Chances are you’ve heard of architect Emma Williamson, co-founder and director of Fremantle’s CODA Studio with her husband Kieran Wong. As a practice owner, employer, architect and parent, and founding chair of the Institute’s national Gender Equity committee, Emma is keen to address issues that have led to the architecture profession being undervalued, particularly in light of the culture of long work hours that persists in some practices.
“I think that the key to architecture surviving is the way we communicate – so we have a big job ahead,” she told Sounds Like Design.
Emma took her message to the AIA national conference in Sydney in May, when she gave an eight-minute presentation about CODA’s history and plans for the future. It may have been short but it was packed with insight and advice for younger practices, and we’ve summarised some of her key points here (I’ve made some of Emma’s words bold for added emphasis).
Emma identified narrative and storytelling as key communications tools that CODA used from the outset. “From the beginning we have talked things up,” she said. “With nothing to show for ourselves we built a story that was bigger than we were. We have had a pretty consistent ‘fake-it-til-you make-it’ approach that has propelled us to work toward the space we have somewhat falsely declared we are in!
“Early on we struggled with the idea of narrative within the studio,” she added “With little in the way of practice history or a portfolio of work – and with a desire to open things up rather than demonstrate a single hand – we found ourselves not actually to be great directors because we weren’t decisive enough! And over time we came to realise that people need direction.
“We also struggled to reassure our staff that each step or change was part of a grand plan, and we didn’t properly anticipate the need to communicate a practice vision with strength and clarity to our staff,” she added. “In the early days, there were real challenges around the idea of architecture embracing more invisible work, such as research and urban design, as well as the idea of creating more structure within the studio to allow us to grow.”
Over time, the CODA team – including studio manager Emma Brain – identified a series of values that enabled them to: “articulate our position and create yet another story for the studio to grow into”.
The four words that CODA chose to describe its activities were:
- “To be USEFUL and do work that could benefit many rather than a few;
- To be JOYFUL in the way that we work with one another but also in the spaces that we create;
- To be GENEROUS in our interactions with others and in seeking out generosity in the way we design space; and
- To be STEALTHY in using our skills in ways that can have influence but may not be clearly identifiable as architecture.”.
These words and phrases define the practice narrative, and help to: “frame the way we work together and where we see opportunities to make an impact,” Emma said.
“In such a visual profession it has been hard to communicate the complexity and importance of some of our more invisible work, even within our studio,” she said. “The work cannot be summed up with beautiful photographs or even a few well constructed sentences. This work will remain largely invisible but the outcomes have the potential to affect many more people than a single building – no matter what the scale.”
Emma also spoke about the importance of collaboration and leadership within the practice, as essential qualities that foster the development and refinement of good ideas. “Our practice has evolved out of a dialogue in which we are not experts, but we are deeply curious. We are not afraid to ask questions in place of giving answers, and we have learned to listen.”
As well as using typical architecture tools – interrogating the brief, drawing and modelling – Emma said that CODA creates a story for each project. “It needs to be robust enough to change hands and have different ‘ghost-writers’ and it needs to be strong enough to survive the hand of a ruthless editor [or client, or builder] – that by cost, or any other reason for that matter, sees fit to trim the fat off a scheme.” Emma said
Looking back over CODA’s 20-year history, which is now accompanied by an extensive portfolio of images of successful projects, Emma said that the use of storytelling has been critical to their success. “The images are still moments in time, and behind each of these is a unique and different story that was created through the collective efforts of our studio and collaborators.”
If you’d like to read the full transcript of Emma’s presentation, it’s on the CODA website here. And if you’d like to start creating your own practice story – to identify and enunciate your values and aspirations as a way of guiding future endeavours – Sounds Like Design can help. Get in touch and we’ll work with you to create your own unique narrative.
This is Part 3 of the Sounds Like Design 'Comms Toolkit' series, which aims to help architects become better communicators. Sign up to receive weekly updates and more useful tips, or contact us directly to ask about our consulting services.