Today’s meditation is on the ‘producer’. No, we’re not referring to a grocer or sales generator. For our purposes, we’re looking to the recording industry for some inspiration.
A producer, in the world of recorded music, is the person “whose job is to oversee and manage the recording (i.e. "production") of an artist's music. A producer has many roles that may include, but are not limited to, gathering ideas for the project, selecting songs and/or musicians, coaching the artist and musicians in the studio, controlling the recording sessions, and supervising the entire process through mixing and mastering. Producers also often take on a wider entrepreneurial role, with responsibility for the budget, schedules, and negotiations.”
In short, they’re person who helps an artist give shape to the overall production. There’s no real rule involved either. Sometimes, the artists themselves are also the producer. But, largely, it’s an independent entity – someone who works with the band for a specific effort. What interests me is the kind of role this person occupies in the process. In short, they possess a few essential qualities: they are (usually) independent from the artist, contributes to the overall artistic direction of the project, can collaborate with a diverse set of artists over time, and they usually possess some talent and playing ability themselves. The best possess a high degree of critical assessment and play to the artist’s strengths while pushing them forward. Finally, and importantly, they participate financially as well as artistically in a successful outcome.
The impact of a great producer can be huge, both artistically as well as commercially. Just to point to one of my favorites - DangerMouse (aka Brian Burton) has emerged over the past decade as one producer who’s worked with an eclectic group of artists: Cee-Lo; The Black Keys; Beck; Norah Jones, James Mercer (of The Shins), and (currently) U2. In each effort, wherever the origination point, you can hear traces of how he’s brought out different sides of each artist.
At their best, they don’t generate the ideas, but they help make them better. Take them to interesting places. But, differently than the critic, they are productive – actively involved in the creation of the very work itself. And they have a dedicated role within the overall team.
My personal fascination owes as much to the unique role they play within a very wide creative landscape as it does to the fact that, largely, no other creative practices value (if they even use) a similar type or set of relationships. So, maybe the question is: why hasn’t this kind of hybrid been developed within the profession? If we were open to the idea, what would their role look like?
So,what could this look like for architecture? A superstar prancing in, demanding control over the schematic process and traipsing out after that? Another cog to gum up the architect’s ‘vision’? Not necessarily. It could it be a wiser, older design architect who teams up with younger, artistically inclined talents, helping guide and shape their outputs. It could be a younger ‘rockstar’ designer who simply wants to work with a variety of different firms, without being obligated to any. They could work on 1 or 5 or 10 projects a year. The possibilities are there.
As you boil down those possibilities, though, it seems like our mythical architectural “producer” would possess a few key qualities:
Have the ability to be independent of owner, architect, contractor, project manager but ability to participate with them.
They would not be the main artistic talent. They’re there to help maximize the talents already in place. This is a key concept to maintain. Otherwise, you’re just another designer. Conversely, they would still be seen as a key creative contributor to the project.
They would bring some particular kind of expertise – in manufacturing techniques, programmatic or client type knowledge, geographical or cultural contexts, etc. (For reference, a musical producer really has to have an extensive knowledge of the equipment and capabilities of the recording facility and/or industry as a whole. In short, you have to have an expansive command of the tools of the trade). The expertise would also have to extend to the tools of producing the work itself (ie BIM, etc.). They’d have to be an expert in contracts, I’d imagine.
They would be free to work with multiple firms, on multiple projects, at the same time.
I can hear the next question: Why? What’s their true value proposition? We’re good enough designers ourselves. And, as a profession, we do like to think this is the reason we all signed up. Wouldn't this simply create a mess out of the process? Why can’t the architect themselves simply provide a similar level of internal critique and/or controls? Ah. Perhaps they can, but one of the benefits gained by working with different producers is to broaden the horizons of how one works. This could, theoretically, be done within larger firms simply by shuffling up studios or moving people around from project to project. But even this is done within the context of an overall firm culture, one which may be hard to tweak or bend into new directions. It’s nearly impossible within smaller firms, where the teams tend to be the same moving from project to project.
I’d have to believe that this kind of agent would have to be truly their own, independent entity. What the musical producer is selling is their point of view and expertise. They get to collaborate frequently with other, equally talented artists without the seeming backlash that would happen if, say, Bjarke Ingels were take a leave from BIG to help helm projects with Steven Holl, Morphosis and Alvaro Siza all at the same time. (Although this isn’t to diminish the types of creative collaborations which happen all the time between firms. However, I’d contend that most of those are driven more by the project or owner demands and are done for project delivery reasons. And it’s not the same - the producer is a free agent, not a potentially competing firm.) I’d also have to believe this model could lend itself very well to a career academic who doesn’t want to actually run a firm.
Finally, what would really matter is delivering results. If the projects themselves become better – tangibly better – then the producer’s worth in this arrangement would be validated. But, if it becomes a cluster, well….
As a closing thought: maybe what we’re after already exists, at least in part. For some projects, the Program Manager could, theoretically, act as this kind of agent. Right now, though, this occurs only partially - they can certainly lay claim to controlling the overall schedule and financial process (typically). But most don’t truly collaborate on the designs in the active way that I’ve described. Critique, yes. At a high level? Almost never. And mostly at a step removed from wanting to achieve great design. Rarely do they get a similar billing, artistically, as the architect. One of the very few who could come close, though is Paratus, a project management firm which caters to very high end projects (and stakes a claim to know how to work with high octane egos involved). Outside of the program manager, we do see a few other consultants who can play a similar role within the context of a project. Cecil Balmond, of Ove Arup, is one particular example of whose creative contributions as a structural engineer are quite often equally credited as the other artistic visionaries involved.
Unfortunately, none of these examples satisfactorily fill the same niche as the music producer does. Which leaves me to wonder what we could be missing…
Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.