The Beatles and an emerging management theory

I am sure that others have used the many phases of the Beatles short history as a useful analogy for thinking about management roles and responsibilities in a creative business, but if not, this is my take on it as it relates to Utile:

To establish the terms of the analogy, let’s agree that there is a relationship between songs-individual commissions, albums-groups of similar projects, and an overall music catalogue-an architecture firm’s oeuvre.

It is well known that even though the Beatles were first represented as a unified group (same bowl haircuts and suits) and Lennon and McCartney purported to co-write the majority of the songs, by the time of St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,  Lennon and McCartney were writing their own music and then using collaborative jam sessions (crits) to provide feedback and to explore strategies for completing or elaborating on the compositions.  Some songs, like Day in a Life, are literally collages of song snippets individually penned by Lennon and McCartney.  For St. Pepper’s, songwriting was loosely organized around a narrative theme but by the time of the White Album, albums were only a compendium of the most recent song writing effort, assembled and curated by the group and George Martin to meet the market demand for an album.  Still, the relative coherence of the White Album reveals the influence and advantages of creative people working on individual projects in a single studio. For example, there are several songs by different song writers that are riffs off of a single genre (both Rocky Raccoon, the Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill are cowboy songs that were probably influenced by the New Westerns of late 60s American cinema).  For me, the slightly looser structure of the White Album, makes the music less self-consciously “important” and much more interesting as a collection of pop songs than St. Pepper’s.

The coherence of the White Album is itself evidence of the value of working together in a single studio on separate projects despite the fact that it is the self-conscious opposite of St. Pepper’s in its conception and in its art direction.  The informal chit-chat and creative tensions in the studio, the slightly more formal crits, and a kind of healthy over-the-shoulder competition was almost as valuable as the more orchestrated management of the St. Pepper’s effort by McCartney and Martin.  Clearly, the White Album was too loosey-goosy for McCartney, he tried to interject a more St. Pepper’s-like themed approach to the B side of Abbey Road with a continuous song series that begins with Because and then builds into a single song montage of McCartney song snippets. 

So what are the lessons for the horizontal management structure of Utile?  Are we more White Album than St. Pepper’s

While the answer is not completely clear, it is worth commenting that my favorite Beatle has always been George Martin and the Apple Record logo (the photograph of the whole and sliced apple in the center of LPs) is one of my top five graphic identity examples.

Next in the series: 
Outkast and an emerging management theory




Alternative Fee Arrangements

I constantly think about ways to make money in our business. It’s not easy. Not within the traditional “rules” at least.

These rules, and every thought on profitability, leads me back to the contract; the moment when we sign our services away to the Client based on what we think it will take to perform a certain phase of work or produce a certain deliverable. The numbers in the contract are derived from many different sources depending on the circumstance. If possible, they’re based off past projects of similar size, scope, budget and Client type. These variables are rarely all aligned, however, and any one change makes a big (and typically expensive) difference. We often set the numbers using our expertise of a specific project type to predict how many staff hours it will take to finish a job. Unfortunately these formulas rarely include past overruns and never provide enough contingency money (unforeseen situations) or additional services, and when they do, we have the choice between “maintaining good Client relations” (and not billing for additional services) and “looking out for the bottom line” (and damaging Client relations). Sometimes our fee is derived as a percentage of total construction cost. The Client sets an anticipated construction budget and we earn a percentage of that anticipated number. One of many problems with this method is that the budget was set in year 0 and our services are provided in years 1, 2 and on. During the (elapsed) time, there’s a good chance the price of steel has given the price of gold a run for its money, unions have increased their take by 20%, inflation rose 10% and health insurance costs increased 100%. The architect is there to remind you of the bar set in year 0, however; our fee hasn’t changed. Sometimes we even set fees based on what we think the Client will accept. Forget what it will take to do the work, we need this damn job, and that’s that.

All of this is a long winded way to say I’m ready to embrace the Alternative Fee Arrangement, or AFA. Beyond the litany of absurd (and very factual) reasons mentioned above, I’m most ready to embrace alternative payment options on ideological grounds. This ideology is summed up quite well by a quote from Thomas Sager, V.P. and Assistant General Counsel for DuPont:

“…DuPont, like other clients, does not want to buy time; it wants to buy results…”

The message is simple and clear, and presents a fundamental business principal I believe any rational person would buy. (Read: Don’t bill by the hour.) It doesn’t necessarily change the way we arrive at our fee, but it changes the way we manage it; it’s ours to manage. Who will be the first to swim upstream?  

The legal field provides a solid framework for our industry to begin this upstream swim. Fixed or Flat Fees are probably the most common, and we do see these a lot in our industry, but they’re usually tied to an AIA contract that cuts us down at the knees. Fixed Fees are my obvious answer though: Stated simply, the Client engages the architect/planner/designer to provide a specific service for a set price. One price, one deliverable, make it work. Another AFA is the Contingency Fee; payment based on results achieved. We would have to get creative with setting the rules of play here, but there are some interesting possibilities (I’m thinking along the lines of profit sharing, but this could go many different ways). There’s the Retrospective Based on Value Fee option. A minimum fee is established, and the final fee is determined based on the success of achieving a set of Client objectives defined at the outset. Again, setting the rules of play (for our industry) is key, but something to think about. Another AFA, and one more common to our collective vocabulary, is the Retainer. This works best with consulting work since the Client is making a deposit against future (and ongoing) service, but isn’t the Client much more likely to seek help when the money is already paid and the clock isn’t ticking. Why don’t we use retainers more? How about Blended Hourly Rates or Volume Discounts for a guaranteed set of future work? Who will be the first to swim upstream?


Go Big or Stay Small


That’s the question many of us are asking in this recession. While it certainly applies to the planning and architecture fields, a lot of editorials are focusing on “green” businesses because the industry is in its infancy, at least as a legitimate economic engine (and not just a social/cultural phenomena).

The following snippet is from a Fast Company blog:

Which green companies are best positioned to weather the downturn?

“Well established, international companies like Vestas [one of the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturers].” says Newsweek. “It’s a very tough time for earlier stage companies.”

CNet’s Green Tech blog says the opposite: “Smaller companies are more likely to survive the current — and coming — lean period… “because younger firms, in general, demand less capital to operate.”

Where you really don’t want to be is caught in the middle, needing a big infusion of capital to get to the next stage. Both sides do agree that the recession will produce a shakeout, putting weaker companies out of their misery, but that green tech is not another dot-com. These companies are aimed at solving real problems and the outlook over the next decade is strong.

A couple relevant points are brought up relative to the planning and architecture fields. The first involves company size; large firms can capitalize on their expertise, existing market penetration and recognizable brand; small firms can stay lean with overhead, be nimble with their market attacks and go after a niche; mid-size firms are the clear losers, unable to play off any of the aforementioned strategies, and with nowhere to go but down. The second point is the idea that green tech is actually solving real problems. As we all reevaluate our business strategies, it would behoove us to look at the focus of our work; are we providing real solutions or superfluous fluff?


The Nail House Myth

The urban myth of the lone development hold-out, usually a sweet old lady in a diminutive early 20th century house who collects ceramic cows, continues with this story from the NY Times today.

But are these people really noble hold-outs of a simpler way of life when neighbors borrowed sugar from neighbors? More typically, hold-outs such as Ms. Macefield become symbols of property rights activists.


Before construction began on neighboring buildings, Edith Macefield refused developers’ offer of $1 million to sell her house, which was built in 1900. She died in June; from Seattle Journal: A Holdout Against Developers Leaves a Legacy, New York Times, Sunday, December 28, 2008


Illustration from The Little House, Virginia Lee Burton, 1942



China’s censors have banned further stories about a Chongqing homeowner who refused to sell out to developers. China’s State Council Information Service issued an urgent notice to the domestic print press and online media on Saturday banning future coverage of the so-called “nail house.” The story of 51-year-old restaurateur and martial arts champion Wu Yang and his wife, who refused to sell their house to make way for a shopping development, was on its way to becoming a national media sensation. The builders have since excavated a 10-metre pit around Yang’s house, so he is holed up there without water or electricity, threatening to use his martial arts skills against anyone who tries to dislodge him. “Nail house” is a term used by developers to refer to homeowners who will not give up title to their property — because they are like a nail that keeps poking through even though it’s knocked down with a hammer. China’s State Council passed a law earlier this year formally entrenching property rights. About 200 residents in the area around Yang’s house agreed to move, but Yang turned down an offer equivalent to $525,000 for his 219-square-metre house. From CBC News, March 26, 2007


Andrea Mantegna and the grain of paving

There is a informative review by Andrew Butterfield of the Mantegna exhibition in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books (January 15, 2009) and in his essay, Butterfield discusses the ground plane of The Crucifixion, one of three predella panels of of the San Zeno alterpiece in Verona (The Crucifixion is now in the Louvre):

That Mantegna made these panels according to the precepts of Alberti’s theory of painting cannot be doubted, and they are among the first examples of an artist responding to On Painting.  For example, in The Crucifixion, the rocky ground is lined with a series of grooves between the stones, and these provide the rectilinear grid necessary for the depiction of space, according to Alberti’s rule of single-point perspective.

The general grain of the pavement, and the balance between a rectilinear order and a more “natural” and happenstance series of fissures, is suggestive of Le Corbusier’s random running bond pattern of the 1950s.  Le Corbusier’s use of the pattern began with the chapel at Ronchamp and culminated in his chapel at La Tourette.  In both chapels, the grain of the pattern was used to unite nave and alter as a result of the enhanced one-point perspective caused by omni-directional parallel lines in the floor . 


Andrea Mantegna, The Crucifixion, 1456-1459; predella panel from the high alterpiece of the church of San Zeno, Verona


Le Corbusier, Chapel, Sainte Marie de la Tourette monastery, Eveux sur Arbresle, France, 1957


Rachel Whiteread at the MFA

The installation of vintage dollhouses by Rachel Whiteread at the MFA (through January 25th) was both cozy and spooky, reminding me of Halloween night (circa It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown) and a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It suggests a model for the kind of small scale and haptic urbanism espoused by Teddy Cruz.

From the MFA: This exhibition features the US premiere of her most recent work, Place (Village) (2006-08) and traces the position of domestic objects through sculptures and drawings. Over several years, Whiteread has collected handmade English dollhouses and configured them into a sprawling “community” filled with haunting memories and melancholy. Place (Village), encompassing the left side of the Foster Gallery, appears as if it was discovered at night.

“Village…simultaneously encourages and thwarts voyeurism, inviting viewers to peer into one empty room after another. Eventually it turns the tables: the illuminated windows become hundreds of Lilliputian eyes.”
The New York Times 





Teddy Cruz’s housing proposal for Hudson, N.Y. The development would feature playgrounds, an outdoor amphitheater and spaces that could be used for arts or job-training programs, New York Times, February 19, 2008.


Duany’s parking garage plan

Andrés Duany’s priorty plan for Obama’s stimulus funding has an Utile-like and typologically-biased clarity:

This is what the CNU should propose to Obama and then lobby for:

Under the category of “infrastructure funding”: The building of parking garages on the 400+ moribund shopping mall sites–on the condition that they be retrofitted into town centers. This would incentivize the private sector to invest in rebalancing them with housing and offices. These are the future town center/TODs that will be the salvation of the suburban sprawl which surrounds them.

This should be the ONE New Urbanist proposition. All of our other principles and ideas ones follow organically from this one. Keep the proposal important. Keep it simple. Repeat it until they get it.

Get the campaign funded by the drowning mall developers who would benefit from it.


Civic Center, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Aerial perspective. 1957. Ink on tracing paper, 11 x 14″ (27.9 x 35.6 cm), MoMA.


Traffic Study, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Plan of proposed traffic-movement pattern. 1952. Ink, graphite, and cut-and-pasted papers on paper, 24 1/2 x 42 3/4″ (62.2 x 108.6 cm), MoMA.


Wes Jones’ 10 Steps to Cleverness

I attended the morning session of Wes Jones’ review at the GSD on Wednesday and discovered that we were not there to review student projects, but rather to discuss the lessons that the class had learned about the design process itself over the course of the semester.  Mack Scogin, Michael Hayes, and other theorists and academics were also part of the discussion.

The proto-theory was presented in two separate student presentations, but it was clear that both Wes and the other students had participated in the development of the content.   In the first talk, entitled “Ten Steps to Cleverness”, a case was made for a more culturally inclusive disciplinary-focused process by establishing a dialectic between the Dutch (the approach of Rem Koolhaas and Winy Maas) and the Digital (the P-CAD architectural processes popular at the GSD and Columbia).  The implicit point was that the necessarily internalized and formalistic logics of the Digital is not predicated on the kind of opportunistic cleverness exhibited in the best work by OMA and MVRDV.  Also implicit in the discussion was a critique of the giving in to the scripting of P-CAD processes and the resulting lack of agency and intentionality as part of the process.

Historical architectural examples were used to demonstrate the different principles of cleverness.  Examples included Le Corbusier’s Algiers project, the planning logic of the French hotel type (as analyzed by Michael Dennis), and the nineteenth century panopticon prison type (the example of the panopticon did not go down well with the post-structuralists on the panel).  The test of “retroactive inevitability” was introduced as part of the discussion and Michael Hayes suggested that Le Corbusier’s Five Points might be one of the best examples from the modern canon.  I volunteered that the muddled logic of Corbusier’s Modular was decidedly NOT clever by contrast.  Several critics agreed that cleverness is more common through the mid-career of an architect but often disappears in the final stages of an architect’s oeuvre.  Given the thrust of the conversation, as Hayes pointed out, it was not surprising that Koolhaas’ Delirious New York was subtitled A Retroactive Manifesto while his more recent work lacks some of the cleverness of early projects.

But what was up with the almost nostalgic embrace of the Dutch method on the one hand the digital-bashing on the other?  One hint was Scott Cohen’s short outburst at the beginning of the discussion. The normally dialectic-loving and polemical Cohen was having none of the Wes’ intellectual antics; after his passionate but mostly incoherent speech, he left the room.  The critics were not sure whether Cohen was exercising the right of the Chair to “float like a butterfly” from review to review, or if he meant to make “a statement” by leaving.

For Wes Jones, it seemed that he was using the studio to work through a very healthy mid-career crisis; one where, perhaps, he realized that he needed to reintroduce a bit more cleverness into his own artfully-designed projects.  In an informal chat with students at the end of the morning session, it was clear that they had appreciated the discussion. I was sorry that I couldn’t stay to see the student projects in the afternoon.