Where’s the Art in Enterprise Architecture?

Vitruvian canon, re-interpreted by Robert Venturi for the Functionalists (from 'Learning from Las Vegas').

Vitruvian canon, re-interpreted by Robert Venturi for the Functionalists (from ‘Learning from Las Vegas’).

I had the opportunity to attend the First Australian Enterprise Architecture Conference, 19th and 20th November 2013, at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. The conference wrapped up with the traditional panel of luminaries. The session touched on some of the recurring themes and topics of the two days – enterprise architecture definitions, identity, what we are, what we do, what we don’t do, frameworks versus ontology, methods and pitfalls, value propositions and rationale.

As it happened, I got to ask the final question of the conference. The following is an improved, expanded and referenced version of the challenge I put to John Zachman and a number of EA practitioners and consultants.

We call ourselves enterprise architects. We derive a certain amount of distinction and even prestige from our claimed affinity with the history of architecture and the world of architects. We claim this affinity on the basis that we design enterprises, just as architects design buildings. In doing this, we look beyond other related and potentially more applicable analogous roles including engineer, assembler, compositor, foreman and technician.

If we really are architects of the enterprise rather than the built world, then our kind of architecture — enterprise architecture — must stand up to how architects of the built world define and understand architecture. While there is no doubt that what enterprise architects do is a form of design, more than a hint of mis-appropriation lingers.
‘Real’ architects have described architecture as ‘art you can live in’ and ‘inhabited sculpture’ (Constantin Brancusi). Others have observed the relationship between people and place, including Winston Churchill who said ‘we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us’. So there is something special about the relationship between people and architecture. This raises a simple but important question that goes the core of the issue of identity. Where’s the art in enterprise architecture?

The canonical definition of architecture, dating from Roman times, is attributed to Vitruvius, who argued that a good building must satisfy three principles:

  • firmitas (firmness, durability) – it should stand up robustly and remain in good condition
  • utilitas (commodity, utility) – it should be useful and function well for the people using it
  • venustas (delight, beauty, the salient qualities possessed by the goddess Venus) – it should delight people and raise their spirits.

According to Vitruvius, good architecture possesses each of these three attributes. Great architecture occurs when all three are realised together in the same building, form or structure. The Borromean rings has been used to symbolise this triad of individual but co-dependent characteristics — no ring can be removed without breaking the others.

We can all think of examples of great architecture that possess the Vitruvian qualities — Utzon’s Opera House, the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright (ignoring the occasional leaking roof), Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (not forgetting Francesco Talenti, Arnolfo di Cambio, Giotto, Andrea Pisano, Giovanni di Lapo Ghini, Alberto Arnoldi, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Neri di Fioravante and Andrea Orcagna who preceded him on the grand 140 year project).

There is no contention that enterprise architects routinely deal with firmness and commodity, and do it effectively. But beauty? Delight? So I put the question to the Panel – where’s the beauty, where’s the art in enterprise architecture? And if we cannot identify that art, then I contend that we are far closer to enterprise engineers than enterprise architects.

o O o

The question drew spontaneous applause from the audience. The panel responded. John Zachman suggested that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that there are beauties to be seen in many facets of enterprise design. His particular viewpoint (that architecture is the blueprint by which enterprises, like all other things, are designed) yields many candidate artifacts and activities that could be perceived with a trace of delight by the so-inclined.

Others talked of how improving employees’ work environments and delivering better services for customers brings moments of delight both for the designer and the inhabitant or customer. And of how enterprise architects are uniquely placed to improve systems and make people’s lives better. One panelist admitted that there was very little ‘art’ in what we did.

Nothing that was said persuaded me away from the thought that ‘architecture’ is a step too far for the enterprise design work we do. Or that engineering is not a better fitting moniker for most of what we do, most of the time.

Enterprise architects continue to debate what enterprise architecture means, what enterprise architects do and how it adds value. The endlessness and circularity of the debate signifies the field’s relative immaturity. In this context, my question stands.
It has relevance because it concerns the identity of a discipline that John Zachman argued will be here for a century and has the potential to drive the shape and pace of the information age, no less. Perhaps Mr Zachman should take just a little of the credit and blame for all of this – if he had chosen the title ‘A Framework for Information Systems Engineering’ for his seminal 1987 article in the IBM Systems journal, things might haven been quite different.

o O o

Other quotes on why architecture of the built world is something quite different from enterprise architecture:

No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder. – John Ruskin

Architecture is like a mythical fantastic. It has to be experienced. It can’t be described. We can draw it up and we can make models of it, but it can only be experienced as a complete whole. – Maya Lin

I call architecture frozen music. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The events of human life, whether public or private, are so intimately linked to architecture that most observers can reconstruct nations or individuals in all the truth of their habits from the remains of their monuments or from their domestic relics. – Honore de Balzac.

o O o

See also:

http://thelyingtruthofarchitecture.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/commodity-and-delight/

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