On Process, or How do Architects Work?

We recently had a great conversation with a prospective client that got me thinking about how architects work to design and realize projects -- our process.

The prospect had already been through a largish project with another architect, but didn’t want to hire him again: that architect’s “mental institutional overhead” wouldn’t be compatible with the “nimble” project the client envisioned.

We loved the turn of phrase, and we gave the benefit of the doubt that "nimble" wasn't just a clever way of saying "not paying the architects." But in writing our proposal, an immediate practical problem appeared: pricing our services requires estimating our time; estimating our time requires planning the project; planning the project requires front-end assumptions and decisions; front-end assumptions and decisions are pretty much the enemy of “nimble.”

Architects' education and the AIA standard contracts are built on the assumption that projects proceed in an orderly fashion from pre-design to post-occupancy, through a series of discrete steps. Of course, the actual course of the project rarely follows the literal sequence, but clients legitimately fear that they might be in for an overly long (and potentially expensive) way of realizing a design.

As in all things, it depends on the project. Phasing almost always ends up accommodating the project rather than the reverse. But the very existence of a pre-articulated process might look like the “mental institutional overhead” that our prospective client was wary of.

So what would a nimble process look like? Do we need a “process” at all? I found a useful analogy, maybe even an answer, in one of the most famous pieces of music of the 20th century: Miles Davis’ “So What” of 1959.

About 30 seconds into the album track, a distinctive sequence begins: nine notes plucked on the double bass, followed by two chords on the piano (that sort of sound like “so… what?”). This 11-note sequence loops, but after the third piano chord, the bass plays five different notes. You’ve definitely heard this tune, even if you think you haven’t.

This is the "head," the recurring theme of the song, the jazz version of a chorus. It continues as Davis joins in on the “so… what” chords. Then the drummer breaks the repeating loop with a soft roll. Davis and the other musicians take off on a series of solos, backed up by the bass and drum playing different melodies but following the rhythm established in the head.

The text above will reveal that I like to listen to music but know nothing about its theory or composition. Still, I'm drawn to “So What” because it sounds like a musical version of the creative process. The notes of the head are established, not a script but a benchmark around which everyone innovates. Those first moves communicate intent and style. They are essential to good collaboration.

If we are guided entirely by process, expression is limited to the point where something like jazz is impossible. But without process, there would be no jazz -- a riff has be on something, it can’t exist in vacuum.

Everyone loves an apocryphal story of creative leaps made on the back of “accidents” (Fleming’s discovery of penicillin springs to mind). Such tales suggest that true invention is so esoteric we can’t access it through conscious planning. That’s rubbish.

As Miles Davis and Alexander Fleming showed, the useful “accidents” always occur within a known process. They may have been unexpected, but not unintended. Process provides an armature of predictability that gives birth to the unexpected.


Registered Architects

in Massachusetts and 

Rhode Island    DUAL

DUAL - Registered Architects in Massachusetts and Rhode Island