July 19, 2019
The Age of Blorp, a dead tulip, no muggles allowed and some other stuff
First the good news. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has rejected the proposals for Foster+Partners’ godawful 300 metre tall ‘Tulip’ viewing tower in London. The reasons given for the refusal from the Mayor’s office include the fact that the thing didn’t represent the sort of “world class architecture that would be required to justify its prominence”. A nicely dressed up way of saying it’s a terrible idea, a terrible piece of architecture and has absolutely no place in London.
I link to the news item in Dezeen to illustrate a point raised by some commenters on the story. Apparently, people who aren’t designers and architects don’t have the right to a view on architecture and design. They just need to be told what to accept by their betters, even if they are the Mayor of London.
Such thoughts betray a more common attitude in the A&D community than should exist and it is most apparent when an outsider expresses an opinion that doesn’t fit an architectural orthodoxy. This is most evident in the pleasure architects still take in Brutalism, which most other people detest. Brutalism is an obvious point of contention between architects and the hoi-polloi but it goes for an awful lot of modern architecture. If you want an outsider’s extended diatribe on this, including the use of the phrase Age of Blorp and many examples of the kind of thing London has just swerved with the Tulip but Paris didn’t with the Tour Montparnasse, you can find one here.
Some time ago I wrote about how the Farrell Review had deliberately excluded anybody who wasn’t an architect or designer, regardless of their experience, qualifications or general ability to comment on issues related to the built environment. There were to be no muggles to disrupt the pronouncements of the Ministry of Magic. Consequently and unsurprisingly, the Review was rapidly dismissed by the Government. Which is what happens when you get a group of homogeneous people looking at complex things with just one eye shared between them, like the Stygian Witches.
There’s a useful distinction to be made between the Farrell Review and the Taylor Review, a broad look into modern working practices with contributions from a wide range of professions and experts. While the Taylor Review has been shaping Government policy for the last two years, the main author of the Farrell Review has had to justify the whole thing with a number of thin claims earlier this year in a friendly trade publication.
Work will make you free
There is something off about working culture still, so suggesting that the answer to the problems created by that culture is to go deeper into it is misinformed and counter-intuitive
Now the bad news. The former Mayor of London Boris Johnson has decided to contribute to the debate about the UK’s generally poor levels of mental health and productivity by suggesting that the answer may lie in doing more work, when all the evidence suggests that the answer to the challenges of wellbeing and productivity is often to do less. This may especially be the case for men who need to adjust and seize some of the opportunities that change is offering them, if given some of the same choices as women.
There is something off about working culture still, so suggesting that the answer to the problems created by that culture is to go deeper into it is misinformed and counter-intuitive. Some of the problems of that culture are explored in this excellent piece in The Economist which suggests the problems often start with the language of job ads.
“Another newish management mantra is “bring your whole self to work”. This slogan, dreamed up by Mike Robbins, a motivational speaker, seems well intentioned. Workers should not have to suppress their personalities. They should not hide the fact that they are gay, for example, or caring for children or elderly relatives at home.
“It is easy to see how the slogan can be turned into the idea that workers should give 100% commitment all the time. That is asking too much. It is great when people enjoy their work but the fact is a lot of people are doing their jobs to pay the bills, and dreaming of the few weeks in the year when they can take a holiday. They may have hobbies and interests outside work, but the word “outside” is key. Those are the moments when the company has no claim on its employees. Workers should be allowed to leave parts of themselves at home.”
In his article, Boris Johnson is on stronger ground when he throws in some stuff about how organisations should create jobs that improve people’s levels of satisfaction, but there are enough troubling associations, apex fallacies and oversimplifications in the piece to suggest he really doesn’t get it. Or he does but doesn’t care.
The piece provoked a strong response from Poorna Bell in The Independent which adds a lot more information, nuance and complexity to the subject than Johnson allowed himself.
Ignorance is strength
At the risk of sounding like an old fart, we are increasingly drawn to simple solutions even when the problems are incredibly complex
So, what she’s saying is that things are more complicated than Johnson presents them. This should be our standard response whenever we are presented with a single variable solution to a complex and multi-variate problem. The wise and informed build this into their analyses. Take this assessment of the efficacy of activity-based working – one of a number of commonly fired workplace silver bullets – by the always excellent Kerstin Sailer and Ros Pomeroy. Their analysis is both positive and realistic, concluding that ABW is frequently a good idea, but…things are more complicated than that.
It would be nice to see such equivocation in the mainstream media, especially when it comes to the endlessly fraught debate about open plan offices. Fast Company and Inc are the two worst outlets for published drivel on the matter, but sometimes the big hitters in the media can publish their own questionable pieces.
For example The New York Times has just published this piece setting out a series of ‘trends’ in the design of offices and office furniture that can be dated back 25 years. Unlike the nonsense fouling up the two titles I just mentioned, there’s nothing massively wrong with this piece and it’s good to see some ideas crossing into the mainstream, but it would also be great to see journalists digging deeper for some context and complexity.
Of course, this is something of an old-fashioned idea and not just because newspapers don’t have the resources they once did to spend on stories. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, we are increasingly drawn to simple solutions even when the problems are incredibly complex.
As Gemma Church writes in this piece about the peculiarly modern challenges of dynamic resource allocation:
It’s not easy to accurately predict what humans want and when they will want it. We’re demanding creatures, expecting the world to deliver speedy solutions to our increasingly complex and diverse modern-day problems.
Over the last few decades, researchers have developed a range of pretty effective mathematical solutions that can allocate resources across a variety of industries and scenarios so they can attempt to keep up with the daily demands our lives place on them. But when an allocation made at one time affects subsequent allocations, the problem becomes dynamic, and the passing of time must be considered as part of the equation. This throws a mathematical spanner in the works, requiring these solutions to now take into account the changing and uncertain nature of the real world.
The modern predilection is to look at the numbers. Swimming in a sea of data gives us the chance to measure everything. So, in a world still shaped by Peter Drucker’s maxim that what gets measured, gets managed, Big Data can seem to hold all of the answers. This idea is comprehensively dismantled by Rana Foroohar in the FT.
This yearning to see things as they are in all their complexity and sophistication seems like a losing battle when you consider how prone we all are to accepting the things we hear about at face value. Hence, a number of media outlets had to publish articles recently, pointing out to people that the use of smartphones wasn’t going to lead to them growing horns on the base of their skulls when a moment’s thought and a bit of extra reading could have saved them the bother.