Time Management

My mother forwarded me this Dezeen article from a week ago. It was oddly coincidental, because at an office happy hour just a week before we had talked about the tricky balance, which all architects strive to find, between being productive and being creative. In fact, it is famously sensitive and controversial, especially when discussed between colleagues or professional peers. Imagine how easy it is to get competitive with each other about who works hardest in the office. Imagine how treacherous it could be for a CEO to discuss a firm’s compensation structure with a competing firm’s CEO.

What left me scratching my head was that in spite of having heard so many smart, successful people chime in on a well-trodden subject, there are still a couple of inner contradictions which haven’t been reconciled. So I’m going to try something new, and risky, for this post. I am going to express my frustrations with these contradictions.

The first contradiction: architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.

Image via blogarredamento.

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about architects is that they are in the creative field. This is a misconception carried by architects themselves. We are often mythologized as kin to the plastic arts: siblings of sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, and dancers. But these relationships are most often collaborative flights of fancy, theoretical at their root, often a financial loss if developed, and vastly over-represented compared to the professions that architecture truly does engage with. Those professions include finance, macroeconomics, civil engineering, transportation engineering, real estate law, community activism, project management, logistics, etc. In my view, the moment you include gravity, money, or politics, you lose the ability to call yourself a sculptor. When there are concrete things at stake, there is naturally less time and space to be creative. You must spend much more time being organized, going to meetings, calling consultants and manufacturers, putting drawings and specifications together, all the rest of it. Schedules, budgets, expectations in general are almost always the first things established in at the outset of any architectural project (or any transaction, really). Looking at your average NAAB-accredited curriculum, however, these basic skills are largely absent. What, instead, do undergraduate curricula spend their time and resources training aspiring architects in? From my experiences at The Cooper Union, most of this time is spent alone in the studio, struggling to teach yourself how to compose meaningful project narratives and draw meaningful drawings. Many a late night I left the studio to wander the other rooms of the Foundation Building, and visited my artist friends, whom I discovered to be doing exactly the same thing. What’s wrong with that picture?

Here’s the list of accredited architecture programs in the united States, according to The National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). Follow some of the links for curricular information, and you get an idea of the paucity of management training in your typical undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program.

What would I rather have been doing at times when my creativity (on which my education as an architect hung) was unresponsive? I would rather have been putting together a simple Gantt Chart visualizing my priorities from now until finals, or speaking with a professor about job prospects, or collaborating with classmates on political activities. These other things focus not on creativity, but skills which require you to be organized, especially with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in offices spending most of my time on the phone, sending emails, and attending meetings. This the second contradiction which haunts architecture: the absence of “soft skills.”

The need for soft skills is painfully under-emphasized in the profession. Partially because they are difficult to represent in a drawing by a 20-year-old student. So, the seeds of ignorance are sown in school, and harvested in offices. If most of an architect’s daily work involves communication and management, this becomes a recipe for failure. The “starchitect problem,” when seen in this context, is kind of a natural result: architects found themselves under-equipped in the office environment, so they grasped at a set of “skills” which would set them apart from the engineers and cost estimators. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on vague, subjective, or false notions about creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the professionals sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.” You still get a lot of that these days.

You might say, “Hey, Ivan. Ease off. Management isn’t something you can just teach. It’s a life skill. You learn it through experience.” Sure. But then, you can say the same exact thing about writing. We certainly don’t tell students, “We’re not going to teach you to write, because it’s a life skill. You’ll just pick it up by doing other things.” This laissez-faire attitude masquerading as liberal education is one of the root causes of late-night culture.

One day, I left the office and called my mother (SAFA, ABRA). It was 6PM. Her immediate reaction upon getting my call was “What, you’re not in the office?” We quibbled. I said I was proud that I managed to leave work in a timely manner. She said “Be careful, they will fire you.” She was only being overly cautious, of course, but she couldn’t grasp the notion that I would finish my work by 6 and leave by 6. To her, design should not have a timer attached to it. It stunts it, it prevents the best design decision from being reached. Personally, I cease to be creative after lunchtime. Most of my creative work happens in the morning when I feel fresh, and afternoons are spend organizing, scanning, and documenting the quick ideas I threw down. But aside from that fact, I had to say some words to my mother that I hadn’t ever said before. “Design is never finished…. my life is more important.”

My mother also suffers from the classical notion of architecture-as-art, or proto-starchitectitis. She is always telling herself: “I need to stay to finish this design problem. When I figure it out, I can go home.” I have news: nothing is ever finished. This is the contradiction I don’t understand. The people that stay late are typically the ones who defend architecture-as-art dogma. But the late-night mantra, which calls it a “design problem” implies that design has a concrete answer. It isn’t. In that sense alone, architecture is like an art: it is never finished. A design is finished only when a person decides it is. Whether that decision is made at 6PM or 12AM is entirely their choice. And I know there are exceptions to this rule, but most people become weary after dark, and the later they stay, the more energy they have to spend to just stay sharp, and the slimmer chance they have to be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.

Now, I don’t want this to become just a criticism of my mentors and peers, I want to offer an encouraging suggestion. If you suffer from late-night syndrome, why not make yourself a plan, every day? When you come in to the office, spend 15 minutes writing out a to-do list. You can do this on Microsoft Word or Outlook or Excel or Wordpad or whatever you wish (I prefer creating a calendar item in Outlook, then setting reminders so it pops up later). Then, sometime between lunch and 3PM, go back to that list. If you haven’t completed anything, single out one that you can realistically finish before 6PM, then do it. To help you choose, consider what your supervisor or client will be most focused on (higher-ups are always weighing priorities, so it’s best to address the top priorities first). Lastly, when you finish that thing, don’t forget to go home! Don’t stay on your computer clicking away groping around for problems to solve and drawings to make more perfect. Go home. Even if it’s 5:30. Enjoy your life. Get some sleep. Come to work on time tomorrow and set another plan for that day.

Most importantly, give yourself honest standards, when working on things alone, or when preparing for interactions with others. I believe that the benefits of high-caliber collaboration are also paid internally, to an individual’s expectations of their own abilities.

Also remember that I’m pinning this on everyone: the leadership and the juniors, the managers and the designers. We have to do better to both manage our own time and set an example for others. I am confident that no “stagnation” will happen as Patrik Schumacher fears, because hours worked is not always correlated with productivity and innovation. There is a point of diminishing returns. We have to start earlier in teaching architects that their profession involves incessant interaction with other trades and professionals, and make sure that they are using that interaction as an opportunity to manage their own time. We have to stop giving empty validation to those who stay late, and stop judging those who leave early. I am NOT endorsing a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), all I am saying is that I would love to see people meet short-term personal goals more effectively. If more architects can reliably deliver projects at optimal (not maximum) productivity, it should allay clients’ and investors’ fears, cultivate a healthier work environment, and force starchitects and the offices they run to go exinct. The result will be both high-quality work and an empty office at 6PM. And the best part: neither of those will be a compromise.

I’m calling on deans around the country and NAAB to expand professional practice and management in their curricula. Or perhaps I should start my own Academy of Architectural Practice & Management: AAPM.

Wait. Something like this already exists. Vonz’s Law holds. God bless Michael Riscica.

Clocks [excerpt]

“Jackie, that’s my daughter’s name. She just left for college in Europe. Wasn’t half a decade before we were best buddies, her in middle school, me working 20 hour weeks. That’s the time every kid starts to beat her dad at everything. Always been giving her sports to play and riddles to solve. First to the top of the tree, fastest to eat a hamburger, how much wood can a woodchuck chuck… or like this one I made up, as we sat watching the San Antonio River outside our house back in Floresville:

“Hey, Jackie. You see that shadow of the tree on the water? Is the shadow moving?”

Jackie smiled. “Of course not! The river is moving, but the shadow isn’t. Easy trick question.” She threw a pebble into the river, and it passed right through the tree trunk.

I smiled back. “Wrong. It is moving. Because the sun is moving. All shadows move, just very slowly.”

Jackie’s smile changed into a sneer. “That was a trick-trick question.”

Teenagers hate being trick-tricked. Especially when the trick is slowness, since as far as she was concerned the world wasn’t spinning fast enough. Soon enough the time came that she started solving my riddles, throwing the football farther, eating more hamburgers.

We set up an obstacle course in the yard with tires, ladders, and took turns completing it as fast as possible, while the other timed with my wristwatch. Jackie went first and finished it in 55 seconds. Then I went. I stumbled to the finish, touching the wall of our house and nearly smashing a hole in it.

“Geez Louise!”

“56 seconds!” Jackie yelped.

“Wait,” I huffed. “That can’t be. I was counting in my head, I got 55.”

“No. I got the watch. I was counting ticks, and I got 56 ticks.”

Well, here was an old man’s moment to prove he was still smarter than his kid.

“That’s wrong, Jac. A second is the amount of time in between ticks. So if you counted 56 ticks, that means 55 seconds.”

“No, you’re wrong, dad. The seconds are the ticks!”

“What, you think that a second is the amount of time it takes for the hand to jump from one tick to the next? Those don’t matter. We count the pauses in between those, in between the jumps.”

But she wasn’t hearing me. “It’s the total opposite! A second is the time it takes the hand to jump from one tick to the next.”

“Come on, Jackie, you know that’s not true. Look for yourself.” I showed her the watch.

“Yeah! One, two, three… that’s the seconds! You’re just being a sore loser.”

We went back and forth for another five minutes. She went inside. Normally she’d come around by dinnertime, but this one got her goat for the rest of they day. Next thing I knew she started high school, outside town, came home every day with hours of homework, weekends she spent with new friends, boyfriends, then summer camps. That was really the last summer we spent together. Though I’m sure she forgot that argument completely, I still shouldn’t’ve used the word true with her.

When she left I suddenly had so much free time I thought the world stopped spinning. Surely your folks had the same, huh? What’s a man like me to do, aside from take a trip somewhere? Came here, sent my ex-wife an email, tried to see if she still lived here. But she never answered. One day my legs couldn’t take the walking no more and I just collapsed onto a bench in front of a church. There was a park behind me and kids were playin’. Above the entry to the church, where you normally got a stained glass window, there was a big round carving, of one of those Aztec Gods. Body of a snake, head of a man, wrapped in a spiral, and the scales of the snake body had letters or numbers next to ‘em. In the middle of the spiral there was a metal rod stickin’ straight out. Then outta nowhere a man walks up to me holding a plastic chain and starts to talkin’ in Spanish about some trick he was gonna do, and raising his eyebrows at me, and I had to tell him no thank you ‘bout five times before he left. I fell asleep for a while. When I woke up I had no idea what time it was, till I looked up at the church. The shadow of the metal rod had moved from one scale on the snake body to another. By God, I realized I was lookin’ at a sundial. That’s when I realized that Jackie was right. We were both right. Some clocks got jumpin’ hands, and a second is the pause between jumps, but some clocks got smooth movin’ hands, like that sundial, and a second is the slow jump from one tick to the next. A second is the jump.


Finish what I farted

Several years ago, for Rod Knox’s seminar on daydreaming, I wrote a short story called I&M— a dialogue between two unnammed characters, about philosophical questions, inspired by Before Sunrise. This is how it started.

I: So, what’s new with you?
M: Many things. Actually, it’s lucky I bumped into you, because I’ve been thinking about love…
I: Oh, boy. Let me say first, make sure you’re thinking of love the right way. I strongly dislike when people misuse words. Aggravate, naïve, random
M: …and love, yes. Some people don’t know love when it’s staring them in the face. It’s the most frustrating type of misuse to me, because in its case it gets devalued. Mostly, thinking of the big picture, it’s the evolution of a word that causes meaning to shift. But in the case of words like love, the meaning hasn’t shifted as much as it’s simply become diluted. For me, that’s a dead-end path to extinction.
I: Sure—but nowadays I equate it closer with a kind of voluntary ignorance. Instead of engaging words and language more intensely, the average person is allowed to get by on the shallowest possible thinking. We are so fearful of solitude, of having to encounter our own thoughts and put aside thinking about our appearance for even a moment. Tarkovsky once said it’s important to learn to take pleasure in finding oneself in solitude. It teaches patience.
M: Keep silence. Silence cannot be kept; it is indifferent with respect to the work of art which would claim to respect it—
I: Blanchot?

M: Yep. 

All I can think of when I read this now is: “how exhausting.” Imagine 1000 more words of that.
In the spirit of the solipsistic theme of the class, and of my laziness, I didn’t properly end it. Just cut it off like a punk rock song. Then, a year later, I decided to finish it… somehow:

M: Meaning is a human invention. Like we already said, we need to empathize with animals. They have no concept of right and wrong, good and evil. When one is truly at one with the universe, the point becomes not to question or even to understand the meaning of things, but instead to accept them as they are and have that existence be the only justification required. Meaning is a conclusion of thought, the destination that we deem sufficient to understand something.
I: Once again it’s the case of the conquest of language.
M: And again the universe looks very dull by comparison. Life is a phenomenon all its own. When homo erectus first became aware of his being alive…
I: That must have been the first thought. When man got up off his fours, everything changed. These two thumbs meant not only freedom of movement, it also meant freedom of thinking. They slowly began meditating on the world, then reframing their thoughts from thousands of angles. Then eventually the time-bomb detonated, a dormant perception lit up from the back of their mind, they picked up a stone, and began drawing their world on the dim cave walls.
M: Are you writing all this down? That’s funny.
I: Listen, I have to get going. But it was good to bump into you. I’m glad we chatted.
M: Can we meet again?

It sounds nothing like how I write now. Partially it was the dreary setting of a graduate-level seminar that brought out the petulant philosophy major in me. And yet, I can’t fault the premise for anything. The pieces have floated for years now, and I feel the need to finish what I farted, rub this thing on the forehead until it starts to burnish a tad. The challenge is: I have to speak that old tongue. The story has to be finished with its own voice, as much as I want to slap that voice across the face and tell it to wake up.
It’s getting to be more like Before Sunrise than I thought. I have to collapse time. I have to stitch the ending to the beginning, with words that no longer come to me naturally.
How often does this happen?


Books and Bosons

In applause of Peter Higgs, and the legacy of over 5 decades of research– I will attempt to outline another implication for the (near-certain) discovery of the god particle.
The relationship of matter to mass. How does former attain latter? In the case of particle physics, it’s by moving through the Higgs field. In the case of thoughts and information, it’s through language [beneath which I cram all literature, art, speech, media, etc.]. In order for thoughts to attain mass, they need to be (to the regret of some) slowed, downgraded, passed through the Higgs Field equivalent, and given shape by some communicable medium. This is in itself a profound step.
Charlotte was vexed by my conclusive point in Figuration to Abstraction— that humans may soon evolve out of language. Where will all the magic of communication go? The core joy of art and literature, she says, (the following metaphor is hers; I fittingly couldn’t come up with a better one) is the friction of ideas against language; of the originally articulated thought against its conveyance and the perceptive cortexes of its recipients. The heat arising from this friction is fertile and volatile– her favorite moments are born upon the discovery of unexpected meanings through miscommunication. From a strictly technical point of view, the challenge is finding in language the perfect match for your thoughts. (Now my metaphor. Dumber.) It is going shopping for a word. The perfect word to match your thought is like the perfect shoe or dress. In fact, that one can never find a perfect match because the two are of a different nature serves to give thoughts even more meaning. There is something behind every painting, every critical essay, that simply cannot be communicated no matter how you articulate yourself. That something is the original thought. We both are trying to give form to something inherently formless, and which should structurally remain so if we are to proceed with our lives in any coherent way– we keep the ghost, the expelled language-heat, at arm’s length on purpose.
Thus, all that stuff we love is really just residue of the cosmic thought-soup. This is further emphasized by the fact that, like CERN says, the universe is defined less by the planets and stars and chunks of matter than by the void surrounding them. What does this imply? It implies that the language around us is really an illusory blip on the radar of thoughts. If thoughts are the universe, language is the light-matter. Dark matter equates the realm of dreams, ideas, feelings, emotions, memories, regrets, hopes, opinions, instincts– all that which has not yet congealed. This has repercussion both in past and future thoughts: most of us have probably been thinking about thoughts unrealized; before the fact. But just as interesting are thoughts that were once turned into art but have since dissolved. The number of these may be far greater than initially imagined. Stuart Kelly wrinkles these waters in The Book of Lost Books.
“Hence, perpetually and essentially, texts run the risk of becoming definitively lost. Who will ever know of such disappearances?” -Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”.
A delightful read. But after meandering through its passages I was overrun by the dreadful sense that life and all its exigencies is a failed struggle against the relentless tide of our disintegration into that dark soup.
Time itself may be such a struggling element. Time seems to be a rupture in the perfect balance of all things, the tendency for all matter to equalize and dissolve like sugar in water. As we are learning, time is anything but constant and is in fact a function of relationships. The reason time appears as it does to us (passing, flowing through everything like a breeze) is because the speed at which we move compared to the speed at which light and the edges of the universe move is a fairly fixed ratio. Speed up, halve the ratio, and things start to change…. Same thing in reverse. All that would happen is the discovery of new patterns in things close to you to help exercise that part of the brain which maintains that despite the building evidence, the illusion is real and discrete things can be sorted and organized. Not that everything is everything, but that there is permanent difference. And with that illusion in closer focus, so do answers to questions beginning with “why” appear simpler to reach.

Subliminal 9-11, the curious explanation of why I don’t wear watches

A story, this time:

I discovered very intimate evidence that our brains are always aware of the time– and not just by casts of a net or any such wide margins, but down to the very minute. And it is only exhaustively heightened by images. In this peculiar case it was an instance of realizing something that had been present all along as opposed to an uncovering. The former turns out to be more haunting, and, of course, more interesting to analyze in retrospect.
One Saturday I happened in on my parents re-watching an episode of Columbo, Double Exposure, from 1973. In this one, the murderer manipulates his victim with clever use of subliminal cuts placed in a short film– single frames which the eye detects but does not consciously process, in other words, that one does not “see” (thus confirming our long-held suspicion of advertisements). The whole premise is rather nebulous, but we entertain the horror of it just to allow Columbo one more thing.
I had sat down, engrossed. But by pure coincidence (or was it) I realized it was after 9pm and I had to go. Exactly 11 minutes after 9. (My father loves being dramatic, and pretends to freak out every time he sees the clock read that for the past decade.) With thoughts of subliminal cuts still fresh on my mind, I thought there had to be something related between them and the seemingly increased amount of times the clock says 9:11 whenever I check it. It’s strange, after all, that a number that 15 years ago was fairly arbitrary (“nine-eleven,” as opposed to “nine-one-one”), should in any way become less objectively arbitrary and actually increase in gravitational pull, as it were, towards it, after some incident. The explanation for that would be fairly clear: it’s not to do with the number itself, but the amount of times it’s been printed and spoken (and thus– read, seen, and heard) since then. I wish it were easier to dig up, but surely there must be some statistics on the number of times “9/11” has been mentioned or printed by the media since that day.

Since then, those three numbers and four syllables have become so charged that merely uttering them opens up a whole series of unconscious responses in our brains. And this is where I make a bold assumption: I think our brains try and force us to bring those responses. Why? Perhaps our minds will do anything to feel more at one with the world around us (that is– having stimuli to react to). Or maybe it carries a unifying spirit, a combination of anger and camaraderie that binds some of us together and paints others as enemies. A quasi-religious, wholly human trait. To make sense of the world, we need friends and enemies. We create good and bad, right and wrong, to guide us. So our brains use this simple tactic of somehow making us that bit more nervous, reminding us to check the time, in order to identify patterns and paint a picture, which speaks thousands of words to us, organizing and giving purpose to these isolated responses relative to a collective whole.
Surely the media has thought this through already….
It’s not hard for the brain to know what time it is. Forget the internal mechanism, I’m talking about down-to-the-minute accuracy. Think of all the places and times that two numbers with a colon in between occurs in your field of vision. Between waking up and sitting down at work, I see my bedside clock, my laptop screen, VCR, clock in the kitchen, New York 1, NPR, cell phone (about once every 5 minutes), microwave, church bell tower, train ticker, useful little news screen in my elevator, even my work telephone. Each display the time, and these are all within one hour. Of course my brain is going to know when 9:11 is. I also happens to fall right on one of the most stressful times of the day: the beginning. I realized, horrified, on the train platform, that even with the train display and the courteous robot PA voice, people still lean out to check for themselves if the next train REALLY IS far away and still out of sight. I couldn’t bear the stress of checking the time the second I emerge from the train station. What difference will it make? I’m going to walk the same distance at roughly the same speed anyway. I had to return to my Scandinavian roots: where some clocks are made that look like this:

The idea being that you don’t ever need to know EXACTLY what time it is, to the second. In fact, maybe even the minute hand is excessive. One need just to look at the clock and realize, “Oh, it’s time to eat.” or “Oh, it should be getting dark soon.” And here I had always wondered what those silly log clocks were for, with that one short hand that never seemed to move.

“Can you miss a plane by 5 seconds?”
The second hand is something of an invention, something we need just to indicate that time is passing.
This was all too much for me.
So I stopped wearing a watch.