Repurposing Architecting Skills: Design as Improvisation

There's often a focus on how architects have utilised their skills in other careers. Architects can also leverage those skills in better architectural practice. This is the fifth in a series of articles about this possibility.

The genre defying musical trio, The Necks, arrive at gigs, unprepared. The’ve not rehearsed that show and walk on stage without knowing what they’re about to play. They sit at their instruments and don’t know when to or who will start. Yet one will and they’ll proceed to play extraordinary unabating music for 30 minutes. All improvised. On one remarkable occasion they simultaneously brought their playing to instant silence from driving mesmeric blowout, as if hitting a wall at high speed. No preparation.

Of course, we all know that it’s not true that The Necks haven’t prepared. They’ve done the work. They’re trained musicians. They’ve each played their instruments for over 40 years and together for around 30 years. They know how to play and how to play with each other. They had been preparing for that moment of spontaneous silence for 20 years. They knew each other, they knew the signs, they knew when to stop.

Design work comes from a similar position of preparedness. There’s years of preparation. Learning through study, research, experience and critical thinking. There’s often a team that have worked together. Collaborators who are able to anticipate and accomodate the other’s thoughts, or know when to make space for another team member’s voice to come to the fore. This preparation may be decades of knowledge, learning and experience.

An improvised piece of music doesn’t materialise out of nothing. A great design doesn’t materialise out of nothing.

The musicians that are great improvisers have already put in the work. The lithe spontaneity of the music is the result of practice, repetition and experience. They’ve tried many things. They are willing to fail. Missteps are considered inevitable and necessary to learning and improving. Improvisation is necessarily messy. It takes time and practice. It’s identical for architects and design practice.

The key with all this work is to start. To start learning, to start practicing, to start being messy and working with others. All this work is a posture, you need to show up and you need to start.

Wrapping together the previous four posts of this series, we can see them as a series of skills enabling improvisation. Through improvisation, architects might start to find new possibilities in their architectural practices. The improvisational preparation is very much one of iteration and failure, building new small ideas to be combined in new and interesting ways. Another improvisational strategy can be taken from research and by combining ideas from precedents in new and interesting ways. It’s design and it’s a posture that architects might take in the work they do in their practice not normally associated with design.

The question to consider is what preparation do you need to do in order to start to improvise constructively in your architectural practice? Be prepared as best you can and be prepared to start, even we you don’t think you’re ready (spoiler: you’re never ready). Starting prepares you for the next time you start. Unless you start, it’s just silence. It’s OK if the tune doesn’t quite gel, it’s all learning. Research, practice, prepare some more and start again. 

This is all abstract until you identify how or what you might improvise on. You could start small and it might relate to how you communicate and work with each other in the office, then consider how it might be applied to how you work with clients, consultants, and so on. You might like to then consider other processes like marketing, business development or go big on the entire process in the delivery of a project.

I’m now curious…

How will you prepare?
& then…
When will you start?


Previous posts in the Repurposing Architecting Skills series

Designing PossibilityFail and IterateMemory and Research, Critical Thinking


Do you think you might need to consider how you might bring better improvisation within your architectural practice, applying it to more than design process? Don’t know where to start? Please feel free to drop me a line. I’m here to support you in building a better practice, forging better human and professional skills, and developing architectural leadership.


Image by cottonbro on Pexels [cropped]

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