Diversity and Collaboration

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


At this stage of my life, looking back on nearly 50 years of involvement in architecture, I consider myself to be amongst the most fortunate of individuals:
   In a happy and fulfilling family and social life with my lifelong wife and partner, Vivienne, and our children, who, in growing up with us, have taught me to grow up too.
   In the learning experiences and stimulation I have had by exposure to some great people and their work - Belluschi, Catalano and Kepes at MIT; Gropius at The Architects Collaborative; the early leaders at Hassell - Jack McConnell, Dick Roberts and Colin Hassell.
   In the projects which have come my way, which for the most part have been challenging and exciting and have given me the opportunity to express myself as an architect - the Pan-AM building in New York, Baghdad University, the Festival Centre, competitions for McArthur Square and Victoria Central, and also the smaller projects, particularly the education buildings and theatres.
   In the colleagues I have worked with - at Hassell, but also with other architects, clients and consultants, most of whom I have loved and respected for their talents and cooperation.
And lastly, in the amazing honour that you have bestowed on me in awarding me this medal. I am surprised and delighted to receive it and I thank all those in my Institute who have been responsible for selecting me for this honour.

   I have long believed in diversity in architectural thought and in collaboration as a process to obtain excellence in a complex design environment. I will aim to demonstrate that through these concepts lies the future of architecture and therefore of our built environment. I will bore you with a little personal history in order to demonstrate where these beliefs have come from, where they have led me and perhaps where they may lead others in the future.
I always wanted to be an architect. I studied architecture at the University of Adelaide and the SA School of Mines and Industries from 1951 to 1955. This was a combined engineering and architecture course. I cannot say I gained a lot from my years at architecture school, although they were kind enough to give me some prizes.
   Meanwhile I had taken a job at Hassell, McConnell & Partners who I worked for during university holidays. I was paid £10 per week. We were expected to do everything then because in those days architects were paid a 6% standard fee, but received an additional 1% with engineering services thrown in. Naturally H & McC did the lot and I got to practise my engineering as well as architecture skills.
   My first excitement came from the Contemporary Architects Association, a group of mostly returned servicemen who had gone through the course just before me as mature age students. The Sixth Australian Architectural Convention was to be held in Adelaide in May 1956 and the association decided to stage an exhibition of contemporary architecture to go with it. We obtained permission to erect a number of contemporary buildings in Botanic Park. These buildings were ephemeral and were removed shortly after the conference.
    This conference was the highlight of my experience to this time. Pietro Belluschi was the principal speaker. He was head of the MIT School

Above John Morphett

of Architecture and it was he who suggested I might apply to go to graduate school in the US. I do not exaggerate when I say the conference changed my life. Inspired by Belluschi’s view of architecture, which opened up a world to me which I had not imagined, I applied for three schools, was successful at two and ended up going to MIT.
   The MIT Graduate School taught architecture to a class of about 30 students drawn from all over the world. There was also a smaller urban design class and a large undergraduate faculty. Guest speakers included Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra and Paul Rudolph. Robin Boyd was there that year as a guest lecturer. Elsewhere in the US, Frank Lloyd Wright was at the very end of his life, with the Guggenheim Museum under construction, and Mies van der Rohe had just finished his University of Chicago and Seagrams buildings.
   Seeing, hearing and studying in such an environment was a revelation to me. For the first time I began to understand a little of what architecture was all about. At MIT we worked mostly in small teams and were encouraged to collaborate with other disciplines. Standards and expectations were high and there was a lot of working through the night. We were also encouraged to enter competitions, which created a lot of extra work. I entered an International Solar House Competition for which design I received third prize - enough to send me and my wife around the US and Mexico for three months.
   I was fortunate to get a job with The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) at the end of my graduate year in 1957. I stayed there for over three years. TAC was formed by Walter Gropius in 1945. He had been promoting his concept of teamwork since 1919 with the manifesto for the first Bauhaus at Weimar - "Together we desire, we design, we create the new building in which architecture, painting and sculpture are one complete unity." When I joined TAC Gropius was 74 years old. I was privileged to work closely with him and his partners during the more than three years I was there. I worked on a number of schools and also as a design advisor on the Pan Am building over Grand Central Station in New York (by Emery Roth). TAC was then commissioned to design the University of Baghdad - their largest project to date. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be on the design team and I worked on the project for over two years, most of it in Rome, close to Iraq and our Italian engineers. The process involved frequent presentations of work in progress and peer review by all on the team. Although the final decision always rested with the presenter, we accepted comments and ideas in a positive way and with an open mind.

I was proud to have worked with TAC. My time there had been the most enlightening of my life. Gropius was a great natural teacher. He died in 1969, eight years after I left TAC, but he stayed active for much of that time and we corresponded occasionally. TAC lasted much longer as a collaborative but eventually went out of business four years ago.
   Full of enthusiasm, I arrived back in Australia to re-join a successful practice with plenty of work, but a very different culture. The work was of high quality, the design much influenced by Jack McConnell. However, as the practice expanded and we found ourselves designing in new areas and in different locations, it became obvious that the autocracy was not working and that different ways were needed.
   I have been involved with Hassell for most of my working life and in that time we have grown it into an integrated firm which practises across a range of design professions, including landscape architecture, interior design, urban design and urban planning. But, more importantly, we grew a firm with a culture of inclusiveness and participation, which, I think, may well endure. I cannot say it has always been an easy road we have travelled and during that time we have had our setbacks, some of which have been almost fatal. But, as a wise man said, "success is the ability to survive failure". On that basis we have been successful more times than I care to remember.
   I now wish to address some of the ideas which have occupied our minds at Hassell over the years which I believe have contributed to the quality of the work we have done, not to mention our survival. Firstly, may I tell you a story from MIT.
   It’s said that in the early years of this century, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the great electrical engineer, was brought to General Electric’s facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of its huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant - not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.
   Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.
   After he departed, GE’s engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There was also a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
   And indeed it did.
   Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard-of answer that his fee was $1,000. Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemised invoice. They soon received it. It included two items:
   1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.
   2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.
   Knowing where to put the "X" is the essence of the process of making architecture, as with many other professions.
   It is this simple knowledge, learned early at TAC and MIT, which has led me along a broad path of architecture in a wider context. My old teacher, Walter Gropius, said many years ago: "The how is more important than the what," and thirty years later Bernard Tschumi asserted: "There is no architecture without the event." Both seem to sanction the idea of the pre-eminence of process in architecture.
   Since the announcement of the Gold Medal, I have been asked by journalists, "What do you

Above University of Baghdad by TAC. Model.

think of the work you have been involved in?" "You must be excited to see this work standing," they say. I have to say, "No. What excites me is the new work, the work in progress, the event, the challenge, the process."
   Architecture maintains itself as a discipline by institutionally recognising certain people who have been trained and conditioned in a certain way. This structure legitimises our productions and excludes all others. Indeed, within architecture, the idea of an omniscient author is especially strong. This is also reflected in our culture - "God, the great architect of the universe".
   Perhaps historically, this concept of individual authorship is a measure of the authority we have found it necessary to assert in order to get anything accomplished in what is, inevitably, a collective process involving many different disciplines. For much of my career, however, I have believed and promoted another way, which I believe is better (but certainly not easier) - collaboration.
   There are different approaches to collaboration. In last year’s Hook address Richard Leplastrier said: "Architecture is symphonic in the way it works. Its like a great symphony orchestra - you have all these levels which have to be brought together - in a great spirit that brings the best out of everybody."
   Whilst in some ways I like the metaphor, it implies the need for a conductor who interprets the meaning of the work and controls the output. I prefer the image of the string quartet or the jazz group with each player contributing and receiving inspiration to produce a collective work that is greater than the sum of its parts.
   To me, collaboration is the idea of multiple authorship, of multiple voices, some of which may be architects, some not. The idea, as Gropius said, "that architecture is a collective art". The figure of the architect, in the sense I mentioned earlier, begins to disappear here. It is replaced by a kind of group consensus, a collective intuition. Collaboration is an attitude of mind. Bringing people to that way of thinking is not always easy; maintaining it over time requires conscious effort.
   Firstly, we need to develop a high level of mutual understanding - a common language. Secondly, we need to develop mutual respect ? to ensure there are no winners or losers. If we were to believe only in survival through competition and if the winner is pre-occupied always with winning he may find himself on a mountain he would otherwise never have climbed. Let me expand a little on those two requirements for effective collaboration.

   As I said earlier the very need for collaboration derives from the diversity of skills and opinions required in the formulation of our work. Inevitably we find ourselves working in teams with other members whose training and inclination leads them to think and act differently from us. Even after extensive team building efforts we sometimes find that misunderstandings develop. However, we get the job done. This is teamwork, it is not collaboration. Collaboration requires a deeper level of common understanding and purpose - a common language.

Above left Canberra Playhouse. Above right Pan Am Building, New York by Emery Roth.

Our greatest source of strength at Hassell has been in avoiding a partnership of specialists. Although our principals come from different disciplines, they are generalist in their thinking and attitudes. The practice does not call itself an architectural practice, but a design practice. The principals are not a team of complementary specialists, but like-minded individuals with a common aim.
   The firm devotes much effort to the development of a common language through meetings, workshops and non-project specific discussion. Principals and staff are encouraged to widen their skills and involve themselves across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Of course, on occasion the firm has fallen by the wayside, and looking back it is usually because we have become involved with specialists. Beware the specialist!
   There is another issue concerning common language that impacts on successful collaboration, and it is architectonic theory.
   As an avowed modernist, I have long espoused a strong social agenda, believing that excellence in design results in social benefits for the whole community and that good design is also cost-effective and efficient design. Today, we have a more mature language of modernism, freed from the discipline of the formal and orderly by the exhilaration of the unexpected, but above all informed by the principles of ecology.
   To embrace ecologically responsible design is a small step for modernism, a language that has always included social responsibility as a core value. But it has changed the product very much, because as a direct result of our new found environmental consciousness, we now have regionalism. Instead of the so-called International Style, which evolved in response to a perceived universal set of human values and social needs, we now have a modernist language that encompasses a range of responses to culture and place. The language is just as strong but it cannot be discerned by merely looking at the product. The architecture might touch the ground lightly or it might be firmly rooted in the earth. It might be seamlessly integrated into the urban fabric or emerge as an unexpected interjection.
   At Hassell we have long held this conviction that each situation deserves a new design, and, as a consequence, the product of our collaborations has not been recognisably uniform. At its best, this process has ensured a new freshness, a new excitement. However, it is not for the faint hearted. There is not the comfort of an established modus operandi and there is the awareness that every design must be a prototype with the care and attention to detail that implies.

   The second prerequisite for successful collaboration is mutual respect. Respect involves recognising the virtues and tolerating the weaknesses in each other. It leads to the most important aspect of collaboration - effective intra-group criticism, that is, honest, argumentative discussion with a willingness to search for new solutions which might be better than those proposed by individuals.
   Of course the best way to generate mutual respect is to gather around you the highest level of talent achievable, consistent with the

  generalised aims mentioned earlier. We all know how difficult that is, but, on top of that, we must generate an egalitarian environment.
 At Hassell this involved equal salaries and profit sharing amongst principals, because equality was considered to be the very basis of collaboration.
   The principal organisation mechanism for project collaboration at Hassell was the design review. Periodically project leaders presented their work at the meetings for consideration and criticism. No new design was frozen until it received the attention of the group. We tried to question every preconceived idea that we had. Sometimes the good idea could be reshaped to generate a new meaning or consistency. Sometimes the discussion could lead us in directions not even contemplated at the beginning.
   I should emphasise that in this process project leaders were free to accept or reject suggestions to maintain design integrity. There was no formal voting. Design decisions tended to be made by the sense of the meeting. We tried to avoid formality, hierarchy, rigidity. We were a collaboration of equals and we tried to protect personal identity whilst obtaining consensus.
   The collaborative process is sometimes a challenging and difficult one but at its best it stimulates creativity and produces work of excellence. It is also a learning process in which everyone gains - providing you contribute, you benefit in equal or greater measure. Very few of us are complete loners when it comes to design. Those that do often settle for "cheap excellence", for a standard of work that is too easily reached. In contrast, the stimulation that comes from discussion of work in progress and from the example of those whose work we respect is an important factor in producing the best work.
   It has promoted a culture at Hassell of rigorous testing and has led to the conviction that each situation deserves a unique design. "Individual solutions through collaboration" has been the motto for some time.

Does Collaboration Work?
   I think so and so do my colleagues, who are now looking after the Hassell firm and continuing to collaborate to produce work of excellence. For firms that aspire to undertake more difficult, challenging and complex projects, it is a necessary way of working, and the more you understand its processes, the better it works. More importantly, it can produce work of excellence. On a few occasions I have collaborated to produce a result that was dramatically better than the norm. The talents of the team were multiplied, not just added together. These experiences, fewer than I would have wished, were enough to convince me that striving in this direction is worth it.
   In conclusion, I would like to say a word about striving for excellence. I refer to Bob Mierisch’s recent book in which he quotes from Ruth Cracknell’s memoir: "After watching Margot Fonteyn dancing at the height of her powers in a performance of Sleeping Beauty in London, she wrote a letter home: ‘I can’t analyse her dancing - I only know it is the most perfect thing I have ever witnessed, that it is ethereal, that it is as light as swansdown, that it is fast as a whip crack, that it’s a flower unfolding and growing before your eyes, that it’s the most fragile, breathtaking thing that I have ever seen, that, in short, it is magic. Never have I so wanted something to go on for ever.’
   "The dancing was perfect beyond comprehension for Ruth Cracknell, but surely not for Margot Fonteyn. Only Margot Fonteyn would know how costly was the performance, which appeared to Ruth as so sublime. Only Margot Fonteyn would see how much improvement was still possible."



Published online: 1 Sep 2000


Architecture Australia, September 2000

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