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Idealog—in the ideas business

Design ambition in architecture

Dion Gosling is a former New Zealand Commonwealth Hockey silver medalist and the principal architect at Studio106 Architect. With a passion for the intersection of sport, architecture and community, Gosling believes design-led collaboration in architecture is the best way to inspire and connect people. It’s a pity then, he says, that design-thinking and operation is the modus operandi for only the minority of New Zealand practices. 

I believed the creative industry – at least in NZ’s small-medium design operations – to be nimble, progressive, innovative and collaborative.  Essentially culture-driven and design-led, responding to markets and people 

An article heartened me in late-2010 – an interview with Dean Poole and Ben Corban of Alt Group – discussing the value of design-thinking as a key component to the operating culture of their business. They of course, believed it should be part of the operating environment of our country. It’s been a common theme in many of their media profiles 

Design-thinking is more about thoughts and actions; method and process as a way of operating, than objects or a short-term output-based focus. Poole and Corban’s approach resonated well with my own thinking – I have always believed that if you engage with your audience (client, team, family, etc), listen and understand, establish the relationship, build the programme, but also lead, educate and share your passion, you are more likely to get a satisfactory outcome because the everyone has contributed and enjoyed themselves. A design outcome then, is larger than just the end, built form. It is the experience and the journey that matters.

I would suggest that in architecture, this mode of design-thinking and operation is the modus operandi for the minority of New Zealand practices. Put it down to a tough business climate, competitive challenges, or the need to generate a quick-buck, I am not sure. I am not convinced that being design-led costs any more than not being.  Those that do it well, by nature have a point of difference, and are more likely to benefit from a complete culture – the eventual output and current working environment. 

Design-thinking in architecture is lacking to such an extent that this is one reason, I believe, behind the general poor quality of our architectural landscape and the environments in which we create this landscape. 

Why? Because design-thinking and approach is a way of life.  It is not a machine, a production line, a template, a formula, a modified predecessor. It is not driven by bottom-line as a first-principle.  I believe so much of what we are building is. 

And I get the sense people are over the “ordinary” and the mundane and being controlled and living in poorly designed community structures.  There is more to our well-being than this. These attributes are not conducive to creativity and exploration and happiness. 

But how does this relate to the practice of architecture? 

I recall job reviews in the past when I enquired about the future direction of the practice: the type of work we could develop, what contribution we could make, and more importantly, whether there was value in reviewing and developing the culture of the practice in order to grow. To my mind, the culture values within an environment reflect and transcend across every aspect of performance and output. Improving the culture and design-thinking environment would be manifest, eventually, into our projects, retention and growth of staff – bottom-line as a by-product.  Plus we’d create a really enjoyable experience. 

The response was that I was too ambitious. And when coupled with “do your time”, there was cause for reflection. This was such out-dated performance criterion, I thought. I didn’t think that sort of attitude still existed in the creative world – it was hardly the inspirational leadership for any mode of creative environment. I took it as output-driven and insular. 

Not wishing to discount the feedback, I became interested to explore the idea of ambition, not only in exploring the truth (or not) to the review comments, but also to architecture, as a way to understand my own short-comings and those of the industry sector. Reviews like this allow the questioning of our outlook and process – a critique of development and knowledge. After all reviewers are more experienced and knowledgeable and charged as mentors for our industry – there was something to learn here, or so I respected. 

Under these terms, I read ambition as a negative characteristic; a stunter to growth and value. Maybe there was truth to this. Ambition may be aggressive, threatening even, to others. Overt or extreme ambition could indicate insecurity or lack of confidence – quite possibly on both sides of the review table. Dulling ambition, I concluded, was a mechanism for protection and control, the fear of losing a commanding or hierarchical position; of being exposed. 

Oscar Wilde referred to ambition as “the last refuge of failure”. In the Wilde context ambition could be construed to mean that the act and display of ambition was to cover a fear of failure. This was in part undoubtedly true, but a design response may have been more around “how do we construct a support network and create an opportunity to test this question of existing practice culture?”. Simply, “how can we help?” and “are we gaining the best out of our environment?” 

Ambition can be also be present as a subtle undertone and of a quiet self-confidence.  A desire to capture an idea, present it, challenge it, inspire others with it, build it, grow it. A steady and consistent belief operating in the background. 

In architecture, ambition has been represented as loud, large-scale (as in ancient Roman structures) and in detail (as in Scarpa) for both a notice for non-failure and self-confidence. Ambition is also present in the passing of the vision from client to architect, to consultant team (we refer to them as the “design team” for a reason), to contractor, to sub-trades. A process bedded in actions and thoughts, and the sharing of culture values across the lanes of design. 

I believe as architects we have a responsibility to contribute a design-led culture to our projects and the teams we work in. No one else in the team will introduce it nor will they be inspired to follow if we don’t present it at an intrinsic level. It is not about adding objects or frivolous fanfare – that will only get cut by the QS and Project Manager – it is about creating process everyone can take part in and something that becomes part of the underlying fabric of the brief. It is not an applied condition. It is not as a result of technical repetition – it can’t be – because almost everyone else on the team will be looking to extract it at the first review. If design becomes part of the reason and basis for how the unique and specific team works – the culture – ambition may well be subtle enough to be present in the built outcome. 

Blog originally posted on Studio106 Architect site.


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