In retrospect, 2010 was an ideal time to begin a PhD on parametric modelling. The mainstream discourse was beginning to focus on parametric modelling, architecture firms and academia were interested in it, but few were yet knowledgable of it. I was swept along by the industry’s lack of expertise and the corresponding demand. This momentum pushed me through some of the more demanding parts of the PhD process. Getting into conferences, workshops, and journals was probably much easier compared to if I had been studying a subject less in vogue like Walter Benjamin’s arcades, or Deleuze’s folds, or modernism’s white walls. At times it almost felt like cheating to be studying parametric modelling when I did.
This was dumb luck on my behalf. I chose to study parametric modelling because I was interested in it, and the timing simply coincided with the end of my undergraduate degree. There was no foresight, just good fortune.
Had I been more astute at the start of my PhD, I would have had the foresight to see the wave coming. Now that I am at the end of my PhD, I wonder about the next waves approaching. Especially since much of what I do – much of what other technologists do – is try to anticipate how technology will manifest in the future. If you are a programmer who believes Bitcoin has a future, you might build an app entirely predicated on this perceived inevitability. Your future prosperity forever bound to Bitcoin’s fortune. If you are a car designer that believes we will shortly be inhabiting self-driving electronic vehicles, you would probably want to work at Tesla rather than GM. And if you think the social zeitgeist will swing towards valuing privacy, you probably don’t want to be at Facebook when it happens. These choices about how we spend our time are not just statements about what we want to do today, but are also bets about what we will do in the future.
If you were an architect who thought the industry was lagging, who thought the winner-take-all nature of technology will catalyse a violent restructuring, where would you bet?
I wouldn’t bet on academia. For someone with a PhD, academia is the natural career path. I considered seriously an offer of a post-doc position, and I considered less seriously a couple of lectureships I had been invited to apply for. No matter the offer, I couldn’t shake the feeling that academia is a sinking ship. I look at top academics, the ones you aspire to become after decades of publishing solid research and a few lucky breaks. People of this statue would be revered in any other industry, but in academia they are over worked, under paid, under appreciated, subject to insane politics, and spend most of their time begging for research funds from middle management.
Things are only getting worse. I’ve recently written about the problems with research and publishing but there are also deep problems with current teaching practices. There has been a huge push towards casualisation, which has left students in the hands of teachers with no long term obligations to the universities. Students are paying more for their education, the quality of teaching is declining (in my opinion), and the job prospects for most students are pretty abysmal. A market correction is inevitable. I have no idea what this will be and don’t want to pin my career on finding out. The currently proposed solutions, such as online learning, seem like poor substitutions, and it may just be that academia is destined for a long decline characterised by increasingly poor research and even worse student outcomes.
I considered offers from architecture firms and startups, and I considered starting my own company, but in the end I’ve chosen to move to New York and begin working with CASE. I’m probably CASE’s number one fan-boy (see my previous blogpost about them). To me CASE encapsulates where I think the industry is going:
1. Technology is a cultural change
In the short-term, technology is employed to do things faster or with more control. The immediate benefit is a higher productivity combined with outcomes (often formal) that were previously impossible. Many are focused on these short-term benefits, but few examine the long-term impact of technology. The long, significant changes are the cultural ones; changes to organisational structures, changes to how data is exchanged between project partners, contractual changes, changes to project ideation, changes to the continual education of employees, changes to how knowledge is disseminated. While CASE deliver the short-term benefits of technology, they try to avoid short-term fads such as being affiliated with any particular software vendor, or pushing a particular technology. The long-term value of technology is the interesting part, and it is refreshing to hear anyone taking this value creation process seriously.
2. Skill trumps size
Increasingly I think architecture will be defined by small teams of highly skilled people doing exceptional work. Gone are the days where rooms were filled with people drawing details by hand. Here are the days when relatively small firms, like SHoP, can coordinate the construction of entire skyscrapers. I expect architecture will follow other industries where technology amplifies the reach and ability of an individual – think of what the printing press did to the story teller, what the movie camera did to the actor. The difference between good and excellent becomes vast. CASE has made no secret that they are out to hire the best in the industry. Virtually everyone at CASE is exceptional. It would be unfair for me to single out any of them so instead check out the current staff list. It is filled with authorities on programming, BIM management and use, user interface design, plugin development, facilities management, and parametric modelling. A few of the more deviant ones are even licenced architects. I’m just excited to be working with – and learning from – people at the top of their game, but over the long-term I think it’s a winning strategy as well.
3. Business matters & people matter
CASE aren’t some trust-fund kids playing around in architecture out of boredom. CASE are a business and they are here to make money – for themselves and their clients. Some might find that notion confronting. I find it compelling. So often the discourse focuses on technology without even acknowledging the business case – even though it will be the business case, not the technology, that sees it adopted. This is something I know little of but that I think is critical to grasp. So far I can tell you that CASE’s business model is not predicated on people working 16 hours days, 7 days a week. It seems that if you can get your business right then you can treat your employees right too.
I’m currently on a plane hurtling towards CASE’s world-wide headquarters, New York City. Hopefully the premise for this flight has a little more foresight and wisdom than the good fortune that carried me into my PhD. Either way, my trip is one-way and I’m feeling good about where it is headed.