Words:
Maria Smith

Let archaic professional distinctions fall away. Architects and engineers are just two halves of one worm seeking the light

Artificial distinctions of professions are like cutting a worm in half. Don't expect those two halves to fall in love.
Artificial distinctions of professions are like cutting a worm in half. Don't expect those two halves to fall in love.

The built environment industry can often feel like a primary school production of Hamlet. Imagine a motley crew of disobedient seven year olds with inexplicable kitchenware costumes awkwardly lurching about a stage spouting near random compilations of words. These normally agile beings that fluidly dash about in pursuit of some bodily incorporation of a new idea, are suddenly trussed up to approximate symbolic roles that divest them of understanding, agency, and elegance.

How did we end up here? Who is this rogue drama teacher that thought this was a good idea and how can we mutiny?

The industrial revolution would have been an extraordinary time to be alive. So much was in so much flux – it was an environment of incredible opportunity. If you happened to be reasonably intelligent just a smidgeon of gumption would ensure your name went down in the local history books and 100 years later manifested in a public art project.

The way we behave today, anyone would think that the late 18th and early 19th century was a formative period where humans were neatly organised into roles that would last us to the end of civilisation. A host of institutions, unions, and professional bodies were established to reinforce and protect our respective interests and we all set to work. 

How did we end up here? Who is this rogue drama teacher that thought this was a good idea and how can we mutiny?

On many fronts those roles have been fought against since inception: sex, class, and race being some of the most poignant. The course of history might now be to continue the fight, bring it to every aspect of society until we’ve thoroughly undone the damage. Should we argue that the professions defined over a century ago disenfranchise? Is there a coherent train of thought between trans-gender and trans-disciplinary?

Perhaps. However, there may be a more forgiving approach. Perhaps the civilising forces of the industrial revolution and Victorian era weren’t looking to formulate a new world order at all, but were rather desperately scrabbling together some structure in order to maintain functionality in a society undergoing unprecedented change. Maybe the roles defined at that time were never meant to persist any longer than needed to weather an extraordinary transitionary period. Maybe they were roles assumed in a crisis, roles that may not even really exist during the normal course of things.

It seems it’s finally beginning to dawn on us that we no longer need to cling to these arbitrarily restricted remits. We’re finally learning that these archaic distinctions are unhelpful to contemporary society and, within our industry, to contemporary practice. We’re learning that trying to separate the roles of architect and engineer is like cutting a worm in half and expecting both halves to live. Or that trying to separate the roles of architect and planner is like cutting a worm in half and expecting the two halves to fall in love and have scores of beautiful worm-children that grow up to be worm-heroes that save all the other worms from their wormy social and political issues.

We know this stuff, but we’re nervous about letting it happen. We’re – perhaps inadvertently – obstructive by fighting the wrong enemy. We can’t combat the death of the professions by reinstating the fee scale any more than we can attract more women into architecture by increasing maternity allowance. We can’t dissolve barriers if our arguments against them rely on the distinctions they uphold. 

Trying to separate the roles of architect and engineer is like cutting a worm in half and expecting both halves to live

Perhaps it’s the idea of a revolution that’s obstructing progress. Perhaps we don’t need a revolution. Perhaps it would take more energy than we have to break every false distinction by force. Perhaps we’d be better off just recognising where those distinctions just don’t apply and letting them fall away.

Isn’t that energy is better spent remodelling ourselves as operatives in a fluid environment? How? Education, education, education of course! And not going into schools and raising awareness of STEM subjects, or getting involved in tutoring at universities, or sitting about in conferences bemoaning graduates’ lack of employability. Sure, do all that stuff, but at an individual level too, we each need to make an effort to compensate for the over-specialised pedagogy of the last few decades. We each need to personally broaden our skillsets and not just to better articulate our perspectives from historic vantage points.

Let’s not lurch about as if under the direction of a mad drama teacher on a misguided mission to evidence epigenetics. Let’s be agile beings that fluidly dash about in pursuit of some bodily incorporation of a new idea.

Maria Smith is director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang


 

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