Architectural Unity or Diversity?

  • Building Design Expert
  • 4 years ago

I have always made it my business to avoid plagues and indeed anything like them. One thing that has always presented itself as very plague-esque is the potential for a ‘them and us’ chasm across the ‘built environment’ professions. But it doesn’t stop there either; the associated professional bodies and industry publications, one way or another, also have a turn at holding the stirring spoon that is binding this lot together. I shall explain.

It would be very easy to fabricate quotes for the purposes of enhancing a blog, but for the record, I will state here and now that I have never done this, or intend to. The fact is that it is often the conversation, that includes the quote, that is the driver for some posts. I say this as it is important from my side to be reporting a situation, then commenting, rather than simply dishing out comments and, or opinion. One such quote came about from a conversation with a structural engineer. We were exchanging workload statuses and the potential of working together on a batch of upcoming projects for the same client. The crucial comment came when he said:

There are plenty of architects about, but all they want to do is produce a set of pretty drawings, grab their fee and bring in a contractor who can turn their design into a package to bring to site. They have no technical knowledge.

I wrote it down quickly. A sweeping generalisation on the one hand, but something was clearly on the mind of this middle aged and very experienced structural engineer to prompt his outburst.

Stuck in the past?

An accusation increasingly being levelled at dyed in the wool institutions such as the RIBA and ARB, whom have stood as resolute bastions of the professional world for decades. It has long been a requirement for periodic reinvention of these pillars of our communities, if only to give them some fresh kerb appeal. As many new and colourful coats of paint are applied to the RIBA portcullis so that it looks clean and well maintained; it is the paint itself that is succeeding in gumming up the works.

Architects have, and continue to enjoy the protected title part of their being. This has been instrumental in creating what is effectively a closed shop. But closed shops are quite illegal under UK and European law, and have been for some twenty years. But of course it is not a closed shop in the ‘trade union’ sense; simply a figurative form of, and if anyone can produce their requisite piece of paper – they’re in. It is perhaps unfortunate then that the ‘closed shop’ attitudes persist to the extent that any qualification other than Architect is quite simply perceived as second class. The value put with this prized title remains disproportionate to its worth. Newly qualified architects can often provide zippy comment on the ‘design’ value of a given building or development, but that is usually where it ends. They know little or nothing of the pros and cons of construction techniques in use, materials and workmanship issues, and the nuances of project design logistics. Yet, they consistently enjoy promotion and managerial appointments over and above more experienced staff members who have been stricken with a “second class qualification”. Fair? No. Unreasonable? Yes. Acceptable? That depends upon whether you are the architect, or the pass-over?

The protected title part of the story is often a cause for this. Practices are often started by an individual, or individuals with incomplete qualifications. Whilst their experience may lead them through the trees and into a clearing; it is the newly qualified architect that can take them out of the woods by donating their title to the cause in exchange for a space on the letterhead. – Director of a practice by virtue of their ability to obtain a qualification.

The Influential Media

There are dozens of construction industry magazines that report on new construction projects, technical innovation, industry appointments, legislation and the like; as well as providing a conduit for employment opportunities and an advertisers outlet. The go-to publication for a large cross section of the industry is ‘Building Design’ magazine; largely because it used to be free. Once we had got over the curtailment of that little perk, it became less riveting (or was it more riveting because we felt we had to read it cover to cover to get our subscription’s worth). Either way it lost an edge to its groove. The other paid alternatives are ‘Building’ magazine, and the ‘Architect’s Journal’. The AJ is by architects for architects – the clue being in the title of RIBA publications.

Have we returned to the same shop only to find it’s still closed? Well no actually. This shop has a side door which will quietly usher you in and take your money.

‘Building’, it must be said, is probably the magazine with the least architectural bias. Although it does tend to lean gently towards the discipline of surveying, and surveyors. So back to ‘Building Design’ as our independent go-to publication giving a broad balanced view on the professional world within the built environment. Except that doesn’t either.

In these days of changing ways; so called liberated days…… you will be hard pressed to find reference and opinion from any built environment professional other than an architect – sang Rod Stewart. Well at least in part.

You might hit upon a reference to the RICS once in a while, but it is irritatingly obtuse that whilst the industry and the world move forward playing the latest board game of Sustainable BIM, the only professionals worthy of offering any form of commentary have a head office in Portland Place. How short sighted is the BD editorial team? That they peer down their tunnel, but cannot even see the white dot at the end.

A New Model Army

Time for a new brush, or broom or both! I once had a year out undergraduate architect on my team, the like of whom I have struggled to meet since. He absorbed anything technical like a sponge, except his sponge never became saturated. It seemed none of this kind of learning was going to happen back at university, and he knew it. He qualified as an architect some years ago, he never over-stated his technical prowess, but became very embroiled in contract administration, and clients took to him as a very nice guy. Ironically he is now a director in a very successful firm of architects, and the first to admit that he would not be enjoying that status as anything other than an architect. Importantly he is the first out of his chair to go find someone who knows how to solve the problem. Good management is knowing your own limitations and when to delegate.

So is the modern firm of architects one that manages their way out of a crisis in such a way that only the likes of my structural engineer colleague notices? Have these practises consciously stopped trying to be all things to all men? simply trading on a managerial model and the power of delegation. We can look at it as architectural unity or diversity, it very much depends upon how you slice the cake.

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