While the building and construction industry may rail against the self-proclamation of architect status by IT workers one wonders whether to whom the greater disservice is being done. Although a ‘system’ may not manifest such obvious beauty to which we turn and marvel in the spectacle of its design the question should be asked – cannot a system have elegance too?
What is ‘architecty’ about architecture?
To me architecture has always encompassed the synergy of design and form. It is the gentle blending of the functional with the artistic. An objet d’art yet a liveable space with true vitruvian utility. An expression of values and placement in the world yet something obviously sensible and practical. Entirely down to earth yet striving to connect with the heavens. Think of the pyramids, the Taj Mahal or the Paris Opera. Can we compare IT to these? Could we ever design an IT system that could convey the sense of awe and achievement that great buildings and spaces inspire?
First we must broaden our perspective of ‘system’. I always think of a system as a collection of parts functioning in unison for a common purpose: the body, the metro, a biometric system at an airport or even a bee colony. A system has spatio-temporal extent. It is not conceptual and we can and do interact with it – purposefully or not. It will always be hard to describe a network of underfloor cables and servers as beautiful. But what about a well designed software application? Where code has been masterfully crafted together into a contained system which delivers meaning to our lives and allows us greater utility to interact with humanity and our environment, can that be architecture? What of the larger system? Think of Ewan McGregor in “The Island”. Possibly not the best example but a highly complex yet (almost) perfect blending of the utility of the system with the elegance of its structure.
What is elegant about systems?
Edward de Bono describes a good joke as one that is completely logical and obvious only in hindsight. I think an elegant system is the same: almost impossible to design logically and progressively but rather, it requires some divergent and parallel thinking to arrive at the seemingly obvious answer. An architected system, therefore, should be a pleasure to use; inspiring and yet unintrusive, functional and provide us a clear means to our ultimate goal. The Venetian transport system, Facebook even?
What do IT people do that is creative and beautiful?
IT allows us to interact with our environment in a way which not only heightens the end experience but the overall journey. Software designers can create incredible applications which are not only functionally rich but are also a delight to interact with. We can all think of a system that encompasses these things but there is one thing that architecture isn’t and that is haphazard. ‘Architecting’ is design for purpose of a single entity. Whether at the macro or micro level, architecting produces a single ‘architecture’. It has unity, singular identity and purpose. Think of the Parisian skyline. There is one thing for certain and that is that architecting haphazardly is as bad as not architecting at all.
A new word for IT architects?
Even So, do IT architects ‘architect’. Most usually not. I would say that software designers often will come the closest. This is not to say that IT is just Lego – positioning per-fabricated electronic building blocks to achieve a slightly different look. By and large IT is more about technical engineering (capacity, throughput, interface, latency, queuing) than it is about designing into the human experience but this does not mean that it has to be nor is it always the case.