Wages of fear

Maria Smith glimpses an unfeesible future

The mob was agitated. Steam rose off the grunting bespectacled men brandishing 3D printed pitchforks. Febrile chants of ‘Fee scale or death’ floated over the morning air.

On the other side of the world, a young psychologist was casually leafing through a faux-antique architectural journal, and as she skimmed over the glossy unpeopled images she came across an obscure ethnography detailing the history of a broken people of a faraway place from 1950 to the present day – 2050. Immediately seeing the relevance to her thesis on self-loathing, she stuffed the magazine in her bag, slipped out and swished onto the express hover-bus . 

Swiftly arriving at her destination, she stepped straight into the middle of an angry mob. Crossfire intersected like a pseudo-derivative parametric diagram. Two near misses later, she had gleaned that the rioters were apoplectic over a procurement website going down. Further enquiries revealed that this IT failure was especially fraught as it meant the mob couldn’t download the invitation to tender for the redevelopment of the benighted capital’s hover-castle. She could tell from the glasses and pallid skin around her that they were all architects. Ever since the Planning Wars and the Edict of Built Environment roving bands of architects had become a common sight in the now brutal desolate land. 

After a few hours’ of indignant milling interspersed with bouts of aestheticised violence, the crowd saw the competition organiser appear. He assured them the I-dei-T was on its way but meanwhile a Powerpoint presentation of the ITT would be projected on the northern rampart. Just as heartrates began to settle, the organiser revealed that this would be the country’s first competitive fee tender since fee scales were destroyed in the Atomic Force Field Redundantiser last month. The mob quivered with the uncompromising rage that belies a lack of self-confidence.

The rioters were apoplectic over a procurement website going down. This IT failure was especially fraught as it meant the mob couldn’t download the invitation to tender

A fortnight later, the completed ITTs rolled into the competition office on proton carts and zero-gravity wheelbarrows from all corners of the country. The competition organiser made a giant spreadsheet of all the fee proposals. Each architect had also prepared unprompted concept designs, all equally irrelevant and pungent with the stench of premature renders. Nevertheless, any architect without a planning-ready proposal was immediately disqualified. The bottom 10% of the remaining fee bids were siphoned off under the assumption that they were all too stupid to understand the complexity of the work. The lowest tender in the 11th percentile was telephoned and congratulated on winning the ‘job of a generation’.

The hover-castle redevelopment predictably stalled at the technical design stage but the psychologist watched with interest as the legacy of the competitive fee tender infiltrated every aspect of society. She knew architects had once commanded public respect and matching high fees but that at some point they forgot not to undercut each other or to promiscuously give away their ideas, especially at the early stages of a job. So it was with a glum disdain that she watched them back-loading their fees further and further to the point where a client could demand as many feasibilities as it fancied for almost nothing. 

The psychologist looked at the records of year books and degree show reviews and was shocked to learn of the decades of work the students undertook. She surmised that architecture school was essentially a drawn out initiation into withstanding mental flogging. Furthermore, she observed them in their studios and it was clear that they all had obsessive, unviable attachment to the cult of concept design, worshipping the Ego-eyed Psychlops of Singular Ideas. Furthermore, on successfully placing herself onto the judging panel for a competitive tender, she observed that the backloading of fees had grown to such an extent that clients were now paying an enormous premium if their project proceeded past the nigh-on free concept stages. After spending four years immersing herself, she returned home and wrote this all up in a paper for an obscure academic journal.

Years later, an architecture MA student stumbled on the article and and submitted the most salient paragraph to a painfully well-read design blog. It read:

‘This isn’t a report on architectural fees, it’s a report on self-loathing. The old adage: ‘a gaggle of geese, a school of fish, a jealousy of architects’ fails to recognise that architects don’t merely hate each other, they hate themselves. This deep, ingrained self-loathing is facilitated by a myth of genius, nurtured at architecture schools and propagated by practice. Architects are thus not incentivised to remedy their operations with sensible regard to the market. The only hope might be that the commissioners of architecture act in their own self-interest and neither demand nor accept the mad scribbles of creatively exhausted conceptophiles.’ 


Maria Smith is a director at Studio Weave