2 October 2011

The Architecture of the Profession

At some point during the third year of my architectural education I was confronted with a difficult question: “Do we need architects?” Initially my response had been “yes” but given time to ruminate upon this troubling statement I was less confident and I began to consider my own personal experiences with architects or lack there of. In truth, outside of the academic setting, my encounters with architects, at that point, had been limited to sixth months shadowing a solo practitioner, for one afternoon a week, and a further two months, between the second and third year of my undergraduate studies, in an office belonging to an international practice with a reputation for being commercially-driven. I had grown up surrounded by the various trades involved in the physical construction of buildings and my education in the built environment industry had started young, with small-scale residential projects, little of which were designed by architects, working with my father who is a carpenter by trade. From what I could see it didn't seem to matter that there were no architects involved but I was unsure if the products of this process constituted architecture. I was unwittingly distinguishing between works of architecture and building, arguments that I am now more conscious of, however I was increasingly aware of huge swathes of the built environment that were not designed by architects but were still considered architecture. It seemed too simplistic to state that architecture was solely the work of architects or that in the absence of architects it would be impossible to create works of architecture. I had found myself facing the two of the oldest dilemmas of professional architectural practice; what exactly are architects for and what differentiates architecture from building?

Of these two positions it was the first that bothered me the most. I believe the differences between architecture and building are subjective and discussing these differences requires an element of philosophical meandering that I am less interested in. The term built environment seems to be a more useful phrase when discussing the human-modified environment, with awareness that this environment is a perturbed concoction of architecture and building. This first position then is the crux of the original question but it is perhaps more useful to expand it: “Do we need architects to shape our built environment?” Furthermore if architects are not always necessary then what other forces are at play? This was my first encounter with another uneasy professional position that underlies so much of the work of architects—the inherent dependency upon others.

These burgeoning interests underpinned the third year of my undergraduate studies, progressed during a year of professional practice, where I became acquainted with the intricacies of multi-disciplinary practice, and led me to pursue a Masters degree at the Manchester School of Architecture. I originally set out on the Masters programme with the intention of interrogating the social, economic and political forces currently acting upon the construction industry, with a belief that understanding these processes will be crucial in the creation of the future built environment. As the research advanced it became clear that the optimum site to focus my studies upon was the architectural profession itself and whether or not architects have a role to play in shaping the built environment of the 21st century.

There is currently a heightened level of debate surrounding the possible future role of architects and this research can be seen as part of this wider discourse, drawing upon these various commentaries in its construction. These discussions can be categorised in broadly two camps: manifestos, solely concerned with redefining the role of the individual architect; and descriptions of practice organisation, with which this project is more closely aligned. To date little has been written about how either of these would impact on the built environment and this research hopes to address this by not only speculating on the make up of practice but also how the built environment would be shaped, what new systems might be employed and how architects could fit within these.

The RIBA Building Futures debate in Manchester. (Image: Carrie Bayley)

The research project did not set out to provide a set of definitive answers but instead speculate on future trajectories for the architectural profession. By extrapolating from historical trends and expanding upon current discourses in the field this conjuncture also hints at possible future scenarios for the built environment. Existing discourse has been expanded upon through an extensive survey of over 100 individuals, on both the demand and supply side of the built environment industry, interviews, round table discussion groups, case studies, and my participation in a debate organised by the Royal Institute of British ArchitectsBuilding Futures research group. Furthermore, it was important that, at all times, the research remained grounded in the pragmatics of the real-world and kept a practice orientated perspective in which the architect is just one agent amongst the dynamic forces of the design and construction process.

The Architecture of the Profession presents the research in three parts, a book that runs to over 130 pages, with a further 40 pages of notes. In Part I (Purpose) the role and motivations of architectural practice are investigated. This draws upon the work of Kostof (1977) and Saint (1983) to provide a historical context, and studies by Blau (1984), Cuff (1992) and Yaneva (2010), to offer a sociological understanding of practice, and analysis of the shifting obligations and responsibilities of the profession from antiquity to the present day. Part II (Practice) deals more specifically with the practice of architecture and how buildings are made. Using two projects designed forty years apart by the same practice, the stories of how each project was shaped and constructed reveals the changes that have taken place and suggest how things might continue changing. Finally, Part III (Prospects) deals with emergent forms of architectural practice, with these futures framed from the perspective of architectural production.

It is then the culmination of twelve months spent studying the complexities of the architectural profession, but is informed by 36 months worth of curiosity into these issues, and an even longer interest in architecture. It is hoped that the book moves beyond a simple description of the architectural profession and instead turns attention to the architecture of that profession. Below is a more detailed description of the three parts that constitute the final volume.

The Architecture of the Profession (Copyright: Luke Butcher)


Part I examines the purpose of architectural practice, providing a general overview of the issues facing both architects as individuals and as a collective group. Chapter 1 (The Dualities of the Profession) begins with a condensed history of professionalism within British architectural culture, specifically the developments in the late 18th and 19th centuries that saw the role of architects within the shaping of the built environment change. Chapter 2 (Motivations of Practice) questions the key motivations of practice by first looking at the reasons for students entering into architectural education today and then how these impact on the future motivations of practitioners. Chapter 3 (Ethics of Practice) raises issues of ethics in architectural practice through the divergence of what architects feel they are responsible for and what they are legally obliged to do. Chapter 4 (The Valued Servant) is concerned with questions of value within architectural practice and the built environment, working through the perspective of clients, society and architects.


Part II is concerned with the methods and organization of architectural practice, specifically the involvement of architects at the various different stages in the development of an intervention in the built environment. Chapter 5 (Someone Else's Questions) deals with a project in it’s infancy, when the idea of something in the built environment is first discussed and plans are made to intervene in that environment. Chapter 6 (Procedures of Practice) tackles the organisation of architectural projects from the initial vision through to executing that vision on site. Chapter 7 (Tools of Practice) looks at the various tools used by architects throughout their practice and how new tools have the potential to change the design process. Chapter 8 (Reflective Practice) asks what happens to a project once it is finished and whether architects can develop systems of evidence-based practice to benefit both their own practice and the built environment. Each of these chapters calls on observations made about two architectural projects undertaken by Building Design Partnership (BDP): the Head Office for Halifax Building Society, completed in 1974; and the Shafton Advanced Learning Community (ALC), due for competition in early 2012. Both projects share a number of similarities that enable comparisons to be drawn about changes in practice over the last forty years, and have been informed by interviews with members of the original design teams.

The BDP designed Halifax HQ was used as a
case study for the research (Image: BDP).


Part III deals with the future of architectural profession, speculating on the trajectory of emergent trends within the profession and in wider society. Chapter 9 (What Now?) questions what the future will hold, dealing with issues of uncertainty that make long-term forecasting particularly difficult before evaluating the key drivers of the profession in the near-future. Chapter 10 (Integrated Practice) introduces the concept of architects working in large, fully integrated firms tasked with full service provision through inception, design, execution and occupation of the built environment. Chapter 11 (Expert Practice) takes earlier signifiers of gradual disintegration of the architect as generalist to question the new role of the expert, specialist practitioner. Chapter 12 (Networked Practice) is concerned with the concept of networked practice as a model through which small to medium sized practices and other consultants can work collaboratively so that small-scale practice can carry out large-scale change. The RIBA Building Futures group’s recent research into the future of the profession has been used as a starting point in these investigations, principally the practice types identified in the report that show potential for growth, some that are under threat and others that are unlikely to change in the future.  Each of these was used as a basis from which to extrapolate future models of practice, interrogating and evaluating them against a range of criteria such as the size of practice, the types of tasks an architect in that practice would undertake, the clients they would work for and how that practice is likely to be perceived externally. Numerous other speculations about the future of architectural practice, including the findings from the authors own survey of the profession, have also been taken into consideration when developing these models. Thus the initial types identified by Building Futures have been consolidated into fewer practice models and in most cases considerably altered or expanded, so that they signal new ways of practising architecture. These evaluations were also read in conjunction with other observations about the architectural profession (Part I) and the processes involved in shaping the built environment (Part II), from which new trends became clear. Attempts have been made to refer each practice type to project scenarios, from the perspective of the architect, as an attempt to evaluate their impact on the future built environment.

Extracts from the book will be released over the coming weeks on this blog (Chapter 1, Chapter 7 and Chapter 9) to provide a taster of the ideas explored within it. The book will be available for sale via Lulu from Tuesday 4th October 2011 (further details to be announced on Luke Butcher Online and this blog). I will be giving a presentation about the research on Thursday 6th October 2011 at the RIBA Hub in Manchester, starting a 2pm, as part of the MA Architecture and Urbanism Colloquium 2011.