We attended Process at Loop earlier this month, a session of the Australian Institute of Architects‘ long running young architects’ talks entitled, What’s on Your Desk? Presenting current projects and a few miscellaneous ideas were our friend and colleague, Steve Rose, together with Jack May and Andy Yu.
Standout content included Rose’s neat life-imitates-art-imitates-life reference of Ricky Swallow‘s Killing Time that explored draped stone detailing for his kitchen benchtop. Of lasting interest, and the subject of this post, was a discussion sparked by Yu’s explanation of what he called, Unsolicited Architecture. Inspired by his lack of what he referred to as the holy trinity of young architects – rich family, rich uncles and rich friends – he explained he is forced to produce the architecture first and find the clients later.
In most instances, the realisation of this idea in Yu’s work is less aggressive than it sounds, relying principally on competition entries. However, it sparked an interesting question from the audience, wanting to know how Yu made a living off this approach to practice. Yu’s answer was: he doesn’t. He works full time elsewhere and undertakes competition entries and small collaborative projects in his spare time. This was a somewhat deflating response that diminished our perception of Yu’s determination to succeed in architecture: working from the safety net of a salaried job, he can afford to dabble during evenings and weekends. Far more exciting would be an individual risking all on the value of his ideas, Howard Roark style, creating architecture then finding clients to pay him.
Following this question, Rose, the most established of the three architects and the only one with built projects to his name, was asked how he got himself started on his own. He responded by revealing a promise he had made himself while still employed at Perkins Architects: when he was able to accumulate 4 private jobs simultaneously, he would start out on his own. We asked, why 4? He admitted that while it was in large part economical, it was also gut feeling: 4 projects were involved enough to keep him busy and numerous enough to provide sufficient buffer against a couple of them drying up.
This got us thinking, what did it take for us to make our leap of faith?
For starters, ours was less a leap than a gradual submersion. It started with our first commission in early 2000 to design Hill House for my parents while we were still students. We finished this project a few months before I graduated in 2006. To maintain progress on our second built work, Basser House, I kept Mondays free while working 4 days a week with Perkins Architects (where I met Rose).
In 2009, with a few years of experience under our belts, we decided we would travel, see the world and live in Milan, Italy. It was a natural break in our work lives, so without labouring the idea too much we established our company, Mihaly Slocombe. It was less a decision than an intuitive inevitability. We kept working on a couple of projects while we travelled, though not regularly. Our travel instead evolved, as it does for many architects, into an architectural pilgrimage: we experienced many great buildings across the Northern Territory, Asia and Europe.
Upon our return before Christmas 2010, more worldly and inspired, we resumed work on a full time basis with three or four active projects. Cashflow proved an early stumbling block however that required Erica to seek contract work with O’Connor and Houle for a period. By the end of the year, our project list grew to six or seven and Erica returned to Mihaly Slocombe. Though we are always on the lookout for more work, this number of projects is just enough to sustain us.
What have we learnt?
Reflecting on the evolution of our practice, it is clear that we should not be so quick to judge Yu’s safety net. Ours is a well-established trajectory that relies on knowing (or being related to) the right people, the early cushion of salaried jobs, plenty of hard work and word of mouth. Though we enter an architecture competition at least once a year, we have yet to receive paid work through this avenue. Instead, with the exception of one current project, all our projects to date have come through an ever-expanding circle of relatives, friends and friends-of-friends. The exception, Farmer House, came to us thanks to determined self-publicisation by way of awards, exhibitions and publications.
Such is the power of word of mouth that had my parents wanted a restaurant fitout or a factory or a library instead of a house, we are certain Mihaly Slocombe would look very different from how it does today. Thus Yu’s holy trinity is both an invaluable source for project commissions as well as a significant determining factor in the shape and direction of an architecture studio.
Beyond today, we understand that the most reliable way of securing longevity is to seek clients in as many ways as possible. Our social network will always remain an important element of this, but so we hope will competitions, expressions of interest, awards, printed media publicity and social media presence. We never know who will want us to design a project for them next, nor how they’ll find us, so it’s best we be prepared.
Come see me participate in the upcoming December Process, which will have me polishing my rusty high school debating skills in response to the question: Are competitions beneficial to architectural practice?