8 July 2012


Junk Depicting an Inhibiting Culture

I enjoy reading how different 'process' cultures inhibits or encourages creativity.

A recent article in Vanity Fair Magazine (via Daring Fireball) on the corporate culture of software giant Microsoft describes a breathtakingly bad employee incentive system that determines that there must be a prescribed percentage of good, adequate and bad performers within each department of the company. With 'best' intentions it was supposed to be a system to spur individual motivation, but instead over the years it has been a major contributor to the sucked out life of the once innovative and growing company, stifling team work and placing fear into the hearts of those with good ideas. it is extraordinary to believe that a group of intelligent people actually thought this would work.

It's a great story, interesting in the way it describes a culture that is bringing down an innovative company. It provides a clear example of how, if you fail to set a means good things can happen, the results fall far short of what they could be or even tragic. It's a story of the imposition of burdens, rather then providing fertile ground. The article, a few to all of us, up from 10,000 feet above the situation, can't fathom how a system like that could be put into place, whatever the explanation. Close up it must have been harder to tell.

I'll send this out to you: parallels can be drawn in how we imagine and build cities. The culture within the government, planning, and architectural communities can have their own way of inhibiting things. I offer a few examples for your reading pleasure, and you may have a few of your own. Here goes:


A lot of resources are expended on the signature projects, designed by important architects. These are the iconic buildings that make their marks on cities, sometimes for generations, and they have their place.
I've written about their role and function.

But a city is not just comprised signature projects, and there is a profound misunderstanding of the role these buildings play in cities. As a result, they are assigned far too much importance; importance over the qualities of the city's public space, the functional and processional quality of its streets, and over the more mundane buildings that make up the city fabric. Doing good background buildings, again and again, is far more important. However, the operative logic in the real estate world is to assign as little resources (money and effort) towards these 'less-important' projects; it's not a great building, so why extend the extra expense and effort? The culture we have created says that only the iconic of building are worth the trouble, worth overcoming the opposing forces of overbearing entitlements, too-aggressive project management, and all the other expense and bother of doing a project.


Entitlements and environmental law processes that are all about away of doing things, the law. These modern day ways of doing things are ostensibly about design and making a good place to live, but it is all about presidents and rather then about the results, inhibiting the best solutions, resulting in solutions that are superficial in function and in the aesthetic contribution that they make to the city. (is it an accident that many planning commissions are populated only by lawyers ?)

I don't think that a process that needlessly adds layers of busy-work to make a project ready to build, is a good thing. Making things almost impossible for the very people that a city relies upon to do good and creative work (the Architects and Designers) is foolish, and a recipe for falling short. Helping to create a new class of legal representation just to get through the process is a waste of resources. Rules to build are very important, but a byzantine layering of contradictory and difficult to follow rules, coupled to a twisted attempt at a democratic hearing process (often now a multi-layered circus), is a way to ensure that a great city will not be built.


Since about the 1950s, Project Management has been seen in the building industry as a way to protect the inexperienced from capricious or untrustworthy architects, engineers and builders. The idea is to look at all the tasks and constraints of a project, and apply it to a schedule of performance, keeping in mind who must do what in order to maintain the 'critical path' that will allow a project to be on-time and 'on-budget'. When this process is implemented properly, and under the proper circumstances, it can be an extremely effective tool in building.

The Project Management industry is not a self editing (surprise!) industry-- they'll take all the business they can find. PMs impose itself themselves wherever they can, exerting power over the process to extract higher profitability. In my 35 years of experience as an Architect, where I've encountered the Project Management layer, its been effective about 35% of the time. In the other 65% of the projects, the PM layer siphoned off construction and other design professional money to create fees for the PM. The PM often must create scenarios where it overrules change orders (additional monies for unforeseen conditions), in order to justify their existence. No time was saved, no money was saved, and the worst thing (as far as I'm concerned) was that the project had been 'cheapened up' ; it was diminished aesthetically and functionally. The last important elements for a good project were sucked out, in order to pay for the PM.

The projects I've experienced with an effective PM are the ones with extremely complicated funding requirements and schedules, or ones where the project itself was complicated by a combination of size, a difficult programatic and construction sequence, and projects where it is difficult to foresee all of the potential roadblocks and issues the will be uncovered as progress is made. This is not the majority of projects, but there are enough unethical contractors, architects, and engineers out there to make someone who wants to build think they need the additional help. And the non-self-regulating PM industry will not be the ones to tell the project clients that a better use of their resources might be used in the proper research of good builders and designers, often not the cheapest, which will result in the most cost effective and appropriate result.

I don't think that a member of a project team that extracts money out of a construction budget that would otherwise allocate to the building more quality or character, nor strip the design team from the extra money it needs to craft is a good thing.


A business climate that makes starting a design firm nearly impossible, and Architects and sometimes Engineers do themselves no favors in this regard. It is a world of continuous devaluing;
devaluing the young talent that comes into the profession, devaluing those who have decades of experience, Architects and designers devaluing themselves, all trying to adapt to the culture of 'free'.

Craft is a very persistent mistress. The imperative to craft, to make the careful decisions and design responses to make great cities, seems to prevail through all of these formidable cultural and institutional burdens placed on projects. These people are compiled to make craft, for the love of it. Yet we hobble these people at every turn, and for every reason.

We see from the example of a leading innovator in the technology field can systematically set about creating its own demise by putting in place an ill-conceived way of doing things, a destructive culture, and killing culture. Are we arrogant enough to believe the same thing isn't true for cities? The great cities that we know and love were built on the notion that the people who built were inherently trusted, and those who built held themselves to a higher standard of building. This is the best culture to make great cities; we have the great ones in front of us to prove it.

The Ideal City
Planning by Precedent
Perscription vs Craft

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