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Has architecture’s scope narrowed too far?

Words:
Eleanor Jolliffe

How can the profession deal with today’s challenges? Eleanor Jolliffe argues for a widening of the definition of architecture as she takes the long view

A stable, self confident architectural profession. AHMM’s studio in the White Collar Factory, east London.
A stable, self confident architectural profession. AHMM’s studio in the White Collar Factory, east London. Credit: Timothy Soar

How can the profession deal with today’s challenges? Eleanor Jolliffe argues for the widening of the definition of architecture as she takes the long view.

British architectural practice today faces challenges. As a result of Brexit, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the after effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic, we are facing economic and supply chain issues beyond our control. Closer to home the Building Safety Act, reactions to the global Climate Crisis and the recommendations of the Hackitt Review seem likely to cause overhauls to competency, architectural education, ARB’s powers, construction information delivery and even professional indemnity insurance cover. It would be easy to become overwhelmed, or to feel that the moment is somehow unprecedented, or beyond our control or ability to cope.

Over the last three years Paul Crosby and I have been researching and writing Architect: The evolving story of a profession, which is now available, on the evolution of architectural practice and education over the last 3,000 years. While there is no doubt that the contemporary British profession is facing significant challenges, very few are ones the profession has not faced before; and we don’t even need to look that far back to find them.

Recent models of evolution

Architects weathered economic storms, labour shortages and supply chain issues just as challenging, if not more so, following World War Two. This catalysed some innovative building forms, materials and what some refer to as a ‘golden age’ for British architecture. The recessions and forced privatisations of the early 1990s forced the sector to re-think its reliance on public sector jobs and led to the formation of the firms that have seen significant global success for British architecture. Moreover, while climate challenges and legislative changes will complicate life, previous legislative overhauls or shifts of understanding of context and climate have resulted in technological breakthroughs and provided the impetus needed to persuade the slightly conservative construction industry to adjust its course. In all the ‘adapt or die’ challenges the profession has faced over the centuries it has adapted and survived.

Polymaths answering society’s issues

However, it is not solely in these fairly superficially similar scenarios that we should be looking for reassurance and guidance for our future course- but in the greater trajectory of the evolution of our profession. Architects have always been a necessary, even vital, part of human society; from the very first moments of humans seeking shelter there have been someones who ‘designed’ that structure and guided its construction. There is no reason architects will struggle to be any less vital in the future- though our own definition for ourselves may need to relax a little. Across the centuries it is in the embracing of a role as a polymath professional that engages with a plethora of engineering and aesthetic disciplines that architects have found their greatest successes.

Architects in the past did design grand palaces, funerary monuments, cultural and civic buildings and grand boulevards. However, they also helped with the proper siting and layout of military encampments, guided discussions on watercourses and infrastructure, embraced engineering challenges as a crucial part of aesthetic design, contributed to military siege engines, contributed to debates on philosophy and aesthetics, played key roles in construction logistics and project management, designed gardens, cities, and even costumes for royal masques and plays. It was not until the 1800s (in Britain) that we ever sought to define what an architect was, or to separate them from the myriad overlapping and related disciplines that lend so much richness to design, and to the profession as a whole.

Moving into the 1950s inside the office of Hugh Casson and Neville Condor.
Moving into the 1950s inside the office of Hugh Casson and Neville Condor. Credit: RIBA Collections

A narrow definition?

The role that constitutes what we consider an architect today would have been seen as a crucial part of being an architect in the past, but not its full breadth. The narrowness of the modern profession would have seemed odd to our forebears. The notion, for example, that an architect could be considered fully educated with only a cursory understanding of the basics of structural or building related engineering would have seemed nonsensical to them. Professional architects understood their materials, how a building went together, how it worked and what might cause it to fail.

Specialisation

As construction has increased in complexity across the years specialisation has naturally become necessary and appropriate; but an overabundance of definition and delegation has arguably hollowed out the modern profession. The current trajectory could lead to a 21st century profession that resembles the aristocratic amateur architects of the 18th century, a wealthy designer for the wealthy, interested only in the concepts of design.

The narrowness of the aristocratic amateur role in the 18th century created a need for ‘professional’ architects, such as Robert Smythson. These men emerged from the building trades, combining crafts and engineering skills with design understanding and were the key to the actual construction of the amateurs’ ideas. (There is of course a generalisation here, some of the 18th century ‘amateurs’ were more technically skilled). The amateur role doesn’t exist any more; the professionals proved more useful and ultimately were the branch of the profession who survived.

It is this balance, between the importance of technical skill and artistic pursuit that has been at the heart of developments of architectural practice for millennia. Every few centuries it has needed to be reset as the prevailing trend finds itself no longer compatible with contemporary society. Perhaps our current moment is one of those.

  • A London architectural practice in the 1880s, the office of Ernest George and Peto.
    A London architectural practice in the 1880s, the office of Ernest George and Peto. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Moving into the 1950s inside the office of Hugh Casson and Neville Condor.
    Moving into the 1950s inside the office of Hugh Casson and Neville Condor. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Early computing at the John S Bonnington Partnership.
    Early computing at the John S Bonnington Partnership. Credit: RIBA Collections
  • Early waves of the housing boom in the 1770s – a trend that would lead to the rise of general contracting.
    Early waves of the housing boom in the 1770s – a trend that would lead to the rise of general contracting. Credit: RIBA pix
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Resetting the profession through diversity

What would it look like though, to reset this balance in contemporary architectural practice? With the complexity of modern construction we should not probably be looking to the medieval master masons for inspiration. While stunningly skilled men no single professional today could hope to master the breadth of construction in the way they did. It is also somewhat unrealistic to look for an Imhotep, a Vitruvius, or a da Vinci among our ranks.

The main difference between the architects of the past and those in practice now is in diversity. Not necessarily in terms of gender, sexual preference or ethnic background - though in the past this form of diversity was certainly lacking. The difference between today and the more distant past is in the variety of social and educational backgrounds of architects, and a significant reduction in types and scope of practice.

A different sort of education?

Reaching back into antiquity there are records of freed slaves becoming architects, through the middle ages any man could apprentice to a master mason, and even into the 1800s articles pupillage gave a route into architecture to those from poorer backgrounds (though with varied results, as satirised by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit). It was not until the late 1950s that architects were required to have a university education. Until this point it was open to those with more vocational skills whose highest qualification was ‘O-Levels’ (equivalent to today’s GCSEs). It is not an easily answered question perhaps but does an architect always need to be educated to postgraduate level? Would a more diverse profession consider a ‘general practitioner’ and then further specialisation (such as doctors and lawyers do)?

Re-embrace the building crafts

Before the 1800s architects had a broader skill set, came from a broader range of backgrounds, had more diverse educational backgrounds and combined their architectural practice with expertise in a wide range of related disciplines. Most architects did small scale engineering, worked in measuring or were in some way connected with construction. Even noted names such as Robert Adam held building patents, co-owned building materials companies and dabbled in surveying and other related work in order to regularise their income. Could a more resilient contemporary profession re-embrace the building crafts as a vital collaborator, reforming recent decades of often adversarial relations? Could such a profession heal the artificial fracture between architects and architectural technicians perhaps?

Perhaps a more stable, self confident architectural profession may not choose to answer the question, architecture; profession or art? It may simply decide that both forms of practice are valid, and that there is space for both within a modern profession. It may be that in true diversity we find the next step in our evolution.


Architect: The evolving story of a profession by Eleanor Jolliffe and Paul Crosby. 256pp RIBA Publishing £32

 

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