Our latest cohort of talented young practitioners outline how they want to change the profession at RIBAJ's annual roundtable
The newest cohort of RIBAJ Rising Stars met again in March for the annual roundtable of winners. Every year, with our partners at Origin, we gather the most recent class to discuss the pressing issues affecting the emerging generation of architects, designers and construction professionals as well as find out what’s on their minds. The event was our third, and contrary to the emphasis on extracurricular and out-of-work activities that characterised their competition submissions, the conversation unexpectedly centred very firmly on in-work, in-business, in-practice issues – how the role of the architect is and should be changing.
Whereas Rising Stars of previous years have focused on the issues affecting them, for this year’s cohort it was about how they could affect issues they care about in a positive and proactive way. In response to the question ‘How do you see the state of architecture now?’ the discussion revolved around three main topics: diversity, wellbeing buildings and work-life balance.
Hawkins\Brown’s Jonathan Chan kicked things off on a very optimistic note, recognising that the profession has come a long way. London Festival of Architecture and Architecture LGBT had their own float for Pride in London, which he led and helped design, and he believes that fundamentally there has been a move away from the alpha male model of producing architecture to one that is far more collaborative and socially aware. Cullinan Studio’s Sahiba Chadha agreed, saying BIM is helping projects to be automatically more inclusive and integrated project insurance is helping to make methods more ego-free as well.
However, there was an awareness around the table that not all disadvantaged groups in architecture are being included as equally and quickly as each other. Ben Channon of Assael Architecture highlighted news reports suggesting that working class ethnically white boys are becoming the least achieving group and it was felt that solutions should centre around opening up architectural education and creating other routes through. One example being trialled by Hawkins\Brown is going into schools in deprived areas to demystify the role of the architect to children. Other ideas stressed the importance of the apprenticeship scheme. Derek Draper of Atomik Architecture thought this was a useful approach as he had come through the long-established architectural technician route at AHR in Shrewsbury, although there were always lots of jokes about how it wasn’t a proper architectural education. But the lengthy juggling of study, work and life that this would entail prompted BDP’s Kieren Majhail to question how students in these scheme would cope. Did it make the process even harder?
At this point there was a brief segue into how to deal with a client who incorrectly assumes that the male architect is the most senior person in a meeting instead of the woman. There were some rather vocal and contrasting responses. Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio, who has had mentoring in dealing with this kind of everyday sexism, advocated discreetly and politely communicating who is in charge by dropping hints about one’s experience early on, while Majhail felt that women shouldn’t have to justify themselves when no man would have to.
Regardless, Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt’s Emily Pallot felt that growing collaboration between all would be the only way architects will be able to manage once robots come and computers take over design. Her primary concern was how can architects prepare for automation. Here, Majhail advocated a move towards more agile working, already seen across so many other industries – a means to share responsibility and risk, but not forgetting to pick up the phone and use soft human skills in the process. That’s how and why Atomik joined up with Aecom for its Expo pavilion design. Almost everyone at the table thought it would be increasingly necessary to network within a practice and externally to consolidate skills.
The second half of the roundtable moved on to wellbeing, kicked off by mental health champion Channon. In this area, the conversation was two-fold. First, why neuroscientific research into the effects of buildings on mental health isn’t filtering into design, and second about the wellbeing of architects themselves.
On the first strand, Channon gave a mini learning session explaining that the principles of good buildings for mental health follow those for good quality housing: the use of natural materials over manmade ones, high levels of daylight and integrating that more elusive architectural device – joy. While it was felt that joy might be a challenging for those coming robots, one day they would help human architects by enabling us to set minimum parameters for other things that can automatically generate designs, freeing up time for architects to insert joy.
For the moment, though, Majhail explained that – to many nods around the table – even with the best clients at BDP these principles are ‘all the stuff that we put in but gets valued out. There are so many battles architects have to face that wellbeing is one of the least important on the list.’ For the people around the table, the value of these principles was very real and it was a matter of persuading clients to feel the same. Their value might be self-evident in a school, hospital or Maggie’s cancer care centre, as Channon explained, but if applied to, say, a build-to-rent scheme could they lead to better, happier tenants with a longer retention rate that would in turn improve the client’s bottom line?
Regarding working practices in architecture itself, Ben Brocklesby of RIBAJ Rising Stars partner Origin thinks how architecture firms and the most successful companies operate in terms of human resources are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas architects are always trying to work harder and longer, other types of company are trying to achieve the same in six-hour days and four-day weeks to motivate workers and improve productivity. A quick show of hands around the table suggested that most practices where the Rising Stars hail from have some kind of flexible working scheme, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much. Majhail admitted, for example, that to do business development, marketing, or additional work that will benefit the practice generally but isn’t project managed, she does it after she has put her children to bed every night.
And with that came a flurry of handy tips that will characterise ways of working in future and make people brighter, happier and more focused workers. Automate cc emails to go straight to junk, learn to say no, don’t organise meetings after 2pm, only attend the part of the meeting you are needed for, have standing meetings to keep them short, allot a finite set of hours every day to answering emails and set up an out of office response to inform people of those hours the rest of the time, turn your phone to greyscale to make it less enticing and finally, halt notifications – they make you miserable. And with that we ended the roundtable.
RIBAJ Rising Stars, in association with Origin, recognises outstanding members of the up and coming generation of architects. The search for this year's cohort begins later this month.