Tough economic times have a habit of stimulating periods of reflection. Since the start of this Great Recession there has been no shortage of mirror gazing amongst architects – at the systems of professional practice and the education that precedes them. For many the image has been one of crisis, as much economic as of confidence. For architects this comes after years of decline of authority, having given up team-leader status to the management professionals in evolving contracting models.
Where architects have found themselves at the vanguard however is in economic hardship, particularly smaller scale, emerging practices. The 2013 RIBA Business Benchmarking Report suggested that there were separate economic realities for large and small practices with the smaller operations struggling. This should not come as a surprise since the multi-national and multi-disciplinary capacity of larger firms leave them well placed to take advantage of booming (if not bubbling) economies overseas, and to benefit from the trillions in stimulus spending and lending in the mature but struggling West.
In spite of the many calls for change in how we prepare our young, architectural education for the most part maintains its detached and outdated methodologies. The heterotopia that is architecture school deposits its graduates into this sea of opportunity where in better times their vulnerabilities may not be exposed. Now though, the tide has gone out and as Warren Buffet predicted we can see who is swimming naked.
In the same way that first time buyers have fueled the engine of the property market over the years, emerging architects have and should propel the profession forward, provided with frameworks through the lessons of their mentors but developing new and socially relevant forms of engagement within the built environment. Unfortunately this category of upcoming professionals is suffering from a lack of replenishment with a detrimental effect on the development of our profession. Their mentors in education and practice who we naturally turn to at difficult times such as these are themselves in crisis. With a lack of appropriate guidance coupled with a brutally unforgiving economic environment we are faced with the prospect of witnessing an emerging generation of architects without architecture.
We are not alone. Professional photography, subject to rapidly democratising technology has suffered from widespread dumbing down. This year Yahoo (and popular photo sharing site Flickr) CEO Marissa Mayer went so far as to declare that there was “no such thing … as professional photographers”. Just over one week later the venerable Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography staff, encouraging its journalists to take advantage of their iPhone cameras. Are celebrity form-makers and corporate cogs-in-the-wheel precipitating a similar decline for architects?
Our industry is cyclical so we have certainly been here before. The formative years of some of our most influential educators were spent away from the building site and they to this day champion the processes that allow an escape from actual construction – theory, drawing and 3D graphics. These are all essential expressions in and of themselves but in many of our educational institutions they are coloured by uninhibited self-indulgence. Architecture ultimately is visceral – sensual, messy, textural and rooted – and its most important activity is building. This is where architecture began and it is where we can find many clues to the way forward.
The challenge is to expand the definition of architecture while maintaining our core competencies and without dumbing down what we do. There are several established and new examples that are encouraging, such as Glasgow’s Tog Studio, with its emphasis on construction experience and the Architectural Association’s Night School, looking at alternatives in architectural education. The time has come for many of their niche ideas tobe absorbed into mainstream education.
The liberal thinking that is epitomised in output from schools such as the Bartlett and AA and which has become the focal point for much of the criticism of UK architectural education, is in fact a source of tremendous opportunity. For all the fodder that it provides the skeptic there are unexploited possibilities. Perhaps these free thinkers can lead the way. They are typically focussed, intelligent, malleable and fundamentally open-minded risk-takers. Given their skillset they are the ultimate twenty-first century entrepreneurs. The unfortunate reality at the moment is that they are more likely to become the ultimate CAD monkeys.
On the cusp of a paradigm shift in its business operations Apple Computer changed its name to just “Apple” – reflecting its new priorities and broader reach. The British architect, left only with protection of title after long, arduous and debt creating years is in need of such a transformational moment.
This is unlikely to be precipitated by the many comfortable architecture school tutors who have stayed put for a couple of decades. Perhaps, like some politicians, their tenure should be limited.
Free market conservative politics in the United States speaks to the concept of government “getting out of the way”. Perhaps the Profession, with an uppercase “P” needs to get out of the way, at least a little, to allow an expanded definition of architecture to take hold.
Perhaps the catalyst for social usefulness and economic liberation for the emerging architect can be provided through entrepreneurship. Business demands that we engage. To restore authority in our profession we may have to go back to the beginning and start small, to re-establish ourselves in a context in which we control the purse strings, either with our own funds or for investors. Critically this must be done in a viable manner that will survive our transition from bright-eyed graduates to middle-aged parents. Since building is what we do then we ought to be developers, inspiring and directing the project from inception to completion. Working backwards from this goal reveals an alternative career trajectory for an architect including work experience, education and our aspirations as youth … and the relevance of Registration.
Perhaps the twenty-first century architect is the new Master Builder.