Sunday, December 21, 2014

102. How to get in the Star-Architect Staffers Club©

Even though it is not defined by brick and morter walls The Starchitect Staffers Club is guarded by bouncers at the gate and is every bit as real as the club that Bruno infiltrated in the clip above. In fact, it is similar to it in more ways than you can imagine.

In my previous series, I revealed the existence of the Starchitect Staffers Club©: An inter-star-office-employee-exchange-system where staffers of starchitect firms move easily and exclusively from one starchitect firm to another. A system that rejects employees of non-starchitect firms from entering and selects only people who have worked at other starchitect firms.

As I have mentioned several times in this blog before, the best and easiest path to becoming a famous architect is to work for another famous architect; preferably Rem Koolhaas. This is the forerunner of the old apprentice system. You work for a master and learn the ropes before branching out on your own.
The business model of a starchitect firm is extremely different from that of a regular architecture firm.  Don’t be fooled!; the fact that a firm’s name ends with the word “architects” and that they produce drawings for things called buildings, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the same things. The way a starchitect firm and a regular architect firm works and operates are as dissimilar as the difference between how the company Nike produces a product called a shoe and the way your local shoemaker produces a similar product by the same name.
So if you are aiming to become a famous architect, working or interning for a regular architecture firm won't do you any good; you will have to assimilate a very specific system better known as the star-architect system. This effectively means that you have to get into the Starchitect Staffers Club© and work at a starchitect firm before moving up its ranks to become a star yourself.
But if your resume will not get past the trash can without another starchitects name on it, then how do you enter this club you ask?

Certainly nobody was born into it and you can’t just spontaneously sprout 3 years of experience at Frank Gehry or OMA on our resume!  So how then?

Well there are many ways, but the most common way by far is to start as an intern. However, this is not so simple. Is it ever? Interns are often hand picked by a starchitect professor or close associates. The selection criteria are far and wide, both random and calculated; sometimes they pick a person who was just there at the moment when they needed someone, sometimes it is because the student did outstanding work or is duly talented with a specifically needed skill set, sometimes because they choose by carefully evaluating candidates from a pile of CV’s, sometimes they just like they way you look, or speak, or that you come from somewhere exotic or interesting, or sometimes they ask a colleague if they know of anybody, sometimes its because you were bold enough to ask when no one else would.

If this sounds daunting and totally random - you are kind of right - it is, but don’t worry. Conrad has some tips on how to increase your probability of getting an internship.


Here is one clue:

The chart below shows a survey of 16 employees who came directly from collage selected randomly from the Diller Scofidio + Renfero. The primary question of the survey was: Where did you go to school before being hired as an intern at DS+R?
As stated, a starchitecture school is a school where starchitects are professors:
If you are a non-architect civilian and knew absolutely nothing about the culture of architecture and I showed you this chart, you should be able to tell me with reasonable accuracy which schools have starchitects as professors.
In this case Renfero has taught at Rice, Parsons the New School for Design, School of Visual Arts, and Columbia University. Scofidio has taught at Cooper Union since 1965. Diller has also taught at Cooper Union in addition to Columbia University, Princeton University and Harvard University. It is no coincidence that Columbia University is at the top of the list.
As you can also see for yourself, basically all Ivy League schools are represented in this tiny sampling of interns. So your chances of getting into the club is significantly increased by going to one of these starchitecture schools. This is regardless if you want to work for DS+R or any other starchitect firm. I am unfairly focusing on DS+R because I have data collected on them from my prevoious notes. However, this is the norm throughout the starchitect industry.
This information would be great to know if you were in high school so you can choose the school beforehand. The interesting thing though is that most kids in high school who dream of becoming an architect do not dream of becoming a stararchitect. However, once you are in a starchitecture school you are indoctrinated with the idea that the only honorable recourse after leaving school is to become a starchitect.
So this note by default is for students who are already in starchitecture school. The good news is that you are halfway there. The bad news is that you only have a 2% chance of entering the Starchitect Staffers Club and a 0.001% chance of becoming an actual starchitect.
You like to gamble?
Lets roll the dice then, this is not a game for the cautious and sensible.
You are not like the hundreds and thousands who have failed before you. No!
You are special, these stupid statistics and laws of probability do not apply to you.
In the voice of the great General Douglas McAuthor - cigar in mouth and all: “I like your spirit lad!”
Here are 5 tips to increase your odds:
Give up this cock-a-manian obsession most architecture students have about finding and developing your own architectural signature, and style.  
bla, bla, bla. it is stupid! get over it. By the time you wake up from that coma, the train will already be gone. Read my post on starchitecture school. Your sole purpose in starchitecture school is to illuminate your starchitect professor’s ideas and theories and make him look good and proud when he has final reviews and discuss your project with his colleagues. Thoroughly research his every project and theories beforehand and on the first day of class get ready to reinterpret them magnificently.
Read note # 63. What is important in STARchitecture school

Give up this cock-a-manian obsession most architecture students have about designing a functional building that could work in the real world.
This is not what starchitecture school is about. It only has to be functional in proportion of the idea that it discusses or as functional as your starchitect professor wants it to be. You will learn to do all this stuff when you get to work in an office. So just calm your anxiety about this, its not so special. See note #84.You Don't Have to be Good - Part 3: It's about the Idea Stupid! 
and note #86.You don’t have to be good part 4: Form follows Taste.

Be outstanding.
This is the first prerequisite to becoming a star. There is never a star-architect that is just ordinary. If you have a special skill, or talent, or aptitude or whatever that can separate you from the rest of your classmates in a positive way, then use it.
  • Are you from somewhere exotic,?
  • do you have mad skills in a particular program?
  • are you a model making wizard?
  • can you speak eloquently about your work?
  • have a certain sex appeal?
  • an air of sophistication about you maybe?
These are all things that can actually help increase your odds. Use that as your foundation and build from that. As the saying goes: if you got it use it.

Now I know some people are going to write me and say "hey Conrad you mean to tell me that I have to use my sex appeal instead of just making good work?".
Hear me and hear me good. This is not what I am saying; being aware of these things is not a substitute for making the best work you can.

The correctness of the architecture culture would have you believe that a person is evaluated solely on the merits of the work that they produce. This is nonsense!
The work you produce is just the tip of the iceberg. You are evaluated on every aspect of your being that the senses can grasp. Your eye, skin and hair color, your smell, voice, accent, attitude, smile, punctuality, ability to listen and respond to criticism, your learning curve, social skills, economic background, any rumors about you, everything and i mean every gad-damn-thing you can think of.

You have to be aware of these things and project the most positive aspects of them all the time. To ignore this and pretend that it is only what you produce as architecture that is taken in to account when you go forward with your career is grossly naive.  As I am telling you now, your architecture career starts the first moment you walk into the architecture studio and create that first impression on your classmates and professors.
never mind all your timid stuttering overly childish and critical classmates that might giggle and talk behind your back. Go up to your star-architect professor and ask him for an internship. Don’t wait to be asked, you just might get him on a day when he is in a good mood. If you don’t ask at some point your chances of getting in the club is nil. Remember, if you do it while you are in school, you can apply again and again, if you don't get a yes the first time. However, you only get one chance of applying for internships after graduating.  If you wait until then, your odds become close to nil as well. Do the math!
see note #69. Be Shameless about Asking for things

Work for Free
Give up the idea that working for free at a starchitecture firm or an up and coming firm is a form of exploitation. I will discuss this in more detail in a later note. Take my word on it for now and just consider it an obligatory entry fee into the Starchitect Staffers Club©. See the starchitect business plan at the top of note #100 for some typical contract terms you might expect.

Conrad Newel
Liberating Minds Since August 2007

Thursday, December 11, 2014

101. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and The Star-Architect Staffers Club - Part 2 - Inside the Machine

...Continued from part one Conrad and Scofidio enters "The Portfolio Construct", a division of the sophisticated project acquisition machinery behind the Diller Scofidio + Renfero Website.  In this adventure Scofidio gives Conrad a tour of the world inside the elaborate machine and reveals some of its inner workings.

100. Diller Scofidio + Renfro and The Star-Architect Staffers Club

This is a loose working outline for the business model of the star-architect office:

  1. Create spectacular head turning projects and publicize them like crazy to get attention and attract clients, but most importantly to attract talented apprentices/interns to work for free.
  2. When the resumes start pouring in, negotiate for free labor: make offers along these lines:
    • “Help us on this competition and if we win, we will hire you” or...
    • “Work for us for free and we will help you get a job at another star-architect firm where we have good contacts”
  3. As you will experience high turnover rate on your interns, maintain a small group of partners or loyal employees as the core of the company and use intern help to become the major production drivers.
  4. Produce more head turning pieces of architecture to attract more attention, and more interns.
  5. With more interns at your disposal, use this resource to increase the volume of competitions that you can enter.
  6. At this rate you are almost certain to start winning some of those competitions and your company's star will begin to rise
  7. With better name recognition and more experience, you can make better quality competition entries and attract even better talent (preferably from other star-architect offices). This is the tipping point where the table turns. At a certain point you will only look at resumes from people who have worked at other star-architect offices. And if you are really good, you can set the bar even higher.
Here we can see an example of an incredibly high bar: Diller Scofidio + Renfro will not consider your resume unless you have worked on at least 4 museums, or equivalent. This effectively means that if you have not worked for another star-architect then do not apply. Why? There are virtually no non-starchitecture firms in the world today that can offer an employee the opportunity to work on the design of a major museum or cultural projects, let alone 4.

Even more... Lets say you have worked for another star-architect firm and you only did residential work, according to this template you need not apply.

So who should apply then?

Most of the employees of the star-architects in this film are eligible to apply to Diller Scofidio+Renfero and likewise DS+R employees are also eligible to work at any of these offices.
So what we effectively have here is a kind of a Schengen Zone within the architecture world: a group of elite starchitecture firms that functions almost like a single firm with an interoffice employee exchange.  While most other star-architect offices are less explicit than DS+R about their prejudices and discriminations, they mostly operate with a fairly similar set of qualification criteria.  I like to think of it as the establishment of a Star-Architect Staffers Club©.  By screening resumes in the way that DS+R does, they forge an effective way to identify members of this club and create a kind of inter-office-network with other starchitecture firms, while simultaneously creating a protective buffer against applicants from non-starchitecture firms.
The chart below shows a survey of 16 employees selected randomly from the firm. The primary question of the survey was: Where did you last work before being hired at DS+R?

As you can see almost every last one of them worked at a starchitecture firm or an up-and-coming one.

So what are the implications of a Star-Architect Staffers Club?
Luca Silenzi wrote a very interesting article Know your [archi-]meme (published in the March 2012 issue of  Domus) where he describes some of the implications and consequences that results when you have an inbred culture within the architecture world. (Incidentally he references note #73 of this blog Work for Rem in his arguments.) He argues that "Global architecture, is becoming more and more similar to itself." Among other reasons for this, he cites "global network" and "same background" in describing the staffers of these firms. He details how the staff of OMA are directly or indirectly inoculated with encyclopedic amounts of information; approaches, working methods, etc. simply by working in that environment. These ideas or memes move with these staffers when they move on from the parent firm ( in this case OMA) and are replicated elsewhere around the globe.
I would also add that it spreads a certain culture with its own set of values, procedures and norms that are accepted globally within these firms. This is not dissimilar to the codes of conduct and corporate culture you may find across both Wall street and the London stock exchange-  the main visual difference here is that the formal corporate garb of the suit and tie are replaced by black or hipster clothing. The values are similar;

-to become a lean well oiled machine for making the most money in the case of wall street and
-to become a lean well oiled machine for winning the most competitions in the case of DS+R and others.

It is interesting to look at the values professed by the founding partners as late as 2009 in contrast to the values they have absorbed up till now. The statements below are taken from an interview that they did with Charlie Rose that year (the full video and partial transcript can be found in note # 59 of this blog Take a Lesson from Diller+Scofidio+Renfero:

Scofidio: Before Elizabeth and I started working together, I had been at another practice, and I had been really sour with the way the profession of architecture was approaching jobs, work and getting commissions. It had nothing to do with issues of architecture. It had to with: I have to produce an income, I have to get work, I have to stay alive.

Diller: We were always a research studio. We were always interested in research whether the outcome was in the form of an installation, in the form of a book, or ultimately in the from of a building. They were just iterations of different forms of the same ideas.

By hiring only people who can demonstrate that they have designed museums and cultural buildings says more about what DS+R has become than any of the two statements above. For one thing it says:

"we are an organization that is about getting museums and cultural building commissions"
"We are a machine for doing that and there is no place for you here if you can not be a gear in this engine".
I hate to point out the obvious, but isn't that exactly what Scofidio claimed to have been soured by in the statement above?

Secondly, if you are a research studio and you are interested in research whether the outcome is in the form of an installation, a book or ultimately in the from of a building, then why are people that are particularly skilled in the design of museums and cultural buildings better qualified for these diverse outcomes?

The best explanation here is that DS+R are in the latter stages (stage 7 ) in the star-architect business model that I described in the opening statement of this note. Gone are the days of crazy experiments, exploring the boundaries between art and architecture, high employee turnover, etc.  This has become a firm almost entirely dedicated to one highly specific commercial purpose: winning starchitecture competitions.

Now don't get me wrong, winning competitions is not a bad thing and being efficient at it by hiring people that are experienced and proficient at it is certainly a good idea. Who doesn't want to work with good experienced people?

My critique of this practice is the exclusivity, not in quality, but in the lack of diversity. Here is another statement they made in that same interview:

Diller: Sometimes we were thought of as just wanting to be on the periphery; a decision to want to lob grenades from the periphery at architecture critically...
when we had a chance to do this building, (the ICA Boston) for many people it was a kind of a wake up... for us it was a kind of validation.

Scofidio: Before that we did theater, performance, installations, and a lot of architects accused us of not being able to deal with compromise, not being able to deal with difficult issues of construction. They thought we were taking the easy way out. They kept saying "wait till you do a building... you will see".

Charlie Rose: And what did you find out when you did a building?

Scofidio: The problems are there in everything you do whether you do a drinking glass (which we have done for water), there are complex problems.

Do you see the perplexity and contradictions in their hiring practice?
It becomes even more pronounced in contrast to statements like the ones above. If the problems are the same from a drinking glass to something as complex as a museum why not hire a diversity of quality people. It would follow that your website would say something like:

 "we are interested in quality people from all disciplines; industrial designers, architects, costume designers, artists, etc"

Where is the compromise? Where is the middle ground between being a critical practice and being an established firm? Shouldn't your hiring and staff constitution reflect that?
To me the ominous voice of your critics saying "wait till you do a building... you will see" seems to be particularly prophetic. The validation here seems to be now a validation for the critics not the other way around.

Conrad Newel
Liberating Minds Since August 2007