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Shape up or die: why architects matter

Piers Taylor

Realistic self-assessment of our role and the reunion of practice and academia is our only salvation

For much of the construction industry, architects have become dispensable and marginalised to the point of becoming little more than mere self-aggrandizing stylists for a few trophy buildings. Not only are we thought of as petulant dandies who add cost and complexity, we are also considered unaffordable.

Is it any wonder we’ve become semi-irrelevant to the general public, developers, governments and the construction teams that we used to lead? Architects presume their worth is evident to everyone, and yet, as Flora Samuel demonstrates in her new book Why Architects Matter, not only do many non-architects not even know what we do, but we are very bad at presenting the case for why we are useful – let alone essential.

Do carpenters matter?

In many ways it is tragic that a book of this bald title had to be conceived and written at all. It isn’t possible to imagine, say, that a book titled ‘Why Doctors Matter’ would have to be written, or even ‘Why Carpenters Matter’. We know we need them and the arguments for their existences are obvious.

While we’ve always been a profession in crisis, we’re now in a, new, special crisis of our own making. Samuel sets out that, for the most part, we are responsible for our own downfall, being not only incapable of demonstrating why our skills and knowledge are essential but also being unclear what our skills and knowledge are. The problem, in many ways, is that we are fixated on the wrong things: time and again, when asked to justify our existence, we call on aesthetic codes.

Yet, as Samuel shows, most people – including the other highly skilled professionals within our teams – do not share the same aesthetic values, or even understand our language, which Samuel describes as ‘unintelligible’ to most of them. Instead of hearing this and attempting to reconcile the gulf between us and others who commission architects or work with us in design teams, we retreat further into our world. We seek solace among other architects and in the architectural media which we still feel reflects our values. We care more about what our peers think of us than non-architects, making us, as Jeremy Till says, ‘increasingly irrelevant and ultimately irresponsible.’

We are simply not good at explaining why what we do matters – and of course this is hindered by not being sure about what we do in the first place. In addition, Samuel argues that our self image is delusional and still propped up by our identification with the unreconstructed, totalitarian, swashbuckling alpha male heroic role models, personified by Howard Roark, our beloved modernists – Corb, Mies – and other globe-trotting neo-liberal greats – Foster, Rogers, Koolhaas.

Reflection leads to redemption

There is salvation, however. Much of the book shows a path to redemption if we’re prepared to be a little more self reflective as a body, and stop trying to convert the naysayers. Samuel suggests that to be a ‘profession’ is to profess custody of a body of knowledge, and, in making the case for architects, she begins by reminding us what it is we know. She goes on to make the case for what we might do with that knowledge. She argues that while architects are ‘socio-spatial problem solvers, integrators of complex bodies of information and masters in space-craft’ and work in knowledge-based organisations, ‘knowledge’ is not a word many architects feel very comfortable with as a way of describing the essence of our professional discipline.

Samuel suggests that we need to strategically re-frame our knowledge and skills for the 21st century. One of our main problems is that we identify with the ‘wrong’ body of knowledge, which is a ‘pantheon edifice of instruction, moral code, does and don’ts, through which architecture as an academy is established’. Salvation is ours she says – if we are prepared to destroy the mythology of the architect as a ‘visionary’ and focus on more normative forms of research and knowledge generation and concentrate on how to make architecture appropriate to its environment.

At its heart, this is an evidence-based approach to design – something of a sea change for architects, who are instinct-led generalists. A researcher herself, Samuel’s key argument is that design research is the most effective way to improve, and share, our knowledge. First, however, we need more research to discover how to do architectural research better. This is a process of ‘systematic and original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding and de-risk innovation’, which is then widely disseminated. In the UK, we usually consider ’research’ to have a technical focus, but Samuel demonstrates that the European understanding encompasses artistic, scientific, social and business issues. This makes sense, as the built environment is an interdisciplinary problem, and Samuel makes the case for sociologists, economists, geographers, city planners and architects to retreat from our individual conceptual worlds and create more interdisciplinary connections.

Practice and academia

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios is a good example of a practice fully engaged in research (environmental) and I would argue that its own research in this field has allowed it to add value to projects. Research should be not a sample board but a specialism that is disseminated – and in the case of practice applied in a building which then adds value.

Next, in addition to working more collaboratively, we need to restore links between academia and practice so practice can understand, and be part of, a research culture. Never have they been more disconnected, writes Samuel, for now there is something of a cultural chasm between the two. The best method of research for practitioners is within practice, and there is significant funding available for practice-based research (although as this is European funding, it may disappear). Many architects are sceptical about the need to carry out research to provide evidence for their worth which they feel to be ‘common sense’, but as Samuel shows, architects’ views of what forms common sense differs greatly from others. Research can help us state what we know more effectively and, critically, help in stating our value.

Samuel reminds us architects that we generate far more value than we capture. She describes how architects work in a knowledge-based service sector, creating boundary objects (imaginings of the future expressed materially) in the form of models, drawings, reports, events and experience that facilitate organisational learning and the transfer of knowledge. If we can evidence our value in a manner that the world understands, writes Samuel, it – and protection of title – become non-issues. If a large procedural part of what we do may become robotised or hived off by apps or other professionals looking for a slice of the construction pie, we are potentially saved by our ability to empathise.

Worth the effort

My hunch is that many architects will have to work at this, but if we become more empathetic we will be free to update our ideals and ethics and, via research in practice and stronger links between practice and academia, reshape our knowledge and problem-solving skills to think about future expert-systems and the development of the built environment in the long term. While that may seem a tall order, Samuel’s fundamental point to architects is that we have no choice: we must shape up and reformulate or die out. Meanwhile, eager to plan for the future, I’m off to change my business card from mere ‘architect’ to ‘socio-spatial problem solver and master in space-craft’.

Piers Taylor is an architect who is researching designing through making with Flora Samuel

Why Architects Matter – Flora Samuel – Routledge - 2018