“brute force architecture” – mammoth // building nothing out of something

“brute force architecture”

We highly recommend checking out Bryan Boyer’s latest post, “Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents”, which is a fascinating take on OMA and its uinque impact on the operational models of other architecture firms around the globe:

OMA is famous for two things: its astounding output, and the extent to which its operations chew through the majority of the human capital that walks through its doors. As an office that had already made a name for itself and was lucky to enjoy a steady flow of applications from aspiring young interns, OMA could organize around a workflow that depended on the maximum variety and quantity of design explorations before electing one to carry forward. Like Turing 60 years prior, OMA’s operations are based on brute forcing through the search space. Whereas Turing relied on something that would later come to be known as computing power, OMA relies on employees who willfully work long hours to be part of the magical machine.

This maximum variety is the direct output of the bloodshot eyes and over-caffeinated bodies of the legion workforce pushing themselves to create just a few more iterations before calling it quits…

The sum of this way of working is one where the search space of ideas is exhausted seconds before the individuals doing the searching. If so, success has been achieved. If not, the office collapses under its own entropy. So far OMA has been able to keep the lights on, but at significant cost. Particularly to the lower ranks who put the “brute” in “brute force”.

OMA has been singled out because their contribution has been so definitive to the last couple generations of professional practice. Although the offices of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and others are on similar or perhaps even higher levels of success in terms of productive output, none have had as large an impact on the practice of architecture as OMA.

The pervasiveness of OMA’s habits in other offices are so extreme that one is tempted to ask whether this way of working is a logical outcome of globalized practice, but the dearth of competing operational models hints that perhaps this is not the case. At a moment when formal, tectonic, and material diversity are at the extreme, we as a community of architects lack a healthy discussion of operational models. OMA’s model trundled into a second generation with firms such as MVRDVBIG, and REX but who else has proposed a coherent idea about how to operate an architecture firm?

Part of what makes the piece so excellent is that, like much of Boyer’s writing, it refuses to needlessly distinguish between design and business operations within the architecture firm, preferring instead to treat all (or at least most) operations as components of a whole with both architectural and economic ramifications. As Boyer says, the piece is “a mythology of the habits of organization, production, and decision making that one office has pursued”, which demonstrates in fascinating fashion how Koohhaas’s theoretical work provided the framework for a configuration of roles and responsibilities among project team members that had key differences from the standard atelier design studio model. This altered the process for initiating, iterating, and editing design options, as things like specific prototyping methodologies (think blue foam) and work attitudes (think bleary-eyed interns) aggregated into the OMA methodology.

Thus Boyer shows how, at OMA, theory, design methodology, and business practice interact as a unified whole, in which theory determines the possibility space for design and design methodology determines the possibility space for business practices and business practices determine the possibility space for design (and so on, in repetitive feedback), instead of (falsely) bifurcating business decisions from design decisions. This integration, of course, is in fact present in every firm, but the cliche understanding of the atelier studio model, which characterizes business decisions as a distraction from the real work of the architect, obfuscates that integration. The implication of Boyer’s argument is that the operations of a firm (any firm) can and should themselves be designed, and in fact are — whether consciously or unconsciously.

[Coincidentally (or not), you can catch Bryan in conversation with Rory Hyde, Martti Kalliala, and Jenna Sutela at Studio-X NYC this Friday at 1 pm, talking about alternative design practices; details here.]

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