Sunday, 25 November 2012

Does twitter make you absent?

The IBP awards last week, which recognise the best in the construction and property press, were a really enjoyable occasion. I should declare an interest, since I judged two of the categories. The guest speaker was Daniel Moylan who is now Boris Johnson's airport expert, arguing for a single hub airport to the east of London. He was an ideal after dinner speaker, passionate about his subject but also very funny, whether dissing the current disaggregated nature of London's airport provision, saying 'bring it on' to any more architects who want to punt airport ideas, or confessing that 'I can't really see the point of the countryside'.
There was great jubilation among the winners of the awards - a particularly good harvest by Building, Property Week and The Architects' Journal - and some disappointment from those who were not successful.
In a taxi on the way home I caught up with what those present had been saying on Twitter. They were generally pithy, relevant, sometimes funny and sometimes moving. But I wondered if they were truly present? I did not tweet from the event because I wanted to chat, cheer and enjoy the atmosphere and it really doesn't seem possible to do both.
Years ago I used to feel that one could either experience a holiday or photograph it but not both. Is the same now true of Twitter? And who exactly follows those live tweets? I don;t know the answer but I think the question is important.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Learning from Norman

Olly Wainwright has a great blog for the Guardian in which he describes the presentation process by four starchitects pitching to design a New York tower. Foster was the winner and we can see his pitch on video. Whether you love or hate his architecture, it is an object lesson in presentation. Wainwright praises him for using 'practical no-nonsense terms'. And he is right. But what really struck me was his abundant use of the word 'you'. He talks to the client all the time about 'you want', 'what you would like'. And there is very little use of the word 'I'. It is almost as if the design has happened as a natural concomitant of the client's needs - as interpreted by Foster.
It is of course a riskier strategy than it looks. If he gets those needs wrong, the client may think 'no this is not what we want'. But Foster is a consummate professional and this is a video every architect should watch.
There is a sting in the tail. Wainwright has some criticisms of the three unsuccessful bidders and their approaches. Originally their videos were available too but the client has taken them down - presumably under pressure from the architects. So viewers can learn from good practice - but not from bad.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why websites are so important

After I wrote last week about the problem with architects' websites, somebody pointed me to the appropriately named Websites for Architects. Set up by Australian architectural photographer Nic Granleese and written in a week, it functions in the form of a 'bootcamp'. You sign up and it pushes a chapter at you each day. I haven't read it all yet, but I like the sentence from his first chapter: 'It's not the editors of magazines holding you back because in many ways you are now the editor.' Granleese's point is that the amount of content generated online vastly exceeds printed content, and that bloggers and tweeters are looking for established content that they can plunder or link to. 'If you are not providing the core content then you won't exist online,' Granleese says.
And existing online is crucially important for architects. Work opportunities come to those who are known, and when competing for work familiar names will have a natural advantage. Architects just cannot afford not to have decent websites. After I wrote last week's post, variously people kindly pointed out the sites that they thought were the very worst offenders. There are some sites that are worse than I could possibly have imagined - talented architects whose imagination fails them when they come to think about their websites. True there are one or two practices that are already so famous and successful that they don't have to bother. But they really are just a handful. Everyone else should have a good look at their site, be dispassionate and, if it isn't working, do something about it now.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Why websites can be so wrong

I was talking to an architect recently about his work and he told me not to rely on what I saw on his website as it was so out of date. Then when I decided to email him, he told me that the spelling of his name (and hence his practice's name) on the email address given on his website was wrong. Websites are meant to be a communication tool, but sometimes they can be more of a miscommunication tool.
Recently Sutherland Lyall and I revived an idea we had a few years ago for appraising and improving architects' websites. Originally we developed a sophisticated matrix for scoring and found some shocking examples, even among the big names. This time we carried out a simplified version, giving a quick fire assessment of six practices' sites in 15 minutes total at the Guerilla Tactics conference for small practices at the RIBA.
Full marks to the six who bared their strengths and weaknesses. And there were some elementary errors: the website with no email address, the site where it appeared at first glance that the practice had built nothing, the practice where none of the work came up on Google. Not to mention the blogs and news sections where most content was a year old.
A good website can be a vital tool in a practice's marketing armoury. A bad one is useless at best and a turn-off at worst. Setting up a website requires commitment. So does maintaining it. But it is an effort worth making.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Unlocking China with a team of five

There was some inspiring content at the RIBA's Guerilla Tactics conference this week, particularly in the session on working overseas. Guerilla Tactics is a conference on small practices, and those participating in the session were not the international behemoths from which one expects to hear. Instead they were representatives from surprisingly small practices that have found a niche.
Sybarite, for example, has become a specialist in high-end retail design and does much of its travelling with its clients as they open stores in new spaces. It overcomes the problem of local contractors wanting to dumb down its fine finishes by prefabricating as much as possible. And, very intelligently, it warns potential clients how much its jobs are likely to cost before embarking on them. It also wherever possible (which seems to be everywhere but China) insists on working with UK contracts.
China is the country where the real star of the show Ibbotson Architects is working. Founder Helen Ibbotson set up the practice just a few years ago. It is based in the Peak District just outside Sheffield and carries out a range of smallish and sensitive work here - plus massive masterplans in China.

Yet its core team is only five people (including a Mandarin-speaking architectural assistant who can make vital phone calls to China). The practice has done this by seeing opportunities as they came along, originally being introduced to the country by a developer who then decided not to proceed further. It has seized opportunities while taking care to have top legal advice. Ibbotson now speaks a little Mandarin, enough to make opening remarks in meetings, and her website is bilingual. She has been wondering about exploring opportunities in Brazil...
An inspirational story for any small practice.

Monday, 5 November 2012

When one sculpture means a lot

In the Observer yesterday, Rowan Moore dedicates his page to the fate of a single sculpture. But if anybody thinks that that makes it a rather peripheral piece, they would be wrong. It would be hard to pack a larger number of pressing issues into a single piece.
Moore writes about a Henry Moore sculpture which is owned by Tower Hamlets in east London and which the mayor wants to sell because, he says, it is uninsurable, and of course to raise money. At the end of his piece Moore scotches the story about it being uninsurable - Queen Mary College (which is in Tower Hamlets) has offered to take it and put it in a publicly accessible place, and has been quoted just £2,000 a year for the insurance.
Moore also points out that if the statue were sold, it would probably raise £20 million which, although substantial, is not a vast amount in terms of council budgets. As he says, what they need is revenue, not sticking-plaster injections of capital.
One of the big issues, he argues, is that Henry Moore sold the sculpture to the council for well below market price, and if this sale goes ahead other artists are unlikely to do the same. I do wonder how many artists would be that generous now in any case. We have lost so much of our goodwill towards public institutions - particularly governmental ones rather than say art galleries - that I suspect it would be unlikely even without the latest brouhaha.
But Moore's most important point is that this sculpture was donated in order to provide something special for local people - and that if you think this is of no value then you could in the end stop spending any public money on the arts at all. This would be very wrong. The specific argument in each case - food or art - would always be won by the more visceral need. But government - including local government - must spend its money on a range of things. We need both bread and circuses.
The ironies in the story come from the history of the sculpture. When Tower Hamlets bought it, it sat at the centre of the Stifford Estate. It had to be moved from there, not because of any unsuitability of the sculpture but because the estate itself was demolished in 1997. It went to Yorkshire Sculpture Park 'until a new home could be found' and is still there.
So art has outlasted architecture, which is a sign of its importance, but obviously the residents of Tower Hamlets do not feel that they are getting much benefit from a sculpture at the other end of the country. Queen Mary College's offer sounds like an excellent solution.
Today, Building Design announces a competition in which the Mayor of Tower Hamlets announces that he wants the world's best architectural practices to apply to masterplan the regeneration of Whitechapel (which will certainly cost a lot more than £20 million). How ironic in the same week to set out to get world-beating architecture and decide to lose a world-rank sculpture.