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).