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How Do Architects Theorize and Practice Authorship in Design Processes - #Analysis02

Throughout academics, design is an individual endeavor. Students are given projects to explore various skills and ways of thinking in the architectural discipline, the projects are deeply personal to each individual. Every small and big act is performed by the individual themselves.

However design becomes a team effort in practice with multiple stakeholders and collaborators. This includes people with specializations such as consultants, contractors etc. The vast network of people that are involved in the making of a building result in architecture offices getting structured around certain kinds of hierarchies and team compositions in relation to the design process (among many other reasons).

Yet very little is known about the collaborative design aspect within the office itself. Usually an office is structured around an individual with a specific set of values and ideologies. The rest help in carrying out the individual’s vision.

In this studio, we have been talking about how design is a very personal act, just as it is perpetuated and taught in academics. Hence co-authorship in design is possible only to a certain extent. For example, when it comes to making a wall or designing a detail, can it be a collective design act or does it remain individual?

“Till the 90s the system was built in a way that architects were attributed to a single person. But now buildings have become more complex and so has the programmatic requirements, so the idea of a single author is very problematic, - I believe a project is a conversation with a larger group of people, of course we have certain things we bring to the table but so do other people – an architect is the conductor of an orchestra” - Interview #01

There is a notion that an architect is meant to be all knowing. This goes back to the first century BC when Vitruvius spelled out the vast array of knowledge and skills required to be an architect. They are expected to coordinate the input of all collaborators and also be knowledgeable in all fields in order to organize and demand work. However as Interviewee #1 mentions, the growing aspect of super specializations and deconstruction of the discipline into various factions has changed this expectation a bit.

There are practices which function as a set of generalists and some that are a team of specialists. Yet the practice is still largely structured around one individual who manages and directs all the synergies of ideas and labor.

“Initially I also found it difficult to let go and let someone else take the lead - But I try to, like when colleagues suggest something I do take it very seriously, so in a practice you have to try to have the conversations. As a proprietor of the practice you have to take onus of what kind of work goes out, like you are the one signing the sheets etc., even with client communication, so the needle keeps going back to us. But I realize that the more the practice grows, the less authorship I have over the design. I feel at the end people do feel possessive of the project. Like when I randomly say something that why are we doing this etc., they will patiently explain their decision and process. I feel like if this doesn’t happen its emotionally exploitative, if they have no ownership but have to struggle day in and out to work on something it becomes burdensome. If they are owners too, five times changes don’t feel burdensome”. - Interview #01

Here satisfaction with the work one does is related to authorship. The most common complain fresher architects or younger architects have is that they don’t get access to “actual” designing in the office. This is defined as the more imminent aspects of a project such as its management, the overall creative direction and freedom to take design decisions beyond toilet details, railings and flooring layouts. Perhaps this dissatisfaction arises because even after going through large scale projects by the final semester of academics, an architect who is certified as trustworthy and knowledgeable by the COA, is to prove again that they are an architect in the truest sense when they enter practice. This means starting from small scale designing to eventually showcasing potential to handle an entire project – the right of passage. Few are able to stick around for such a long “coming of age” process in an architecture firm. Hence the general trend of leaving and starting one’s own practice arises out of the aspiration for designing wholly.

It’s important then that this understanding is present across the hierarchy and changes are made when dissatisfaction arises. But again, how does one quantify how much design is satisfactory in the long and vast process of an architecture project? How does one generate authorship and give away control when in the end the proprietor is responsible for calling the shots?

“Yes I would not say this is a very democratic process, most architects are here for 1-2 years and a new one replaces them as they move forward, so that’s a limitation. And I would like to be involved in all projects, as much as everyone would want to design even though sometimes I am an outsider entity hovering over the projects. I would aspire to become a team where we are 4-5 architects where each of us works on projects including me. We have attempted to do this many times but I think it can’t ever be truly collective. One person has to take charge, like initially when we even do discussions as a collective, it still is individual where 5 people give ideas and one idea moves forward. But it also works well because there is a conviction and agreement that yes this one idea should go ahead that we all, the 5 team members share. And then that one person takes the project and everyone else supports the person and checks with them before moving forward on the design. Though many people work on the drawing, one person has to make it, we cannot all draw a wall, ideologically we have attempted to do the collective model a lot but it always leads to the individual one and now we have just accepted it” – Interview #02

“When we say design is a democratic process, it’s really not. Maybe we mean non-hierarchical and a process of equality because even democracy doesn’t require any communication between the voter and the individual. It allows freedom and not collective action. Maybe we are enamored by democracy for the equality it offers and not the collaboration. Is it because of modernism that most architects now do not assign to an authoritative Ayn Rand fountainhead type of a head architect? But when it comes to day to day actions, an individual has to take over, even if they are a humble individual, they still conduct these day to day actions.” – Kashikar.

“I always wanted to push students to build and practice, I find it difficult to work with people more than 2 years, we’ve never had senior architect etc., because no one stays more than 2 years. That’s because I never wanted them to stay, I encouraged them to move on and grow their own practice. We definitely take the first steps in design but that’s not because we want to, it’s just that we have experience. If we had someone for 18 years, we’d be more laid back, lazy, let them start projects too. But I'm feeling the pinch now, it works but to keep training people every 2 years from scratch, is tiresome. When someone joins us they come to learn, and we gain their skills for that duration for example the creative graphics, but they gain our long term values and the way of work. Our projects are long term, they can’t understand everything and won’t even be here to see it through, so we let them know you have to work in this bracket of time, money, etc., I don’t know if it’s democratic, but generally it seems so. From the point of view of the client, they don’t care about the development of employees, it’s my personal wish to do that, hence we have to do it without it getting complicated.” – Interview #08

Almost all offices could confidently say that the most collaborative and collective process of design and authorship occurs when the practice works on a competition. “Ideas come from anyone”, SOP’s and hierarchies are relaxed for the short term deadlines. Contingencies are also absent which help in increasing trust amongst everyone with bigger design tasks irrespective of experience and seniority. When it came to regular projects in the office, most proprietors shared that they believe each employee has authorship and control, however after some elaboration admitted that they were very much the ones calling all the shots.

“I’m very possessive, I have a greed for seeing it go the way I conceived it, I have to see the images continuously of what is going on in a process. I have a huge kick from seeing things get built, thus being in the loop even for a wall being built makes my day. So when does it become personal? It’s when you get excited, it’s not so much ego but more when it brings you joy, it’s like an understanding of proportion which comes from experience over the years. It’s like riyaaz and nasha. If they (team members) have stayed 5-6 years in the office then they have the same nasha. It’s not like they are slaves, so to an extent they learn it and it has some universality but also some diversity which takes time…..everyone's involved at the beginning, when we start arriving at the response- sometimes we start together. Usually the two of us (the partners) pull out and work on it after that. We haven’t found anyone yet who we can have this conversation with beyond that initial phase. Hence both of us work on all the projects at several points. It might be controversial to say, but education has become crap here and I do feel architects coming out now are not great, the country is also so complicated right now. It all comes from a fundamental thing of architect’s ego which is a problematic thing. But it’s not about the ego, it’s about the rigor for us. In that way the guru-shishya system has some value, like developing a computer which took effort day in and day out, there are people who can do that, it’s not black and white either. If someone joins a team, I don’t think we should be negative towards it, they can also be contributing to a larger vision. It’s like the problem of gender, the problem is not one stays home and cooks, and the problem is not respecting that contribution one makes at home. “– Interview #3

“One person serves as a coordinator at all times. But I think they do feel like they are in charge of the design, there will be hierarchies in large projects of course. It depends on experience, like if they have been on a project for many years, they automatically know more. Sometimes it can be an engineer as well. Our office is very young, people have a maximum of 5 years of experience so no one is between us (the partners). But it’s never pre-decided, sometimes it’s one of us that starts the project, sometimes it’s both, sometimes its conversations with everyone, so that way design can start anywhere. “– Interview #12

When one begins a practice, the rest who join and the one that established it are similar, both in age and experience. But as time passes, the principle who stays on for many years, has more experience than the fresh architects who join years on. This might also affect how one sees their own place in the office, with respect to the others.

“You want to be able to do that, as more people have to come in and controlling that process is crucial. Every project has its heart and if that is compromised then the project is lost and that is something we don't want to do. So in fact we encourage the staff to take up ideas, develop some solutions and hence it's a continuous process. We are constantly marking printouts in red, correcting it, sending it back and developing the design. At the same time, I would like to believe that there are other inputs coming in from the staff as well. Yes, every drawing is red marked individually by us, before we kind of send it out. So there is a degree of control and that is proportional to our size which has been a challenge in a city like xxxx (Tier 1). We would like to grow a little bigger and maybe when we do that giving up control would come more easily - we are halfway there. More than that we cannot say that every single line is drawn by us but at the same time, we are not in a state where we say we don't care about what is going on at every level. As long as the core idea is not compromised, we allow people to work. “– Interview #06

Language matters a lot as well. How we address the people at the practice reveals so much about the “culture” of authorship and roles in the practice. Does the partner refer to them as staff or a team? Do the partners call the workspace an office or a studio? Do they have honorifics in the day to day functioning such as sir/madam etc.? Even if honorifics are absent, is there a certain formality maintained? Is everyone allowed to give an input or do they just do those acts? An ethnographic or anthropological study conducted in the offices would reveal a lot more about these implicit aspects of practices’ culture, however we had to stick to one day online interactions given the circumstance.

In a similar way, it does matter what a practice chooses to call itself. For the longest time architecture offices have followed the same system of organization and naming of practices as law firms. When a practice is named after an architect, it automatically becomes individualistic. Of course, design process might be more inclusive when looked at case by case, but what happens after the proprietor is out of the picture? Who takes charge and how are the new proprietors viewed? SOM is a good example of this, where the practice lives on longer than the partners, similarly Zaha Hadid Architects. However they are mega size offices in comparison to a mid or small size office which may not have the resources, trust or connections to sustain after the partners change.

Younger offices have been tending towards more ambiguous and thought out names that don’t mention the proprietor’s titles. That does not explicitly translate into a collective, collaborative or non-linear team organization, but it does affect how the practice ages and is perceived. The language we use affects the practice of power and ego.

“We put an active effort to develop and inculcate ownership, managers only oversee and distribute tasks to appropriate individuals, and they take emotional onus of the timelines etc. Team organization is sort of skewed, in the architecture dept. - X is head, and the point of contact above is Y (partner1), but design dept., an intern is common in all parts except we serve as the point of contact. We are looking for a senior designer as well. But we still are involved in everything and we create all the visions, also because we are young practice. We want to be the main contributor of design, we have too many projects to think of the larger picture, that’s why we want more people to make more time for our own thinking, and so for time management purpose we would like to expand. We set up pace to hire someone who we really like for example we will change finances and plan in a way to have that perfect candidate on board because we can trust their vision. For the foreseeable we do want to stay in the primary authorship role, but it’s not because we can’t trust others. It’s more because we like to be involved, from a business point of view if a branch of the studio is able to function independent of us, then that’s a dream come true. “– Interview #5

“Differences between partners can’t show, our design differences have to be resolved in the beginning itself, it should become one partner’s work- it should be the office’s work. Both of us represent the practice, not that the practice belongs to both of us, the practice is an entity itself, the ones who work at the practice all represent it too. Ego is good to take responsibility when asked a question for example, be responsible for the work, but not in a show of superiority. “– Interview #12

“Yes there's no ego, even if the idea is not their own, we go through a lot of processing and vetting before agreeing on the idea. We all agree that concept is not the whole project when it gets over, it’s just 5/10, the poetics is just one part, and the project has its own life. Hence everyone has their own challenges, so no stalemate happens. We are taught the modernist architect’s one man model, being a superhero one day, for us its consistency and doing it every day. To be a normal person every day and not to be superhero every day. We have tried to make the practice a master and not a person. There is more collective authorship than a single mind here, everyone serves a specific systemic role in each project. Of course we believe seniors know more but not everything, ideas can come from anyone"” - Interview #07

“The junior architects and associates are the CPU that keep all the tasks running, the automated tasks and drawings come out of the interns. My role is to give a framework for everything, in what manner do different designs have to be done. But the aesthetic freedom is given to them, even how they organize volumes, balconies etc., that’s up to them. So the authorship is the firms, not mine. I play a huge role in some projects, but it’s becoming that way now as we grow, I have to let go of control and learn to fight my battles. Ego is a positive thing when it can make you strive for excellence. But if it’s not utilized that way, it doesn’t help. It should not take a form of demeaning people and abilities because genius can flow from anywhere, solutions can come from the most unexpected people, so in that time ego cannot come in between the project and stop them from expressing and doing better for the project.” – Interview #13

“Ego is a positive thing, in a way they have ownership, a fresh perspective, they see value in the project. This also lets them work ahead on another’s work, it takes them away from that assumption that projects are a way of self-actualization, that after 10 projects you find yourself. That’s not the point, projects are beyond you, you can find yourself yes, but that should not be the sole purpose.” – Interview #09

“We haven’t run long enough to successfully do collective model, where authorship is shared and marked under the firm and not one architect, we don’t have constant people to be the middle rung of designers, you also don’t have enough revenue to higher senior people, revenue in architecture only happens if you are a big architecture firm, work in the private clientele sector and scale up, or you have niche like doing just private interiors etc., I don’t know of any other way of scaling up. My role is largely to get the clients and the efficiency during design development, because again we don’t ever know if we’ll get the project we’re pitching for in the scale we work with. Overtime you become a manager and yearn for the designing aspects, the smaller firm days, you are always nostalgic for it.” – Interview #13

There is a lot of tension around the Architects ego, especially in the period of transition from a small to a medium sized office. Finance becomes a bigger pressure point, subsequently salaries. This requires the proprietor to spend a lot of time ensuring a healthy number of projects are active throughout the year for sustenance. More projects also mean more communication with clients, contractors, on site persons etc. Here’s where design leadership begins to mix with project and practice management. This phase requires a lot of trial and error, time management and standardized operations for design processes to be integrated. Authorship and satisfaction as a designer can get clouded in the background. We noticed that larger offices, who had passed this critical threshold were able to shift focus from projects and finances to people.

“There is a constant effort to stay away from hierarchy - everybody takes a certain decision in the process – it starts with encouraging and empowering people - a consensus on decisions- design or otherwise. Arriving there a through common point through a reasonable dialogue. People put their perspectives, but what does it improve in the project? ...people's suggestion? Hierarchy does play a role, a person in senior position has higher a degree for experience of what can go right or wrong - its inclusive and transparent - scaled up and not have in place the systems that other offices have. That way we are fairly collaborative. Genius is the act of the collective- when people are able to give their best.” – Interview #15

“I think it’s the wrong assumption is that design is a linear progression that gets detailed as you go, I argue that it takes form in conversations. Like when I draw a line, even though I an academically charged architect I can’t philosophize every line, in that moment it is a tacit relationship between hand eyes and mind. Then I take the pencil off, the philosophizing begins, then again when pencil touches paper it goes away. So essentially the sketch is a conversation between me and design, then it’s big enough to take it to other people - Socl (head) is in charge of being responsible of the projects, we also have public reviews with everyone in the office once a week. Here the layout really helps, informality and mixing helps the design of projects. We thus sit on the table like everyone else, it’s vital to hold that tacit connection with everyone and the process, we are the practice managers, we have a hierarchy for the client, but not a behavioral hierarchy in the studio itself, e.g. of cricket and studio with intern. To see designer as an owner, as in designer is bigger than design, we have always encouraged that architecture is greater than the architect. When we publish, we name it under our practice’s name and so everyone has the rights to talk of it and critique it. For collaborative culture – two groups, 1 group everyone has the same ethical values and drive, the other group has a leader with those while the rest follow, clearly the first group is living in a richer way. I have to give away self-authorship for other power, people who exercises other power accept the smallness.” – Interview #11

The bigger and older offices seemed to be clearer about the importance of people and their roles in the practice. That didn’t mean there was no espoused theory in their answers. Dialectically there was also a big focus on imbibing awareness that the project was ultimately more important than anything else.

“How can people be more important than the product? How do we enable teams in the organization to be the best version of themselves - is it empowering to everybody? So that it is not a directional movement when the architect conceives and people follow. Design authorship is not important, what matters is that we are we able to design maximum value for the environment.” – Interview #15

There were very few offices that were able to maintain a certain horizontal hierarchy. Most were either small or medium sized offices.

“To certain clients we have to show experience, hence we require senior people. With rich clients - there will always be a project architect, but the point of contact is usually a junior architect, I am usually not available, so I’m never the single point of contact, often that means we need communicative people to be the point of contact. The other introverted ones are also important part of the team, but they may not be the point of contact. I love site work so I am consulted for design and site but rest all is done by the junior architects themselves. For the other type of client we don’t require to set up hierarchy immediately. We go through it later, make teams later, it happens over lunch or a drink, but it can also be that the whole office does a project, it can be split in 12 bits and given to everyone. We love working like that, where everyone is looking out for the other part of the design, checking others work on site, etc. That way our practice is fast paced all the time, we change projects between teams for more than a few weeks, we move them around, pair them with their love interests or enemies at the office. We let them get a break or push them that way the energy levels are always high, we discuss ideas every day, and no one goes into a cocoon to work alone. After someone moves into a small 2 week break, we make them go back to their original project. This is to inculcate ownership in the person but also let them have a healthy break. “– Interview #09

“Finishing a drawing that an intern is working on, that happens in our office. I do that a lot and it’s not weird. Only SketchUp is something I don’t know so I let them do it. But in a small office, you do everything, the principle is the courier boy, the banking staff, draftsperson, model maker, etc., in fact I like to do all the petty work so that the practice takes care of the important designing. Hence their time is useful in the office. That way authorship is a shared credit and role in our practice“– Interview #10

In both these cases, the proprietor doesn’t see themselves as the owner or someone whose time is far more valuable than others. They both do mundane everyday tasks in the office while also being involved with the design processes. There isn’t a lot of management happening since it’s a relatively horizontal organization of people. We haven’t seen a model where this type of organization can be scaled up in a way that collective design processes are retained.

“We want to figure out how to give away control more, I guess it’s also because we are new and young, we are also trying to prove ourselves, so I am more controlling but we hope to find a sustainable way of working more democratically” – Interview #16

What is the aspiration of small, medium and big sized offices? How do they want to change their practices' functioning and organization? Is the number of people at the office important to the design aspirations and working of the practice? Should it keep growing and adapting or are there design synergies that shouldn't be disturbed by expanding?

“I look up to SNK, Morrison, HCL, Doshi, Talati when I imagine how our office could grow into a bigger one. SNK seems to be the most ideal (multiple teams function as separate studios). We do want to grow, but we are currently in the period of trying to figure out how to grow while retaining the design authorship and synergy of a small studio”- Interview #1

“The scale is important, maybe having one or two more people than our current strength, primarily because, I feel that also largely the manner in which we work requires a certain personal relationship, and there could be overlaps with what an individual wants versus the office, the relationship is important here. When it becomes larger, the manner in which we organize ourselves will need to become different, we will have more work so processes have to be less organic and shared and more streamlined. When we take up large projects, we find our process right now is not very apt, so that way there are also limitations to this model. It’s becoming clear now, that we would have to change organization and processes a lot. Hence at the most from 3-4 we can become 6 architects, beyond that we may not be able to do this kind of work. Large projects require a certain kind of efficiency, the organic process doesn’t work with that, but if we do that it takes away from how we like to work, hence we are fearful of larger projects and expansion. “– Interview #02

“We have worked in offices which were smaller. When we came back to set up the practice - a certain size was very important to us - a size that we can control where we are in charge of the project ,where we are not simply to work to support the rest of the studio, but we do the work we want to do! 10-12 people is thus intentionally maintained - For administering it, maybe there are junior architects and senior architects that take it up but in terms of design , every aspect or every step is defined by us and we work on all the projects and when we say that, it is primarily for the design phase. Both of us are involved in all aspects and know everything on the project and it's only once the project moves into latter stages (execution, tender, detail) that one of us then takes the lead and the other only gives input when required and this holds true for all our architectural work and interior work.” – Interview #06

“We haven’t expanded beyond a point, because we can’t find similar people who believe in collaborative working, have the technical knowledge, we’ve made a system where 5 architects can code and use BIM to do the work of three architects each, the Goa project has more than 6000 drawings, but never been more than 3 people, 2 of which are interns. We've never felt the need to have an army of people because we have efficiency, we might become 50-100 if we find people who match the above criteria. Also if we have more projects, we have a huge rate of refusal, if we don’t see exploration potential we refuse.” – Interview #07

“When you enter our office, it doesn’t even look like we are working, we have to accept that it can’t grow more than 15 people, there is no second in our hierarchy, everyone is second to us, it’s kind of flat management that can’t be scaled” – Interview #09

“We can go to 10 people If possible, at a time we can handle 3-4 projects of mixed scales, it is possible to do more number of projects in teams too but we have to be in sync with the beliefs and direction of the practice, only then is it possible to scale” – Interview #10

“First worry is you aren’t the one driving design, you drive all designs, coordination etc., everyone else is just doing drawings, once it’s a medium office, there’s more people between you and design, more people for checking, more people in charge, the design process is also democratized, even the core values have to be established in the form of a framework, that everyone has to be told and they have to work within, then there’s jury like systems that take over.” – Interview #13

“At one point we had 10 people, but we felt overwhelmed because we had to keep 10 people running, there was no empty space to pause and think, that got very uncomfortable for both of us, we like to be super involved in the project, we are not into managing neither are we good at being managers. We are designers, hence we like to be in that process. If a big project comes we don’t do other projects with focus, but sometimes we do many small projects to keep going. We are currently 6 and can go to 8 people comfortably. An old employee of ours re-joined recently but she came back with more experience than both of us. She has helped us step away from certain steps and now we can hire more people and feel like she is there to handle that without us giving up control – control is a bad word but we are obsessed with control as architects.” – Interview #18

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