issue 1 part 1 // feb 2016
the entrepreneurship question
THE ENTREPRENEURSHIP QUESTION Recorded at Columbia GSAPP September 16, 2015 Part 1/3 Matt Lohry A-Frame Intro
This event is about the state of entrepreneurship within the architecture profession. Technology is changing our relationship to the economy, the nature of employment, and working conditions in many fields of practice. Entire industries have been subsumed by the invention of digital apps, and mobile devices have disintegrated the separation between life and work. Co-work offices, makers-spaces, and incubators provide work environments for an increasing number of people. It’s easier now than ever for anyone with a laptop and an idea to join the ranks of the self-styled startup entrepreneurs. But how does this relate to the way we practice architecture? As designers we are asked to explore ideas, solve problems, invent new systems, and question methods, but we rarely interrogate how money or alternative forms of value can dictate the applicability of our ideas. Our design prompts in school, for instance, are devoid of any consideration of budget, economic viability, or alternative financial strategy. This pedagogy follows a historical ideology that architecture is an art that should not be made impure by the influence of business. Yet our profession is still overwhelmingly represented by exclusive designers who require huge budgets. This illusion of individual artistic genius, the belief that developing one’s signature style is the highest form of professional success, prevents us from inventing alternatives. The point is not to advocate a profit-oriented corporate architecture, but to look critically at the role business, economics, and collaboration play in the success or failure of an office. Our goal is to move beyond business-as-usual practice that results in low wages, long working hours, and less agency in the development of cities. The Entrepreneurship Question grew from conversations taking place here in our studios at GSAPP. Whispers of anxiety about our futures in architecture have transformed into organized discussion beyond established curriculum. There is no space for these questions to be collectively addressed, so we are inventing a venue ourselves. We must place economics in the crosshairs of a critical debate that ranges from personal debt to the long-term viability of capitalism. It’s time we make a bold proposition about architecture’s place within the political economy.
Part 1 of 3
“Etymologically, defiance is rooted in fides, the latin term for ‘faith’. It would therefore be additionally understood as an antonym of confidence – more precisely, of confiding in someone. When we confide in someone, we entrust something to them under certain conditions. If these conditions are breached, we are entitled to take it back. In this act of taking back, defying is not outright enmity but the revocation of a social contract based on trust; it is defying in rather than defying of.” — Eray Çayli
“98% of what gets built today is shit.” — Frank Gehry
Manuel Shvartzberg Moderator Intro
Thank you all for being here. My first reaction to being invited here to moderate is to ask, what kind of question are we talking about? I’m sure there will be a few answers that will be iterated this evening. In the background is a very personal preoccupation, which is nevertheless entirely political: how do I fit in the world as an architect today? Entrepreneur comes from the Latin prendere which means to take, and more specifically it means to get something going, or to take matters into your own hands. It is a gesture of taking control. The presumption here is that there is an individual who is going to affect something in the world. Entrepreneurship is really an insertion of individual agency. Now, there is a complicated politics to that. We are highly aware that in fact we are all connected – to each other and to things that are not human, to processes that are affecting all of us. Yet we find ourselves in a political and economic context where, it seems, we can only take things into our own hands, as the institutions that could protect and foster our life in common have been dismantled after decades of neoliberal politics. The entrepreneurship question is a political question. What we are trying to do tonight is to find the tools to act politically from within our own profession, not to look at politics as something that is outside, but as something we do everyday. How can we create institutions, companies, schools, professional organizations that respond to this question?
“A true architect is not an artist but an optimistic realist. They take a diverse number of stakeholders, extract needs, concerns, and dreams, then create a beautiful yet tangible solution that is loved by the users and the community at large. We create vessels in which life happens.” — Cameron Sinclair
“Public space is the city.” — Oriol Bohigas
We asked our guests to think about what entrepreneurialism means to them, and to provide a “tweet.” They are each going to give us their tweet one by one, and we are going to collectively unpack the tweets, expand the tweets. Peggy Deamer
I admire anyone who moves from the doldrums of traditional architectural practice and connects his or her architectural skills to larger economic movements. This might suggest that I admire entrepreneurialism, which I do, but only as the antithesis of the current piecework wage model. I am more interested in the synthesis that uses but discards entrepreneurialism: What does it use? One, the clear acceptance that architectural practice operates within the national and global economy, that is, that it is not exempt from issues of capitalism; two, that we are creative not just formally but also organizationally; and three, that as part of the big economy we don’t just produce objects, we produce knowledge and we produce strategies. What is it that we discard? The branding of entrepreneurialism that makes it neoliberalism’s pawn, that puts a gloss on what is another form of precarity, that sustains an individualist model of hero and innovator, and that makes security and power the ends and not the means. If entrepreneurialism gets us to the economic power table, it should also want to change it.
I took the liberalist approach and I think mine is 140 characters. I think I’m also the villain in this discussion, so… Entrepreneurialism in architecture is all about bringing new ideas to life around technologies, business models, or workflows in pursuit of improving how we build, sell, or use space.
Entrepreneurialism is the effort, the impulse to try to garner enough resources and support to see an idea through to its logical conclusion. However, in the market economy those resources are often scarce, so we are all going to fight for them. So before we were all fighting to work at SOM or something like that; now with this entrepreneurialism we are all fighting for the few VC dollars out there, angel dollars, all those things. So, then, this entrepreneurialism becomes a trap, a trap that can’t question its own system. It looks fair, but in all reality, the power distribution that exists is replicated over and over and over. Can we then begin to reimagine a way of garnering those resources?
From the business strategist point of view, entrepreneurship needs not innovation but a back-to-basics; it needs to know what it means to be a professional service that can demonstrate its value and know its costs. To understand one’s price of services is actually a very complex endeavor. In my consulting experience, it’s really hard to know how long it’s going to take to get the job done, and even more Part 1 of 3
“Under capitalism, man exploits man.” — John Kenneth Galbraith
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — Friedrich August von Hayek
complex to get the job done right, or in a fantastic manner, or an innovative manner. Understanding the cost of providing that service, and then making sure to aim for appreciable differences between the two – that’s entrepreneurship in terms of architecture for me. George Valdes
My take on architecture has more to do with culture. The culture of architecture produces the image of entrepreneurs as singular geniuses; this is its Achilles heel. This pervasive image of the architect as this one person who slaves away bringing their idea to fruition. In fact, when you are starting a company, you can’t do it all by yourself, and you actually have to find people that can help you take your vision (hopefully, it ends up becoming a collective vision) into fruition. This culture is incredibly systemic; too much of education is about teaching individual people.
Peggy mentioned the issue of capitalism. Quilian, also, was discussing the context in which one is an entrepreneur, one where there is a limited amount of resources, capital, or skills, and a number of people competing for those resources. That structurally describes the system that gives rise to entrepreneurialism. So that would be a macro interpretation; we could discuss whether we all agree or disagree with that. But on the micro level, this logic of competition is a structure we work with every day. What kind of everyday practices could we begin to undertake to change that culture?
My immediate response has to do with the nature of competitions in general. The Beaux Arts model of competition is still alive and well, and it’s incredibly harmful to the profession. I think it’s foolish to waste resources, intellectual and otherwise, on doing projects in which the chance of success are quite low. The politics in competitions are completely outside of your control. I think there is a way to put your heads together and produce something more compelling. Deciding not to look at those competitions would be a good ritual practice to take on.
Competitions make a career based on Tomorrow I’ll get that phone call or Tomorrow I’ll win that competition, and I am going to base my whole business on maybe tomorrow, which is not a business plan. The disruption that competitions have for our psyche, not to mention the wasted hours – if we put the hours that went towards that competition into projects that we actually think are worthwhile, in community services, or even going to our community board meetings, we would be doing much more service to our society as well as actually bringing recognition to ourselves.
Can I disagree with everything? I think that capital and resources are not scarce, I think that there is tons of capital available just chasing good ideas. All you really have to have is a good idea and the capital is there. Just think about yourself and be a little bit selfish. One of the things that strikes me as an outside observer of the practice of architecture is that architects and software engineers are very similar in the sense that they have a broad skill set that is highly technical and in-demand. However, software engineers have become some of the wealthiest people on the planet because they have actually gone and gotten the capital they needed to build the world’s new technology companies. But that hasn’t really happened with architecture. Architects specifically have never said, I’m going to be the real estate developer; I’m going to go build the things that I need and make all the money that the developers make. We need more architects who are actually reaping the benefits of building the buildings, rather than being the service provider to the somewhat untalented real estate developers. The problem is that architects are not yet going after the cash that they need to affect their change in the world. So I don’t agree that capital is scarce and resources are scarce, I think that architects have to spend a little more time thinking about how to be the software engineer type entrepreneur.
I appreciate the call to architects to own the product and reap the benefits. But it calls to mind one of the things that I had heard that started this discussion, which is that if you want to be a successful architect, go into a real estate program. Part 1 of 3
“Architecture is an expression of values.” — Norman Foster
“You cannot defend your design without knowing what you’re designing for.” — I. M. Pei
// But whose ideas are realized in practice?
“In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.” — David Ogilvy, co-founder of Ogilvy & Mather
Become a real estate developer. That might be fine but it raises two questions. One is: Do developers do the projects that we think architects should do? It keeps intact a model that still assumes that there is a project out there that somebody else has made, that somebody else wants who doesn’t necessarily care about the public realm, sustainability, etc., and that we are going to do that. We are going to give the object so do we get the rewards for that object? I think we want to go out and develop the work that we think needs to happen and find ways to do it. What is the work that we want to see done, and how do we, with an entrepreneurial spirit, figure out how to finance it? I want to think about whether real estate is the only definition of entrepreneurialism in architecture. MI
I spent a couple of years seeing the financial insides of architecture firms. I have to tell you that being an architect is a full-time job, and if you want to transform the ways in which you practice then it has to come from the ways in which you provide your service and the contractual relationship you set up. You have two levers to be profitable: either you’re high on your price or you’re good on your timing so you know how to build frequently and call frequently to get your invoices paid. Becoming an entrepreneurial architect comes from the question: What other services can you fold into your architectural services? But it also comes from a very practical back-to-basics understanding. When you enrolled at this school, you are not here to become an expensive service that sends invoices on time and follows up on those things to get paid. That’s hardly the goal of this profession, but that’s the business mechanism to reach profitability and sustainability. Real estate is just one product. Let’s say you come to architecture school and want to design buildings as physical spaces – I did not, but if you do then real estate might be an avenue through which you can take ownership of the process. There are a ton of other products and ways through which you can take ownership that are just as interesting and challenging. The company that I work for now, IrisVR, we are doing virtual reality for architecture workflows to create more efficient methods for design, engineering, and construction. You can take ownership over the kind of territory you want to tackle. I think that understanding the financial aspect of it is important because in academia you can be critical of the system, but once you are out in the world that criticality has to become much more nuanced and much more savvy. There is tremendous support still within that system. Not every idea is great, but what I find very compelling is to figure out how to create something larger than oneself, to create something that people ultimately do benefit from. That is what keeps driving us to do more. Don’t assume that this is just one product, architecture is not the end of it all. With the set of skills that you acquire, you could interview for any startup and they would be kind of floored (intended pun) by the kind of skills that you could present to them. I was going to say precisely the same thing. We have architecture firms in the incubator, and what you see is that those firms begin to spin off things. They begin to spin off technological solutions, hardware solutions, or begin to come up with other products. So products they can sell to keep practicing architecture. Honestly, I think that the service model seems to be in true crisis. I think that somehow in architecture, the question of entrepreneurialism is really service versus the real estate question, I don’t know. We haven’t been talking about service, we’ve been talking about starting with zero pitch sticks, venture capitalists, angel investors and crowd funding. Continued in Part 2...
Part 1 of 3
“Those who applaud social production and networked amateurism, the colorful cacophony that is the Internet, and the creative capacities of everyday people to produce entertaining and enlightening things online, are right to marvel. There is amazing inventiveness, boundless talent and ability, and overwhelming generosity on display. Where they go wrong is thinking that the Internet is an egalitarian, let alone revolutionary, platform for our selfexpression and development, that being able to shout into the digital torrent is adequate for democracy.” — Astra Taylor
// We’re all eventually going to “sell out” in some way or another to make ends meet.
__________________________ Sources: Bohigas, Oriol. “Ten Points for an Urban Methodology” Architecture Review (1999). Çayli, Eray. “Defiance in” Lobby No. 3 (2015). Foster, Norman. Interview with The European in ArchDaily (2014). Galbraith, John Kenneth. A Life in Our Times (1981). Ghery, Frank. quoted by Anna Winston in ‘“98% of what gets built today is shit’ says Frank Gehry“ DeZeen (2014). von Hayek, Friedrich August. The Fatal Conceit (1988). Ogilvy, David. referenced from The Business Insider (2014). Pei, I. M. Interview with Robert Ivy for Architectural Record (2004). Sinclair, Cameron. Interview by Daniel Fromson in “A Conversation With Cameron Sinclair, CEO of Architecture for Humanity” The Atlantic (2011). Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions (2014).
Iâ€™m a great designer is not a value proposition.
issue 1 part 2 // feb 2016
the entrepreneurship question
THE ENTREPRENEURSHIP QUESTION Recorded at Columbia GSAPP September 16, 2015 Part 2/3 MS
There are a couple of strands here. One has to do with scalability, which is really a crucial word for us. Scalable technologies do rely on the network effects that they create: in order to attract the capital, there needs to be a network effect, growth. The other is that which assumes a level playing field, and a lot of the tweets that we received allude to the fact that we all leave college with different levels of debt and there are structural inequalities there. Entrepreneurial culture is not an innocent player within that inequality. Silicon Valley is a very homogeneous place and there is incredible inequality. So just to challenge this conversation to ask: Is it so easy? Do we finish college and is it just about having the best idea or are there other factors at play? Silicon Valley is very homogeneous if you look at race and gender – these are things people are trying to change. What is not homogeneous is how the most successful people have acquired their education. You have folks like Mark Zuckerberg and others who went to Harvard, grew up in a super wealthy environment. You have folks like the guys who created WhatsApp, who grew up in the Ukraine and were self-taught. One of the forces for change in the world today is that there is a world-class education available for free online. This is available for all disciplines but perhaps the most important for the next hundred years is computer science. You can now become an expert with an internet connection. So that raises the question: Does everybody have an internet connection? No, not yet, but that is changing. There are new elements at work that help those with the fewer resources get somewhat closer to a level of playing field.
Of the things that have changed in the past twenty years, in the context of this university, tuition is a good starting point. I am assuming that everyone here is going to come out with a pretty substantial figure in debt which already puts us at a disadvantage in the playing field. More so now than ever, especially since it’s given access to people who have not had the financial means of access before. It is in the back of the mind of anybody in this room who is currently a student, I know it was in my mind when I was here. It became evident that there had to be another way, because I didn’t have some of the advantages that some of the professors of mine had. That is the call to action, everybody needs to make a living, and I think that that is what drives people. I think that culturally something has to change within the startup environment.
I think this is a fascinating topic. Is debt pushing us towards one way of viewing the economy and the way we work? The question of entrepreneurship is, are there other ways? The world is going to change, technology is going to save us, we are going to find a way to monetize our skills, but as a reality is it going to happen? Will three of you monetize all the digital spaces? The question is going to come up, right, this technoutopian thing is going to create a world where it all seems like a possibility, but that possibility is actually becoming less and less. Now there is very serious talk about something like a basic income, because the majority of us will probably not have jobs in the future.
This is exactly the right conversation to have. We are absolutely starting to move into a post-employment world. Our parents and our parents’ parents who went to one company that provided their employment for decades, that framework is going away because their companies are being replaced. We are ultimately moving into a world where everybody is their own company. If we don’t replace jobs at a faster rate then we figure out the political structure to support basic needs for folks, we all need to get on board with some notion of a basic minimum income. I appreciate the conversation about living wage and the shrinking workforce. We hear about, for instance, Netflix and their totally fabulous benefits package with paid maternity and paternity leave; but the reality is that Netflix is employing Part 2 of 3
“In the United States, where civic boosterism and entrepreneurialism had long been a major feature of urban systems… the reduction in the flow of federal redistributions and local tax revenues after 1972 (the year in which President Nixon declared the urban crisis to be over, signaling that the federal government no longer had the fiscal resources to contribute to their solution) led to a revival of boosterism to the point where Robert Goodman (1979) was prepared to characterise both state and local governments as ‘the last entrepreneurs.’” — David Harvey
“People who both engage in illicit activities as teenagers and score highly on learning aptitude tests have a much greater tendency to become entrepreneurs than others. It is [a] particular mixture of “smart” and “illicit” characteristics… (a) analytical flexibility, creativity, reasoning, and generalized problem-solving, and (b) complex interpersonal communications such as persuading, selling, and managing others.” — Ross Levine & Yona Rubenstein
“Entrepreneur (n): A person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.” — Oxford English Dictionary
“Do or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda
a third of as many people as Blockbuster did and is shrinking the workforce. But I want to come back to the product and the scalability issue. We can’t avoid the fact that what makes a lot of startups work and get those angel investors is that a lot of products are sold. We don’t have that. We have this one big lumpy thing called the building that doesn’t repeat itself in the same way. I think as long as we define ourselves as giving somebody – some client, some developer – a product, a building, we’re in trouble. We have the skills and knowledge, and we need to be able to identify and articulate that. So then it becomes a question, how do we identify and articulate those things? And probably we’re going to demonstrate that we know how to register the embedded energy in a house or something. That’s going to show that we’re smart, we’re interested in doing something good for society, and we’re going to invent an app that does that, to switch from building to knowledge, and then probably implicate the switch from knowledge to something new that will be a product. MI
Coming from a design background, you want every project to be very unique and that’s the way we’re educated and that’s part of our culture, but from the business bottomline perspective that’s very inefficient. So that’s the tension when it comes to being a professional service and building a profitable and sustainable business. Because getting that one project, whether or not it’s by a competition, a rich uncle, an extremely well-connected Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s not the issue; the issue is staying profitable and sustainable as a practice, employing future generations of designers. I think business is a way to sustain relationships. If you can replicate a house seventy million times over and sustain a staff of one hundred people from which families and cultures and cities evolve, that’s a very respectable way of making a living. It’s not an often espoused way of making a living when you’re in these hallowed halls. But there are ways to rethink practices that don’t have to be virtual reality; you can be an architect and you can have a scalable practice, it just might mean things that you don’t often hear in school as aspirations of the practice.
What kind of skills should we be learning in school? Columbia’s teaching model is do a design, present it for two weeks, have a panel of critics who either say it’s great or they are probably telling you it’s great but you don’t really know what they’re talking about. That was my Harvard experience. That’s a really, really valuable skillset to be able to walk into a room and say this is what I thought, this is my resolution, these are the areas to which I’d like your feedback. Dave, can you back me up, that that’s pretty much a pitch? It’s definitely a pitch. I think you just touched upon the primary difference between architecture and software. One of the tenants of really good software design is move fast, iterate, break stuff, reverse it, figure out where the dependencies are. That process is very dangerous when you’re building physical things. The thing about venture capital is that they tolerate nine failures out of ten in exchange for getting the one homerun. That’s how venture capitalists make their money, it’s called power law distribution: a very small number of outcomes yield a huge financial gain. That’s not really how physical goods scale and are distributed. So if you’re looking for a source of capital that is required to build a physical thing in the world, think about where you’re getting capital, think about their cost of capital. If you’re going to pursue a very high-risk activity, think about finding a capital source to match that. And that’s something that is often not taught in schools like GSAPP because it’s a little bit dirty. But it’s actually how the world works, and I think it’s helpful to know. The pizazz that surrounds the Silicon Valley world is certainly alluring, but it’s not one-to-one when it comes to the professional skills and results. I think that the skillsets, the critique model, the idea of seeking out other people’s opinions, ideas, capital, that is definitely a translatable skill. You’re learning to visualize ideas that you have, the reasoning skills, and the ability to express your ideas in physical form: that is also extremely valuable. Part 2 of 3
// Can we think of work culture and the quality of life for the people we employ as the real product of our practice? Maybe the product could become more generic in exchange for a healthier work culture?
“The rate of billionaire entrepreneurs correlates negatively with selfemployment, small business ownership, and startup rates. Countries with higher income, higher trust, lower taxes, more venture capital investment, and lower regulatory burdens have higher entrepreneurship rates but less self-employment.” — Magnus Henrekson & Tino Sanandaji
“[There is] a large population of would-be entrepreneurs held back by uninsured risk, [indicating] the importance of social programs in shaping labor supply and helping households start businesses.” — Gareth Olds
If we agree that what we have is knowledge and not objectmaking, I want to disagree with the pitch, the sell that we’re learning here, because it seems to me that what we want to say is that when we actually design a building, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the things that we have had to know from zoning to code to material performance to energy distribution to financing to politics – it’s just the tip of the iceberg and we never make that argument. We make the argument I can do it, I can do it quicker or I can do it prettier or whatever. I think what we need to do is to learn how to argue for that, which also means we need to learn how to write a different set of contracts that don’t privilege the object.
I agree with you. But “I’m a great designer” is not a value proposition. That is a given, because you went to Columbia, or Yale, or wherever.
Architects are very good at handling teams and handling very complicated projects, handling a lot of information. And that is something we don’t capitalize enough on. George mentioned the importance of culture, developing a way of working, the question of internal organization. How do you work efficiently, how do you work well, how do you also not reproduce precarity? How are those things connected through the notion of culture or organization within the company?
For any entrepreneur, the first responsibilities of a founding team is to hire people around them. That recruitment ends up being a day-to-day job. Rapid growth is a complex organizational issue to begin with. This is the kind of conversation that happens almost not at all in architecture. And it’s why there are so many complaints from recent grads about their work environments. It could be that they’re super passionate about the work, and the work is very compelling at some firms no doubt, but the fact that nobody along the way in their education has even given thought to what it means to manage people around them, to create an environment. The thing that you’re working on, maybe to a fault in architecture, overpowers every other thing: I’m working on this opera house, or this really amazing cool project, I believe in the vision of what this is doing, I believe in everything about it. In architecture they’ll put up with incredibly horrible wages, and they’ll have their blinders on when it comes to the fact that they have horrible management around them. So actually spending twenty-four hours on a project is not your fault as a designer, it’s the fault of the people above you who didn’t allocate time appropriately, didn’t scope the work, didn’t give you constraints within which to work, and that actually becomes incredibly pervasive. I think management itself should be a course that’s taught.
And there are an incredible variety of models. There’s not just one way to run a company, there are many, many different ways.
I think that this question of the team becomes really important. Some of the things we’ve been doing with the Architecture Lobby, these new labor models require new kinds of organizations, and at what level? I want to be an entrepreneur, so how do I get in the room with people that can give me capital? Those are entrepreneurial questions, but my question is what happens when we all decide to be entrepreneurs? When ten percent of entrepreneurs actually make it, what does that mean? One of the exciting things about entrepreneurial cultures, quite honestly, is having to get this monkey off your back that architects are taught – that you have to be good at everything, and that you’re beautiful and masterful and everything is good – and rather, being very honest. You know what, I kind of suck at that, can you do that? That’s an incredibly liberating moment.
What’s interesting to me is the goal of having a practice that isn’t completely client-driven, that isn’t about waiting for someone to hand you something to do, but to find the thing you want to do and find a way to do it. That’s the cool thing about what we’re talking about.
Part 2 of 3
// The role of architects seems to shrink as the technology of architecture evolves, our range of responsibilities overtaken by software developers and consultants. But this illusion is only sustained by our fixation on precious architectural conventions and our pride of rigid selfidentification as designers of built form.
“The rich industrial societies are themselves taking on something of a Third World cast, with islands of extreme wealth and privilege amidst a rising sea of poverty and despair.” — Noam Chomsky
The difference between Silicon Valley inventors and architects is that the former do something that is going to be mass produced. They spend a lot of time honing and tweaking and perfecting whatever the product is, whether it’s a car, or an iPhone, or anything. Those things are prototyped and tested and so on before they’re built. The notion that we build buildings in a one-off way, without being prototyped or tested and so on… If you built a car that way you’d have a three million dollar car that would be a piece of garbage, right? So why don’t we think about buildings more the way we think about cars? We should be designing things that are more useful and where our design effort is highly leveraged. What we really learn here is a process for doing these things, but we should take the blinders off and apply this process to lots of other things to solve things in a better way.
I think the comparison between architecture and digital practice is not a very long one in our history, and it has lots of variables and lots of outcomes, consequences also. But the fundamental difference... for example, I would agree that virtual reality is a potential site of architectural practice. But that space, it doesn’t have a place, so to be actually in the built environment... locality of a space, it is very particular. It cannot be mass produced, we don’t have a large audience who can have an immediate experience as they can with apps, you can’t really do that. This is very particular to architecture and makes it difficult to scale up a project.
It’s somewhat uncommon that an entrepreneur doing their first ever exercise goes out and raises truckloads of cash and produces a huge return to their investors. In fact, it’s substantially more common that a second and third time try actually yields the returns, and this is why Silicon Valley prizes failure. I think the lesson there for architecture is be open to starting small, given the physical costs that are required to make massive change in how we use space or how we use a landscape, and be willing to prove whatever concept you want to bring into the world, be willing to prove it in a small way as a way to build credibility with the audience you’ll need to garner to get the resources necessary to make change in a big way. With all the grandiosity that exists in the technology ecosystem, and a little bit in starchitecture, it strikes me that if you can take fewer resources, use your skills, use your labor, and actually prove what it is that you want to build on a small scale, you then use this as your marketing bullhorn to go and get the big amount of capital you need. It’s a general practice very similar in startup to what they call the minimum viable product, which is putting a product into the world that’s actually somewhat embarrassing but proves the thing you’re trying to test. I think there’s a comparable thing to be done in the physical world, which is why I’m not a fan of let’s go raise a bunch of money. I say go build it yourself, and then go and take that to people and say look what I’ve done and imagine what I could do if I had ten times the resources.
Maybe it’s about usability studies. If you want to be the greatest museum architect that ever lived by 2080, maybe you have theories and exercises to prove how accessible, how liked on social media, on virtual reality, your space is; how it displays art differently; how that experience is replicable in different areas, different types of museums. Those are the metrics we don’t learn typically in architecture schools. We like to think of the envelope first, and the person comes very, very late in the game. But coming from that human experience, a space that people like to go to is a very attractive idea for both museum funders or real estate developers or the businesses around it. Continued in Part 3...
Part 2 of 3
“We are currently not planning on conquering the world.” — Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google
__________________________ Sources: Brin, Sergey. Referenced from The Business Insider (2013). Chomsky, Noam. Year 501 (1993). Entrepreneur [Def. 1] Oxford English Dictionary, retreived February 17, 2016: online. Harvey, David. “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 71, No. 1 (1989). Henrekson, Magnus and Tino Sanandaji. “Small business activity does not measure entrepreneurship” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences vol. 111 no. 5 (2014). Levine, Ross and Yona Rubenstein. “Smart and Illicit: Who becomes an entrepreneur and do they earn more?” NBER Working Paper No. 19276 (2013). Olds, Gareth. “Food Stamp Entrepreneurs” Brown University (2014). Yoda. “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” dir. George Lucas, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox (1980).
Quote by Dave Eisenberg, Columbia GSAPP 2015
We are ultimately moving into a world where everybody is their own company.
A-Frame works collectively and critically on the social, economic, and political issues that frame the fields of architecture and development
issue 1 part 3 // feb 2016
the entrepreneurship question
THE ENTREPRENEURSHIP QUESTION Recorded at Columbia GSAPP September 16, 2015 Part 3/3 Violet Whitney
Architecture – brick and mortar, physical things – are insanely expensive and, yes, to some degree maybe we can find a way to design and mass produce something, but there’s also this other thing happening with crowdsourcing. It has yet to have any real viability. Like +Pool, they were only able to raise a very small portion of capital to prove that they can build this pool, and they still are trying to find the best way to actually make this thing come to fruition. So I was just wondering if any of you guys have some sort of idea – and then I’ll just write it down and go do it – about how the ownership models might be able to shift in some way. How can we get people, the public rather than an individual investor, to go in on a project together and say, hey, we’re going to build a school.
That’s what taxes are supposed to do.
That’s the government! And the problem with what you’re saying is how many +Pools are we going to see in East New York and Brownsville? This is when using this “market,” this blanket word public, which, like sharing and this and that, has all been co-opted. Some of the systems that we’re talking about sound very apolitical and clean but in all reality they’re shifting the way we think about government. You just mentioned this whole system, and this system exists! And it builds schools, and it builds parks, and it builds them for both people with low income and high income. Not much anymore because it’s been defunded, because there’s this idea that all these nonprofits, and Bill Gates with all his millions of dollars, instead of giving it to the government, he’s a better judge of where that money should be going. There’s a dismantling of the state happening.
Attracting capital: ultimately, it’s a very political question. The most wealth is concentrated among a minority of the nation. Those, ultimately, are who you have to go to. If tax – the original crowd funding system – has stopped working, we have to really use a second, contemporary crowd funding method to source the money; the majority of people really don’t have the resources, so it doesn’t really balance.
Can I tell you a secret, the largest venture capital firms don’t want to show up and see people of super privilege who say, I need a huge amount of money to go build this thing that has never been validated before. They hate investing in those businesses. What they like are the scrappy people who have proved the thing on the fewest resources possible. I feel like there’s a little bit of antagonism in your question about how these sources of capital have so much decision making authority. These people are terrified of taking on unnecessary risk, they only want to make decisions that are highly repeatable and highly scalable and have a formula to them. And so this secret that these big sources of capital are the decision makers of what’s cool and what’s worthy of being funded is actually totally false. Most big sources of capital just want to see that it’s a low-risk thing to do and the easiest way to prove low risk is to show that lots of people care about this thing that you do.
There is a qualitative difference between making a product like a virtual reality headset and, let’s say, providing schools. The architect in that sense has a really political position in the world. What we are confronting here is the redesign of government. The connection between the state and those very efficient processes that startup culture and entrepreneurial capitalism creates – iteration, risk assessment procedures, the disciplining of the market – has to be taken seriously when we’re talking about architectural objects, because they’re objects that collect public life, create public life. The question of whether it should be the very rich entrepreneurs like Bill Gates who decide what kind of schools should be built, that’s a very political question.
But [entrepreneurs like Bill Gates] play dumb; typically, they’re not the ones deciding what schools get built. I think that’s a government failure. The trend as Quilian pointed out is that most of government is being defunded. Like Detroit. Who’s propping up Detroit? It’s not the government, it’s Dan Gilbert. Part 3 of 3
// There seems to be a binary. There are completely government funded projects and then there are private investments for projects. But maybe there is an in-between somewhere in there because not every building should be owned by everyone. There is a reason that people want to own their own house, or a group wants to own their own church. Maybe there is a new method for raising capital in groups that are similar to co-ops, etc.
“A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.” — Jean-François Lyotard
“First, it seems evident that architects and educators must make themselves students of local and global issues (and by extension opportunities) that transcend the built environment. Developing opportunistic solutions to critical issues that pertain to the built environment is a given; doing so for issues that bear no significant relationship to the built environment is transformation.” — Nathan Richardson
Because he believes so much in this vision that he’s trying to amass people around him. MS
The question there is why did Detroit go bankrupt, and it’s a very political history.
Yeah, but it’s, like, almost larger than just even Dan Gilbert himself, right? It’s even larger than the individual who has all the capital around him. That was historical, that was completely structural, almost beyond his own grasp even. If we’re talking about ethics and the morality of what gets built, that means that everyone here should just be more politically active.
This conversation has been had in Newark, and it failed at a political level. Entrepreneurs were literally deciding what schools would get money, what schools would be renovated, the design of the school, the curriculum, the kind of technoutopian by-the-numbers education, and it failed.
I don’t think that’s fair. So Mark Zuckerberg tried this Newark thing, got super disillusioned with the politics of the Newark ecosystem, decides to give his money to an organization that’s named Alt School – literally like an alternative approach to school, which is a private technology-driven organization led by a friend of mine. Alt School is basically trying to say, I have to operate exogenous to the system in order to create a new concept of what school looks like. And I think the things that entrepreneurs tend to get frustrated by are arbitrary rules and regulations that are not easily overturned, like our tax code and law, like regulation. So what you hear a lot of these billionaires saying is that an unregulated environment is most likely to generate real innovation.
Yeah, even schools. Or, for example, Bill Gate’s big thing is curing malaria. There are a few approaches to doing that, a private enterprise approach or funding government. And I think they’ve chosen their path because they believe it to be the most efficient and effective.
How can we have these two approaches? Like, I want to be an entrepreneur, I want to make money, I want to make this education do something for me. I also don’t want to forget about these questions, about what entrepreneurialism is doing to my society, my government, my fellow citizens. How can you do those two things?
To answer Violet, there’s a thing called the New York City Real Estate Investment Cooperative that is crowd-investing for a limited-profit, permanently affordable commercial spaces, a group of activists and a lot of different people coming together. It’s a pretty interesting venue, it’s not paragovernment, it’s not a nonprofit, but it is limited-profit working within the existing profit-driven real estate market to create a change. I once talked to a historian who argued that performances in classical music were the byproduct of the patronage model, that if you have a rich patron funding composition, then that has to culminate in a performance. So the performance was an outgrowth of the funding model that drove the music. I wonder if the role of the architect can be understood as a byproduct of the funding structure or the building structure. Often times the architect, or the role of designing a building, is a thing that happens after the business owner or the developer has ascertained what to build in the first place. And what are ways in which, very concretely, architects can modify their work or gather new knowledge domains, new modes of practices? For example, to delve into real estate and construction, which is a huge unspoken system or operation or method in which architects’ drawings are then utilized and run operatively. How do you modify funding structures so that your roles are different? What are the ways in which you think, the ways in which the practice manifests? There’s an incredible amount of ingenuity out there in the form of new product developments. It’s just not understood as such. It seems that construction is not a thing that’s talked about within architecture. Part 3 of 3
“Professional practice is politically adjacent to public service yet economically classified as a tertiary consumer service” — ARPA journal
// Being “politically active” cannot just happen outside of our work as professionals, because we all know our work consumes most of our time. Yes it means political activism, but we still need to figure out how this fits into our work, what political stance our work takes.
“Public education has been simply emptied, dismantled, and replaced with a system of market-driven evaluation that kills autonomous research. Innovation is celebrated, but only through the framework of profit and growth.” — Franco Berardi
Well thank you all for your incredibly thought-provoking insights. We have these networks of traveling and transportation that are becoming democratized, similar to the internet, and so all these opportunities become available. But the problem is that we haven’t taken the moment to question what is it that we’re aspiring to. I’m not trying to say that the poor Ukrainian shouldn’t have been able to come here, and make it, and buy into the capitalist American dream, but just some moment of thinking about what that American dream is, now kind of the global dream. There has to be some way to engage that in the process, I’m hoping. The criticality in actually creating the terms of development get lost when you don’t incorporate marginalized voices from the beginning. There needs to be some way to think differently from the you can fail nine times and succeed once, and to think of that in terms of the lives that are put at risk. The logic beneath that operation supports a particular system that values speculation, and that’s actually the very thing that caused people to lose their houses quite recently. There has to be a way to consider the lives actually being put at risk in the work that you do.
Failure in architecture already happens. But one of the things that architects do badly is assign metrics to their failure. That is part of the culture in which you have to go back and understand why you failed previously in order to improve upon it. How does architecture create the notion of a prototype, how do you measure failures in such a way that you can learn from them, and make better mistakes? I think that goes back to understanding users, it’s about this expertise that you start to develop over a period of time that makes you a much safer bet, that people start to buy into your vision. There is this kind of rigor that has to happen. What am I going to spend my limited time on earth doing? Can I develop an expertise in one thing? It’s a kind of circular, all-encompassing thought but… What is innovation in architecture? is a totally interesting question related to what is failure in architecture? I have to say that I don’t think innovation in architecture is formal. When something looks like innovation, someone else stretched it farther or did it higher or did a double skin instead of a triple skin, that’s not innovation. That’s the epitome of formal innovation which we keep teaching, telling the students that this is what school is about. One of the things that is innovative is that architects can take control of the maintenance of buildings. Because we now know the as-built, we can manage buildings, which means we can get a whole other source of revenue. Completely unsexy. Not virtual reality, not fun at all. But it might be a certain form of innovation. It is an area that needs tracking. We understand that what it is that makes us successful really comes over a long, long period of time; it’s not when we hand it off to the photographer, and whether we get in Architectural Record, which is what we’ve been taught success is. So there’s a whole temporal quality of knowledge that could really benefit us, and we’re poised to do it. Most of architectural design is sourcing, it’s not even construction, it’s sourcing different products. And if we were willing to work with those industries to remake those products, it would be different. It’s not just designing the building, it’s designing those products that we’re sourcing. And if we had an education that provided these things it would be a different world.
I want to bring it back to academia. Architecture school seems very isolated and prescribed. As architecture students, we don’t have time to collaborate with other schools, to pursue other interests, or to prototype and test personal projects. A forty year old architect is a “young architect.” We graduate, take a bunch of tests, work at various offices, and, if we’re lucky, finally start pursuing our own projects and interests. On the other hand, students who study a discipline like software engineering or business seem to begin the process of self-determination while still in academia. They reach out to people in other fields and carry their projects into professional practice. I think architecture education needs to change. What are some changes that you think we should undertake, and how do we achieve them?
Part 3 of 3
“Can we make architecture students understand the relationship between design and construction socially, beyond the obviousness of their chronological order?… Can we make future practitioners reconsider the dogma of technology as the compass, moral, and signifier or architecture? Can we acknowledge and celebrate the ambitious humility required to use labor and the world of practice as a lever for action rather than a justification for ineffectiveness?” — Paolo Tombesi
“A business plan is essentially a research exercise written in isolation at a desk before an entrepreneur has even begun to build a product. The assumption is that it’s possible to figure out most of the unknowns of a business in advance, before you raise money and actually execute the idea….. No one besides venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union requires five-year plans to forecast complete unknowns. These plans are generally fiction, and dreaming them up is almost always a waste of time.“ — Steve Blank
“About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody moves the ends.” — Herbert Hoover
Practice going home at 6 pm. Go next door to the business school, or there’s a construction and management program here, and there’s a lot of alumni who’ve come from Columbia into the real estate construction world. The ability of the design or architecture school to self-seclude is greater than you’ll ever know until you graduate, so the earlier you can get out of this environment or be comfortable in other environments the better.
It seems that architects are a little behind the curve. It seems like other schools and other programs are really eating our lunch. There are programs cropping up everywhere. At Parsons I teach in the School of Design Strategies. What does that mean? Nothing. Our students struggle because they come out with degrees in transdisciplinary design, which is very different than architecture. Architect has the legacy name, almost any space I walk into, saying I’m an architect means something. But as a model, the School of Design Strategies brings in real life projects, it runs as a workshop rather than honing individual master genius skills. I’ve always wondered why architecture school at a place like Harvard, why they take these kids through boot camp and beat the journalism out of them, beat the English, whatever their background is. It seems like such a waste. While in the School of Design Strategies this is the big question: How can all of these people with different skills help solve problems? The problem then, and you see what I’m doing, always going back and forth, the problem is the lack of specificity. The students come out not being able to put together a building. But they can draw you a hell of a diagram of a complex situation that takes into account all kinds of point of views. I’m wondering how our tax dollars can begin to bring entrepreneurism to government. And by that I mean ingenuity, the comfortableness with certain amounts of failure, etc., while doing the things that government should do, which includes a certain amount of regulation, etc. How can we use tax dollars better? How can we rethink the way those things work? I think that what needs to be done is to experiment with collaborative models of entrepreneurialism, whether they’re akin to labor unions, collectives, cooperatives, any of those things.
The lesson for me, hearing what your concerns are, is to be less comfortable with the idea that this education is going to be given to you in a nice clear package or in an easily digestible unit. What I observe in people I really respect is that they’ve taken their education into their own hands. And if a formal environment is needed to get that education you know, with professors within a classroom setting, go and get the most out of that, but supplement that with the things that you’re concerned about. It’s on you. My one lesson is your career success is on you. It’s not on a firm that you’re going to go and work for to deliver that to you, it’s for you to get the most out of that. You don’t go to school at Avery Hall, you go to school at Columbia University, and if the trend holds true, which is that you could get the same education you could get at Columbia through some other means, then the value prop of coming to a place like this is not actually your professors, it’s the people around you that you have as a resource. I basically decided that studio was not my most valuable thing I was getting out of this; I decided that other people in this university were much more valuable. That was very, very fortuitous and that led me down this different path which I very much enjoy. If you have ideas take ownership of them now, it doesn’t mean you have to wait until you graduate. It just means that grad school is kind of like this purgatory where you’re just figuring out what you want to do, and will hopefully be saved at the end of it; but you have to find your own saving. And on this religiously themed note, thank you so much.
Part 3 of 3
__________________________ Sources: ARPA Journal. Announcement: “Call for submissions: Issue 04 Instruments of Service”: Online (2015). Berardi, Franco. “Dynamic of the General Intellect” in The Architect as Worker ed. Peggy Deamer (2015). Blank, Steve. “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything” Harvard Business Review (2013). Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition (1979). Richardson, Nathan. “Architecture Is Entrepreneurship and (Why) It Matters” Local Identities / Global Challenges (2013). Tombesi, Paolo. “More for less: architectural labor and design productivity” in The Architect as Worker ed. Peggy Deamer (2015). __________________________ Additional Reading: Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). Foucault, Michel . “The Birth of BioPolitics” (1978). Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World (1984). Elson, Diane. ”Market Socialism or Socialization of the Market?” New Left Review (1988). Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). Carr, Nicholas. “From the Many to the Few” The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (2008). Upbin, Bruce. “Joshua Prince-Ramus On The Myth Of Architectural Genius“ Forbes (2010). Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth (2011). Krippner, Greta. Capitalizing on Crisis (2011). Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: And Other Digital Delusions (2014). Burrington, Ingrid, John Krauss, Chris Henrick, Dan Taeyoung, and Caroline Woolard. Landscapes of Profit (2015).
If entrepreneurialism gets us to the economic power table, it should also want to change it.
Columbia GSAPP student publication putting in relation the digital wave with current labor issues of the architectural industry. 12" x 6.25"
Published on Feb 14, 2016
Columbia GSAPP student publication putting in relation the digital wave with current labor issues of the architectural industry. 12" x 6.25"