Exhausting Architecture Analogies

By Gar Mac Críosta, Sociotechnologist, Business Model Adventurer, Digital Architect

(This post was triggered by the first meeting of a group of Irish-based architects (since pre-C-19) among them my friend Paddy Baxter who loves to both use the building architect analogy as a means of explanation but also loves to wind me up a little; thanks Paddy.)

I’m exhausted by the “building architect” analogy. For architects working in the digital world that I live in it is overused and often lazily so. The noun and the verb — architect were lifted and co-opted from a 3000 year old body of knowledge and practice grounded in physics and mathematics into what was and in many ways still is a new and novel domain that of digital technologies. The analogy works to a point but then people stretch it, they try and demarcate work based on what happens in the physical world. We hit the border with urban planning, engineering, quantity surveying, building etc. etc. We find ways of saying why we are different and special. We try and draw analogies with the materials and again stretch this too far. Digital building blocks have some similarities but their physical cousins but also many differences. Rather than explain all of this which both I and the reader would find tedious as I poke holes in the analogy let’s take a step back and reframe this.

What we were trying to do with the analogy was to capture the role, the domain, the work and the skills in a noun/verb combo that anyone could understand and that would allow us to encapsulate a lot of complexity in a simple form that people feel they already understand. That’s a useful goal provided that you don’t overfit the analogy.

Let’s try another analogy architect as the bassist or the drummer in a jazz band (>4). Architecture in the digital world is not a solo endeavour, we’ve spent lot’s of time trying to say what’s ours and what’s others. As have the program managers, project managers, technology managers, engineers, developers etc etc. I think we’ve spent less time trying to figure out how we work together to solve big complex problems together. Think of the group of people tasked with solving a big scary/hairy problem as a jazz band. In a jazz band there is space for everyone to perform BUT it only sounds good if they work together and listen to each other. There can be virtuoso soloists who shine, but I think of the architect as either the bassist or the drummer (let’s not try to overfit). Both bassist and drummer are responsible for laying down a great groove, without a great groove the it all sounds quickly like noise. With a great groove everyone gets to shine. The architect in this case creates the bridge between the rhythm and the harmony.

It turns out that the skills required to play jazz are many of the skills that we need in our world. Good listener, emulator, persistent, fluency, technical ability, creative and harmonic knowledge which I’m going to take to mean how we play together to create pleasing effects.

So next time you find yourself trapped in an analogy break free and lay down a great groove.

The author wishes to thank Paddy Baxter.