On reading Down Detour Road

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The first meeting of the office book club was a qualified success. A success because there was plenty of interesting discussion generated but qualified because I think I was the only one who had read the entire book.

 

If you’re familiar with Down Detour Road by Eric J. Cesal it’s one person’s critique of the architecture profession as it stands today. His central theme is that by limiting our role and influence to the form-making of the building we undermine our ability to have any influence at all. One of the major mechanisms for this is the celebration of iconic works and celebrity architects. After introducing his premise, the author uses the bulk of his pages to try and outline some of the larger forces at work on the profession and some of the expanded roles that architects will need to fill.

 

Cesal doesn’t offer any final solution to the dilemma that the profession finds itself in, but it seems to me there are signs in the practices of several architects who have thrived through the last recession. In every case they involve architects broadening their role to include parts of the project normally done by others in recent tradition, such as the:

 

Architect as Developer:     Jonathon Segal

Architect as Builder:          Marmol Radziner

                                          El Dorado

Architect as Scientist:        Kieran Timberlake

 

There are a lot of other examples and other areas of concern where we can add expertise and value but the point here is that we can have a more influential role in the part of the project we are most interested in by bringing value to the project earlier and in more areas. I’m starting a running list of firms and projects where the architects role is expanded from the traditional basic scope of services and may report on some of my investigations later.

 

One of my colleagues made the point that the old ideal of the architect as renaissance man or generalist among specialists is not going to work any longer if the firm is going to take on expanded roles. Even in a small firm varying degrees of specialization are going to be required. To an extent this happens naturally as we take advantage of our own and others’ strengths but it will need to be expanded on and made more deliberate in the future. In addition to the spec. guy, the budget gal, and the codes guy, we need to add others such as the researcher, the finance gal, and the real estate guy. The heroic architect needs to die and be replaced by a collaborative vision of practice.

 

My take away from this is that to be really successful going forward we will have to vary our role, our services, our process, and our delivery, matching each to the particular needs of the project and the client.

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3 comments

  1. Warwick Mihaly

    Interesting review of a book on what I consider to be a timely and urgent topic, Wayne. I’ve written a couple of related articles recently, The iron triangle on the crisis of architecture, What’s in a name? on a definition of the architect, and Bad architecture drives out good on the struggle against quality attrition in the built environment. I’m going to pick up a copy of Down Detour Road and have a read myself.

    A further resource you might be interested in is a recently published book, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture. It’s a series of interviews with architects from around the world pushing the boundary of the traditional architectural role.

    Finally, some architects I’ve come across recently that are pushing boundaries include C Plus C, a Sydney-based architecture and building practice; and Rael San Fratello, a California based architecture, 3D printing and product manufacturing practice.

    • twwarch

      I see you’ve been at this for awhile and I have some reading to do. I’m adding your blog to my feed and will try to work my way back over the next few days.

      I’ve considered a post on the same topic as The Iron Triangle myself. The three variable equation is well known, especially in the engineering world. I was introduced to it by a former employer, now retired. Keith Bontrager put it most succinctly with respect to bicycle components: “Cheap, light, strong – pick any two.”

      Thanks for the feedback.

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