How much is your architect worth?

One thing that I feel very strongly about, is the level of professionalism amongst architects. This concerns all possible aspects of our job; management, laws, complicance, technicality, and (my favourite) technological advancement. Now, as many people know, the subject of professionalism among architects is still a very much an issue in Belgium...

from the book Ugly Belgian Houses

from the book Ugly Belgian Houses

Obviously this discussion has two sides to it; what value do you expect for what payment? You can complain about getting bad service, but what are you actually willing to pay for it? Unfortunately, it is a popular habit in Belgium to downplay architects on their real worth, using clichés such as "floaty artists", "the guy you need to pass the building permit", or "that fellow standing in the way who doesn't know about 'real building' ". As a consequence, it is an even more popular habit to not grant them the payment they are due.

500 euro's for a building permit? Anyone?

again, from Ugly Belgian Houses

again, from Ugly Belgian Houses

This injust reasoning is the driver of a perverse, down-ward circle. Architects push their prices ever lower to find some work, while cutting down on service, quality, and social equity. As a consequence, clients get an ever more negative picture of our profession, and obviously don't feel like paying for it...

The result? The widespread use of "fake freelance"-status ("schijnzelfstandigheid"). The underpayment of interns, not in the least by offices who often make the magazines. The tremendous lack of research in what we would call a creative, knowledge-driven profession. The inability to have sufficient impact on legislation and spatial planning. The volatility of an architecture market, rife with small offices coming and more often going...

Ugly Belgian Houses, my absolute favourite. An impressive excercise in trompe-l'ouil somewhere along the Ghent-Aalst regional road.

Ugly Belgian Houses, my absolute favourite. An impressive excercise in trompe-l'ouil somewhere along the Ghent-Aalst regional road.

In this sense, I was very happy to get two messages from the Order of Architects this week:

1) the publication of a standardised contact, issued by the Order, with a complete tick-of list of tasks for the architect ànd client:
It clearly shows  what parts of our job are actually imposed by law, and which ones recommended and/or optional; as well as explaining what tasks lie with the client. Perhaps it will finally do away with some very popular non-legal arrangements, such as "just having a plan drawn out" and constructing houses without architectural supervision.

2) the publication of a handy online tool to calculate fair architect's fees on the Order's website: This is based on statistic research by the KUL,  who asked a few hundred architects to count real hours spent on projects according to type, budget, and size. No longer the awkward calculation by percentage on the building's cost, leading to situations where less ethical architects would propose expensive materials to push up their own fees, or where exemplary architects get punished for optimizing building costs.

I would like to warmly invite everyone with dreams of their own house to just try this:
1) calculate your architect's fees based on the classical percentages (7%, 12 for renovation)
2) now calculate your architect's fees again, this time by getting the hours from the online tool, and then multiplying those by any hourly rate you deem appropriate
3) now compare these two results...

In the end, this is not about earning more money. If that were the case, I should just find another profession, instead of moaning about it in this blog.
No, this is about the quality of our built environment (and I hope the recent news shows just how important that environment is to our wellbeing). Architects are to the built environment what doctors are to general health. Like them, we are trained professionals who want two things: 1) make a living, and 2) adhere to our strict deontological code and professional ethics. 

It would be nice if we weren't so often pushed to foresake one for the other...

On randomness

A while ago, I received the second issue of Holo Magazine - still my favourite publication on everything in between art and technology - and was happy to find the theme being something which has always fascinated me; mathematical randomness.

Holo 2, by CAN

Holo 2, by CAN

Now, you might say, what do I care about randomness? Numbers can already be pretty boring in themselves, and even more so if you present someone with numbers that have absolutely no pattern in them at all. Now, turns out - and now I'm quoting the magazine's main article - series of random numbers are vital for all sorts of modern science, and not in the least for encryption techniques. So yes, your online banking, your PayPal account, your professional mail; all of them need randomness to protect your data. It's simple; contemporary algorithms have the power to find even the slightest hint of a pattern in gigabytes of encrypted data, so the trick is to base that encryption on something that has no pattern in it at all: randomness. And that might seem simpler than it looks; in fact, it is very hard to generate true randomness a.k.a. series of numbers that, even after extensive statistical analysis, exhibit no larger structures. Most randomness is in fact pseudo-randomness; it looks arbitrary, but after long analysis, you (or a computer) might still find some order in it. In fact, true randomness is so important, that the US military decided, in the midst of the cold war arms' race, to commit a whole research department for 2 years to finding series of random numbers, leading to the publication of A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates in 1955. A random page (pun intended) of this book looks something like this;

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates,  Rand Corporation, 1955

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, Rand Corporation, 1955

Now, my personal fascination for randomness comes through architecture. You see, most architects (at least in Flanders) hate randomness. They can't deal with it. They want structure, order, reasons. I have very troubling memories of being a student, and presenting a facade design to a jury, telling them I've put some randomness in the window sizing... Not good. Oh boy, not good at all. So, by the time I went to study computational design, I had firmly given up on randomness. Order, that was what made architecture great!

Then, one night, I was programming an algorithm that would design a building for me. It basically consisted of several hundreds of digital designer-programs, all taking decisions by a very well-balanced, very orderly, very reasonably structured set of rules. Pure logic, no creative subjectivity whatsoever! But it didn't work... Nothing happened. Decisions were being taken, but the sum of these decisions always ended up to no solution ever meeting my requirements. The design process simply didn't start. In view of the pending deadline, you may imagine I was slightly stressing out. So, just as a troubleshooting test, not thinking it would actually lead to something, I added a bit of numerical randomness to the decision-taking. Not much, let's say 5% if all the other design criteria were 100%. The effect of this step boggled my mind; it effectively unblocked the algorithm, and design proposals came flowing out of my processor... In the end, I wrote my thesis around the algorithm, and passed my degree.

Just 5% of randomness...

Just 5% of randomness...

Even now, my own thesis students, who work on similar algorithms, still come to the same conclusion; design procedures need a certain degree of randomness, and the earlier in the process, the more of it they need. It's like the creative spark that opens up the deadlock of logic and reason, the starting point that every good design needs.

Now, I guess if my old teachers were to read this, they would find even more reason to never ever trust computers (nor randomness). But to me, they can reason all they like; personally, I've come to find randomness far more fascinating than reason.

Jan Kaplicky's Escapism

I've been wanting to write about this book for a long time now; Jan Kaplicky Drawings, edited by David Jenkins and with texts by Ivan Margolius and Richard Rogers, published by Circa Press last year. It is both a biography of, and a collection of drawings by the late Jan Kaplicky, the man behind Future Systems.

It is a big and beautiful book, filled with amazing artwork spanning the whole of Kaplicky's career, from somewhere in the mid-'70's up until the early 2000's. Elaborate plans, elevations, sections, and most importantly, isometric cutaways open up to the now-lost world of futuristic architecture. It reminds us that, not so long ago, architects dared to dream of a different world; a world where light-weight living modules would populate our deserts, forests, and rocky coast lines; a world where we would abandon the ground in preference of the sky; a world where aerospace technology would dissolve social boundaries.


What I love the most about Kaplicky's work (even besides its utopian quality and graphic marvel), is its blatant escapism; a quality I find all too often looked down on. Many of the projects are stand-alone, isolated shelters, literally pushing themselves of the ground by high-tech means. It's as if Le Corbusiers Cabanon was rebuilt inside a helicopter; the Modernist ideal of pure air and light made possible in aluminium shell framing. Robotic refuges are without exception collaged into unspoilt landscapes, often in spectacular scenographic set-ups (the most notable being "Peanut", that features a hydraulic arm bringing the living room in suspension above a lake). Even in urban settings the projects seem detached from their context, becoming exceptional (or exemplary?) Fremdkörper.

But one can hardly say the goal is to escape the reality of life. On the contrary, many of the designs experiment with new forms of socialibility; flexible living units, houses with add-on rooms, neighbourhood frameworks with plugable apartments, and so fort. Even the interiors, with the typical space-age lying sofa's and micro-kitchens, seem to question what life requirements are, and how these can be shared by groups of people living together. Here, the exceptional level of detail in the ink drawings very much helps to make these interpretational leaps; what would otherwise be very technical documents, now transcend to suggestions for a new society.

Maybe one can even distinguish a form of meta-escapism here. The biography is dotted with references to Kaplicky's almost obsessive love for hand-drawing; as is to his gathering of visual references, his (unfortunate) disdain for production drawings, and his (even more unfortunate) distrust for the computer. Maybe the creative act of drawing was his escape (or his rebellion?) against reality; the reality of being an exile in London after the Russan occupation of Czechoslowakia, of working long and not always fullfilling years in others' offices (Lasdun, Rogers, and Foster), of dealing with conservative architecture juries during his whole career (he became close second in the Très Grande Bibliotheque competition, even before OMA).

It's only an interpretation, of course, but in a sense it's also a very escapist one; it's the kind of interpretation where you temporarily turn your back on the facts in order to make sense of them.

Hello world!

Peter Kogler @ ING Art Center

Peter Kogler @ ING Art Center

Welcome to my new blog! Here, you'll find all my thoughts on computer-driven design, digital fabrication, interactivity, weird 1970's space age architecture, and of course Brussels! I'll start the blog with a simple post; a triple recommendation to come and visit Bxl, still the number one hellhole in the world.

First reason for your visit: up till the 29th of June, there's an exhibition on Peter Kogler in the ING Art Center. The Art Center is a small but nice gallery, obviously owned by the bank, on Place Royale. When you walk up from Mont des Arts or Bozar, the entrance is just on the right side of the stairs to the church Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg. Peter Kogler is a viennese new media artist who broke through at the end of the '80's with space-filling, computer-generated murals. The drawings are made for their specific context, and they warp, bend, twist, and transform that context completely. Besides the murals, you will also find some frame-based works, a few design objects, and, not to forget, some pretty overwhelming video projections. The whole is soaked in a very pleasing late eighties' aesthetic, with grafitti-like colors, old-school computer shapes, and some disturbing themes like rats, ants, and skulls. In the basement, there's a video installation made of interviews with contemporary artists. Outside of the Center, try to see the projection on the ING's Marnix Building (by architects SOM/Gordon Bunshaft) during the night.

Second reason; at IMAL, the Center for Digital Cultures and Technology at Molenbeek canal, there's a small exhibition showing Memory Lane by Félix Luque and Inigo Bilbao. IMAL remains one of my favourite places and institutions for experimental digital art. A few years ago, I actually had the chance of meeting Félix Luque whilst I was attending a workshop there. Luque tends to make near-scientific lab experiments that delve into large themes of reminiscence, sub-conscientiousness, etc. The technical mastery of his work is just phenomenal. I would recommend to make your visit alone or in a small group; I was there at the opening, and the large crowd wasn't very good for the works' atmosphere.

Third reason; whilst you're at the canal, you should go and have a drink at Le Phare du Canal, a really nice new bar/co-working space. Not only does the bar have a good selection of local beers, you will also find a display of photographic work by my good friend Eliza Sys. It's a selection of shots she took during her many travels around the world, each with its' own story behind it.

Lastly, if you still have some energy left; take tram 51 and come find me at Saint-Gilles for a coffee and some chatter!