Nov 4 2013

Architect and architecture

Chances are you are not from Jönköping. You might not know where that is or, if you know, you might have never been here anyway. In that case, you are missing out, but that’s fair enough: I haven’t been to plenty of places myself, and I’m sure missing out as well.

But I do live in Jönköping, and since I was not born here I did what everyone who comes in late to the party does: I took my drink to one corner and spent a little time smiling and observing what was going on. Which in my case meant mostly figuring out the city, walking around a lot, and snapping pictures of streets and houses and woods and lakes.

Jönköping is a rather interesting place, especially for someone who has an idea of “city” which doesn’t usually involve lots of empty spaces, lakes and woods in between almost autonomous, very distinct neighborhoods.

But there is also something about Jönköping which is true of many other cities I visited, unsurprisingly: you’d be hard pressed to find any famous buildings here. You’d be even more hard pressed to find any buildings you can trace back to famous architects, those that make the news or the history books. Even what is arguably the one piece of brick and mortar living history we have over here, the match factory where safety matches saw the light in the 19th century, has no well-known clearly attributed paternity. We know about the brothers Lundström who started the business, but that’s basically it.

Then you have the recently-built key-shaped buildings that house the University of Jönköping and the office where I’m writing this post: but who’s the architect or architects behind them is again subject matter for the initiated or the very curious (White Arkitekter, if you want to know, but unearthing this piece of intelligence required some effort and the investigative skills of our resident source of obscure local knowledge). Same goes for the latest addition to the city landscape, Spira, the new performing arts center on the shore of Munksjö (Wingårdh Arkitektkontor).

But let me ask you this question: as I’m telling you that no (famous) architects have been busy here, you are not really wondering where do people in Jönköping live, do you now?

You don’t, and it’s plain common sense: even though most of its architecture did not spring from the mind of a genius, Jönköping has houses, shops, parks, coffee houses, schools, restaurants, a hospital. Most of this is solid, “anonymous”, run-of-the-mill Swedish housing. Some of it pretty good, some of it barely making it. Very much like most cities around the world.

This being largely “anonymous” is hardly surprising for anyone who has a little understanding of city planning or architecture: with a few notable exceptions in various parts of the world, cities are not built nor shaped by individuals. For a few world-famous names who create urban landmarks and who get international recognition in books and magazines, we have masses of unsung practitioners working well within the boundaries of tradition, accessible costs, and day-by-day routines.

As a researched and an educator, and as someone working in the messy middle which is architecting systems, services and artifacts that are mostly substantiated through information, I very often find myself having to explain what my field and expertise is about, and to quantify or qualify its value to either academia or society. Saying that what I do is information architecture or IA does not really help: if you don’t know what that is, be reassured you are not the only one. According to one of the definitions provided by the Information Architecture Institute IA is the the structural design of shared information environments such as, for example, the systems that allow social security numbers to be an entry point to a number of services here in Sweden, but also Facebook or Spotify, in all their diverse instantiations across platforms and devices. But still, this is really just an opening.

This explaining gets particularly problematic when it comes to pitching the immediate advantages that someone might derive from becoming an information architect. A graduate information architect, especially. One of the things I find most difficult to convey to my interlocutors, probably because of its self-evidence (to me, of course), is the fact that not all masters or bachelors curricula have (or should have) a one-on-one relationship with a job title. Some do, some others do not. Information architecture might or might not, I don’t have an answer, but this does not mean we do not need expertise in the area. We do.

Part of this difficulty to articulate a “business proposition” is a reaction to some of the most visible results of the corporatization of higher education some of us in academia love to complain about (with reason, I believe). Education cannot have a 100% overlap with a business mission. Research should happen even if the immediate business value of it is shaky or uncertain. Education should not be limited to what pays the bills. The recent news of Nobel-winning Randy Schekman boycotting top scientific journals because of the way they promote trendy over best adds some fuel to this little fire, I believe.

Then, I find the general idea of establishing in the year x-2, when a program is created, what will happen in the year x+3 or x+5, when the first graduates will hit the job market, a somewhat complicated proposition. Especially in those areas where many moving parts constantly reshape the landscape in ways that naturally escape the slower cycles of academia. Technology definitely being a culprit here, for example. But this is exactly what planning is there for, and planning wants answers, that is, some form of reliable clairvoyance. Not an easy combination to handle.

I have stated repeatedly that whenever I talk about information architecture I mean the field, the practice, the discipline. I never refer to roles, individual careers, or professional labels. I don’t really care about the job title somebody carries, as long as it’s clear that what they do is (in that specific case) information architecture. I think this might be the key element I usually fail to convey. The color of the proverbial cat is not really that important as long as it catches the mice, but it’s essential that the cat know it’s a cat chasing mice. This is by and large the educational problem we face in the field, and what I have a hard time articulating across the tight clear-cut boundaries of academic and professional practice.

I’m not trying to forge information architects when I teach, and I shouldn’t: their professional path is mostly unknown to me, and it couldn’t be otherwise, especially in the multidisciplinary context of a business school such as JIBS. But I’m certainly trying to make students aware that that specific thing they do at times, that is information architecture and not graphic design or business analysis, and they have to call it by its proper name and be aware of the conversations happening in that space.

The reason is plain: as much as Jönköping and most cities in the world are largely shaped by construction companies and unknown individuals, information architects who officially carry such a title will produce only a minimal fraction of the information architectures we will use, co-produce, consume and live in through our lives, in our journeys through higher education, in our relationships with the tax office, the healthcare system and the government, or for keeping in touch with friends and families when we are away. An even smaller fraction of these will be from famous, world-renowned information architects. Nonetheless, we do not really expect these information spaces to be bad, do we now?


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