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Architects’ varied canon

Hugh Pearman

The profession’s ingenuity is one of its great strengths, perhaps best seen in its critical conservation work

Architects are quite possibly the saintliest professionals on earth because, generally speaking, they not only take adverse crit­icism on the chin but operate in such a way as to anticipate it, which means that they are equipped to work round it. It’s rare to find an architect who doesn’t have a fall-back position when it comes to modifying their project: indeed, presenting a range of options at the outset is the norm, itself a willing admission that there are nearly always several different ways to tackle a brief. We all admire and envy those prodigiously talented architects with understanding clients who can produce a seemingly inevitable scheme out of the starting blocks and stick with it from first sketch right through to opening date with minimal changes but, let’s be honest, those are rare. There are as many different kinds of architect as there are styles of architecture.

Over the last month we have presented our annual round-up of the President’s Medals, something that the RIBA has done since 1836 and that we picked up on our foundation in 1893. It’s always interesting to speculate on what will happen next for these winners from around the world: as you would expect, many go on to be successful, some even famous practitioners (in recent times Norman Foster, David Adjaye and Ole Scheeren among them) while some find their vocation in academia or even outside architecture. In the case of Kibwe Tavares, Silver Medal winner in 2011, his talents led from the Bartlett to film direction and production, a no less challenging and rewarding business. Architecture provides transferable skills.

There are as many different kinds of architect as there are styles of architecture

I have long been fascinated by what is a big area of work for the profession which I feel isn’t celebrated enough: conservation practice, both on its own account and as part of developments also involving conversion and new-build. Sometimes this sees two architects with different skill sets working together, as famously Julian Harrap and David Chipperfield often do, but very often solo. The subject of our recent profile, Camilla Finlay of Acanthus Clews, deals with the fundamentals: the business of being surveyor to the fabric of two ancient cathedrals, Worcester and Exeter. This careful, delicate work can of course include newbuild – witness the publicly-accessible triforium and external access tower at Westminster Abbey by surveyor Ptolemy Dean with gallery by MUMA, or the 2013 Stirling Prize winning Astley Castle by Witherford Watson Mann.

Up and down the country, architects work on these and much humbler places of worship, and on historic buildings generally. Arguably this is the most important work that any architect can do because a nation’s character is largely defined by its built heritage. Architects as stewards of the national character? That is possibly the saintliest occupation of all.