Opinion

The architects of tomorrow need leadership

March 16, 2009

Graduates today want to be designers, to do the sexy stuff and leave the dross to someone else.

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The August 2008 edition of AR on Theory and Practice was an important contribution to the debate around the roles that academia and the profession play in the development of architects in our society. I was conscious of this debate early in my career, and I imagine in 30 years time it will still be raging. As the contributors were heavily weighted towards academia, I offer my contribution as a practitioner of nearly 40 years, with my reflections from the coalface.

There’s a joke I once heard, “In architecture, ‘A’ students become academics and the ‘B’ students end up working for the ‘C ‘ students”. Obviously, the implication of the joke is not to flatter academics but to highlight the wide gulf between academic education and practice. My experience is that this implication is an exaggeration and that the quality of students and graduates is strong, albeit there is a broad range in their skills and strengths.

Architectural education, as it is in any profession, is an ongoing and continuous process. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t learn something new. So the schools and the professions both have a role to play, the big question relates to what their respective responsibilities might be in shaping the character and skills of architects.

As a practice SJB has taken this responsibility seriously. Although we have had limited participation in academia, we have always taken students for work experience, given them meaningful and varied roles within their capacity, and not treated them as labour fodder. With our graduates, we have continued this commitment, encouraged them to register as architects and provided them with varied experience to assist the process. We also present a series of monthly graduate lectures over 12 months with topics covering career development, professional practice, business matters and skills development. Directors and other senior specialists within the practice present these lectures. This investment in students and graduates is not altruistic or unusual in the architectural profession.

Two students have become directors at SJB, however the majority have moved on to other firms. Those that no longer work at SJB hopefully will contribute to a more capable and skilled profession from which we will all be beneficiaries. This mobility can also enhance architectural development in the cross fertilisation of ideas and processes from one practice to another. The education process continues throughout architects’ careers in the practice of architecture itself, in training and in continued informal and formal study. As some of AR‘s contributors noted, the division between academic studies and practice in the development of architects is artificial. However academia plays a critical role, particularly in the early phase of an architect’s development. This role is not in skilling up future architects, although development of skills is important, but in instilling core values and capabilities.

The following are what I believe to be important core values and capabilities in no particular ranking:
* Humility – the practice of architecture should not be for self-glorification. I often refer to the triple bottom line – architecture fulfilling our aspirations as architects, the aspirations and needs of our clients and the aspiration and needs of the broader society.
* Humanity – architecture is not about buildings, but people. Although we deal with the physical environment, what’s important is how this impacts on the functional, emotional and spiritual needs of the people that these buildings serve.
* Collaboration – architecture is a highly collaborative process, not only in its design, but also in its delivery. To deliver an optimum outcome, you must work with other people not only to draw out the best of what they have to offer, but also to inspire them and give them ownership over the result.
* Professionalism – the pursuit of excellence in all aspects irrespective of how exciting or mundane the task may be. Architecture is 10% exhilaration and 90% slog, the quality of the outcome is dependent on how well you fulfill the full 100%.
* Communication – to express your ideas and aspirations in a way that lay people can understand. To speak and write in a manner that is clear and understandable, that is not jargon, that makes architecture accessible and meaningful.
* Integrity – architects are constantly dealing with competing imperatives – their own, their clients, builders and contractors, or those of society in general. It is important to make judgements within ethical boundaries, and to be fair and reasonable within multiple allegiances.
* Synthesis – of all the players in the delivery of buildings, architects are the only ones that have a holistic understanding of the complete entity. The skill that architects have is the capacity to ‘synthesise’ all the inputs from all the specialist consultants, advisers, contractors, authorities, social groups etc into a cogent solution that not only draws all these threads into a cohesive tapestry, but also balances the often competing and conflicting needs that each have. This capacity is unique to architects in their role in delivering the built environment.
* Money – when I studied architecture, I don’t think I heard the word money ever mentioned. Yet in practice I was confronted with the awesome responsibility of managing in many cases the largest financial commitment that people make in their lives. It’s a responsibility that should be confronted, not avoided.

The contributors in a large part focussed on the front end of architecture – the design process and the potential that research and technology have to assist in its development. However, the back-end or delivery of architecture is as critical, otherwise all we have is some ideas on paper or in a computer model. Ironically, in the practice of architecture the delivery side generally contributes nearly 80% of our fees and consumes 80% of our attention. Graduates today want to be designers, to do the sexy stuff and leave the dross to someone else.

Unfortunately, the leading role that architects played in delivering architecture is being eroded – even in the space of my career the role of the architect as the superintendent and manager of the process of delivering architecture has been taken away. In some countries like Japan and France, documentation is a separate responsibility, usually undertaken by the contractors. Many larger offices are embracing or investigating the outsourcing of large components of their work to Asia. With our increasingly diminishing role, we are in danger of just becoming stylists.

Architects are constantly bleating about how society does not understand or value design and architecture, we feel unappreciated, a sentiment repeated by some of your contributors. Is it not a situation of our own making? Should our work be more accessible and relevant in people’s lives, rather than a vehicle for our self-realization? Are we to be couturiers to the rich and famous with our stylistic genius occasionally trickling down, prêt-a-porter, to the mass market?
The majority of the world’s population live in cities, and issues of affordability, urban quality and sustainability are central to people’s lives. Architects have an important and critical role to play and to be relevant need to engage at a level that will address these real issues. Creating beautiful objects is not enough.

The education of an architect is without question the responsibility of both the schools and the profession. However, who we are and what we are about starts at the schools.

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