A Conversation with Clinton Cole

On a leafy Darlington lane, exposed structural steel and slim horizontal louvres stand out in a homogenous streetscape of quaint terrace homes. Much like its director Clinton Cole, CplusC Architectural Workshop sits comfortably and confidently standing out from its crowd.

Both a registered architect and a licensed builder Clinton wraps up his afternoon meeting with a firm handshake. “Excited? Nervous?” he asks his clients with a laugh. His guests are quick to choose the former.

The same questions could be asked of architectural students moving into today’s industry for the first time. Perhaps ‘a bit of both’ is the right answer for today’s graduates as Clinton sits down with Nicholas Bucci to discuss.


Living Screen House

NB: Student led initiatives, like this year’s congress, just wouldn’t be possible without the support and mentorship of a wider architectural community. Thankfully you’ve been one of those supporters this year. What are your thoughts when it comes to the importance of mentorship for students today?

 I think mentorship remains incredibly important but I have very strong views about the education system at the moment. It might be fun and exciting to be at Uni but its relevance to the day to day work architects do is quite limited. Students who actually work in offices while studying are so much more valuable as architects when they combine that experience with their study.

 I don’t teach at university, when I left I swore I would never go back, but I have mentored plenty of students who are interested in going into the architecture builder game. Anyone who rings me up to have a conversation about the whole concept of being an architect builder I meet and anyone who wants to have a conversation about their future or career I will always say yes. I’ve mentored about 6 or 7 Masters of Architecture graduates who have worked as labourers and skilled labourers on our sites. I have two at the moment who have gone onto trade qualified positions and they are now masters of architecture grads, trade qualified and running multi- million dollar jobs.

In the 1950s The Royal Australian Institute of Architects advocated, in an almost insistent manner, that when you enter University you should find a place in an office and get practical experience side by side. They also advocated in the early 50s that students should get experience working on building sites. Clearly things have changed substantially.

NB: If there is such a call for better prepared graduates why aren’t we seeing universities move back towards a study model that integrates more of that practical experience?

There should be more diversity in who is studying in this profession, and more diversity in practice.

 Well I'd certainly question a lot of the motivations of universities these days. They are there to suck you in and take as much money out of you with as little effort as possible. Graduates may eventually go on to be very successful in the industry but I think universities are putting a big pause on that progression in the way they are structuring their courses.

 It is very funding focused. They want as many people studying, paying as much as possible. Sydney Uni is 25% international students, I’m sure many others are similar. International education is now our third biggest gross domestic product. 25 billion dollars a year. They are now relying on it.

 UNSW promoted a six month internship with Renzo Piano's office recently. An international student won that internship and UNSW is giving him $10 000 to go and do it. Essentially it’s just an unpaid internship, but the university is subsidising it. I really question the motivation of that. I think it looks like a fantastic opportunity to every student and in my opinion that is why it’s been offered – because of the marketing potential.

 If the entrance rank for university is 98, you’re not going to get someone like me, from country NSW come in and do something differently. There should be more diversity in who is studying in this profession, and more diversity in practice. And maybe that means different pathways – spending five to ten years working full time at an architecture office instead of paying $30 000 a year to learn at a uni, resisting unpaid overtime which discriminates against those who can’t do it.

NB: It seems like the scope of architectural education is narrowing bit by bit, with less focus on that kind of broad industry knowledge and more on specialisation. Do you see that shift reflected in the kind of architectural graduates that are emerging?   

 Again this is kind of at arm's length but I do get the sense that educational institutions build up students towards being design architects. It’s very design focused. Perhaps where the disappointment comes from, in terms of specializing, is coming to the realisation that you’re not going to be the design architect.

 Only 5% of people graduating become the design architects. It is difficult with my staff when I do sit them down and say, these are your strengths, and if it’s not design, if it's documentation, or administration, or pricing, whatever aspect of the job I feel they’re really strong in, it sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise. I guess if it's managed and if the person is interested in being the best they can be at that aspect and in that specialization, I haven't personally had a problem with that. We value many different roles in the office, so it’s not perceived as a demotion the way it might be in other offices; it’s seen an opportunity to upskill in other areas.

 Anyone that works for me gets the chance to design. New people get handed multi-million dollar jobs to do sketch designs on. What I want to give them is an experience of seeing how a design architect resolves design problems in an extremely short amount of time. Then they can realise that what will take them 5 days to complete may take an experienced architect 15 minutes. They could then go and work harder and harder to achieve better results, or realise that it’s not their strength and move onto another aspect of the job. You will have people that will dig their heels and work hard to resolve design problems and others that realise what they’ve been employed for and that they are good at getting other parts of the job done.

The other thing I see how students are coming out of uni. There are so many changes you could make, for instance, I think unis should have courses where you learn to do basic costing of buildings, wrest some control back from project managers. Some graduates seem to wrestle with the fact that the reality of the industry is building houses for wealthy people. Documentation of apartment buildings, toilets, it is a services industry. To deal with the shock of what they have gotten themselves into, they go to Papua New Guinea and do emergency work by building things out of bamboo, redefining what the role of the architect is in some other way.


Alexandria House

Alexandria House

NB: I’m interested in how that conversation about strengths and weaknesses goes. Is a student really equipped to really identify those strengths alone or is there a responsibility for teachers and employers to step in?

 I think after three years of study/work yes, a student should figure it out themselves. I didn’t get architecture until my fourth year. When I got it, I didn’t need to be at uni anymore. I got design, I can even remember the place, the day, the drawing I was working on. Some people don’t click like that in terms of design. You have got to invest a lot of time, working on problems over and over again. That is where the speed and efficiency comes from in terms of design solutions. I am personally not the best designer in the world, but I am efficient.  

You can’t berate people as a critic, especially at schools. It’s not a way to approach all types of people. I think most architects are sociopaths at heart. Their moral compass believes they are altruistic and they have an answer to everything but at the same time they are a bit socially maladjusted. They surround themselves with other architects, marry other architects, start businesses with other architects. They think about what other architects think of them too much. They want to be popular amongst other architects. They detach themselves from normal society and those are sociopathic ingredients.

Because I didn’t marry another architect, I have someone who reminds me how much shit I talk - often. She doesn’t even have to say it anymore she just looks at me. That said, I do have architect friends I catch up with. You meet up, talk about architecture, whine about things and I like that…but in small doses.


Clinton and his team at CplusC Architectural Workshop have been a generous sponsor of the 2017 Australasian Student Architecture Congress. Committed to delivering exceptional results as both architects and builders the work of CplusC has been widely recognised, most recently at the 2017 World Architecture Festival for their Living Screen House.

We thank Clinton for his time, support and tireless efforts in advocating for better and fairer practices in architectural workplaces. Daring to be outspoken about real issues in our own industry is a quality that all students and indeed architects could learn a great deal from.

Clinton will be speaking about his practice and principles on Thursday 30.11.17 and hosting a site tour of his Darlington Residence on the Friday 01.12.17.


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