A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

Bad architecture drives out good

sir thomas greshamSir Thomas Gresham by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst (1565)

What is it?

A paraphrasing of Gresham’s Law, an economic principle proposed in the 16th Century by adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham. The law, bad money drives out good, described the devaluation of the precious metal content in circulating coins. When new, low precious metal content coins were issued by the Queen, Gresham observed that older, higher precious metal content coins quickly disappeared: either hoarded by the public as a primitive form of savings, or retained by the government to melt down and create more of the new.

We first came across the principle in 2004 while studying The Political Economy of Design under Professor Paolo Tombesi at the University of Melbourne, a subject and a teacher we recently discussed here. Now only offered sporadically within the Master of Architecture program, the subject “seeks to position and discuss architecture in relation to the world of production, economic interests and community benefits, at a local and global scale”. As evidenced by this article, written nine years after we took the subject, it has imparted lasting influence over our interests and values.

If you are a student at the University of Melbourne and The Political Economy of Design is offered in coming semesters, it would be a crime for you not to enrol in it.

Gresham’s Law may be a simple observation, but it has sophisticated ramifications that describe the devolution of production in almost any corner of industry, architecture included. The analysis that follows owes much to Michael Benedikt‘s excellent article on the subject, Gresham’s Law and the Logic of Efficacy.

Bad architecture drives out good, an illustrated story

A house comprises 1,000 qualities, set N, which collectively enable it to function. These qualities include things like bedrooms, insulation, robustness, waterproofing, solar orientation and timber benchtops. Each quality costs its builder $1,000 to produce, equalling a total construction cost of $1,000,000.

total qualities

As is true with any product the world over, the purchasers of the house are cognisant of fewer qualities than it contains, set n. The qualities of which they are not aware are hidden from their layperson’s sight, like the thermal mass of its concrete slab, the anti-rust properties of its stainless steel hinges or the acoustic insulation in its internal walls. The precise size of set n varies between purchasers, however in all cases n < N. If there are say 600 qualities the purchasers appreciate, each worth $1,000, they are prepared to pay only $600,000 for the house.

appreciated qualities

Thus the builder of the house faces a dilemma: the gap between its total and appreciated qualities, N – n, represents a financial shortfall. While the house costs him $1,000,000 to construct, its purchasers are only prepared to pay $600,000.

quality gap

So how does the builder address the financial shortfall? According to Benedikt, there are two basic solutions.

Builder #1 pursues the first and simplest: the strategy of contraction. This strategy reduces the number of qualities built into the house so as to reduce its construction cost. By eliminating the 400 qualities unappreciated by the purchasers, he need only spend $600,000 in production and will thus recoup all costs upon sale.

quality contraction

Builder #2 pursues the second and more complex: the strategy of education. This strategy maintains the full number of qualities built into the house, but seeks to inform the purchasers of their importance. Once the purchasers appreciate all 1,000 qualities, they are prepared to pay the $1,000,000 production cost and, once again, he will recoup all costs upon sale.

quality expansion

The two strategies do not promise equal success. Contraction enables builder #1 to reduce the cost of production up front, diminishing his financial risk. It also permits his house to be sold more cheaply than the house of builder #2, an easy and effective marketing advantage. In contrast, builder #2 must bear the risk of a more expensive production cost, together with the additional cost of educating potential purchasers. Further, there is no guarantee that once suitably educated, they will indeed purchase his house.

This imbalance is magnified when extrapolated over time. The strategy of education is a long-term approach, with better educated purchasers interested in houses containing all 1,000 qualities at best a distant benefit. The strategy of contraction promises much faster returns: the cheaper house of builder #1 attracts more purchasers more often. Soon enough, the market is saturated by his houses and the better quality houses of builder #2, unable to compete, disappear from circulation.

It doesn’t matter that the purchasers benefit from the 400 discarded qualities, nor are disadvantaged by their absence, only that they don’t appreciate them. Presented with two houses side by side, with nothing discernible to distinguish them, the cheaper house inevitably wins. Ultimately, Gresham’s Law prevails: education is expensive, risky and time-consuming; contraction is cheap, virtually risk-free and fast. Bad architecture drives out good.

What do we think?

Our contemporary built environment has been shaped over recent decades by no force more influential than Gresham’s Law. We see it everywhere. It is the reason volume housing, which represents around 95% of all new housing construction, is of poor quality. It is the reason for down-skilling in young tradespeople. It is the reason that the majority of new building systems and materials substitute quality for efficiency. It is the reason that McMansions exist; that housing estates are filled with poor-performing, flimsy buildings.

A commercial timber window fabricator told us recently that his company abandoned solid timber jambs in favour of finger jointed pieces around 3 years ago when his competitors made the change first. It doesn’t matter that solid timber offers a more uniform finish and superior durability to finger jointing, only that the purchasers not know this. Since the downgrade, not a single customer has complained.

Gresham’s Law is also the reason that architects and boutique builders are incapable of competing with volume housing construction rates. We regularly encounter potential clients who weigh up our bespoke design services with the contracted services of draftspeople or products of volume builders. Despite our strident efforts to explain the unevenness of this comparison (in which we make ample reference to the analogy of the suit), we find ourselves on the losing side of an ongoing and long-lasting battle. One recent potential client was outraged that our proposed fee could possibly be 6 times more expensive than that of a draftsperson. No amount of frank discussion explaining the services we provide could sway them: we missed out on the commission.

Our experience is evidence of the depressing but not surprising truth that the Australian public does not appreciate the value of good architecture. Gresham’s Law has been at work for far too long here, the lure of cheap houses having displaced for decades the benefits of true quality. One need look no further than any of the new housing estates springing up on the fringes of Melbourne to see the truth of this.

merndaMernda, a Metricon community 30km north-east of Melbourne

Dear reader, can you imagine one of these houses, or any of the thousands like them, serving generations of inhabitants in the way that the worker’s cottages of the early 1900s have? Can you imagine them being renovated and updated for changing tastes through the decades, but being essentially retained? No? How about the idea of them being demolished in 10 years, dumped unceremoniously in landfill and replaced?

This is the legacy of almost 500 years of Gresham’s Law, and it all started when the Queen discovered that a coin with negligible precious metal contact can be worth its face value simply because she said it was. Translating this concept into the realm of architecture reveals that marketing and spin are more important than the truth, that the Australian public desire quantity over quality and precious few can tell good architecture from bad.

What can we do about it?

Opposing the relentless forces of contraction is a time-consuming, expensive and risky undertaking. Asking individual architects to do this within their practices is an almost impossible task. The sheer numbers are against us here: 140,000 new houses are built each year in Australia, but architects are involved with only 7,000, or a mere 5%. One cannot fight cancer one damaged cell at a time.

Gregg Pasquarelli observed in his recent Dean’s Lecture at the University of Melbourne that the most environmentally sustainable action available to an architect is to “create buildings that people love, that don’t get torn down every 10 – 20 years.” This is certainly a significant part of the equation, but it is a philosophy most architects are already practicing. Perhaps in areas of dense architectural involvement, specifically the city and inner suburbs, this has already translated into an appreciation of good design. Such is not the case the further out one travels however. How can we pursue the difficult strategy of education amongst the vast majority of people – from Mernda to Caroline Springs – who are ignorant of architecture and disinterested in its value?

We have three suggestions:

Media advocacy. In public forums and across all forms of media, advocacy provides the opportunity to talk to people about architecture. The Architects radio show on Triple R is a shining example of this approach, as are Houses magazine, Melbourne Open House and the Robin Boyd Foundation. The most striking shared quality of these enterprises is their appeal to laypeople. 70% of attendees at the Robin Boyd open days are non-architects, while the MOH weekend last year recorded 135,000 visits.

As such, a key quality of successful advocacy is accessibility: it is not avant-garde theory or collective back-patting; it is a concerted effort to engage the public with their built environment. Despite its mandate that asserts otherwise, the Australian Institute of Architects is not good at advocacy. It expends great effort in lobbying government but neglects popular media. Every time Jon Faine discusses an issue concerning the built environment, an AIA representative should offer an opinion; daily newspapers should provide more visibility to the AIA and seek quotes as a matter of course; and television shows about design should involve architects more heavily and celebrate them in the way reality-TV cooking shows do chefs.

Beyond design. We came across a blog article recently noting that in the past 50 years only one United States federal politician was an architect.[1] The article associated the marginalisation of the architecture profession with our conspicuous absence from roles of public office and common interest. Having government architects at state and federal levels is a good start, but we need to step up into positions of wider responsibility: in politics, universities, major institutions and company boards. In our practices, we seek creative solutions that are long-term, wide-ranging and socially responsible. If this rare paradigm can work for buildings, why can’t it work for government portfolios?

Perhaps our undoing in this regard is, ironically, our love of architecture. Being an architect is so rewarding that we are not prepared to leave it for elections, committees and policies. Certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest we love the practice of architecture sufficiently to put up with being paid terribly to do it. Nevertheless, public office is a serious responsibility in which we are obliged to take part: more of us need to accept its burden.

School education. Finally, the education of young minds. Every individual in his or her life will engage with architecture more frequently and meaningfully than he or she ever will with calculus, sound waves or organic chemistry. Why then is architecture not taught at school level? Why does every student not graduate from high school with a basic knowledge of sustainability principles, the history of Australian architecture and the innovations of the Sydney Opera House?

A number of years ago, we successfully introduced a term of architectural design into Year 11 Visual Communications and Design at Caulfield Grammar School. Though we are no longer involved, we believe the subject is still running. Looking back on the experience, we realise that an arts subject is not necessarily the best place to learn about architecture: after all, our agenda is not to create more architects but to inspire more interest in architecture. If we are to reignite our teaching involvement at school level, we will aim to do so not just through the arts, but science and history also.

With an entire socio-economic framework founded on the principles of Gresham’s Law, it will be no small task to reverse the status-quo of architectural ignorance. Working as individuals, we cannot afford the time to educate every potential client that walks through the door, nor accept the risk that once educated he or she won’t go elsewhere. If we are to have any success at all, we must work together as a profession. We must also realise that our design work is not in itself sufficient to affect fundamental change. To do that, we’ll have to step well beyond our comfort zones and accept positions of responsibility in the wider community.


Footnotes:

[1] We were able to discover two, Richard Swett, a Democratic congressman from 1991 – 1995 and Eric Johnson, a Republican senator from 1994 – 2009. Not since Thomas Jefferson has a President of the United States been an architect.

Community

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

membership

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.

Dear Sir or Madam

job application
Not a great application letter

It is a sign of the ongoing scarcity faced by the construction industry that architecture graduates are anecdotally having a lot of trouble finding work. The federal government’s stimulus package has long since dried up and the big end of town is once again executing layoffs left and right.

Though our architecture practice is small, on average we nevertheless receive one or two job applications a week. Many come from overseas and most are not very good. At the best of times, a poor application is a great way to be instantly forgotten. When the demand for jobs is as high as it is now, it takes even less for your application to find its way quickly to the bin.

Architecture graduates, if you want to find work in this highly competitive environment, you need to not only be the cream of the crop, you need to convince potential employers you are. This begins with your job application.

Here are 10 tips to help you on your way:

1. Dear Sir or Madam

In the digital age, there is no excuse for not knowing the names of the principal architects of our practice. Spend a few minutes trawling our website or even cold call us if you must. The simple gesture of addressing your application to an actual person shows you have invested thought into your application. It displays basic business savvy and in a small but significant way shows that you care where you work.

Further, an application addressed to Sir or Madam, an undisclosed recipient address and generic content are all dead giveaways that you have sent your application out en masse. Why should we bother treating you like an individual when you have not extended this same courtesy to us? It does not take much extra effort to send an email out separately and tailor it to our practice profile. At the very least, relate your application to the size of our practice and project typologies on which we work.

2. Spelling, grammar and syntax

If your aplication contains speling, grammer, and, errors syntax; we willnot give you the job.. Our logic is simple: if you do not have the ability or presence of mind to make sure you get this most basic of items right, how can you possibly be expected to tackle the more complex demands of the job you are seeking? Dictionaries, spellcheck and friends who speak the english language better than you do have all been around for a long time. Use them.

3. Skills and content

Years ago, when we were looking for student architect positions, the principal architect of one particular firm flipped rapidly through our painstakingly presented portfolio and dismissed it with the spirit-crushing words, “I want to see skills not content”.

Unless working as a CAD monkey for the rest of your life appeals, when a prospective employer says something similar to you, do as we should have done: thank the person for their time, leave the office and never return.

The lasting lesson here is this: your portfolio should demonstrate both skills and content. Sure, we want to see that you know how to use AutoCAD, Rhino, Photoshop et. al. but we also want to see that you have an ability to design good buildings. A good portfolio can demonstrate both with ease: not only its content but its graphic design will speak volumes about your sense of style as well as your technical abilities.

4. Let your personality shine

Do you enjoy long-distance running? Do you speak a second language? Do you spend your winters snowboarding? Have you travelled? Have you undertaken pilgrimages to notable buildings in obscure corners of the world? Do you have a collection of modernist chess sets?

We do and we have, so why can’t you?

Your application letter is not the place for an essay on your life’s experiences, but it is the place to communicate a few of the more fascinating things that interest you. Reading and watching movies are unhelpfully generic, though translating Italian poetry and sneaking your way into Hollywood film premieres are not.

5. Keep it brief

You’re busy, we’re busy, so keep it brief.

6. International norms

Different countries have different expectations of job applicants. Some demand rigid formality, others prefer a more casual approach. Some want to know what grades you received in primary school, others are content to know that you passed your university degree.

Whether you are an Australian looking for work overseas or a foreigner looking for work here, do some research into the country where you are applying before you send out your applications. You can start by reading this article and others like it. Get a feel for what the architecture industry may expect before you inadvertently put your international foot in it.

7. Paper

Of all the applications we have received, only one arrived in the letterbox. In this day and age, it was refreshing to receive something physical to review. This is not to say that you should spend hundreds of dollars printing out full colour portfolios for the dozens of architecture practices to whom you are applying. Rather, pick a few more likely prospects, call first to see if they might be hiring and only then hit the print button.

8. Social media is the future

Your application may be on paper, but long gone is the day when you are restricted to its crisp, white confines to express yourself to potential employers. Social media has drastically altered the way in which you can connect with us: do you have an online portfolio? Do you use Twitter? Do you write a blog? Do you have a LinkedIn profile?

There is no better way to convince us you are invested in architecture and interested in the same things we’re interested in than by being able to answer yes to all of the above. What’s more, long before you start applying for work, you should use social media as an opportunity to connect with your local architecture community. If you might one day be interested in working with us, you should follow our blog, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and even connect with us on LinkedIn.

9. Be interested

Architecture is not like other professions. Many practices are small like ours and enjoy family-like working environments. Even the larger practices still pride themselves on their creative approach to the workplace. As such, it is important that you are interested in what we do, both within our practice and as part of a broader community.

Are you a member of the Australian Institute of Architects? Have you volunteered at Melbourne Open House? Have you attended a Robin Boyd Foundation open day? Or a Melbourne Architours tour? We attend the events run by these organisations, so you should too. At the very least, you will learn something from the event; you may even get the opportunity to meet us in person. When we subsequently receive your application, we will know you as an individual, not just anonymous writing on the page.

If you can communicate your passion for architecture not just by the things you say but by the things you do, you are one big step closer to relating to us as part of our world.

10. What do you want?

Finally, put some thought into where you want to work. A large firm will give you exposure to significant buildings but will restrict your day-to-day tasks to only a few aspects of a project. A smaller firm won’t give you the variety in building typologies, but is much better placed to give you experience across the full range of an architect’s responsibilities. Do you want to work on institutional projects, or houses, or commercial developments? Are you keen to work with a practice renown for its design abilities or would you prefer one that has a reputation for strong client relationships and repeat business?

We understand that it’s unlikely today that you have the luxury of choice. However, working out what you want will help you better target the right segment of the profession and will put you in a more self-aware position once you’re offered a job.

Imagine this scenario:

We are sifting through a pile of 40 applications for an advertised position. We can’t possibly interview everyone so how can we quickly and efficiently reduce the pile to a more manageable size? First, we get rid of anyone who hasn’t nailed the basics: addressing us by our names, avoiding spelling mistakes etc. There are now 30 left in the pile. Second, we ditch anyone who doesn’t seem to know anything about who we are and what we do. Now we’re down to 20. Third, we look at basic layout and graphic design. This leaves us with 10.

Only then do we start looking at content, trying to understand who you are. If we happen to recognise your name from an event we attended or via our blog’s subscriber list, even better. Every little bit will help you be one of the 3 or 4 people we’ll interview.

Good luck.

Melbourne Open House

What is it?

This weekend, 69 buildings around Melbourne and inner city areas participated in Melbourne Open House 2011 by opening their doors (for free) to the general public. Included on the list were office buildings, theatres, electrical substations, churches, a synagogue, hospital tunnels, museums, houses, university colleges and sports stadia.

What did we think?

We headed into town on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons, visiting half a dozen of the buildings on offer, including Lyons’ architectural studio, Geyer interior design office, the Russell Place electrical substation, Denmark House, ANZ global headquarters and the VicUrban offices in Goods Shed North.

The experience was rewarding for two important reasons. The first was the buildings themselves, each uniquely engaging. Lyons’ studio is a smart and edgy fitout that pays immense respect to the fabric of the original building. The Russell Place substation is steeped in history, replete with 70-tonne transformers in continuous operation since the 1940s. Denmark House is a small building that offers rooftop views we had never imagined existing in the city. Goods Shed North is another beautiful remnant from our past, lovingly preserved and re-imagined for contemporary usage.

The second reason was the people attending Melbourne Open House, easily recognisable by their upwards-turned gazes and little red guide books. At Russell Place, we pretended to be friends with three guys so we could sneak onto the back of the line, then did indeed make friends with them. At Geyer, we talked with office staff, even recognising one of them from our university days. At ANZ headquarters, we started chatting with a family from Abruzzo, Italy, swapping impressions of Melbourne’s history in Italian. And heading home at the end of the day, we bumped into our aunt and uncle, surprised and delighted that they too had traipsed up and down the city’s streets for an afternoon.

This weekend affirmed not only our own love of Melbourne, but also revealed just how many other people there are who feel likewise. The little red books we spotted at buildings and on the street acted as perfect ice-breakers, knowing smiles followed by easy and fulfilling conversations. The red books were a shared badge that marked us all as urban adventurers, out to discover our city’s hidden secrets.

Melbourne Open House – Speaker Series #1

What is it?

A free lecture organised by Melbourne Open House on Tuesday night that explored the works of seven established Melbourne architects. Run in collaboration with the Department of Planning and Community Development, the architects presented residential projects that have been selected by the DPCD as Good Design Case Studies. In addition, each nominated their favourite Melbourne house – a fascinating snapshot into the diverse tastes of our profession.

Speakers included Kerstin Thompson, Clare McAllister and Karen Alcock, George Metaxas, Karl Fender, Eli Giannini, Luke Middleton and Robert Stent. Favourite houses included Newman College (Giannini), Robyn Boyd’s Walsh Street House (McAllister and Alcock) and Heidi II by McGlashan Everist (Middleton).

Taking place in Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony’s still extraordinary Capitol Theatre, every seat was taken with a few audience members forced to hover in the aisles. It was encouraging to see so many people, be they architects or simply the architecturally-inclined, attending a mid-week lecture on a cold winter’s night.

What did we think?

The content of the presentations were of variable interest. While it is always intriguing listening to the unique paradigms of architects, most of the projects were quite old and therefore already well known – McAllister and Alcock, for instance, discussed their Wynnstay Road development from 2004, while Thompson presented her Napier Street Housing project from 2001 (both of which we nevertheless think are skilled and beautifully composed works). Perhaps the bureaucratic processes of the DPCD are to blame: presumably there are many time-consuming hurdles that must be jumped before a project can be declared a Good Design Case Study.

It is worth noting that Fender presented a truly hideous multi-residential proposal for the Geelong waterfront that was thankfully scrapped after being rejected at VCAT. The building that was eventually built is significantly better, proud but gracious in familiar Fender Katsilidis fashion.

What we found most inspiring by the evening was the manifesto of Melbourne Open House itself. Aiming to transform Melburnians into tourists within their own city, MOH annually stages a weekend of open buildings around Melbourne. This year’s is taking place on the 30th and 31st of July, with 75 public buildings opening their doors. Theatres, architecture studios, houses, hospitals and office buildings, historical and contemporary, will all be free to enter and explore.

We are looking forward to MOH 2011 with great anticipation – we will wander our great city, cameras unashamedly in hand, gazing at it with fresh and unhurried eyes.