Aug '08 - May '09
a giant meteor is hurtling toward earth... would you rather be a dinosaur or a cockroach?
this was the central question/metaphor posed last night by Vancouver upstart firm, Shape. Principals, Nick Sully and Alec Smith gave the opening talk in SALA's three-part student-run lecture series entitled, Process and Practice: A Guide to Wearing Black. The series invited a handful of local young design firms to talk to students about how to start up and keep going... having a vision, getting projects, paying bills, staying critical, etc.
Legend has it that Nick and Alec met for a beer around 10am in a London Pub a few years ago and by 10pm the plan for Shape had taken...um... shape... Nick finally took the plunge, after practicing in Vancouver and the UK over the ten years since graduating from UBC, returning to Vancouver to open Shape in 2007. His former colleague, and Dalhousie alum, Alec, joined him soon after.
The cockroach vs. dinosaur analogy, basically about being agile and adaptable, continued to play out through a series of survival strategies. Using their projects to expand and illustrate each of the following points, they gave a pretty comprehensive, though not totally mind-blowing, talk on what it's like to start a practice in Vancouver and in general. I appreciated the relaxed and candid presentation, and compared to the class I was skipping to attend the lecture (also, coincidentally called Process and Practice - but more about getting liability and contract law to scare you out of ever starting your own practice) I felt pretty excited to get out there in the world and be an architect, already!
1. Think Big, Act Small.
The Cleveland Design Competition was about a landscape in transition, speculating on the trickle up potential in localized actions. Based on the idea that small moves might affect change on a larger level, their proposal created a pedestrian meander between Ohio City and Downtown Cleveland through a new wetland in the south bend of the Cuyahoga River by speeding up the river's natural tendency to form an oxbow or backwater. They saw this project as a model for future work, exploring how each small action might impact a larger condition.
2. Fight Every Battle and Find a Way to Win
A small heritage addition was framed as a three-round fight, an illustration on how to negotiate sometimes unpleasant realities and find a solution. Basically, by hanging in and hanging tough they were finally able to please the city, the client, the neighborhood association and the themselves.
3. Be Ready for Opportunity.
Remain eternally vigilant; be socially, creatively and financially ready for anything. When offered a small project, try to expand the scope, and never underestimate the power of enthusiasm. Shape was offered a small kitchen remodel but suggested improving the whole house and the client agreed.
4. Reflect Critically on your Work.
You can't always be aware of the larger picture when you're mired in the pragmatics of each project, but look back periodically and you'll often see connections which can help solidify your firms point of view in the future. A local exhibition opportunity allowed Shape to link three small housing projects and frame them against larger urban aspirations for ecodensity and architectural aspirations for a contemporary vernacular.
5. Create Opportunities.
You'll usually have enough projects to start your firm with, but you'll need more to continue, try developing your own. Shape's Eco-4plex fits four, measurably, more affordable and sustainable units on one single-family lot.
6. Feast on a Variety of Foods (one of the main downfalls of the dinosaur being its dependence on big game)
Know that your skill set has real value in the marketplace, and don't devalue it. Specialization is important, but Shape want to remain generalists, they see their size limitation as an asset that helps them stay critical of the status quo.
After this final point there were a few questions... My favourite, because i found it most uplifting during these dark thesis hours, was "How much do you use from school?"
The short answer was "Alot." They talked about how school is where they formed a view of architecture as cultural criticism, and where you can focus on doing more than just designing a building, you learn a problem solving approach. But they also said that almost everything that a client expects them to know they learned after school... things like how to coordinate permits, tendering, insurance, zoning regulations, consultants, detailing, all that fun stuff.
The other important bit of advice was to get registered as quickly as possible, that it is a huge pain, but it will only get harder later and regardless of the arguments against it, getting registered is really when you become a professional.
There were also a few Vancouver-specific institutional criticisms that i think are relevant to mention; the need to reevaluate how large public projects are awarded in this city, as almost all of them go to the handful of big corporate firms. Also, the need to broaden the BC culture of social housing, that it currently excludes architects that have any design aspirations and actually devalues design. That the traditional model for architectural firms in the city is based on business competition in a way that makes it feel like architects are just manufacturing widgets, when there are actually much higher social and cultural stakes.
Unfortunately, I missed tonight's lectures by Omer Arbel and D'Arcy Jones, maybe I can catch MGB on Thursday...