An Economy of Effort
On a few occasions, I’ve heard people give the advice, “don’t do it if you’re not going to put it in your portfolio,” usually in reference to overwhelming project deliverables or detailed digital models. While I think there is some credence to the idea of minimizing work that will never be seen, I would like to dwell instead on the bifurcation of the academic architectural project into a before and an after, a process and a presentation. This separation into production and product can perhaps be useful, allowing us to consider the two as discrete experiences to be compared, rather than a single indivisible entity. Of course, school projects can have a great variety of outcomes—they can turn out well, or poorly, or somewhere in between, and perhaps that is the point: if it’s possible to have a successful presentation of work, is it also possible to have a successful process? In other words, if the result can be analyzed and evaluated, can we also examine that which precedes it?
Maybe one way to look at the idea of successful process is as an economy of effort, not in the general sense of the word “effort,” but as work expended on unenjoyable and extraneous tasks. In this framework, the development of a project is understood not as an immutable sequence of prescribed events, but as a field of concatenating opportunities to choose from—potential decisions with consequences, yes, but not all of which are beyond our control. There is a freedom, an agency even, to focus our energy on the methodologies we find useful or delightful. I want to be careful here: I’m not advocating for doing less work per se, but for being more thoughtful about how we engage with our projects—to be cognizant of our interests, limitations, agendas, and ambitions. While the term “economy” is often only associated with a kind of frugality, I see it as folding into a broader practice of carefully managing energy, time, resources, and expectations amidst varying conditions.
As such, an economy of effort isn’t merely forgoing unhelpful drawings or only modelling what will be seen in the render, it’s about recognizing that projects inhabit more than just fictive space—they impinge on a number of larger realities, including our personal lives and the world at large. Maybe a collection of detailed vignette drawings can be a more enjoyable way to convey community engagement than a site plan, or maybe a found poem can articulate a vision more concisely than ten iterations of a parti. Maybe we can reconsider the transactions of time, money, and health that a project might seem to demand. In each case, we are asked to take stock of what matters to us—that is, where we want to concentrate our work. An economy of effort seeks to find the balance between a reductive excision of everything unproductive and an uncritical pursuit of every possibility, imbuing the project’s process of becoming with a kind of intention. It precludes neither anticipation nor experimentation, weaving whatever luck, fate, and happy accident might bring into a bigger story, a direction if you will.
This still leaves the question of how we know when we’ve “made it.” The success of a completed project might be evaluated by its legibility, coherence, beauty, or recognition, for example, but are there any similar criteria for evaluating process? Maybe we can think about what we learned—the things that we want to (never) try again; or maybe we should be more holistic and reflect on our emotions—like how gruelling (or fun?) a project felt. The very idea of an economy implies a degree of fluctuation though, which complicates any kind of measurement. Because projects exist in shifting contexts, how we assess and understand their economy must respond to this dynamism. Maybe we just have to accept that successful process is an imprecise, moving standard, something we can only pursue but never quite achieve. Still, perhaps an economy of effort is just another way to look at our projects with a bit more care, purpose, and healthy doubt.
Or maybe this is all just bad advice.