12 October 2011

Dive // Contaminated Estimations

During the MA Architecture and Urbanism course (2010-11) at the Manchester School of Architecture students (including myself) produced four films for a one-day interdisciplinary conference at the University of Warwick entitled "The Postmodern Palimpsest: Narrating Contemporary Rome" (held on Saturday 26th February 2011). The call for papers for the conference outlined the following:
Rome is privileged in its relationship with Western history, constructed over layer after layer, from Roman to Fascist ‘empires’: in this sense the city constitutes the urban palimpsest. In postmodernity, the sprawl, the latest metamorphosis of Rome, overlaps with historical images of the capital to form a shapeless and fragmentary identity. The aim of this conference [was] to probe this latest level of the city, to discern the new and the old, and the links and reflections of one onto the other.
Written and direct by Carrie Bayley, Rongxio Han and myself, "Dive // Contaminated Estimations" was our response.

Diagram of the film's trajectory.

Rome is portrayed through the multiple layers that define it as both an ancient and a modern city. First, the historic city is compressed for the hordes of visitors who descend on Rome each day, ignorant to the support systems that allow them this experience. Second, the aesthetically spectacular is replaced with the drama of everyday Rome. The final layer reveals the hidden support systems that work tirelessly to keep the city alive. The postmodern cultural conditions that afflict all cities, caught up in the maelstrom of globalisation, are exposed by forcing the viewer to re-examine the fragile infrastructures upon which their own lives are dependent.

The other films produced were as follows: "Lost in Rome", "Tricolore" and "Is Rome a Modern City?"

10 October 2011

MA A+U Exhibition and Colloquium 2011

An exhibition of work by the recent graduates of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course at the Manchester School of Architecture is currently taking place at the RIBA Hub on Portland Street in Manchester. The show opened on Friday 29th September 2011, with a preview evening on Tuesday 4th October 2011.

MA A + U Show 2011 at the RIBA Hub (Image: Luke Butcher)

Each student presents their work on a single A1 board, with the thesis's submitted by students, along with other assignments, also available to view.

The Architecture of the Profession (Image: Luke Butcher)

On Thursday 6th October 2011 five students from the MA gave presentations on their research at the MA A+U Colloquium 2011. I was invited to present my research - "The Architecture of the Profession" - along with Preeya Vadgama ("The Survival of Cities"), Carrie Bayley  ("Tracing Urban Exchange"), Jack O' Reilly ("The Phoenix Effect") and Kathryn Timmins ("The Local City").

Luke Butcher presenting at the Colloquium (Image: Eamonn Canniffe)

The audience was mostly made up of the new academic year's MA students (2011-12) and gave them an opportunity to see the diverse range of projects produced last year in more detail.

Carrie Bayley presenting her project "Tracing Urban Exchange"
at the Colloquium (Image: Luke Butcher)

The show continues until Friday 14th October 2011.

9 October 2011

What Now?

The following extract is taken from Chapter Nine of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

The Uncertain Architect

All studies that attempt to forecast future events are underpinned by uncertainty because despite the inevitable arrival of the future, unless both time and the laws of physics desert us, there is no way to determine the entirety of its composition. Whilst the trajectories of some of these future compositions are said to be more certain than others, or at least more preferable to different parties, in reality all futurology can do is postulate and provide us with a future and an accompanying caveat. The limitations of the methods of prediction are intrinsically linked to their ability to deal with a series of externalities and a more dynamic system of relationships, affecting the probability of outcomes. By systematically analysing past and present social, economic and technological trends (and the development of their associated systems) the limitations of the prediction can be reduced, however uncertainties and completely unforeseen developments remain which can dramatically alter that future. (1) Predictions are formed by extrapolating these trends to develop possible scenarios which in turn can be interrogated, but it is important that with any interrogation it should be remembered that it is based on just one possible future and is limited by those uncertainties.

Architects are faced with these uncertainties on a daily basis. The slow nature of architectural production means that every action and intervention in the built environment is, in essence, a piece of futurology. Rem Koolhaas writes that “Any architectural project takes five years; no single enterprise—ambition, intention, need—remains unchanged in the contemporary maelstrom” (2) and although projects may be completed in less time there is still an upper limit. Whilst it is possible to engineer solutions to speed up the process, such as minimising the time spent on design or adopting standardised components and mass produced, prefabricated elements to speed up construction, there remains a barrier, dependent upon the speed that individual materials and components are put together on site. The speed of production is being increased in places that are experiencing dramatic urbanisation, with new cities emerging at a pace that is hard to imagine in the western, developed economies. (3) Despite this though, even in places of unprecedented growth there still is an upper limit and they are still constructing for a future scenario. Whenever funding is sought, a brief prepared, or any other decision is taken it is done so in the knowledge that the end product will exist in a different context and we can only speculate on what that context might be.

It is the limitations of not knowing about the future that introduces risk into the design and planning process, and this risk isn’t limited to whether or not the outcome will stand up but includes whether or not, by the time it is completed, that intervention will be needed at all. In some situations there will obviously be less risk of that intervention becoming obsolete in a short time period, possibly before it is complete. For example, if the only primary school serving a particular community is found to be unsafe and needs to be replaced then it would make sense to replace that school with a new one. There is less risk of the school being obsolete when it does open because it is highly unlikely that, in the two to four years it might take to replace the existing school, educational paradigms will have shifted to such a degree that a physical school, as an educational environment, is obsolete. Of course, decisions made about the built environment will require an element of forward planning but it remains that the context which most influences these decisions is the temporary present or the near future, which are easier to predict. This temporary attitude could be attributed as one of the reasons that fuelled the speculative commercial and residential developments that sprouted up across cities in the first decade of the 21st century and have since been so derided. (4)

The MAXXI Museum in Rome
(Image: Luke Butcher)

The speculative nature of architectural production in recent years has not been restricted to residential or commercial projects though but includes the landmark or icon-led regeneration schemes that traded on the mythical Bilbao-effect. Cultural institutions around the world looked on at the close of the 20th century as “we became familiar with the immense queues outside museums testifying to the great success of their ongoing expansion and popularization.” (5) In this context, which included post-industrial city administrations eager to reinvent themselves and replicate the success of Bilbao, architects attention on these iconic projects could be easily justified. The icon was not just restricted to landmark cultural projects but increasingly the owners of office buildings and other typologies were looking for extravagance and formal gestures to sell their projects. (6) However, since the financial crisis a number of projects have completed that now seem out of place, such as the MAXXI Museum in Rome. The Zaha Hadid designed gallery has been both lauded and derided by critics, despite having won the 2010 Stirling Prize it has also been described as a “terrible gallery” with “profound shortcomings”. (7) The first half of 2011 saw a number of cultural institutions open in the UK that were also designed under a different set of circumstances. “The best comes last” (8) is how Jay Merrick praised the Holburne Museum in Bath and the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, but with major cultural projects (in this case lottery-funded) coming to an end, commentators are now questioning the appropriateness of such a level of spending on cultural projects or anything else for that matter. (9) Miles Glendinning describes how an “unintentionally amusing game of ‘pass the parcel’ began, with architects (or critic-apologists) disowning iconic excess, and pointing the finger at others.” (10) In this new landscape shortcomings or errors that might of otherwise not have received so much attention are more prominent; things seem more out of place. Some voices did warn against the dangers of such profligacy before the ‘finger pointing’ began but the iconic projects were still commissioned and it will be a few more years before the last of those commissioned in the ‘good’ times are complete. (11)

The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield
(Image: Luke Butcher / Carrie Bayley)

This is not intended be a critique of iconic architecture but to serve as an illustration of how unforeseen (12) events can dramatically change the landscape within which the built environment is judged. In the case of MAXXI, Hepworth and Holbourne the world they were designed in existed ten years ago and they would have been designed for a future that wasn’t that much different but obviously the world has changed. It is not just physical, social or economic contexts that architecture must contemplate but temporal contexts as well, which means architects constantly have to adapt to a new level of ‘normality’. (13) When considering the future of architectural practice then the products of that practice will exist in a future even further forward. If we are talking about architectural practice in 2025 then we are dealing with a built environment of 2027 or 2030, if not later.

Driving Change

In a recent debate about the future of practice Tom Jefferies, Head of the Manchester School of Architecture, said that the best way to judge what the built environment in 25 years time would look like was to look at graduate projects in ten years time because “it takes that long for ideas to filter through everything and actually get delivered on the ground.” (14) From this assertion we can summarise that projects produced in academia today should give us a sense of the possible topography we might encounter in 2021. The relationship between education and practice has already been explored however both will have to deal with uncertain futures and be aware that decisions made will take time to make their way into mainstream consciousness. The question then is what landscape will future models of architectural practice operate in and what possible vision should they be working towards?

Visions of the future typically oscillate between grey dystopias, wrecked by ecological disasters (currently the favoured medium for award winning architectural student projects), (15) food shortages, and war, or shining white utopias, where the human race transcends its historical imperfections by unilaterally coming together to create a perfect world. Catastrophes in particular have “become an extremely powerful tool to depict the future” of architecture. (16) The world of science fiction has provided us with a series of myths that linger in discussions about the physical landscape of the future, flying cars, towering skyscrapers, or personalised holographic adverts, but “what begins as a fantasy in the imagination of the creator later becomes the present reality of the world.” (17) However, the voice of architects is often absent from these imaginations possibly because they adopt Rem Koolhaas’ stance on futuristic city predictions: “All you can hope for today is some kind of intelligence about day-to-day decisions” because “there is absolutely no certainty that you can count on.” (18) This position could explain why architects have been left feeling increasingly marginalised, left to “wonder what happened” (19) as things pass them by. Whilst architects must continue to interact with the temporary contexts that surround them they should also have one eye on the future. The speed of change is sometimes overwhelming, particularly when you consider the associated uncertainties, but if architects begin to take a more active interest in the future they are better able to shape that future.

It is already possible to hypothesise on the trends and key drivers that will be influential in the production of future environments. These drivers may not necessarily be large or dramatic changes but the accumulation of small, individual events that have a wider effect. However, many of these trends may already be with us and having an effect right now, albeit in isolated pockets, before having a mass influence. Patterns begin to emerge and “you can start to identify the changes that you need to pay attention to, and then by being conscious of [those patterns] you accelerate [them].” (20) Understanding these trends enables strategic planning but more importantly in can inspire the world of tomorrow.

Writing in 2000, Dana Cuff identified the following “fundamental forces that have altered the context of architectural work”—digital technology, environmental concerns, technological change in the building sciences, and globalisation. (21) This list resonates with some of the 2005 report ‘Constructive Change’, authored by Bob White, which identified five key areas that had driven change in the construction industry in the last decade of the 20th century, before listing the trends that would drive the profession forward. (22) Despite these being identified over six to ten years ago many will still have an impact on the future of both the built environment and the architectural profession but the emphasis and order of importance of them will have changed because of underlying paradigm shifts in society.

The world financial crisis of 2007 to 2009 has been well documented but “despite all the forebodings of disaster” (23) the world did not end. Two years on the world is still coming to terms with those events as well as facing a series of new financial crises—America has lost it’s AAA rating and a sovereign-debt crisis, that started in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, has Europe facing an uncertain future.  It wasn’t just an economic system that failed but “an entire political philosophy…a way of thinking about and living in the world.” (24) Despite all this it is highly likely that the only thing that will replace global capitalism in the near future will be global capitalism; but with new directions and energies. Capitalism has ‘failed’ on a number of occasions over the past three to two hundred years but has shown itself to be a resilient mechanism, with each great financial crisis beginning with “the belief that the world has changed forever” but ending “with the realization that the change was not what it seemed.” (25) These events have “shifted considerably the landscape within which the architect must practice” (26) but must not be allowed to dominate the discussion, it has enacted change (the new normal) and whether or not the world returns to how things were is another discussion entirely.

If some of these things are already with us, and others are still a little further off, what then are the main drivers that will be affecting architectural production in the next ten years, and thus have an impact on the architectural profession of the next fifteen to twenty years? First, the growing importance of the sustainability agenda, social, environmental and economical, as people become increasingly aware of climate change, resource depletion, foot shortages and other global events that impact at the local scale. Second, the continued globalisation of culture. Third, the importance of achieving value in cost, time and quality, particularly in the wake of reduced public spending. Fourth, improvements in digital technologies, with developments in communication technology aiding twenty-four hour work patterns in becoming fully established. Fifth, the implementation of new construction technologies that have the potential to transform the way the built environment is constructed. Finally, there will be changes within the structures of architectural profession and education.

Emerging Here and Now

If these drivers are important and already influencing the profession then the models of future practice, which will be explored in the following chapters and pages, may already be with us. These emergent practice types may be embryonic but it is likely that the future models will evolve from the most successful of these. The concept of emergence “offers a new precision to the study of evolution, complexity and the ‘new’, and it appears to be strangely applicable to a huge range of disciplines and scales, from the micro-biological to the macro-economical” however predicting this development can not rely on observing the individual constituent parts because “the emergent whole always exceeds its parts qualitatively”. (27) These new emergent practices will develop from a combination of divergent factors, driven by those identified trends, which may not be dependent on one another, and it will likely be impossible to pin point one type of behaviour or property that will be the catalyst for this change. (28)

The 'Seed Cathedral' at the Shanghai Expo
(Image: Copyright Daniele Mattiolo)

The future being explored here is not tomorrow or one in fifty years time but instead it looks to the medium-term future which is being shaped by forces today. Within ten years time what is emerging today will likely become the mainstream and thus the future being speculated upon is the 2020s, and the built environment of twenty to twenty-five years time. The architectural profession has shown over history that it is capable of change, flowing between various identities and polarities, because of the flexibility in defining what constitutes architecture and the range of skills offered. It is not impossible to imagine that this flexibility will be applicable to future scenarios.

The Absent Architect

But what if there were no architects? (29) History has shown that as the complexity of the built environment has increased, the remit of the architect has decreased. Projecting this trend could foresee a world where there are no architects, where their responsibilities and tasks have been syphoned off by other professions or the role they play is simply deemed surplus to requirements. The future scenarios that follow are all underpinned by the idea that architects do have a role to play in shaping the future built environment. (30) It would obviously seem folly to spend so much time building up the story of the architectural profession to say that in the future they will no longer be needed, however a cautionary note must accompany these speculations, they will require a change in attitude and approach from within the profession.

Whilst exact certainty regarding how involved architects will be in the future built environment is difficult to gauge, there will still be a need for design and management skills that architects have demonstrated. Architects have established these skills in the past and continue to undertake them at present, however without change within the profession they will be relegated to the peripheries of decision making. If the profession is unwilling to move into new fields or adapt their existing skills to new situations then there is the very real possibility that the marginalisation of the architects’ professional position will continue. Architects can not expect the rest of the built environment industry to change to suit their own whims but they can be more proactive in leading future change themselves, leading by example. It is all too easy for a profession to become obsessed with the immediate context it finds itself dealing with but architecture has to demonstrate its ability to be flexible and adapt to new situations.

The new practice types show the urgency for the architectural profession to once again learn to anticipate future contexts if it is to remain relevant. In the future, architects will have to continue to prove this flexibility because in these liquid times, (31) the future of architectural practice must also be fluid. The opportunity to shape future paradigms is clearly an exciting challenge and there are architects (and practices) that are ready to meet this challenge.


The above extract is taken from Chapter Nine of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

1. The development of the cheap personal computer is just one example; it would have been impossible 50-100 years ago to foresee this development and the impact it has had on the world.
2. Rem Koolhaas, Content, (Köln: Taschen, 2004) p. 20.
3. Shenzhen, China, is often used as an example of rapid urbanization in China. Between 2001 and 2005 Shenzen saw its built-up area increase 10.56% annually, or more than 58km2 each year. QI Lei & LU Bin, Urban Sprawl: A case study of Shenzen, China, 44th ISOCARP Congress 2008. For other documentation of Shenzen’s growth see Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, & Sze Tsung Leong, Great Leap Forward / Project on the City 1 Harvard Design School, (Köln: Taschen, 2001).
4. Owen Hatherley has emerged as one of the most scathing critics of the built environment that emerged in the UK through the late 1990s and 2000s, up until the financial crash of 2007 and subsequent recession. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, (London: Verso, 2010)
5. Reiner de Graaf, The End of the ¥€$ Regime, in Angeli Sachs (ed.), Global Design, (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers), p. 182.
6. Ibid.
7. Elliss Woodman, Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi art gallery in Rome: stunning building, terrible gallery, The Telegraph Online, 24th May 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011], Woodman goes on to add that “Some of the problems can’t be blamed on Hadid, not the least of which is the building’s location. … Imagine that, in choosing the site of its museum of modern art, the Tate had passed on Bankside power station and opted for a plot in the outer reaches of Docklands. That is the sense one has at Maxxi – not a fatal move but one that will certainly prove a constraint on the audience that it can attract.” Many of these criticisms center on the how well the design meets the functional requirements of the space however on a visit there in October 2010 I was struck not just by this but by how alien and inappropriate the building itself felt in it’s local context. It is a heroic piece of sculpture but as we enter an era of financial austerity it feels overly flamboyant in the face of other, more pressing, issues.
8. Jay Merick, Bath and Wakefield: Magical museums, The Independent Online, 18th May 2011, [retrieved 18th August 2011], The competitions held to find a designer for each of the institutions highlighted in the text all took place well before 2007: the Maxxi in 1999, Holbourne in 2002 and the Hepworth in 2003.
9. Reiner de Graaf has this to say “If the collapse of the stock market was the result of financial greed, maybe this skyline is the exuberant result of cultural greed-the equivalent in the cultural realm of the bonus system for risk-taking managers in the financial realm.” de Graaf, op. cit., p. 186.
10. Miles Glendining, Architecture’s evil empire? The triumph and tragedy of global modernism, (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), p. 136.
11. Deyan Sudjic ended a long article in 2003, that focused on the excesses of ‘iconic’ projects including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with the though that “like Art Nouveau which flourished briefly at the end of the nineteenth century, the icon has become ubiquitous just as it is about to vanish.” Deyan Sudjic, Landmarks of hope and glory, The Observer Online, 26th October 2006, [retrieved 18th August 2011],; See also Damian Arnold and Will Hurst, End of the iconic age?, Building Design Online, 23rd July 2004, [retrieved 19th August 2011],; Penelope Dean (ed.), Hunch: Rethinking Representation, The Berlage Institute Report No.11, (Rotterdam: Berlage Institute, Winter 2006/7).
12. Dirk J Bezemer of Gronigen University has identified twelve economists and commentators who predicted a financial crisis similar to the one experienced between 2007 and 2009. Dirk J Bezemer, No One Saw This Coming Understanding Financial Crisis Through Accounting Models, Munich Personal RePEc Archive, 16th June 2009, [retrieved 20th August 2011],
13. To provide a different example, Tom Spector discusses the “spread of skyscraper cities across the Pacific Rim” and the subsequent arguments this has led to. “It would seem obvious to a critic like [Nelson] Chen that the context for the modern buildings that have infiltrated Shanghai is the urban pattern and buildings of the old colonial city. But, of course, this would not be considered the relevant context by Shanghai’s planners, develops, and architects. For them, the context would be China’s emergence as a major world trading partner.” Tom Spector, The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), pp. 160-1.
14. Tom Jefferies, Head of the Manchester School of Architecture, speaking at the RIBA Building Futures debate in Manchester. RIBA, Building Futures Debate: The future for architects?, (RIBA Hub, Manchester, 22nd June 2011).
15. A quick look at the RIBA President’s Medals Student Awards reveals a range of projects that deal with these ecological disasters, primarily flooding caused by melting ice caps. The President’s Medals Student Awards, Home Page, 2011, [retrieved 19th August 2011],
16. Kobas Laksa interviewed by Ania Molenda in Ania Molenda, Optimism is not enough, L’Architecture D’Aujourh’hui, Jun-Jul 2010, no. 378, pp. 114. Laksa continues “Is it possible to present optimism NOW without being accused of becoming kitsch and naïve?”
17. Winy Maas with Alexander Sverdlov & Emily Waugh (eds.), Visionary Cities, (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2009), p. 197. The authors begin this by stating “From Jules Vernes’ 1886 vision of man landing on the moon, to George Orwell’s 1949 depiction of city-wider surveillance systems, what begins as a fantasy in the imagination of the creator later becomes the present reality of the world.” They then ask, in a critique of fictional landscapes, “Shouldn’t architects and urbanists, then, be the creators of these fantasies and realities? The ones who should be imaging how we will live in the future? Which of you will be brave enough to look forward and take responsibility for determining what will become of our cities?”
18. Koolhaas, op. cit., p. 61.
19. The full quote is as follows ”When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” John M. Richardson, Jr.
20. The situation can be likened to understanding harmonics. Paul Nakazawa, The Harmonics of Change: Re-narrating Architectural Practice, Arquine, Spring 2010, no. 51, p. 99.
21. Dana Cuff, Epilogue, in Spiro Kostof (ed.), The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 346.
22. Bob White, RIBA Constructive Change: A Strategic Industry Study into the Future of the Architects’ Profession, (London: RIBA Publishing, 2005), pp. 6-8. The five areas said to have impacted on the 1990s were: new methods of procurement; the Rethinking Construction Agenda (or the Egan Report); a recognition of the need to change within the industry; IT; and increased scrutiny and managerialism. The 2005 drivers were: sustainability (social, environmental and economic value); future skills needs and training; increased standardisation and industrialisation; globalisation; and the rise of consumer power and expectations. For the Egan Report see Sir John Egan, Construction Task Force, Rethinking Construction, (London: Department for Trade and Industry, July 1998).
23. Anatole Kaletsky, Captialism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy, (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), p.1.
24. Ibid.
25. Anatole Kaletsky identifies four “Ages” of capitalism in his book in which he argues that capitalism will be the only victor of the current crisis, albeit having written his book before the current series of events of summer 2011. The first wider trend ran from 1776 until 1932; the second 1931 until 1980; the third 1979 until 2008; and the fourth beginning in 2008. Within each he identifies a number of smaller trends linked to world events such as changes in government, war and financial disasters. Ibid., pp. 41-54.
26. Claire Jamieson, The Future for Architects?, RIBA Building Futures Report (2011), p. 6.
27. Tom Wiscombe, Emergent Models of Architectural Practice, in Forth Bagley, Ceren Ingol, Marcus Carter and Christopher Marcinkoski, Perspecta 38 Architecture After All, (The Yale Architectural Journal, April 2006), pp. 59-70.
28. The financial crisis may have been a catalyst for a period of reflection within the architectural profession but a number of the emergent practice types would most likely have formed without the crash.
29. On putting this question to my colleagues and supervisors, one response, in good humour, was that perhaps “If architects didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them”, echoing Voltaire’s assertion that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Any parallels with the architect’s position and God though should be hastily ignored as for too long their has been a perception that the architect considers himself a God, raised on a pedestal above their fellow built environment professionals, and this is just one reason they have found themselves so marginalised. The architect has no divine right to be involved in the process of shaping the built environment, just as no other profession does.
30. In a survey conducted as part of this research 61% of respondents felt that architects do have a role to play in shaping 21st century cities. 26% of respondents thought that for architects to continue playing a role they will have to substantially change their role in the design and construction process. Online Survey conducted by the author. Do Architects have a role to play in shaping the built environment of the 21st century? Conducted between April 11th 2011 and May 9th 2011. See Luke Butcher, In Search of Architectural Futures – Report 1: Online Survey, Masters, (Manchester School of Architecture, 2011).
31. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times. Living in an Age of Uncertainty, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).

6 October 2011

Tools of Practice

The following extract is taken from Chapter Seven of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

Representation Versus Production

Architectural practitioners today are “expected to have a highly evolved set of design skills,” (1) employing a varied range of media to accurately communicate their ideas. Constructing the built environment requires a considerable investment in time, resources and ultimately finances and whilst “representation is an important aspect of any visual or design-based discipline” (2) the importance of accurate tools of representation in architectural practice is even greater. These tools of practice are judged on how readily they allow the architect “to repeatedly describe, explore, predict and evaluate different properties of the design at various stages prior to construction.” (3) There have never been so many tools at the disposal of those who wish to represent and shape the built environment as there are today, “each with the capacity to leap only previously imagined frontiers.” (4) A practicing architect today is able to use anything from ‘traditional’ methods like a simple sketch on pen and paper, through to emerging technologies like rapid prototyping, CNC milling machines, laser cutters, and powerful computational software in their practice.

Throughout history the practitioner’s tools have served two purposes, (i) as creative representation of an idea and (ii) technical production information of an architectural object. (5) The tools of representation have changed little over the past 500 years (6) but in the last 20–30 years there have been several developments that have dramatically changed the way in which architecture is practiced, with the most notable being CAD (computer aided design) and more recently BIM (building information modelling), which seemingly promises to “unlock new ways of working”. (7) Before the rise of the computer the process of architectural representation was achieved through using hand drawings and physical models, with the architectural drawing holding particular sway since the Renaissance. (8)

In the Renaissance the essential components of the architect’s formal training were perspective and drawing, or disegno. (9) Dalibor Vesely talks extensively about the advent of perspective during the Renaissance transforming the representation of the visible world. However because “we don’t live in a perspectival world” Vesely adds that whilst perspective “certainly does influence and can even dominate our way of life…its sway is never total.” (10) All methods of representation, perspective included, “offer no more than the possibility of seeing and experiencing the world in a particular way” (11) because they relied on reducing the complexities of the world. This process of reduction is perhaps best expressed in the development of Parti, popularised during the 19th century at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, that reduced complex ideas into “abstract sketches that are loaded with architectural meaning and intent”. (12) The Beaux-Arts system also included the educational exercise of l’esquisse, in which students spent three months working on one design that had been frozen after just twelve hours of initial work and were then marked based on how closely they had stayed to the original concept. Even in the age of the computer the enticing powers of the architectural sketch remains, imbuing an ideal that “it should be possible to sketch the concept of a good building in less than ten seconds”. (13) These methods though, from the sketch to the rendered perspective (either produced by hand or with computer software), are representations of a creative idea, they do not represent the finished product because “what comes out is not always the same as what goes in.” (14) It is for this reason that there is a differentiation between drawings as creative representations and drawings as production information, distinguished by the type of information they convey.

Hand drawing of the Halifax HQ building
(Image: Copyright BDP)

Problems arise when it is assumed that “if architectural drawing can successfully represent a set of presumed virtues, then surely that same technique can be used to deliver those virtues back to the world.” (15) There is obviously a difference in type of information necessary to create an overall impression of the built environment, to ‘sell’ that project to clients, local planning departments or the public, and the technical information required to build that vision. Both types of drawing rely on graphic instructions, in the form of codes or conventions, which organise complex information precisely and accurately, it is not just the case that one drawing has a higher level of detail or more information than another. The conventions are interpreted as a series of codes that are introduced in education and developed through practice. No matter how good a particular three dimensional rendering may be (whether drawn by hand or using a computer) the chances are it will never be able to convey all of the information required to build that project; for example, the drawing may give an impression about materials but a single image won’t explain the technicalities of how these materials are assembled on site.

Completed Halifax HQ building
(Image: Copyright BDP)

The drawings codes are assumed to be “transparent” however “evidence points to fundamental misunderstandings by nonarchitects of even ‘simple’ drawing codes, such as floor plans”. (16) Architectural practice is not alone in having developed an internalised language from a series of codes that forms a barrier for those not indoctrinated in these methods to understand them. (17) Particular difficulties arise when so many different professions are dependent on information from one another as in the built environment industry. Successful architectural practice makes the most productive use of the various different codes of representation available to them, using the most appropriate drawing (or model) to convey the required information, but they also realise that an architectural drawing is different to the architectural object it helps to create.

The Digital World

Before the computer was introduced into the design process a common site at architectural practices was that of rows of drawings boards and teams of draftsmen producing the range of drawings required to erect a building. Two dimensional, vector based drafting systems had been developed in the 1960s for commercial applications in the aerospace, electronic and automobile industries however it wasn’t until Autodesk launched their AutoCAD software for PCs in 1982 (18) that it slowly became more widely available in architectural practices (as PCs proliferated so did software like AutoCAD). Today the computer is ubiquitous in the design process but the codes and conventions employed are the same as those used when drawings were produced by hand—the computer screen is treated as a piece of paper and the mouse the technical drawing pen. This is an observation that causes Vesely to question “how the new electronic representations differ from the traditional ones; to what extent are they only more sophisticated tools, or do they rather represent something altogether different?” (19)

Regardless of whether or not the computer represents something different it has resulted in different work patterns within practice. The computer allows for smaller teams to produce the same information in less time than larger teams working with ‘traditional’ methods, thereby improving both productivity and accuracy. It is simpler to make changes, different options can be explored quickly and 3D packages allow projects to be interrogated from multiple viewpoints. However, the computer has also attracted criticism because “its immense power tricks its users (the designers) and viewers (potential clients) into believing that what is on the screen is what will be achieved on site” further emphasising the difficult relationship between representation and finished object. (20)

With increased computational power architects are now able to indulge in free form studies, a case of technical determinism, and pursue a new design paradigm of parametricism. (21) The technicalities of constructing these shapes still lags behind the virtual environments though, with the exception of rapid prototyping systems but these remain limited in size and application, and this divorce between virtual form and physical ‘buildability’ is a constant point of criticism of these methods. Despite the criticisms of free form studies the computer has enabled a new dialogue between architects and the process of building. With rapid prototyping architects are able to transfer information from the screen to physical models that are more open to interpretation from those not trained in the codes of architectural practice.  (22) Further benefits arise when you consider that CAD information can be shared with manufacturers of real components for the final building. Architects are able to exchange files directly with the manufacturers of prefabricated components, ranging from individual cladding panels to a SIP (structural insulated panel) system for an entire building.

A Double-Edged Sword

The latest development in the tools of architectural practice is BIM and it could be either “the harbinger of death or the salvation of architecture”. (23) BIM involves working on a three-dimensional model that is essentially a digital prototype of a physical building. It promises to improve design reliability, reduce design risk, reduce waste and enhance communication between different disciplines, amongst other expected benefits. (24) The model coordinates digital information about a project, with every component in the model tagged with data including product specifications, cost, and when it is scheduled to be installed on site. This model should contain information about the buildings entire life-cycle, from design through to procurement, construction, management and operation. It also forces design decisions about materials and construction methods (amongst others) to be made much earlier on in the process, if decisions aren’t made the model has to be made based on a series of assumptions.

It is however a complex piece of technology that requires “additional training and changes to a firm’s business process” and it is perhaps this that has contributed to the UK lagging behind other countries in adopting it. At present it is estimated that only ten percent of UK projects use BIM systems compared with sixty percent of project in the United States. (25) However, in the UK the technology is likely to be made compulsory for all public projects by 2016 (26) which means if architects are going to be involved in these projects in the future they are going to have to adopt BIM systems. (27) Ruth Reed, RIBA President, described the advent of BIM as a “complete game changer” (28) for the architectural profession and it is generally considered the future of building design.

As BIM effectively allows a test run of the entire building before anything is committed on site it has the potential for time to be introduced into architectural representation. The model means that the lines in the sand traditionally drawn between design, construction and operation of the built environment are eroded. It also has the potential to satisfy the criticisms Jeremy Till aims at current modes of communication, which freezes the built environment in one temporal condition, whereas BIM allows the building to be explored at different periods in time, albeit within the limitations of virtual environment previously considered. (29)

It is the multidisciplinary element of BIM which has the most potential to influence the design process, allowing for greater communication between the various different professions involved in creating the built environment. Information from different disciplines is fed into a single model which is then used to coordinate that information (from clash detection to construction phasing). Working with collaborative design information has been shown to produce a minimum saving of 5-10% and in an era where cost is one of the main drivers of design this alone is seen as reason enough to adopt BIM systems. (30) A fully integrated design process will not mean an end to the existing tools of architectural production however they will be challenged to work with this new tool.

Perhaps the largest barrier will be a shift from working in two dimensions, which architectural drawing in particular has relied on, and into a continual process of three dimensional communication, which at present is only achievable through time consuming physical models or computer renderings. Whilst BIM does allow for a level of creative representation its primary function is as a tool to aid the technical production of the built environment.

Beyond Drawing

The tools of practice considered here have centred on architectural drawings, produced both by hand and on computer, but there are obviously other types of information required to practice and to shape the built environment. These other tools range from schedules to specifications, project work flows to contracts and are of equal importance in spatial production but also include the vast array of techniques employed on site to build projects. There are arguments to suggest that even “negotiating a legal contract between an architect and a client is another ‘art’” (31) and as such is just as open to the creative processes of architects as a sketch.

It is though an obsession with image that dominates the discussion about the tools of architectural production, and of representing that image. As new tools emerge they will enable a transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional ways of working as a new standard. These technologies could also bring about a closer relationship between the other forms of information required in production (the schedules, the specifications, etc) and the methods employed in constructing the final object. (32) Practitioners though should be wary of placing too much faith in one piece of technology or type of representation that can ultimately only predict outcomes based on previous experiences. Whilst there will never be a replacement for actual physical realisation, when the architectural object is embedded and exposed in its context, the better the tools available to practitioners the more informed the decisions they take can be and this is surely a positive thing.


The above extract is taken from Chapter Seven of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

1. Nick Dunn, Architectural Modelmaking, (London: Laurence King, 2010), p. 7.
2. Lorraine Farrelly, Representational Techniques, (Lausanne: AVA Publishing, 2008), p. 6.
3. Dunn, loc. cit.
4. Bob Shiel, Protoarchitecture - between the Analogue and the Digital in Bob Shiel (ed.) Protoarchitecture: Analogue and Digital Hybrids, Architectural Design, vol. 78, no 4., (London: John Wiley & Sons, 10th July 2008), p. 7.
5. Jeremy Till identifies these differences in Architecture Depends “…the first requirement is to recognize the difference between drawings as communicative devices, there to work out and express ideas and their latent spatial possibilities, and drawings as instruments used in the production of architecture as built form.” Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 113.
6. Bob Sheil recalls his own experiences “As recently as 20 years ago, when I began my architectural education, the methodology of designing buildings had larged remained unchanged in 500 years. Drawings were prepared by hand and evolved from the tentative to the fully costed.” Sheil, loc. cit.
7. This is a quote from Paul Morrell, Chief Construction Adviser to the UK Government, speaking at Autodesk’s BIM Conference on 31st September 2010, quoted in Building Design Online. Anna Winston, BIM to become part of public procurement process, Building Design Online, 1st October 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
8. “A few well-known but rare individuals such as Pierre Chareau, the designer of the Maison de Verre in Paris (1932), managed it all without such dogmatic trappings, creating his magnificent pièce de résistance in collaboration with Bernard Bijvoet and the craftsman Louis Dalbet, largely through conversation and modelling. Others of the 20th century, such as Antoni Gaudí, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Jean Prouvé, Cedric Price and Charles and Ray Eames, also pioneered efforts to rethink the habitual practices of the design process, but the tools to develop it remained largely the same.” Shiel, loc. cit.
9. Catherine Wilkinson, The New Professionalism in the Renaissance in Spiro Kostof (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p.135. Disegno, an Italian word for drawing or design, involves both the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent the design. The National Gallery, Glossary: Disegno, No Date, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
10. Vesely, Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation: The Question of Creativity on the Shadow of Production, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 149.
11. Ibid., pp. 139-49.
12. Farrelly, op. cit., p. 15.
13. Till, op. cit., p. 108. This is a quote from Ivan Harbour, a director at Richard Roger’s practice Rogers, Stirk, Harbour (Note 48 Architecture Depends).
14. Robin Evans, Translations from drawing to Building and Other Essays, (London: Architectural Association, 1997), p. 22.
15. Till, op. cit., p. 110.
16. Ibid., p. 112.
17. Architects are just as likely to misunderstand a drawing produced say by an electrical engineer as an electrical engineer is to misunderstand an architect’s floor plan.
18. Autodesk, About Autodesk, 2011, [retrieve 18th August 2011],
19. Vesely, op. cit., p. 310.
20. Till, op. cit., p. 86.
21. Parametricism as a style has been championed by Patrick Schumacher and he claims “offers a credible, sustainable answer to the crisis of modernism that resulted in 25 years of stylistic searching.” As a style it implies that “all architectural elements and complexes are parametrically malleable.” Patrick Schumacher, Let the style wars begin, The Architects Journal Online, 6th May 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
22. Rapid prototyping itself has been around since 1986, with the first prototyping technique ‘stereolithography’ developed by 3D Systems in Valencia, California. Farrelly, op. cit., p. 133.
23. This is a quote from Joshua Prince-Ramus in an interview by Bruce Upbin. Bruce Upbin, Joshua Prince-Ramus on the Myth of Architectural Genius, Forbes Online, 14th June 2010, [retrieved 18th August 2011],
24. The ‘BIM Academy’ gives an extensive list of the advantages of using BIM: improved design reliability; reduced design risk; reduced waste; more time to get the design right; enhanced coordination and fewer errors; improved decision making; greater productivity; higher quality of work; downstream uses for facilities management; supports sustainability; improved safety; computation of material quantities; improved planning, control, management of construction; enhanced communication; effective resource utilisation and coordination f activities; reduction in costs associated with planning, design and construction; reduced number of RFIs (requests for information); improved collective understanding of design intent; less time documenting more time designing; quantity takeoff; client engagement; and improved spatial coordination. BIM Academy, Home Page, 2011, [retrieved 21st August 2011],
25. Martin Day, BIM is likely to become mandatory for public projects, The Architects’ Journal, 13th January 2011, vol. 233, no. 1, p. 25.
26. Initial media reports suggested that BIM would be made compulsory for all public projects with a value over £5 million. Merlin Fulcher, Morrell: BIM to be mandatory for all £5m+ public buildings, The Architects’ Journal Online, 17th May 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011], More recently Paul Morrell, the UK’s Chief construction adviser, has said that “There will be a phased rollout over five-years beginning next summer [2012], with a view to getting all appropriate projects in a 3D collaborative environment by 2016. … There are no preconceptions about setting a limit in value or size below which the use of BIM is inappropriate. … BIM’s potential to transform the industry is, fundamentally, not about technology, Undeniably, however, technology is a tool that enables skills, systems and process to be combined and that moves a project from inception to occupation and use.” Paul Morrell, Paul Morrell: BIM to be rolled out to all projects by 2016, The Architect’s Journal Online, 23rd June 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011],
27. Paul Morrell and the ‘Construction Innovation and Growth Team’ make the following direct references to BIM in their report’s recommendations. “Recommendation 3.11: That the industry should work, through a collaborative forum, to identify when the use of BIM is appropriate (in terms of the type or scale of project), what the barriers to its more widespread take-up are, and how those barriers might be surpassed, leading to an outline protocol for future ways of working.” And “recommendation 6.14: That Government should mandate the use of Building Information Modelling for central Government projects with a value greater than £50 million.” Construction Innovation and Growth Team, ‘Low Carbon Construction, Innovation & Growth Team, Final Report’ (London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2010).
28. RIBA President Ruth Reed speaking at the RIBA ‘Tough Times’ Student Forum, (RIBA Headquarters, Portland Place, London, 1st June 2011).
29. “The aspiration, therefore, is to inscribe time in the communicative stages of architectural production–communicative that is, both to the architects themselves and also to an external audience.” Till, op. cit., p. 113.
30. Thomas Lane, BIM – the inside story,  Building Online, 29th July 2011, [retrieved 22nd August 2011], This article offers an in-depth analysis of BIM and takes Ryder Architecture’s refurbishment of Manchester Central Library as a case study (of particular interest as it is a refurbishment project and BIM is usually treated as a tool just for new build).
31. Antonio Tena interviewed by Felix Madrazo in Felix Madrazo, Who is responsible?, L’Architecture D’Aujourh’hui, Jun-Jul 2010, no. 378, pp. 196-7.
32. Technology is also no substitute for the ‘soft skills’ required by architects—communicating, delegating and negotiating—that are found in both ideas of representation and production. Dale Sinclair, Leading the Team: An architect’s Guide to Design Management, (London: RIBA Publishing, 2011), pp. 129-36.

4 October 2011

The Dualities of the Profession

The following extract is taken from Chapter One of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

Contradictions of Practice

One of the most enduring questions that architects have faced throughout their history is whether what they practise should be defined as an art or a profession. The two are treated as incompatible opposites. We are told that this practice is a blend of fine and applied arts, of sciences and humanities but the exact mix of these is never agreed upon. The contested nature of architectural practice can be extended to the make up of architects themselves; they are the site of contested values that provoke heated debate.

Dialectical Tension Diagram based on the work of Dana Cuff.

The architect, and thus by extension the architectural profession, can be defined by a series of “dialectical dualities” (1) that are in a constant state of tension but, more often than not, one of these ‘poles’ will be favoured more heavily than the other. In this model the two positions are pictured as being at the opposite ends of a spectrum and if one extremity is favoured over the other it can only be to the detriment of the opposite. The internal dualities can even be extended to the meaning of the word “architecture”, as it refers to both the practice of a professional activity and also to the outputs of that activity. (2) Attempts to examine architecture as either an art or a science, or an art or a profession have been labelled as “inadequate” methods with which to judge such a complex entity. (3) Moving towards a model that accepts the tension between these dialectics enables the complexities of the profession to be properly considered whilst it also offers an opportunity to rebalance these tensions and find a state of equilibrium that is beneficial to all concerned in the built environment.

In her explanation of these dialectics Dana Cuff identifies four sets of dualities that embody the contradictions within the profession; in many cases “practitioners recognise the inescapable links” between the extremities but ”it is by no means a happy marriage.” (4) First, is the contrast between the autonomous artist and the collective team of professionals required to bring a project to completion. Second, is the separation of design and art from business and management concerns. Third, is design as decision marking versus design as making sense of a situation, this includes the way in which architectural problems are constructed. Finally, is the image of the architect as a generalist countered by a movement towards specialisation within the built environment industry. (5)

The modern incarnation of these contradictions can be traced back to the origins of a profession that was attempting to distinguish itself amongst a maelstrom of change. Positions taken two hundred years ago are still defining the British architectural profession today and to better understand the origin of these dualities further discussion is required.

The Rise of the Professional

In the 19th century the profession of architecture was formalised and consolidated, bringing to an end a period of patronage that that had persisted for hundreds of years. In an act of self-protection groups of architects banded together, in the face of new competitors and vociferous criticism from a rapidly changing construction industry, (6) to present a unified approach and be identified with a service of quality. Claiming to present a “uniquely impartial and independent service”  these groups hoped that by having professional status their services would be differentiated from builders, surveyors (who also professionalised in the 19th century), (8) and other specialists that were emerging. Although “a long process recognizable in outline but blurred in detail” (9) the route to professionalisation can be traced back to two primary factors: the transition from medieval to modern processes of thought that gave rise to the “inter-disciplinary character of the modern architectural designer”; and the industrial revolution (which shifted society from agrarian to a capitalist-based model) and resulted in the “professional organization through which [the architect] fulfils an increasingly specialist role.” (10) These two factors were a source of major conflict for the embryonic architectural profession and remain so today.

The origins of professionalism in Britain begin in the 18th century as the informal relationship between patrons, their advisers and craftsmen was formalised in the wake of economic growth and the emergence of both new building typologies and larger buildings. The aristocratic patrons of the previous era were being replaced with building committees of “middle-class laymen” that in turn forced architects into more clearly defined roles, selling their ideas and designs in direct competition with their peers. (11) Furthermore, the skills required to erect these buildings were “too diverse and technical for the old habits to deal with” so new specialists began to emerge alongside a new breed of general contractors and professional builders. (12) At the forefront of the specialisation in building were figures like Sir William Chambers and Sir John Soane (13) whilst professional builders like Thomas Cubitt offered early versions of ‘design and build’ services. (14) It was not just builders who laid claim to areas previously under the architects sphere of influence but also engineers, surveyors, cabinet makers (who in some cases developed into fledgling interior designers) and house agents.

Sir John Soane, painting by Thomas Lawrence
(Image: Sir John Soane's Museum)

From 1750 onwards a number of groups brought together architects (and artists), one of the earliest being the 1761 The Society of Artists, which included Sir William Chambers as one of its directors. (15) This first group was followed by the Royal Academy of Arts, after quarrelling between Chambers and James Paine, and was founded by 34 individuals (four of whom were architects, including Chambers) who “were determined to achieve professional standing for British art and architecture.” (16) The role of architects in the Royal Academy though was nominal (with the exception of Chambers who acted as Treasurer) and of far greater significance for the future of architects was the Architects’ Club established in 1791. This was a highly exclusive group, with membership restricted to Royal Academicians, holders of the Academy’s Gold Medal, and members of distinguished foreign institutions, and various topics were discussed at the dining table over the Club’s thirty year existence, including professional qualifications, fire-proof construction, and professional fees. (17)

It was, however, the formation of the Institute of British Architects in 1834 that was the “first major act of exclusion and prime move towards professional solidarity”. The institute, awarded its Royal Charter in 1837 (but not formally bestowed until 1866 to become the Royal Institute of British Architects – RIBA), was “founded for facilitating the acquirement of architectural knowledge, for the promotion of the different branches of science connected with it, and for establishing an uniformity and respectability of practice in the profession.” (18) It is worth here observing that in the title of the Institute the “A” stands for “Architects” and not “Architecture” yet the charter sets forth the advancement of architecture. Jeremy Till states that this has created a curious instance of circular logic where “the knowledge as to what constitutes architecture is defined by architects, who in turn are therefore deemed to be the only people capable of delivering that self-defined architecture.” (19) Although all professions are established on the basis of self protection he is highly critical that “under the worthy cloak of the charter…there is a barefaced cheek in hiding the expediency of private gain behind the mask of public good”. (20)

The early Victorian profession had a preoccupation with business ethics, formulating rules for fees, practice and conduct. This new codified profession was also highly concerned with the architects’ status. Members were classified as either fellows, associates or honorary fellows, this third type, crucially, were to be gentleman “unconnected with any branch of building as a trade or business” and served to underline the tension between architects and the rapidly expanding building industry. (21) In the formation of the RIBA the long association between architects and artists was also ruptured, where they were once considered the same, being part of the same organisations, architects now positioned themselves separately. However despite this self imposed professional isolationism architects still wanted to be considered artists and clung to the autonomy that patronage had brought them since the Renaissance.

In the first half of the 19th century the profession could not be kept afloat on design work alone, there were too few large buildings and projects, so they continued with a range of other laborious activities such as arranging leases, assessing rents, measuring property or taking out quantities, to ensure a guaranteed income in an otherwise highly competitive field. However, as populations boomed, there was an “unparalleled expansion of professional functions” (22) and new building typologies, so that “as fast as they could afford to do so, architects shed their less congenial tasks” (23) in favour of the highly esteemed, literate, skill of design.

During this period of change, Architects at the ‘top of the tree’ found security in “the idea of art in building as the special province of the architect” and this would trickle down though the ranks of the profession. (24) However as the muddied water of professional responsibilities cleared in the second half of the 19th century, and architects found it easier to make a living, the importance of art or learned design skills persisted, to the point that architects could trade solely on their skills as an ‘artist’. As Andrew Saint observes “this widening rift between ‘art’ and ‘professionalism’ was a feature in some degree peculiar to Britain, and it had large consequences for British architecture.”  (25) This question of ‘art’ remains a “red herring” in architectural politics to this day. (26)

The Royal Institute of British Architects Headquarters
in Portland Place, London (Image: Luke Butcher)

Attempts to legislate the architectural profession began in the late 1880s and early 1890s with registration seen as a way to create a closed and more regulated profession. A group of young architects, suspecting the RIBA of dragging its heals on the issue, formed the Society of Architects in 1884 and introduced the first registration bills to Parliament in the 1880s. Although unsuccessful the RIBA was forced to adopt registration as its official policy in 1890. (27) It would take until 1931 though for the title of ‘Registered Architect’ to be granted legal protection and a ‘Register of Architects’ drawn up to be handled by a statutory body, the Architects’ Registration Council of the United Kingdom (ARCUK). The subsequent Architects Registration Act of 1938 changed the protected title to simply ‘Architect’ and it wasn’t until 1997 that there were any serious changes in the regulation of the architects’ profession in the UK, such as ARCUK being replaced by the Architect’s Registration Board (ARB). (28)

That it took over forty years for the first Act to be passed was in part due to “a reluctance to legislate over the ability to design” (29) as well as groups who opposed registration on “eccentric grounds that art and professionalism were incompatible”. (30) These opposition groups included Thomas Graham Jackson and Norman Shaw, who authored ‘Architecture, A Profession or an Art’ in 1892 and those who feared that registration would lead to further fragmentation of the building industry. Opponents like Shaw were not members of the RIBA and by the end of the 19th century RIBA membership accounted for only ten percent of the profession. These figures increased to roughly one quarter in 1911 and by the 1920s an organization that had previously been dismissed as nothing more than “a highly respectable trades union”, by The Times in 1870 accounted for half of all architects in Britain. (31) Once the RIBA could be seen to represent the majority of architects it “took up cudgels in earnest” and legal registration soon followed with little opposition. (32)

Having achieved protection of title, architects would appear to have successfully demarcated the area of architectural knowledge for themselves and thus the practice and end product of architecture. However in Britain protection of title is just that, a title, there is no legal protection afforded to an architect’s function or the services they offer. The ARB is simply charged with protecting the consumer (the public) by recognising the qualifications needed to become an architect and ensuring that those on the register meet a set of prescribed standards for conduct and practice. (33) In many ways this leaves the profession just as weak and vulnerable to intrusion from other disciplines as it was in the 19th century; there is nothing in the statutory regulations to stop an individual (or indeed profession) offering the services of an architect, as long as that individual does not call themselves an architect.

Professions are built on the basis of practising expert knowledge and architects are not alone in trying to self perpetuate their own knowledge base however, unlike doctors or lawyers, architects have no control of that knowledge base. This weak position has come about in part because architects have attempted to tie themselves to architecture through a system that “conflates architect (as expert) with architecture (as profession) with architecture (as practice) with architecture (as product).”  (34) The final link in this sequence, the buildings or products of architecture, is too complex to come under the control of architects because it is dependent upon other external forces, from society to politics, including other professions who also established their own areas of expertise in the 19th century. In the end this results in a conflicted profession and a professional organisation, the RIBA, that is forced to wear so many hats at the same time it doesn’t know what or who to represent; is it a body responsible “for the direction and maintenance of the national character for taste” (35) or a learned body to promote the knowledge of its experts or is it a trades union? A professional body should be a representation of its members; the RIBA’s conflicts are certainly representative of those architects face daily.

The Educated Architect

Closely tied with the rise of professionalism is how future architects are trained and educated. Formalising education allows the profession to ensure levels of competence within its’ rank and file and also, by dictating what is taught, what tasks those professionals are trained to carry out and thus the tasks the profession is skilled at doing.

One of the earliest forms of formal architectural education was Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Académie de L’Archtiecture in 1671 (extended to an adjunct in Rome in 1720). The atelier system at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, established by J.F. Blondel in 1743, later augmented this style of education. (36) Until its closure in 1968, the Ecole was the oldest school of art and architecture north of the Alps and “maintained a remarkable continuity of style and teaching methods throughout the years of its existence.” (37) A centralised, government-supported school, it had a well-organised curriculum where students progressed from the entry examination to becoming diplômé par le gouvernement by winning design competitions worked out in the atelier or studio, which was led by practising architects, before a period of practical experience. “Beaux-Arts” itself means fine art and the school is associated with architects “who firmly believed that architecture was an Art”. (38) By advocating that any intelligent person could be systematically taught a series of universal principles that underlined architecture it attracted attention from those outside of France, principally students from the United States who exported the methods back there, widening its influence as a teaching style.

In Britain, however, the emerging practice of articled pupilage in an architect’s office was the only formal training available to aspiring architects, a form of apprenticeship, it was originally introduced by Sir Robert Taylor. (39) Although there was some formal architectural training offered through the inception of the Royal Academy Schools in 1768, the irregular standards of articled pupilage, augmented by lectures at the Royal Academy and travel abroad (principally the Grand Tour), continued well into the 19th century as the mainstay of British architectural education. (40) Pupilage traditionally started at fifteen or sixteen, with pupils “expected to have a background in languages and some knowledge of mathematics, geometry and drawing,” it would last between three and seven years although five to six years were most common. All pupils were expected to be trained in measuring, site work and the general running of the office and the articles “merely stated that the pupil was to learn the ‘art of profession of an architect’.” (41) However, because it was unregulated the pupilage system was prone to exploitation, which led to fictional accounts of particularly bad pupilage such as those experienced by the character Pecksniff in Charles Dicken’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). By the time that the RIBA issued a model form for articles in 1890 new formalised methods of institutional education were emerging.

The first serious attempt to provide specialised instruction took place in the 1840s at King’s College and University College, London. In 1841, T. L. Donaldson, first Secretary of the RIBA, was appointed Professor of Architecture at University College and gave two courses of lectures for part-time students – “Architecture as a Science” and “Architecture as an Art”. (42) However, on the whole the leaders of the Victorian profession were indifferent to the need for educational reform, so it was the students themselves who championed this reform. Pressure came in the form of the Association of Architectural Draftsmen in 1842 (becoming the Architectural Association – the AA – in 1847), a group of junior architects excluded from the RIBA for not having been in practice for the requisite number of years, who campaigned for an equivalent of the French Diplôme d’Architecte. Eventually the RIBA was persuaded to hold the first voluntary examination for entry to its Associate Membership in 1863, with the AA setting up a “Voluntary Examination Class” that established for the first time “the modern concept of systematic study test by examination as the basis of the architect’s education” in Britain. (43) The RIBA systemised its examination into three parts—Preliminary, Intermediate, and Final—by 1887, with the last being obligatory for Associateship, with a full-time three year course in architecture starting at King’s College, London five years later in 1892. Liverpool was the first provincial school, opening in 1895, and it offered a BA Honours course from 1900 that exempted students from the RIBA Intermediate examination, followed by a five-year course in 1920 that gave full exemption from the RIBA examinations. (44) In between the two World Wars numerous other schools were established and by this point a considerable proportion of entrants into the profession were receiving training in a full-time, formal environment.

Architectural education in Britain has not been stagnant since then; it has obviously changed and adapted to suit the needs of the situation it finds itself in, much like the wider architectural profession. Notable forums on architectural education in Britain looked at changing aspects of it, including the 1924 Congress on Architectural Education, noting that “the pupilage system has practically passed in most of the larger centres of population” and placing an emphasis on full-time training in schools, and the 1958 Oxford Conference on Architectural Education that set forth a number of recommendations to maintain the relevance of that education. (45) In 2008 a second Oxford Conference aimed to ‘reset the agenda’ for architectural education that had been established over fifty years previously. (46) Debates about architectural education also included those of British Government when, in the early 1990s, they considered cutting funding for architectural education to a maximum of four years, although this ultimately didn’t take place. (47)

Despite these changes there is still an ongoing debate about whether or not the academic environment is the correct one in which to educate future architects. The current climate of budget cuts to higher education spending and rises in tuition fees have heightened this debate at present, with students and architects alike calling into question the value of spending five years in full time education, particularly when salary levels are so low. Some practitioners want ‘oven ready chickens’, trained in the latest piece of computer software, whilst the educationalists see the academic environment as a place to foster creativity and ‘design thinking’ – there is a tension between education as training and education as academic learning. One of the main issues is that in its current guise the design studio is treated as a replica of an architectural office when in fact “there is little in common between them not least because [one is] in the business of learning, and not earning”. (48) The relationship between the profession and education is more complex than one simply being equivalent to the other, despite how much either side might like it to otherwise because “the actions of the academy do not directly influence the profession and the profession does not directly control education.” (49)

Desks at the Yale Art and Architecture Building
(Image: Creative Commons / Ragesoss, 29th Sept. 2008).

If architecture is a quasi-vocational subject to be taught as a mixture of arts, sciences and humanities further questions are raised when you consider how architectural schools fit into the academic structure. An analysis of architectural schools across  reveals a wide range of different faculties and departments in which architecture is placed. The majority of UK institutions have an 'Architecture School/Department' with a number of these operating as independent faculties in their own right. However, there are also a number of institutions with no architecture department and instead it sits, as a subject, within a wider faculty, for example 'Art, Architecture and Design'. Further divergence is also revealed in the degrees offered by institutions, either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science for undergraduate level, and although architecture is not unique in lacking a unified and sole degree classification, the range of degrees on offer to students is another sign of the difficulties in defining architectural education academically in the UK. As Necdet Teymur, in his series of papers on architectural education in 1992, observes "the desire to identify architecture as, say, technology and/or craft and/or science and/or art throughout the centuries betrays the very paradox of the idea of architecture both as a multi-disciplinary, multi-skilled, multi-dimensional and multi-media practice and a self-sufficient profession that behaves as if it already possess all the knowledge that it needs." (50)

Unhelpful Oppositions

The contradictions that exist within architectural practice are something that modern day practitioners have to learn to deal with daily but whilst they are perceived to favour one extreme over another they can never hope to deal with these tensions. The unhelpful 19th century oppositions that persist to this day have come to define architectural practice or at least how it is perceived. Like the self serving circular logic of ‘expert equals profession equals practice equals product it is perceptions of the architect as an autonomous individual that perpetuates this in the educational setting, which encourages this autonomy when those students enter into the profession, unprepared for the collective actions required to shape the built environment. Education and the profession may not directly influence one another but one can see how the profession can inform education which in turn informs the profession.

The duality of the individual versus the collective can be seen in the move to cordon off the architectural profession from the rest of the building industry in 1834. Architects though were also all too willing to shake off tasks in favour of ‘specialising’ in design but then why do many people still consider them to be generalists? Or why in education is the individual championed when in practice architects, particularly on larger, more complex projects, work in teams. Generalising that the root of all the architectural professions problems lies in the 19th century and the initial formation of the ‘modern profession’ of course fails to fully comprehend the complex nature of architecture. What it does do, however, is highlight that the issues facing architectural practice today are not new and in fact are all a wide set of shared experiences. These issues have been tackled for two hundred years, and whilst some progress has been made no resolution appears to be imminent. The first step though must surely be for architects, the wider profession, the academy, and the public to acknowledge that architecture can not simply be one or the other but it can oscillate between both positions quite comfortably. There are surely plenty of architects out there who would happily call themselves artists and businessmen, so why must we always be forced to perceive architects as one or the other, why can’t they be both? What has not yet been considered though is why anyone would want to enter into such a conflicted profession in the first place.


The above extract is taken from Chapter One of The Architecture of the Profession, a thesis project submitted to the Manchester School of Architecture as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism course 2010-2011. For information about how to purchase a copy of the research please follow this link.

1. Dana Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 11.

2. The Oxford English dictionary gives the following definitions of architecture: i. The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings; ii. The style in which a building is designed and constructed, especially with regard to a specific period, place, or culture. Oxford English Dictionary Online, architecture, 2011 [retrieved 10th August 2011],
3. Gary Stevens, The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 82. cited in Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 156.
4. Cuff, loc. cit.
5. Ibid., pp. 11, 250.
6. “Allegations of deficient or fraudulent practice were often vociferously expressed by the emerging new species of client industrialists, entrepreneurs, corporations and boards of guardians, some of them less than scrupulous.” Sarah Lupton (ed.), RIBA Handbook of Practice Management, (London: RIBA Publishing, 7th edition, 2001), p. 235.
7. Ibid.
8. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, founded in 1868 and granted it’s Royal Charter in 1881, now claims that it is “the mark of property professionalism worldwide.” Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Home Page, 2011 [retrieved 10th August 2011], The RIBA by contrast has this to say about itself “The Royal Institute of British Architects champions better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture and our members.” Royal Institute of British Architects, About Us, 2011 [retrieved 10th August 2011],
9. Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 57.
10. John Wilton-Ely, The Rise of the Professional Architect in England, in Spiro Kostof (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 180.
11. Ibid., p. 195.
12. Saint, loc. cit.
13. “They stand at the head of a vast diversification and fragmentation in building organization which has gathered pace from that day to this.” Ibid.
14. Osborne House, built directly for Victoria and Albert in 1845-50 by Thomas Cubitt, is one example which used these ‘design and build’ services without an independent architect. Other professional builders included William Cubitt and Company, C.J. Freake and William Willett. They ran “capable” architectural offices within their businesses. Ibid, p. 60.
15. The Society of Artists held a series of public exhibitions of work carried out by living painters, sculptors, architects and other artists, similar to the long established Paris salons. The exhibition included a charitable endeavour to support artists whose “age and infirmities, or other lawful hindrances, prevent them from being any longer candidates for fame.” W. Chambers is listed as one it’s directors and it is assumed that this was in fact William Chambers. Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760-1791; the Free Society of Artists, 1761-1783: a Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791, (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1907), pp. 303-5.
16. Royal Academy of Arts, About the Royal Academy of Arts, 2011, [retrieved 10th August 2011],
17. The Architects Club was established by George Dance, James Wyatt, Henry Holland, and S.P. Cockerell, later joined by Chambers, Robert Adam, and others. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., p. 192.
18. Ibid. The RIBA’s website states that it was founded for “…the general advancement of Civil Architecture, and for promoting and facilitating the acquirement of the knowledge of the various arts and sciences connected therewith…” Royal Institute of British Architects, Our History, 2011 [retrieved 10th August 2011],
19. Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 153-4.
20. Ibid.
21. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., p. 193.
22. Ibid., p. 197.
23. Saint, op. cit., p. 58.
24. Ibid., p. 66.
25. Ibid., pp. 63, 66.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid., p. 66.
28. The Architects Act 1997, (London: HMSO).
29. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., p. 203.
30. Saint, loc. cit.
31. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., pp. 202-4.
32. Saint, The Image of the Architect, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 66.
33. Architects Registration Board, About Us, 2011 [retrieved 10th August 2011], .
34. Till, op. cit., pp. 154-5. This sequence can even be found in the RIBA’s domain name——if you want to find an architect you need to find architecture first.
35. Royal British Institute of Architects, Transactions of the RIBA, vol. I/I (London: John Weale, 1836), p. vii cited in Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. 154.
36. The return of the term atelier or studio has once again become increasingly popular among architects as opposed to office. Cuff, op. cit, p. 28.
37. Joan Draper, The Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the architectural Profession in the United States: The Case of John Galen Howard, in Spiro Kostof (ed.) The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession, 2nd ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 209.
38. Ibid., p. 210.
39. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., p. 191.
40. Ibid., p. 197.
41. Mark Crinson and Jules Lubbock, Architecture—art or profession?: Three hundred years of architectural education in Britain, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 45.
42. Wilton-Ely, op. cit., p. 198.
43. Ibid., pp. 198-9.
44. Ibid., p. 204.
45. Leslie Martin, RIBA Conference on Architectural Education: Report by the Chairman, Oxford, April 11th-13th 1958. Available at [retrieved 10th August 2011].
46. The Oxford Conference 2008 was held on the 22nd-23rd July 2008. Oxford Conference 2008, Home Page, 2008, [retrieved 10th August 2011],
47. Francis Duffy and Les Hutton, Architectural Knowledge: The Idea of a Profession (London: Spon, 1998), pp. 190-3.
48. Necdet Teymur, Architectural Education: Issues in educational practice and policy, (London: ?uestion Press, 1992), p. 35.
49. Till, op. cit., p. 17.
50. Ibid.