bruce mau is on fire....

Bruce, writing for architect magazine (I love this guy)... Recently, I made an impromptu visit to Harvard to visit my old friend and long-term collaborator, Sanford Kwinter. He invited me to present to his class at the GSD, and opened it up to the broader Harvard community. We talked about the work that I am focused on these days, launching a new educational project committed to providing the tools of innovation and design thinking to the broadest, most inclusive audience possible. Our discussion was animated and exciting—because it was troublesome and even alarming to some of the students. One brave student was willing to complain out loud: “I’m not comfortable with your ‘corporatist’ language and your obsession with getting to scale. Is it really necessary?” My response was brutal: “I don’t care about your problems, because they are not real problems. They are luxury problems. You have the luxury of cynicism. The people in Malawi suffering and dying from infections that could be prevented have never heard the word ‘corporatist.’ They have real problems, and they know one thing: They need solutions now. At scale.” The cynicism and navel-gazing that infect the field of architecture at this moment—the whining malaise and never-ending complaints of powerlessness and economic hardship and marginalization and irrelevance and on, and on, and on—set me on fire. Not because some of this is not true. Not because I don’t share the difficulties we are all grappling with to build and maintain a business during the most challenging economic conditions in living memory. Not because I don’t appreciate and support the dreams and ambitions and authentically good citizenship that form the cultural foundation of the architectural life. I am infuriated for two reasons: First, there is simply no basis in historical fact that could possibly support a complaint about being an architect—of any kind, in any form—at this moment in history. Second, to the degree that there are problems in architectural practice in America, they are self-inflicted. Architecture is largely irrelevant to the great mass of the world’s population because architects have chosen to be. Is it really difficult being an architect in America? It’s difficult to be a female intellectual in Kandahar. It’s difficult to raise a family living on waste products in the garbage dumps of China. It’s difficult to find your way as a child in Malawi, where the infection rate of HIV/AIDS is 17 percent, having already wiped out a generation of mothers and fathers. It’s difficult to overcome drug addiction from the quicksand of poverty and incarceration in America’s overpopulated prisons. These conditions are difficult. Being an architect is not difficult. So, really, are we going to listen to another gripe about how difficult it is to be an architect today? No, we are not. If you are a student at Harvard, or a practicing architect, you are the privileged 1 percent. That’s right—1 percent. I’m not talking about 1 percent of college graduates, but 1 percent of humanity. Less than 1 percent of the world has experienced the power of higher education. Look at what we have accomplished with less than 1 percent, the revolution of possibility that we have collectively created: access to food and water and healthcare and energy and knowledge and connection and mobility for billions of people. With less than 1 percent we have created Massive Change. Imagine if we could reach just one more percent. Imagine if 2 percent had access to the educational tools that we take for granted. And that is my point: Architects take for granted the extraordinary powers they have to shape the world, to create beauty, to produce wealth, to reach people with new ideas. If you are an architect and are thinking any thought other than, “Hey, this is awesome! This is the craziest, coolest, most beautiful time in human history to be alive and working;” if you aren’t saying, “Wow! I get to constantly learn new things, and everything is uncertain. I want everyone on the planet to get in on the action and be part of this new world of invention and beauty!”—I don’t want to hear it. If you are thinking a complaint, just stop. If your thought sounds whiny or rhymes with “woe is me” or has a mildly racist undertone about people “over there” taking “our” jobs—I don’t want to hear it. If you can’t tell the difference between critical and negative, and have conflated the two and built a practice around “challenging” this or that, and are wondering why people aren’t interested—don’t come crying to me. However, if you have woken up and realized that the internal monologue and obsession with policing the boundary of “big A” licensed Architecture means that architects could lose the thread of the most important movement in history, the movement to redesign the world and everything we do to sustainably meet the needs of the 4.5 billion children who will be born before midcentury, then do something about it. If you realize your colleagues have been so busy policing the fence of exclusivity that they forgot to open the door of possibility, then get in the game. If you understand that the practice of architecture—the practice of synthesis that generates coherent unity from massively complex and diverse inputs—just might be the operating system that we need to solve the challenges that we face in meeting the needs of the next generation, then join the movement. If you get the fact that architecture, and the design methodologies at its core, could be central to the future of cities, governments, ecologies, and businesses, then please raise your voice in the chorus of potential. Get into the discussion and leave your worries about the fence that separates you from the rest of the world behind you. Stop the complaining—and join the revolution of possibility.

Jan 9, 12 11:46 pm

(sorry for the lousy formatting - iPad doesn't save anything....)

Jan 9, 12 11:47 pm  · 

Greg, a far as I'm concerned, Bruce is spot on. At the moment I can't find anything I disagree with.

Jan 10, 12 12:01 am  · 

Knowing Bruce, probably he paid the student to ask that question. His answer is great but he sounds like as if he is running a soup kitchen in Malawi:)

Jan 10, 12 12:33 am  · 

bruce does rule

Jan 10, 12 1:02 am  · 

Isn't complaining about complaining still technically complaining? 

These are big words from a frigging branding consultant operating in a city that hasn't had a recession (yet). Enjoy the corporate dollars while they are still flung about Bruce. Once (illusion of) wealth is gone for you too, and you go back to designing kitchens while clinging on to a thread of relevancy, we don't want to hear it either. 

Jan 10, 12 1:02 am  · 

Complaining about complaining is indeed still complaining.  Which is something I have been doing a lot of lately, to the point that my husband has asked that I please stop.  

It is definitely an exciting time, and things are changing fast.  I think the descent is the hardest part, but the actual being at the bottom might not be so bad if one can fid the new possibilities there.  I have moments when all I see are possibilities, but separated by long stretches of only seeing barriers. 

I love Bruce's rant.  But what rhymes with "woe is me?"

Jan 10, 12 2:12 am  · 

"Mau's clients included Coca-Cola, McDonald's, MTV,..." Bruce's website

"Shut up because starving children in Africa" Bruce to GSD

I wonder if irony is lost on him at all. Doubt it. Now shut up! All of you! :)


Jan 10, 12 2:23 am  · 

Poe is twee?

Jan 10, 12 3:10 am  · 

We are at as important of a time as the time when writing was invented. I am very excited about the world, it is perfect, only I am imperfect. Well done! Love it!

Jan 10, 12 8:42 am  · 

pee on tree?

as for content and complaining, well why not?  we ARE privileged compared to most of the world.  i don't think anyone would argue that.

it does feel a bit of a strawman somehow, and really not convinced the "eat your supper because children are starving in africa" is much of an argument.  i never did eat my tuna sandwich (sorry mom!) and doubt many people are gonna suddenly join AFH and world-change this and that because they realize things could be worse.  being jobless in america is no hill of beans even if it is a whole heck less shitty than living in garbage dump in manila.

the question for me is what is the follow up?  assuming he is right, what next?  is this just a pep talk?

Jan 10, 12 5:30 pm  · 

I think he just wanted to rail on a Harvard student.

Jan 10, 12 5:50 pm  · 

Who cares what that blowhard has to say.


Jan 10, 12 6:01 pm  · 

I think he has a great point: hoarding knowledge and cultivating exclusivity don't help those people with huge problems. In fact, the top creatives (think of IDEO in contemporary times, Mies and the various Case Study architects in modern times) make it a point to share their knowledge with others, and it's good for all. Other people benefit from what they have to teach, and they themselves benefit because it allows them to position themselves as leaders in the field, garnering trust, respect, and new business because they were "bold" enough to share their knowledge. 

On the other hand, it is a little hard to imagine how he can see the perspective of a crop of students who see a future with few job prospects, professors who experience departmental cutbacks, and the average Architect or architectural intern who has trouble getting work, faces stiff competition, and has sizable student loans to repay. It's easier to share when you have so much to share; it's harder to see it as a good thing when you have to work hard to hold on to what you have. I do think he's right, but I also think that his position is born of privilege just as much as the positions of the students he is criticizing.

Jan 10, 12 8:19 pm  · 

Well on the one hand it's easy to criticize someone successful - it's easy to tell others to be financially adventurous when one is financially secure.  But one can also just stop denying that the job market/world is messed up - the "will things get better?" thread - and accept that being creative not only IN your work but about HOW to work is going to be critical in the near future.

Jan 10, 12 9:00 pm  · 

It always baffles me that architects will go to the nth degree to be creative in how they deal with architecture (as much as they are possibly allowed to given constraints) but don't apply the same level of rigour to their own lives.

I gave up status long ago...

Jan 10, 12 9:16 pm  · 

wow - I think ol' "Howard Roark" there needs to take it down a notch (or should be taken down a notch).  He's taking on some major karma telling everyone else to 'suck it up' and I can't wait to hear how he changes his tune when it catches up with him.

Jan 10, 12 10:43 pm  · 

If architects suck it up then magically the economy will turn around and architects will have jobs again?

Jan 11, 12 12:03 am  · 

I think the position is more that architect's are clinging to a sinking ship (the traditional practice mode), and if they let go of the sinking ship, they might find that they can swim. Though as Donna and I both mentioned above, it's much easier to take that position when you're already safe on the shore.

Jan 11, 12 12:46 am  · 

And, if Mao had bothered to conduct a civil discussion with the student who had made the observation rather than jump down his throat, he might have learned that  a polite concern about 'corpratist' language was a nice way of raising the probability that the conditions that Mao claims to be combatting have, in many cases, been made by the people he is representing -- corporations pretending to "do good." So, to borrow his own terms, the student was not making  a complaint, he was raising a devastating critique in the very polite fashion that used to be a part of civil discourse -- and, I am told, especially the Harvard way. 

Responding so harshly to a polite comment was a rude thing to do as a guest; it was churlish thing to brag about it in a public forum. Bulling students just shows that he actually has no interest in teaching or sharing what he knows -- so in addition to the irony  being a corporate tool telling well-intentioned young folks to, "shut up because Africa" (nice one not rusty). He is telling us all what we should already know about MAO -- that he has no intention of actually doing the hard work of contributing to thoughtful solutions to difficult problems, he only intends to bash anyone who raises a real objection that might  slow his propaganda machine.

Jan 11, 12 10:49 am  · 

my take (and reason for posting) is that, if you're one of the privileged few to get into a school like harvard (i was, as stated many times for the record), you're bitching is relative. i didn't have to go through this - a mile long line of people literally at their last chance to get their child into a public university in south africa. and people bitch about having to get letters of recommendation? seriously?

look, yes, it's easy to knock bruce for some kind of false bravado, for standing piously on high, but that's not what he's offering. he's simply saying that, relatively, we've got a much broader platform available, right now, to create the kind of real change we're griping about. instead of the 'woe is me' b.s. (which, honestly, i thought was aimed more at this professional self-loathing about our 'status' than he was picking at anyone who has a hard time finding a job within the profession), just shut up and go be the kind of practice that CAN reclaim that status....


what's wrong with that?

Jan 11, 12 11:56 am  · 

I think the structure of the argument sort of suggests that USA should aspire to the achievements of a third world country.  This sort of argument has been posted on Archinect before in other contexts.  In America we have a lot of opportunities and a lot of resources.  We should try to do better and be better than where we are currently because we can do better and be better.  Saying 'it's worse in Africa' is no excuse to perpetuate a status quo.

Having said that, in our daily lives if we're confronted with having to make a decision to exacerbate the AIDS epidemic in Africa for our own greed or make a bit of self-sacrifice and improve the lives of a whole bunch of people, we should probably help the other people.  If that's what Bruce was trying to say then more power to him, but it sounded to me more like he responded to the 'luxury of cynicism' with 'the luxury of cynicism.'

On the other hand, for someone who really needs a letter of recommendation to get into a good school (or for someone who really needs to find a job as an architect to keep food on the table and medicine in their kids) I think those are real problems for that person.  Ignoring their own personal needs-such as the luxury of a recommendation letter-because it sucks the be born in Africa is not going help them, people in Africa, Bruce Mau, or anyone else, is it?

Let me phrase this different.  It's like Bruce is saying, 'keep things in perspective.'  I'm saying, 'your perspective is messed up.' 

Also, I think this statement exists in a broader context that I'm not getting  Did Bruce Mau create a school for underprivileged kids in third world countries or something?  Is he teaching graphic design to people who need antibiotics, and getting all preachy because of the good he's made the world so much better?

p.s., I don't care for the woe is me crowd.  If you're all about the woe and whatnot, you should be thinking of how to get out of it.  It's good to ask questions and try to get help but keep the complaining and venting to an occasional minimum.  Just my opinion.

Jan 11, 12 12:48 pm  · 

Something is fundamentally wrong and haunting when "questioning" something referred as "complaining." 


Jan 11, 12 1:05 pm  · 

"For over a century, Coca-Cola has helped define culture in America. BMD (Bruce Mau Design) helped them to transform 21st Century culture through a global sustainability program: Live Positively.

Live Positively represents Coca-Cola’s commitment to making a difference in the world by redesigning the way they work so that sustainability is part of everything they do."

So shut up and live positively! And drink coca-Cola! And shut up! -Bruce

Jan 11, 12 1:08 pm  · 

Presented at...Harvard?  To Kwinter's class??


Does that not seem a tad hypocritical?  Or did I miss something?




[disclaimer...I stopped reading at when the student interrupted, I couldn't help but think of the hecklers at various political "functions"]

Jan 11, 12 1:32 pm  · 

I also really don't like his "starving kids in africa" nonsense- it hurts his argument...  but he's right in pointing out (although ironically) the luxury of maintaining a practice working on a small handful of high-profile projects a year for elite clients.  IMO - "Scalability", in a business sense, is about mitigating financial risk through increasing volume.  I guess it can be about exposing more people to the benefits of the design process because you believe in the power of good design or something, but having a broader customer base for our services is better for our entire industry's bottom line - and the future of our profession.

Jan 11, 12 1:37 pm  · 
chatter of clouds

of course, there is a malaise...people in your countries are not finding jobs. one could argue that Mau is himself being cynical by overlooking the socioeconimic reasons behind your cyncism. it is sad what happens in impoverished third world countries, in fact the whole world is tragic, things are only going to get worse...but that does not lessen your miseries. therefore, yes one can argue, to a double degree of cyncism, that you have no reason to be miserable - they do. perhaps, to a triple degree of cynicsm, we can argue that Mau was defensively attacking the student for pinpointing the very basic reason behind yours and their miseries...corporatism and capitalist globalism.

cynicsm is well folded.

i hope his tool pans out alright but the world is really doomed. its nice to act like it isnt though, it makes you a more attactive person to be around. this grand activisty rhetoric, these flamenco foot stamping...passion, positivity...Ole'. but, this is all irrelevant, all this post....what is this educational tool?

Jan 11, 12 2:16 pm  · 

Everyone is kidding right? I mean the people being critical of Mau. Substitute Mau with Bono or Gore, and then take your criticism and substitute your voice, with that of Fox News or Limbaugh; then reconsider his point.

Jan 11, 12 5:53 pm  · 

Tonight on Fox News: A wealthy McDonald's and Coke booster tells a class of unwashed Harvard hippies to get a job and lighten up. And shut up.


Jan 11, 12 6:18 pm  · 
Token AE

Quite frankly, I'm surprised that there are still people out there that view the professional practice crowd and the academics as part of the same profession.

These are two different groups of people with very different goals. I would think that someone at the GSD would be smart enough to differentiate the professional motives behind the two, but apparently not.

Similarly, I am sure that:

"Excuse me, Ms. Hadid- I am growing extremely tired with your archibabble and incessant need to 'create' things that are wildly constructable and serve no purpose other than to stroke your own ego!"

would go over equally well, given an analogous speaker/ audience composition.


Jan 11, 12 6:37 pm  · 

isn't scalability exactly what caused the financial crisis we are in right now? banks were making a bit of money selling bets on loans, and then they worked to scale up so that everyone in usa could get a house and the banks could get more loans to cut up and sell. 

scalability is cool idea and i agree with the need (it is something we are dealing with as we try to deal with the disaster in japan and its a real problem with no good answer that i can see so far) - let's be honest though, scalable architecture is levittown not high-brow....unless he is advocating for some kind of clever mass customization sort of thing?

it is clear that bruce is a smart guy - what he is selling though is not so clear.  apart from asking us to forget our petty luxury problems and asking for some perspective (am sure most harvard students have worked this stuff out to be honest), what is he saying?  it is a bit fluffy.  i get the sense he is conflating issues as well.

my sense is the student complained because s/he is smart enough to see that scaling solutions usually needs compromise (with exception of steve jobs) and the compromise is problematic particularly when it is made over with corporate handling - and leads to shit like mcdonalds when the world needs something better.  his answer is to scold the questioner for not being realistic?  ok fine, then let's hear how it worked for jobs and what other approaches are possible, or possibly he should just defend corporations outright and run with mitt romney.  but making this about lack of vision on part of students is disingenuous.

sorry gregory, i also love bruce but this whole thing is a bit gratuitous in my mind.  if he is teacher he should be giving more. especially at harvard - sloppy thinking in nice package is not education, its PR.   ah wait a minute, what is this guy's dayjob?  ah right....nevermind.

Jan 11, 12 7:56 pm  · 

"If you understand that the practice of architecture—the practice of synthesis that generates coherent unity from massively complex and diverse inputs..."

-and yet this, being his response, is brandished with defensiveness and chiding?

For all his sloganeering, I'm guessing he didn't come up with:  "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Jan 11, 12 8:05 pm  · 

I don't really understand the angst over this.  I don't think anyone is saying that Mau proclaimed a New Bible For How All Things Should Be in those comments.  All I hear is one guy saying "broaden your perspective; look for interesting things to do and figure out how to do interesting things".

Jan 11, 12 8:06 pm  · 
chatter of clouds

also, one must consider that sometimes the negatives sometimes just happen inspite of one's good intentions. of course, this track of thought only means you shoot yourself in the foot by just having one.  but then again, the positives might occur irrespective of the intentions: facebook and twitter in the case of the arab revolutions. but, then again again, on a grander might say in a possible future, that these positive revolutions that happened only caused the countries to regress into a religio-dogmatic era and that these revolutions - and the facet of facebook- proved to be negative in the larger scheme of things. not only is cynicsim well - and mani- folded but so is our understanding of the future. we are able to -right away- solve the problem of famine and hunger in many countries by acting collectively - as individuals not as countries- and by giving a bit of our stored money - to begin with. but we don't for whatever - or whatever lack- of reason. on the other hand, we colllectively gather around gadgets and tools that promise to solve all problems in the future pending use of these gadgets.

ps. i'm not hurling any badness at Mau, not at all. bless him if it works.

Jan 12, 12 1:18 am  · 

nice point tammuz, too true.


@ donna, no angst.  i like mau and his work, but really he avoided a difficult question by skewering the student for daring to tear at his construct, and people see him as hero instead of simply evasive.  sort of annoying, really, the more i think on it...

Jan 12, 12 2:27 am  · 

I guess I haven't really been focusing on the context of the remarks just the remarks themselves.  I'd like to know more of the background of the "troubling" conversation that took place before, I guess.

Yes ranting at a student's challenging question is rude. But maybe the discussion until then was annoying enough to warrant a sudden outburst - heaven knows I've ranted in the classroom myself on occasion, but I'm not famous so no one cared!  ;-)

Jan 12, 12 7:05 am  · 

What Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, current President of Liberia and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, has said is particularly relevant to this conversation— "Africa is not poor but simply poorly managed."

There's 1,000,000,000 people in Africa now. Relative* extreme poverty only really affects around 20% of the population or less but the general poverty rate is around 50% and dropping. Recent headlines have put the "relative" poverty rated in the U.S. as 1-out-of-2 people but the more accepted rate is roughly about 16% percent of the population.

Africa, as a continent, is more impoverished as the United States absolutely but only moderately more impoverished relatively.

[As for the big * up there, I'm using the term "relative" to mean the purchasing power relative to annual income— poverty threshold being defined as what the minimum amount of money one needs to make to obtain food and shelter.]

If we take Ghana a prime example of a country fallen on hard times over the last 50 years and compared it to the current trajectory of the U.S, we'll see some glaring similarities. Ghana use to be one of the wealthier countries in the world prior to the 1960s. The newly independent country with vast amounts of gold and mineral wealth decided it was necessary to invest in infrastructure projects. They built a number of projects that failed to produce any return investment. The country become over-leveraged on debts and by the 1970s the country was bankrupt.

The U.S. from the 1950s onwards has had the luxury of having economically and infrastructurally low-hanging fruit. And by that, I mean, we've generally had enough wealth to offset the massive investments we've made in transforming the landscape.

Every time a new subdivision or town is built, there's a tremendous amount of money going into new roads, new pipes, new wires, new buildings, new schools et cetera ad naseum. But what happens when the fruit-tree has been picked clean? Do these new communities produce any surpluses of wealth, hard or soft?

This move of poverty and economical failure is different from what we typically associated with poverty— poverty, in a standard definition, is having a lack of anything. But, in places like Detroit or Youngstown or San Bernardino, poverty isn't about what they don't have. These areas, at one point, use to be some of the wealthiest areas in the U.S. They have, or had, developed advanced infrastructure and access to national and global economic markets and sufficient amount of quality real estate.

For every condominium building that states empty and every neighborhood vacant, there's also a mile of highway grossly underutilized and water mains that haven't see a drop of water in months. This last decade has consistently proved that the "failed state theory" is a wholly valid illustration of what happens when economies fail to reinvest in themselves properly.

Architecture is an aspect of state building. While architecture can do great things, it can't overcome poor management of resources, poor decisions and blatant irrationalism. We have to remember that under-performing sprawl and incoherent urban centers aren't just bad investments or just objects that can be changed on a whim.

Failed cities and states are also forests clear-cut down to the soil, mountains ground into cement, oil pumped from the crust of the Earth, atoms split, stones burned into metal, coal strip-mined from the hills, silt fired into bricks, sand melted into glass and pebbles dredged from rivers.

It won't last forever but it takes forever to make the basics that make a city.


Jan 12, 12 9:54 am  · 

And by forever, I really do mean forever. We won't have a new supply of gold or uranium or titanium until the galaxy collapses, goes critical and then explodes into a supernova. Just take that one in for a moment that the wedding rings on your fingers are the byproducts of billions of exploded stars.

Jan 12, 12 9:59 am  · 

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