Blinded by the light

How many architects does it take to change a profession?

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you will have been hearing architects saying things like: architects’ fees are abominably low; architects’ need to work harder to prove their value; architects’ have lost scope to other consultants, impoverishing their offering; the public is spatially illiterate and must be better educated to create a more favourable environment in which to create great architecture and make architectural practice economically viable; architects need to stop giving away their ideas for free and band together to stop this race to the bottom in its tracks… that kind of stuff. I too am culpable. In December 2014 RIBAJ published an article by yours truly on how architects’ self-loathing was causing them to offer work for free and undercut each other.

In many ways it’s a perfectly valid response. We work bloody hard for meagre reward. We studied forever. We deserve better, right? People at parties are unfailingly impressed by our job title. And yet we live in a world where there’s always someone who’s willing to work for a reduced fee. Whether this is because it pushes their practice forward into a new sector or scale, or because it provides work for under employed human resources twiddling their thumbs, there’s always somebody willing to buy the job.  If you’re a client, spending public money or answering to a board or looking to make a big pile of cash, why not seek out that practice? They’ll be hungry for the work and you can prove value for money to whomever you’re accountable to. 

Should we architects be boycotting this somehow? Should we all sign a pact, declaring we’ll never charge less than whatever it costs us plus some fair profit? Should we petition the RIBA to bring back the fee scale to effectively do this for us? Should we boycott all unpaid competitions? Should we charge clients for that initial coffee? Should we be pressuring the RIBA to provide services to clients to transform these mere humans into the holy grail: the enlightened client? Should we go into schools and prime the next generation to care about what we care about: to grow up into people that want us? 

From the distress of an unexpectedly short haircut, to Einstein’s erroneous cosmological constant: change is hard

We all know that the ideas we come up with; our cerebral progeny, whose arrival in this world so often feels like birthing a pineapple, are not valued in the way we wish they were. While we may not like this, we know it to be true because by and large, people aren’t willing to pay us for them. And it’s not just people who can’t afford the luxury of couture design; even people with Scrooge McDuck basement swimming pools of money squeeze us down.

So what do we do? We work late. We hire a disproportionately high number of inexperienced staff with lower salary expectations and higher tolerance for poor working conditions. We enhobbify our work: holidaying to architectural masterpieces, spending our evenings and weekends (when we’re not in the office) going to lectures and scrolling through design blogs, and sketching our dreams through our tears of frustration. With extraordinary vehemence we kill ourselves in service of our precious ideas until we’re so exhausted the only thing we can do is cry ourselves drunk howling help: a wretched whining sorry sight.

Well I don’t know about you but I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re flogging a dead horse. This may be difficult to swallow but people just don’t care that much about our ideas, at least not in the way our profession as it stands wants them to. It may be a bitter pill but we need to swallow it: this incessant whinging is pathetic. Oh, RIBA needs to do more to protect us from the big bad world of mean money. No, please RIBA, don’t. Don’t even try. Any semi-effective protectionism is just standing in the way of the transformation that is inevitable. 

From the distress of an unexpectedly short haircut, to Einstein’s erroneous cosmological constant: change is hard. Architecture, a hefty slow-moving beast, is especially bad at change. However, the saturation of our industry with this nostalgic, conservative, backward thinking rhetoric is making us blind. There are almost certainly loads of great initiatives out there that we should be attending to but we’re so busy feeling disenfranchised we can’t even conceive of their relevance.

Throughout the early 2000s, Netflix tried to make a deal with Blockbuster. Blockbuster declined, failing to see the shift afoot in their industry. We all know what happened next.

Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering practice Interrobang and curator of Guerrilla Tactics, 8 November, RIBA