Storm warnings for Arup as it flies in the face of obliquity
An article by John Kay, author of The Truth About Markets, in the Financial Times offered us insight into the concept of obliquity. The premise is that you should ignore how the crow flies; you are more likely to arrive at your destination by following an indirect route.
His argument is backed up by marvellous illustrations. Major General Wolfe, the Japanese and Hitler achieved their goals by pursuing indirect routes. Wolfe took Quebec by surprise as no one believed he could attack the undefended cliffs; similarly the Japanese seized Singapore by cycling through the jungle, rendering the sea defences pointless; the Germans broke through the Maginot Line by going around it. Kay also points out that, paradoxically, the Panama Canal's exit into the Pacific is 48km east of the entry from the Atlantic, and that forest fires are best extinguished by being allowed to burn.
His analysis of the business models of ICI and Boeing is most striking. The two great corporate behemoths were fantastically successful and profitable when they were dedicated to excellence and delivered a broad range of world-class products. Since they narrowed their focus to profit centres and shareholder returns, they have actually suffered a decline in both. There must be lessons here for our profession: skilled at spending our clients' money but struggling to accumulate wealth for ourselves. Obliquity suggests we should resist the trend to focus solely on the provision of a narrow specialised client service, instead returning to the traditional pursuit of broad excellence: profits being the inevitable, yet indirect, outcome of our endeavours. We should learn from the legal profession, which diligently serves the ethics of the law ahead of its clients and simultaneously flourishes, charging what our profession would consider fantasy fees. Frank Lloyd Wright certainly succeeded on this basis.
As Johnson remarked on the conclusion of the Johnson Wax project: 'At first I thought Mr Wright was working for me and then that we were collaborating; I soon realised, however, that I was working for Mr Wright.' Obliquity also explains why the Design Council, an institutionalised government quango, has ended up treating design as a bolt-on facility, fundamentally misunderstanding its inherent role in the consideration of problem and opportunity.
That is why Charles Eames found it 'creepy', and why its efforts remain an embarrassment.
Obliquity suggests that the contemporary focus on the measurement of a building's cheapness and lowest possible cost bids, ignoring value, is unlikely to achieve even those modest twin targets.
Perhaps there is a warning in all this for the world-class engineering firm of Arup. For more than 50 years, Arup has flourished by focusing on the delivery of excellence. Despite acting as a team player and supporter of the collective process, the plaudits have flowed and it now has a remarkable worldwide reputation. The vast array of talent within this firm pursues this ideal by adopting the highest standards, working with all-comers to make constructions better and more available. The late, great engineer Peter Rice told me, when as a student I visited him to discuss a paper I was writing, that he worked at Arup because he knew that, within the organisation, someone would know more about any given subject than anyone else, and that he could find them and work with them to make things ever better.
Contrast all that with the recent press pronouncements of Arup's Cecil Balmond that focus on image over enquiry, ego over collaboration, and suggest that not only is he a maker of architectural stars but that he is also one himself. If the theory of obliquity is correct, a 50-year reputation is already under threat.