3 April 2011

The Architect Is Dead. Long Live The Architect.

On the 29th January 2011, speaking at a conference on Free Schools, the UK Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, commented that “We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school, we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no-one in this room is here to make architects richer”.  Whilst this of course should be seen in the wider context of the debate about the role architect’s played in the axed BSF programme it does form part of a more complex problem that has only been heightened by events following the global economic collapse. This issue was again highlighted 12 days later by Sir David Chipperfield, in his Royal Gold Medal Lecture ‘Searching for Substance’, when he said “If we are in a position where ministers are fundamentally questioning our role [the architect] then we are in a bad place” (10th February 2011). Comments from the Localism Minister, Greg Clark, to the Architect’s Journal (24th March 2011) that “there couldn’t be a more important profession to realise the fundamental aspirations of our country” only further complicate the situation. That these comments are being made by government ministers and some of the UK architectural community’s most celebrated individuals means that a debate that has been rumbling quietly on for a number of years has been given a more prominent platform. What exactly is an architect in today’s society?

Image of the Architect

In the past decade ‘architects’ (and ‘architecture’) have benefited from an increase in media exposure outside of the traditional closed confines of the architectural press. An increased appetite amongst the public for make over shows and renovation and house building programmes resulted in increased exposure for the ‘design industry’ whilst directors of Hollywood blockbusters and commercials alike showcased the iconic architecture of the era in their productions. Personalities such as Kevin McCloud, who became famous for his Grand Designs show, began to speak about the value of good design in public forums, often chastising individuals who failed to employ built environment ‘professionals’ – although not necessarily architects. It was during this time that “the brief televisual popularity of the Stirling Prize, the architectural Booker or BAFTA, showed both that there was an untapped public interest in architecture, and that British architects were often found to be working abroad and in the UK” (Hatherley, 2010).

Howard Roark, the "Hheroic" figure of 'The Fountainhead'

Architects receiving attention in popular media sources is not a new development, having traditionally featured as a middle-class hero, perhaps most famously in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel ‘The Fountainhead’. Typically “architecture carries with it the image of an established life-style, yet suggests a temperament more open to emotional novelty and breadth of sympathy than do conventional career patterns” (Saint 1983). The stereotype for “balanced and well rounded individuals who combine a creative approach with a caring, thoughtful disposition” (Cesal, 2010) was played out in a 2005 survey conducted by London dating agency ‘Drawing Down the Moon’ that revealed architecture was the “sexiest male profession”. Two years later the American clothing retailer Banana Republic ran a series of adds entitled “architects at work” that featured glamorous, well-dressed ‘architects’ with token rolled up plans and models. However, despite all of this exposure there has been little focus on the actual job of an architect, in contrast with other professions (including vets, doctors and planners) who have had various documentaries made about their day-to-day activities. Instead the architect has been wrapped up in the culture of the spectacle and celebrity that came to epitomise the end of the 20th century and the start of the next. The cult of the ‘Starchitect’ escaped the limited territories of student-hero worship and became mainstream. But when the worlds financial markets collapsed and the current crisis of postmodern culture started architects found themselves “marginalised as a luxury” (The Architect's Journal) that could be discarded. An opportunity to educate the wider public about the value of architects, architecture and design in the built environment had been lost.

Banana Republic's "Architects at Work" campaign from 2007

A Brief History of the Architect

If society can see no value in employing architects it raises the question as to what exactly do they think an architect is, what is he or she for and what value, if any, can they offer? Architect’s would argue that they have more to offer than mere façade dressing, the superficial ‘image’ of a building that is increasingly all they are ‘left’ with. The profession though struggles to unite behind one description of what exactly it is they can offer – it is truly a profession united only in title. At the core of this confusion is the very dialectic nature of architecture – is it an art or a profession? Further problems surround what exactly constitutes ‘architecture’ or even ‘design’. In light of these observations is it any wonder that society questions the value of architects. If, as a professional body, they can not describe themselves how can architects expect those not indoctrinated in their ways to understand their worth.

Architecture as a profession has its routes in antiquity, although the ‘modern-profession’ was not formulated until the 19th century. As Spiro Kostof observes “the presence of architects is documented as far back as the third millennium before Christ” whilst “graphic conventions of architectural practice make their appearance even earlier [in] the seventh millennium [BCE] (Kostof, 1977). These original architects were not concerned simply with erecting buildings but also astronomy, magic and healing; in the words of Plato they “contributed knowledge, not craftsmanship”. The wide breadth of tasks that an architect was concerned with continued with the transition from medieval to ‘modern’ processes of thought where the idea of a ‘Renaissance Man’ took hold. The architect was an individual interested in drawing, surveying, geometry, arithmetic, optics, literature, history, philosophy, medicine and astronomy. The Industrial Revolution caused a shift from Agrarian to Capitalism-based economies and the architect began to be considered as a ‘Professional’ in his own right. Sir John Soane put it that “the business of the architect is to make the designs and estimates, to direct the works and to measure and value the different parts; he is the intermediate agent between employer and the mechanic” (Saint, 1983). The core ideal of the architecture profession then has changed little since then. The architect today can be described as being an individual conceived from ideals of the 18th century, operating in a profession designed in the 19th century, within construction processes formulated in the 20th century, attempting to meet the needs of the 21st century.

The public image of the architect has changed substantially in a short
period of time, as epitomised in the marketing material that now covers
Manchester Town Hall as it undergoes renovation work

Today there are three broad categories of “architect” operating (Saint, 1983). Typically a description of a profession split two ways is given, between the so-called ‘design-architect’ and ‘executive-architect’ or the artist and the businessman/technologist. However, a third architect that operates on the peripheries of both practices exists, the ‘community-architect’. These community or citizen-architects are far smaller in number and on the face of it champion the role of ‘social engagement’ within the profession. Inadvertently these architects though have marginalised the social-responsibility of the architect into a specialised task. Whilst these architects undoubtedly perform a great service, often in the most disadvantaged parts of the world, to again quote Sir David Chipperfield in his Gold Medal speech, “It is not an unreasonable presumption that the aim of good of architecture is to serve the public good and that most architects work with that intention”. If these intentions are shared by the majority of the profession then why have not manifested themselves in the last 15 years?

Perhaps of most cost concern is the “artificial schism between creation and execution”, to quote Joshua Prince-Ramus, that is signified by the design and executive architect. These two distinctions are now firmly entrenched in the construction process itself where it is not uncommon for a practice specialising in ‘design’ to be employed during the conceptual stages of a project and then for the project to be handed over to a different practice to oversee the construction process (if an architect is employed during this stage at all). It is difficult to locate the exact moment in time that the construction process was fractured into two distinct halves. To some extent there have always been two parallel ‘professions’, those of the artist and the craftsman, however the situation was only exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution, with the subsequent new building typologies and increasing complexity of projects; and then further by the separation of form and function by Modernism in the early 20th century. Albert Kahn, the American architect renowned for his industrial buildings and often referred to as the ‘architect of Detroit’, would claim that “architecture is 90% business and 10% art” (Leatherbarrow & Mostafavi, 2002) as he moulded his practice on the model of Henry Ford’s mass production. Kahn was partly responsible for bringing industry to architecture.

The three types of architect loosely outlined above are not mutually exclusive nor do they describe a practice of a particular size. A number of architects operate successfully between the boundaries of two and a number of Starchitects (and other, lesser known, practices) have crafted out successful businesses on the basis of their ‘art’ and business acumen. On the whole this is the professional landscape that now exists. Further distinctions can be drawn between those who practice ‘paper architecture’ and whose who take a more active role in the process of ‘building’. It is clear then that this crisis of identity is afflicting the architect’s relationship with wider society. If there are at least three types of architects is it is no wonder that the term ‘architect’ has been appropriated by other industries that have nothing to do with the built environment. As Eric Cesal puts it “someone stole our damn name” (Cesal, 2010). Even protection of title seems to mean little then when you can have IT programmers appropriating the name ‘architect’ to become ‘programming architects’. The debate can even be extended to the correct use of the letter ‘a’ – are architects ‘Architects’ or ‘architects’, is it ‘architecture’ or ‘Architecture’.

The identity crisis that the profession is currently stricken by is nothing new, with architects having lurched from crisis to crisis ever since the formation of the profession some 200 years ago - and arguably much longer than that. These crises are entwined with the evolution of the idea of ‘architect’ and of ‘architecture’ as well as various geo-political events that have shaped the wider world and that, even more than any other professions, architects are exposed to. The three crises can be broadly described as: a crisis of style, a crisis of purpose and a crisis of contingency. The first, the crisis of style is arguably the most subjective of these, the most formalistic and the one that architect’s retreat to as their de facto response when their role is challenged (both internally and externally). The crisis of purpose relates to what exactly does an architect do, what services fall under their domain, it is more than a simple debate about professionalism and has formed the basis of this piece up until now. Finally, the crisis of contingency is the one that architects shy away from the most, not keen to discuss how important external factors are in setting their own agendas. By carving out these three categories the purpose is not to over simplify the scenario, indeed the issues are complex and interrelated, but to help frame further discussion.

Moving Forward

Does the architect have a future role to play in shaping the built environment of the 21st century? Architect’s obviously feel that they do have something to contribute and since 2008 there has been an increase in the number of books, documentaries and magazine pieces as an industry, reeling from the fallout of 15 years of excess crashing down around it, has had an opportunity to sit back and reflect - what opportunities had been lost and what is the way forward? It may be useful here to recall a statement made in 1923 by the great proponent of the Modern movement, Le Corbusier, who, in his treatise ‘Towards A New Architecture’ commented: “Our engineers are healthy and virile, active and useful, balanced and happy in their work. Our architects are disillusioned and unemployed, boastful or peevish. This is because there will soon be nothing more for them to do. We no longer have the money to erect historical souvenirs. At the same time, we have got to wash! Our engineers provide for these things and they will be our builders” (Corbusier, 1923). The purpose is not to highlight the rivalry between architects and engineers but to show that this situation of soul searching is not unique to the ‘modern’ day.

Le Corbusier addressed the future of architects in his 1923
treatise 'Towards A New Architecture'

Roemer van Toorn provokes “Can the architect project alternatives that deal with the urgent questions and issues of our civilisation?” (Bauman Lyons, 2008) One reaction has been that architect’s first response shouldn’t necessarily be a building but that architect’s should position themselves as strategic thinkers who challenge legislation and foment debate. This is approach is perhaps fuelled by the successes of one of the ‘old-guard’, Rem Koolhaas, who has become as famous for his work outside of the traditional confines of architecture as his built work at OMA. Koolhaas compares the modern architect to “King Midas in reverse” and that “if you want spontaneity or everyday life, you should keep architects as far away as possible” (Obrist & Koolhaas, 2006). Clearly even he feels that in their current incarnation architects are ill placed to add worth or value to the built environment. If the ultimate aim of architecture is to manifest itself in the built environment then architects need to become more involved in the decision making and construction process.

For Joshua Prince-Ramus, head of New York based practice REX, the blame for the current predicament is placed firmly at the feet of architects who he brands as “cowards” because as they “have faced liability [architects] have stepped back” until they have totally marginalised themselves. The rejection of responsibility and liability is, like the crisis of identity, not a new thing. In the 19th century architects chose not to be associated with certain new building typologies that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, choosing instead to focus on the ‘traditional’ confines of monuments and civic structures. This reluctance to embrace new typologies or conditions allowed other professions to assume responsibility for them and this is a pattern that has repeated ever since – with the most recent example being engineers taking control of the ‘sustainability’ agenda in construction when many expected that responsibility to fall to architects. Prince-Ramus talks about stitching back together “creation and execution” and that architects need to start “authoring processes” in order to inject social agency into architecture. The only way for this to work argues Prince-Ramus is for architects to acknowledge the importance of the client.

An architect is responsible to his or her client, whether or not the client is an individual who has approached the architect or someone the architect actively approaches with a proposal. Chipperfield observes “there is nothing we can do without the conspiracy of client, money, authority; we don’t have the autonomy of the poet or a painter or a sculptor, we might talk about architecture as an art but we don’t we don’t occupy the same space as artists”. At the same time as being responsible to their client the architect also has a responsibility to wider society because ultimately architecture manifests itself in the built environment and impacts on people – it is essentially a social activity.

Bjarke Ingels is trying to champion new architectural processes
from his ideas of "pragmatic idealism" and "Yes Is More"

A renewed emphasis on the socially enabling qualities of architecture reflects a return to the social ideals championed by proponents of the Modern movement, in the 20th century. However, these schemes are set apart from their ‘Modern’ forebears by their commitment to practical, pragmatic solutions as opposed to autocratic utopian visions which weren’t implemented, in part, because of their massively unrealistic scale and for not recognising the importance of context. Context was reintroduced through Postmodernism although it was arguably abused in many circles, its importance shouldn’t be forgotten. Bjarke Ingels refers to this as “pragmatic idealism” and that through this framework (working with the qualities of both Modernism and Postmodernism) architects can tackle the “creation of socially, economically and environmentally perfect places as a practical objective”. This echoes what Prince-Ramus talks about, combining the creativity of ‘idealism’ with pragmatic build-ability to enact positively on society. It also reflects a wider political and society shift currently taking place that is questioning the values of post modernity (see Notes on Metamodernism).

“The biggest challenge today is to try to engage non-architectural issues – meaning poverty, less segregation in cities, less violence – with our specific knowledge, which is to design and do projects”. These are the words of Alejandro Aravena, the award-winning Chilean architect (exhibited at Small Scale, Big Change), and it is clear that the issues are not the reserve of Europe and North America but are global. There is an appetite for an architecture that is socially engaged so perhaps what 21st century architects need to do is challenge the processes within which they work.  The Why Factory, a Dutch think tank headed by MVRDV’s Winy Maas, challenges architects that the only way to tackle the complexity of the modern built environment is by making “the design process itself the subject of design” (The Why Factory, 2009). In a time where “Prtizker Prize-winning architects are designing vodka bottles and necklaces unknown developer-architects are building entire cities from the ground up in the Middle east and China” (The Why Factory, 2009) the need for new processes is a pressing one.

Alejandro Aravena has gained  media attention for his
approach to the problems of the built environment

A rejuvenated design process has the potential to unite all three separate strands of the profession (the three types of architect) together into a cohesive entity. Architects need to be more engaged with external forces, embrace these and try to enact change upon them for the greater good of society and prove that they can add value and have a worth. Key to this will be an acceptance of risk because “whoever carries the risk [will] drive the design, and in so shying away from taking on risk architects are diminishing their ability to influence design outcomes" (RIBA, 2011). Furthermore as a profession it needs to be less inward-facing and needs to work within the “mess” (Till, 2010) of the everyday, turning what are constraints into active design opportunities.

It is unlikely that all of the ground lost can be regained but if architects do want to play an active role in the future they need to engage with other built environment professionals. The architect then can pursue a role not only as “stitcher of disconnections” (Bauman Lyons, 2008) and social enabler but may also be able to act as a true mediator between the different parties involved in shaping the built environment. Finally, they also need to learn to be successful businesspeople, there is no good being great artists or socially engaged if it does not “pay the bills”. This is what a new emerging generation is challenging where architects need to ask more questions earlier on and accept more responsibility for their actions. Architects do have a future role to play in shaping the cities of the 21st century but, just as it ahs done for centuries, it will need to undergo a period of evolution before the profession can once again play an active, socially engaged, role.

Notes & References

This piece was prepared as summary of the first three months of research carried out as part of my Thesis studies at the Manchester School of Architecture, during the MA Architecture + Urbanism programme (2010-2011).

The Architect’s Journal Online, ‘Gove: Richard Rogers won’t design your school’, 2nd February 2010, by Merlin Fulcher [First accessed 26th March 2011]
Sir David Chipperfield, Royal Gold Medal Presentation & Speech ‘Searching for Substance’ 10th February 2011 - RIBA Website, Royal Gold Medal ‘Building the modern world’ 2011, [First accessed 26th March 2011]
The Architect’s Journal Online, ‘Greg Clark: Architects key to Localism’, 24th March 2011, by Merlin Fulcher [First Accessed 26th March 2011]
Hatherley, O. (2010), A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, 1st Edition, London: Verso, P.XII
Saint, A. (1983), The Image of The Architect, 1st Edition, Yale University Press, P.1
Cesal, E. J. (2010), Down Detour Road, 1st Edition, MIT Press, Cambridge: Massachusetts, P.18
World Architecture News [Online], ‘Architects voted sexiest professionals’, 5th July 2010, [First Accessed 26th March 2011]
A Daily Dose of Architecture Blog, ‘Banana Architects’ 13th March 2007 [First Accessed 27th March 2011]
The Architect’s Journal, Volume 233, Issue 1, 13th January 2011, Finn Williams, Common Office, On the Profession, P.33
Kostof, S. (1977) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press
Plato, Politicus 360 BCE
Saint, A. (1983), The Image of The Architect, 1st Edition, Yale University Press
Sir David Chipperfield, Royal Gold Medal Presentation & Speech ‘Searching for Substance’ 10th February 2011 - RIBA Website, Royal Gold Medal ‘Building the modern world’ 2011, [First accessed 26th March 2011]
Joshua Prince Ramus, TEDxSMU2009 Event, Dallas [First Accessed 20th March 2011]
Leatherbarrow, D. and Mostafavi, M. (2002), Surface Architecture, 1st Edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, P.121
Cesal, E. J. (2010), Down Detour Road, 1st Edition, MIT Press, Cambridge: Massachusetts, P.17
Corbusier, Le (1923), Towards A New Architecture, translated from the 13th French edition with an introduction by Frederick Etchells, Architectural Press, Oxford, 2000 P.14
Quoted in: Bauman Lyons Architects (2008), How To Be A Happy Architect, 1st Edition, London: Black Dog Publishing, P.90
Icon Magazine, ’20 Young Architects’, Issue 058, April 2008, Words by Justin McGuirk, Beatrice Galilee, Celine Condorelli, Julian Worrall, Oliver Wainwright and Christine Murray P69
Obrist, H. U. & Koolhaas, R. (2006), The Conversation Series – Rem Koolhaas, Koln: Verlag, P.50
Joshua Prince Ramus, TEDxSMU2009 Event, Dallas [First Accessed 20th March 2011]
Joshua Prince Ramus, TEDxSMU2009 Event, Dallas [First Accessed 20th March 2011]
Sir David Chipperfield interview on BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves
Ingels, B. (2009), Yes Is More. An Archicomic on Architecture Evolution (Bjarke Ingels Group), 1st Edition, Koln: Evergreen
See Notes On Metamodernism,
Icon Magazine, ‘Alejandro Aravena Interview’, Issue 067, January 2009, Words by Justin McGuirk, P.54-79
Maas, W., Sverdlov A. and Waugh, E. (Editors) (2009), Visionary Cities (The Why Factory), 1st Edition, Amsterdam: NAi Publishers, P.93-94
Maas, W., Sverdlov A. and Waugh, E. (Editors) (2009), Visionary Cities (The Why Factory), 1st Edition, Amsterdam: NAi Publishers, P.66-67
RIBA Building Futures Report (2011)
Till, J. (2009), Architecture Depends, 1st Edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
Bauman Lyons Architects (2008), How To Be A Happy Architect, 1st Edition, London: Black Dog Publishing