Sunday, June 06, 2010

Using Prof Ruth Morrow as provocation and applying her inaugural lecture to the world of IT

Prof Ruth Morrow - image (c) QUB

Long time readers will remember that one of my occasional hobby horses on the blog is finding similarities between built environment architecture and IT architecture. An invitation to Prof Ruth Morrow’s inaugural lecture at QUB a couple of weeks ago was another opportunity to ponder the parallels … as well as scoff some free nibbles afterwards.

Officially titled Architecture as Provocation: Social Practice and Engaged Pedagogy, Ruth explored a variety of subjects in her hour long discourse.

One of the early themes was Ruth’s insecurity about whether or not she was an architect. While she didn’t always fit the traditional mould, she felt she fitted in best when working with and in the company of other architects. One conclusion was that there is a need to widen the understanding of architectural practice (and perhaps stop seeking to exclude people who offer architectural skills in novel contexts).

Many IT architects feel uncomfortable in their skin, happier to be designers and unhappy to be entering a world where the word “architecture” is usually prefaced with “ivory tower”. [Though reading this back, I'm only too aware that hanging around with fit sporty people wouldn't alone make me an athlete!]

72% of students who start architecture degrees in the UK don't go into practice

One shocking statistic she shared was that only 28% of people who start Part 1 Architecture reach Part 3 and enter practice. 72% disappear. Speaking to a few post-grad students and qualified architects afterwards, they were largely unattracted by the idea of designing porches and utility room extensions, but came across as a lot more passionate about making the world a better place by seeking to apply their trade to communities and industries, rather than houses and single buildings.

Later on there was reference to clients who have the power and the money, but are vastly outnumbered by the users of a building or development. 98% of the population have no access to the architect. Their conflicting and divergent views are often not listened to. Yet the success of the project relies on those who ultimately inhabit and fit into the new structure.

“We can’t sustain ourselves by only being relevant when needed. Architects need to think about wider society as well as clients’ needs.”

The same ratio and responsibility is true in the world if IT, with clients paying for deliveries, but users likely to provide additional insight and colour in order to get a full perspective of the context for the work. And there are the same overarching societal concerns. Enterprise architecture often has wider goals and constraints, often preventing the over-diversification of technology and seeking opportunities to make the first steps towards a longer-term strategic goal by exploiting the current clients’ shorter term wishes.

Ruth suggested that architects needed to “work hard to reach and serve the 98%; work politically and strategically; open up the design process to others”. She also opined that a lot of projects were only designed to fit “white healthy males between the ages of 17 and 35”.

Ask relatively new first year architecture students to define an architectural curriculum and they include nearly everything except people and design. They seem to assume that their own humanity means they understand everyone else’s, and they think that design cannot be taught, despite it being an improvable skill.

In amongst the theorising, there was a practical instruction: “sustainable creativity means reusing detail job after job”. Just like IT, there is no point reinventing everything from scratch every time a new project comes along. If a particular element was good last time, reuse it and concentrate your creativity on the novel parts that need original thought.

Example surface from Tactility Factory

Ruth’s background is varied, and she keeps many fingers in many pies. As well as chairing PLACE (the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland), she’s co-director with Trish Belford (senior textile research fellow at University of Ulster) of Tactility Factory which is designing surfaces that are a fusion of concrete with softer tactile fabrics and textiles. Working at Tactility, she’s become aware that “research develops complexity in understanding” while commissions are “defined by success” and “simplification to get it delivered”.

IT projects – which historically come of the rails faster than a Scalextric car speeding around a corner – requires a pragmatic architecture that can’t possibly detail every nuance and feature to the nth degree. Some level of simplification is required to move the design from academical to reality.

“Architects need to make the technology invisible/disappear so people want to engage with the creation.”

Ruth was sad that architects have become so removed from the fabrication process. Again this echoes the need for software architects not to lose the skill of putting their noses against the codeface.

Architecture students at QUB have to participate in Live Projects under the banner of The Street Society: intense, week long opportunities to engage with real clients on real projects; teaching them about pace, level of production, bravery, and perhaps most importantly “completion is more important than perfection”. Sounds like what our CIO used to call a hot house.

No doubt people will comment to correct me, but I’m not sure IT architecture has many architectural heroes to look up and study as our built environment colleagues, Prof Ruth Morrow is a definite student of collaborator with fan of Leon Battista Alberti.

Thanks to flâneur James Brown for the tip off about the lecture. As well as his personal blog, you can find his musings on his PhD and Live Projects over at Learning Architecture.

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