Symposium “Compositional Physics and Other Forms of Disorder,” Rice University
Looking Askance, Looking Away, Looking Easy: Notes on Architectural Nonchalance
Symposium Talk, February 2020

I was invited to offer my take on the theme of a symposium titled “Compositional Physics and Other Forms of Disorder.” The question at the heart of this presentation wasn’t how physics engines or other tools have been used in design, but rather why architects have been interested in the forms of disorder they produce? I believe they were predisposed to desire a nonchalant appearance by the search for unselfconscious informality threaded within the patchwork of late modernism. The presentation was split into three parts, each associated with a particular posture for achieving nonchalance: Looking Askance, meaning that the elements of a composition appear chaotically or randomly arranged; Looking Away, meaning that the designer sets a process in motion while setting aside their own formal preconceptions; and Looking Easy, which is about the ways design products and ensembles avoid looking like much work. I see echoes of this nonchalant attitude in the work of many contemporary architects – the last thing many of them want their work to look like is deliberate, contrived, or effortful. Much better to make it look easy.

John M. Johansen’s Mummers Theater, Oklahoma City (1967–1972) one example from a geneaology of “nonchalant” late modernisms.

International Conference “Architecture and Bureaucracy”
Organizational Signature: Norms and Forms in Late Twentieth Century US Architectural Practice
Conference Presentation, October 2019

In the late twentieth century US, increasing specialization in the construction field sapped the influence architects had over the realization of their designs, even as claims to individual authorship became ever more important for market competitiveness. At the same time, the emergence of new specializations and new roles within firms showed that changes were nascent in the then-conventional definition of the architect as a generalist. As a result, in writing the history of this period we must adjust our conception of “the architect” to include not only those remaining generalists at the top of the professional hierarchy, but also those who translate design into a constructed object—project managers, spec writers, draftspeople, and interior designers. We must write of an architecture that is undecided beyond the schematic design phase, an object that evolves from start to finish. In this paper I argued that instead of a design signature, historians should work to distill an organizational one, asking how a particular firm responded to challenges posed by specialization and administration rather than site or building type. As a demonstration of this method, the paper drew from archival research into a key project by the important late modernist architecture firm Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, a building for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minnesota, completed in 1973. Despite inheriting deeply ingrained professional knowledge through the contracts and document formats they used, the architects had to make sense of unfamiliar management and scheduling protocols like the Critical Path Method, as well as an unfamiliar project delivery method that included new roles like Construction Manager and Interior Designer.

Construction photograph showing steel frame and suspension structure for Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis building designed by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. Photograph by Balthazar Korab.

Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference
Logical Flow: Critical Path Construction Scheduling in the 1960s
Conference Presentation, April 2019

Scheduling construction projects requires managerial expertise that contractors often lack and architects routinely spurn. This important pre-construction practice saw dramatic change in the 1960s with the emergence of the Critical Path Method (CPM). Still in use today, CPM was originally developed by the DuPont Corporation to schedule and estimate costs for complex research and development projects. It helps schedulers determine which tasks are most critical, thus making it easier to assess and respond to delays as they arise. Its primary innovation was a graphical system of task mapping called an arrow diagram. More than a mere schedule, these diagrams show the “logical flow” of a project. The eponymous critical path, traced from one key task to the next, reveals the total time expected to complete the project. By the mid-1960s general contractors, architects, and particularly construction managers had adopted CPM as an effective means to coordinate and schedule projects. The method’s computerization in the late 1960s quickly put architects on the outside looking in as numerical outputs replaced graphical. Absent arrow diagrams and with its capacity to visualize “logical flow” gone, interest in CPM waned among all but the most specialized project managers. CPM’s story raises important questions for an architectural history of pre-construction. To what extent do architects’ graphical sensibilities predispose them to view management tasks as unworthy of their attention? Is it logical or ludicrous that critical procedures like construction scheduling find themselves exiled from architectural practice?

Brochure advertising the services of McKee Berger Mansueto, Inc., a specialist in construction management using the Critical Path Method, ca. 1967.

Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference
Routinizing Through Rewrites: The Architect’s Handbook, 1963-1988
Conference Presentation, April 2018

Over the course of building projects, architects make use of various document genres: construction drawings and specifications most obviously, but also contracts, memoranda, bulletins, change orders, and transmittals. Through their protocols, each of these document types serves a particular communicative function. Each architecture firm develops routines of its own, but these document types have become standardized through instructional materials made available by professional associations. American architects, for example, have long looked to The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice for a guide to the day-to-day functioning of their firms. The Handbook’s authors make business trends comprehensible by reconciling them with the profession’s self-image and ideology. The Handbook contains standardized forms and contracts that serve as the rudimentary business tools for the architect’s trade, alongside narratives that provide the intellectual scaffolding to understand that trade. These tools serve to routinize architectural practice—freeing up architects’ time to be spent on the intellectual work of design. Mid-twentieth century trends required reframing the business side of architectural practice to account for new restraints on the architect’s authority. Tracing revisions and updates to the Handbook during these 25 years, in this presentation I analyzed it as a bellwether that, by increasingly routinizing practice, allowed many leading US architects to take refuge in aesthetic concerns while retreating from technical issues in both business and construction. Revisiting this core text of US architectural practice, I argue that the Handbook’s standard documents fostered diversity in design while reinforcing outdated limits on the country’s professional and architectural culture.

Cover of the AIA’s flagship publication, The Architect’s Handbook (1969 edition).

International Conference “Standard Architecture”
Standardizing the Business of Building: Management and Marketing in The Architect’s Handbook, 1963-1988
Conference Presentation, October 2018

For many architects, business tools are just as important as T-squares and keyboards, because the “immaterial labor” of architectural authorship is as much managerial as it is representational. And while each office develops routines of its own, these tools have over time been standardized through instructional materials made available by professional associations. For US architects, The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice—published and distributed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA)—has since its appearance in 1920 provided basic instructions for the day-to-day functioning of architecture firms. The Handbook contains standardized forms and contracts that serve as the rudimentary business tools of the architect’s trade, alongside narratives that provide the intellectual scaffolding to understand that trade. Since its inception, the Handbook has given a semblance of order to the design and construction process by standardizing the role of architects within it. Tracing revisions and updates to the Handbook over 25 years, in this presentation I analyzed it as a bellwether of standardization in the business of building design. The cumulative effect was an ideological redesign of the AIA’s standard of practice, so that it was based less on technical expertise and more on business acumen. To acclimatize architects to this new market, the Handbook’s authors hoped to give architects the tools they needed to efficiently manage larger teams of technicians and administrators, and to effectively market their services. Revisiting this core document of US architectural practice, I hypothesize that by standardizing professional culture, it fostered the aesthetic diversity that characterized US variants of Postmodernism.

Comic by Paul Spreiregen in AIA Journal October 1964 special issue on “Office Practice,” guest edited by the authors of the AIA’s other flagship publication, The Architect’s Handbook.