Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Short Post About Risk

Once upon a time, back in the day, before the financial services sector took over the world, no one talked about risk in architecture. Buildings got designed, some got built and a few things probably went wrong. But no one talked about risk.

By risk I don't mean health and safety issues such as a large pane of glass falling on someone's head or a dumper truck running amok. I mean the risk of Risk Registers and Risk Profiles and Risk Management and all the other terms imported into architecture from banking which dominate the procurement of buildings today.

Of course, the irony is that despite taking the most appalling and disastrous risks themselves, banks (and the language of banking) now shape the way all activities are conducted. And the risks don't go away, or get reduced. Buildings still fail to get planning permission, or funding, and they still get finished late and over budget. But there has been a growth industry in people whose job it is to manage risk and a corresponding increase in the amount of time everyone else spends talking about it.

This is another irony (a polite term for shocking and immoral unfairness) in what Mark Fisher calls Capitalist Realism: the exponential growth in bureaucratic management structures, targets and league tables that administer and facilitate the endless machinations of capital. As the financial services sector becomes progressively (if that's the right word) less regularised, everyone else becomes more so. The so-called risk management of derivatives and the rest is a sick joke when what really happened was the spiralling disconnection of financial speculation from genuine assets.

The PQQ (Pre Qualification Questionnaire) system by which architects are obliged to seek work is an example of this process*. All publicly funded projects in the EU are obliged to be tendered through PPQ's. These increasingly complex documents attempt to remove the risk for clients seeking to commission architects (and engineers, surveyors etc) by wheedling out small and relatively inexperienced practices. The PPQ obliges you to fill out boxes relating to accounts, turnover, experience, resources etc. Somewhere in there is a question that asks why you should get the job but this is buried amongst a set of targets that will make sure that only a company with a sufficiently large turnover which has also completed a sufficiently large number of jobs of exactly the same nature gets through the process.

Vast amounts of time and effort go into answering these questions but it's a fruitless and largely pointless process. The PPQ limits the likelihood of any form of innovation as it is explicitly designed to stop practices getting jobs in areas where they aren't already working. They also disempower clients, removing from them any chance to exercise judgement or knowledge in selecting an architect. They denude any form of expertise and create a vast raft of bureaucracy and management bullshit in its place.

Rant over.

* It may seem in slightly bad taste to reduce the catastrophic effects of the recession to a whinge about finding work. But the point is that the obscene inequalities performed by the finance industry affect everything, destroying the possibility for humane and rational relations in any field.


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Charles Holland said...

Murphy, is that you again?

Nemesis said...

I wouldn't get too excited, Owen Hatherley had a similar comment today...

However. Whatever.

You may be interested in this:

Hana Loftus said...

much to sympathise with and prompted me to write a follow-on post...