it’s about imprinting your process into your form so it can be perceived and understood.

This is a critical step in your design project this semester. It’s the moment when you start giving shape to your ideas, and emerge from the realm of thought out into the realm of objects. Committing to just one of the infinite formal possibilities that could express your ideas is a huge effort. Getting it right is the true mark of a great architect. It proves that you are in control of the tectonics of architectural form, that you understand space and structure and material, and can bend them to your will.

The key to the teacup principle is to ensure that your ideas aren’t lost in their metamorphosis into built form.

Take an object of fragmented geometry, twist it and explode it. Now it’s just another object of fragmented geometry, and your design intervention is drowned. Take a china teacup instead, turn it upside down and paint it red. Now it’s an upside down, red teacup. The actions of your design intervention are powerfully evident because they’ve begun with such a banal object.

Image source

  1. The teacup principle, author’s own image.


This is the 9th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

9. Community


When: Later
Importance: Moderate
Cost: Varies
Difficulty: Varies

Almost every aspect of your architecture practice, from the quality of your designs, to your marketing strategies, to your financial management, can benefit from your involvement in the right communities. By this we do not only mean the people who live next door, but your cultural and professional communities too. In other words, other architects, designers and the institutions that support them: collectively these people are a ready-made source of advice, assistance and feedback.

The types of communities in which you might take part can be roughly divided into five categories: design, business, marketing, culture and tribal. To make the most use of these, be prepared to juggle the full breadth of media the world has to offer, from online forums and social media, to international awards programmes and local lecture series. You will need to spend plenty of time in front of your computer screen, but just as much time getting out to actually meet people.

You will know you have chosen the right communities when you find they keep overlapping. The truth in this was neatly displayed when we attended the Presentations to Juries a month or so ago: shuffling from room to room with us were people whom we follow on Twitter, with whom we share blog discussions, attend lectures and seminars, present at design talks, studied and worked.

Design communities are those that allow you to present your design work and review the work of others. If all that happens once a project is presented is a round of applause, you are not participating in a design community. Reciprocity is essential to the success of these communities, as is the willingness of their participants to be critical about one another’s ideas. Given architects’ reluctance to subject themselves to negative criticism, even constructively offered, they are very hard to come by. We suggest you start one yourself, perhaps with friends from university whose journeys into architecture practice parallel your own. Every couple of weeks we catch up with one or two friends over lunch to discuss design and practice in a loose but longstanding arrangement affectionately referred to as the Round Table. We entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition together and, we must confess, could do better in heeding our own advice by presenting our work to one another more often. Design communities cost whatever you’re having for lunch.

Business communities are those that help you get better at any of the myriad skills and processes you need to keep your architecture practice afloat, from big picture things like time management and fee negotiation, to detail things like filing systems and contact lists. We take part in the Australian Institute of Architects‘ Small Practice Forum, a group of 30 or so architects that meets every two months to discuss subjects like marketing, fees, office manuals and, most recently, cloud computing. The Institute also runs plenty of continuing professional development events that are well worth attending: the oddly named but business-savvy Blue Turtle Management and Consulting (BTMC) have presented a few such events, one of which we discussed here. The cost of Institute membership varies and is generally hefty (we pay around $1,000 a year), however we feel its value is priceless.

Marketing communities are immensely abundant, require a huge amount of time to maintain and rarely pave the way for new projects. We say rarely, because every now and then they do, which will render every hour spent previously worthwhile. Houzz is an interesting tool that allows designers to upload photos of their work (1,000,000 so far an counting) to an indexed and searchable database that other people selectively add to ideas albums. It is also a useful way to have clients give you a summary of their tastes and design interests. New Architects is a series of casual design presentations run every couple of months with a strong emphasis on young designers. A website is on its way, however invitation is currently by email list or word of mouth only. Various agencies around the world, including Houses Magazine, Design Institute of Australia and Australian Timber Design Awards here, and World Architecture News and Architectural Review overseas, all hold annual awards programmes for both speculative and built work. There are many, many others. Finally, 70% of Australians own the houses they live in: the more you connect with your neighbours and local community, the more likely you are that you will get work from them. Houzz and New Architects are both free to join, though most awards programmes will cost $200 – $400 per entry.

Cultural communities will not necessarily win you new projects nor allow you the opportunity to present your work to the world at large, but they will increase your appreciation of good design and generally nurture your soul. Melbourne is blessed with a large number of organisations that foster such communities, including the Robin Boyd Foundation (RBF), ParlourMelbourne Open House (MOH) and C + A. Each has its own dedicated focus: modernist architecture for RBF; women in architecture for Parlour; public open days for MOH; and concrete for C + A. All run lecture and seminar programmes, publish journals and offer access to some of Melbourne’s best architecture both past and present. The cost of events varies, from nothing in the case of MOH’s annual open day to $65 for Parlour’s upcoming Transform workshop.

Finally, tribal communities are those you start yourself. They are generally online, often emanate from a blog or Twitter feed, and focus on one issue or interest area. They are not necessarily central to the architecture work you do, but revolve around it or are related to it. There are two important qualities of the tribal community: first, you are its chief; and second, you are its chief because you have been talking about its interest area before anyone else was. To paraphrase Texan artist, Austin Kleon, to whom we have paid tribute here, if everyone is talking about apples while you’re interested in oranges, you should start talking about oranges anyway. Eventually, when the rest of the world catches on to how great oranges are, you will be an established orange guru and natural chief.

Participating in any or all of these communities will grow what we have come to call your cultural capital i.e. the value you have to the culture around you. As your presence in awards programmes, forums, lecture series, blogs and design organisations grows, so too will your cultural capital. This capital will not necessarily win you projects and will certainly not turn you into a starchitect overnight. However, if you enjoy your communities without thought to future stardom, you will find your capital grows of its own accord, a development that we believe can only have a positive impact on your future design career.

Good design knows no boundaries

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?

20. Good design knows no boundaries

An article in The Age earlier this year gave insight into the principles of Aesop owner, Dennis Paphitis. His creative vision for the excellent Aesop brand is so dogmatic it extends to all aspects of its operation: the product, the packaging, the inspirational quotes on the office and outlet walls, even the colours in the marketing department’s reports.

At first glance, this has the ring of the obsessive compulsive about it. But upon closer inspection, it reveals a powerful commitment to design. It reveals the attitude that good design starts with the biggest gestures and finishes with the tiniest details. Good design happens most easily in an environment that encourages it.

This is all the more important for the architect. Unlike the painter who works directly with his canvas, and the musician who works directly with his instrument, the architect works only indirectly with his materials. Concrete, timber, glass and steel are the domain of the builder: paper and pens are the domain of the architect. So why not make your drawings works of art? Frank Lloyd Wright did. Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony did.

Good design starts at the centre of your architectural world: your studio. From there, it extends to all things. There is nothing that can’t be designed well.

A house can be designed well, as can a car. A light fitting can be designed well, as can a chair. A computer can be designed well, as can an oil and vinegar jug. There is no part of the human experience that is unworthy of good design. Even the most utilitarian of devices, the most mundane of tools can benefit from it. The design need not be expensive, nor complex, nor fancy. In fact, for the majority of the objects we use these qualities are the opposite of what we really need.

I shake my head when I see toilet paper perfumed and coloured and quilted and printed. Why does toilet paper, surely the most quotidian of all artefacts, attract such rubbish? What it really needs is good design, simple and honest.

Take a leaf from the book of Charles Rennie MacKintosh, the Scottish architect who pioneered the design of furniture and lighting in his buildings. The preparedness to consider every element of a project as an opportunity for good design will not only extend the vision of your architecture into its contents, but will improve the architecture itself.

Good design knows no boundaries.


Sting like a bee

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?

19. Sting like a bee

The design of great buildings, of any building, is not an easy road. You need to fight for your ideas and your designs, fight for them through every hurdle. There is no guarantee that your clients, or the allied professionals and tradespeople with whom you will work on every project, will share your vision. Be it unwittingly or otherwise, they will make decisions that compromise your work and leave you with one of two choices: you can choose to float like a butterfly and fold the compromise into your design, or you can choose to sting like a bee and fight for its purity.

Floating like a butterfly is easy to do, expedient. Stinging like a bee may be the difficult choice, but it is the right one.

You will need to stick to your guns at every stage, survive opportunity after opportunity for your project to be compromised. Learn how to reshape your singular vision to fit the paradigm of the person you are trying to convince. Learn how to speak the languages of the town planner, the builder, the engineer and the client – all have a unique set of priorities, a unique way of viewing the world. If you can speak to them in their own language they might just come to believe in your vision and, hopefully, protect it as much as you do.

Frank Lloyd Wright was a charismatic master of this. S. C. Johnson said this of his experience working with Wright on the Johnson Wax building: “At the start of the project, Wright was working for me. In the middle, we were working together. By the end, I was working for him.”

Sting like a bee.

Learn from your body

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?

18. Learn from your body

Your body can teach you many things about architecture.

Sitting in your studio, it can teach you about dimensions, the appropriate heights of desks and benches, the depths of cupboards, the widths of chairs. It can teach you about size and proportion, about the distances between things, how hard it is to reach a high shelf, the spaciousness of a room. Carry a scale ruler and a tape measure with you at all times. You will find yourself referring regularly to them both, to measure both your drawings and your surrounds.

Outside your studio, your body continues to teach. Two activities in particular impart fundamental lessons.

Rock climbing teaches you about triangulation, efficiency and balance. Hanging from the face of a wall by your fingertips and toes, the tensions running through your limbs and core tell you precisely what you need to do to keep from swinging out like an opening door. Climbing elegantly, with minimum effort easily concealed, is to climb efficiently: to place your foot in this place at that angle; to push off at this speed to that height. There are yet deeper lessons here, about the purpose of structure, the beauty in efficiency, the ancient appreciation of poise and balance.

The uncommonly vertical movement of rock climbing, and the extreme effort required of parts of your body not used to the exertion, reveal insights readily overlooked.

Running teaches you about endurance, patience and the long haul. Setting out for a 20km run, you must fight two simultaneous but opposing urges: first, the temptation to run as fast as you can. Instead of expending all your energy too quickly, you must pace yourself, building into the run with increasing speed and planning the use of your body’s resources with the distant finish line in mind. Second, you must resist the (far more powerful) temptation to stop. Running hurts, a deep, low burn that spreads uniformly through the body, occasionally concentrating itself sharply in this joint or that muscle. You must overcome the reflex need to protect yourself and avoid pain, instead pushing onwards with the higher-cortex knowledge that you are improving yourself.

Architecture is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Like running, it must be endured. Like running, it has its steep hills and head-winds, its easy flats and tail-winds. Like running, it requires that you pace yourself for the long haul, understand that the tedious day-by-day minutiae will ultimately be rewarded with the big prize at the finish line: a built project. Like running, architecture takes as much will power as it does inspiration.

Learn from your body.

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.