What’s Left For Architects?

Shark fin by John Isaac

That’s a good question, and one the answer for which is elusive. Architecture, as a profession, is changing. It is also being subjected to change. Architects and architecture firms have little, if any, control over this and fight to stay ahead of the change. This involves technology, liability, commoditization, and asymmetrical competition (among many, many other things). While the world has changed, architects have retreated behind flimsy ramparts with a “let’s just wait this whole mess out” mentality, a recurring theme on schneiderism. This evening I came across a post on , a Malaysian, studying in Australia, architecture student’s blog which I have been frequenting (great writing, great perspective), that was a full-on shot across the bow. It was the posting of a comment left by a person who did their work in understanding where the value stream lies in the built environment. Here’s the entire comment as it is worth the read:

“I’m not an architect/architecture student. I’m a cad monkey. I did not chose architecture but I chose building design because the course was only two years, vs 5-6 and a 5 digit HECS debt.

It wasn’t just that, though.

I called lots of architects and building designers and the continuous complaint I heard from both is “grad architects are useless, they don’t know anything about construction or costing.” Also, there was the fact that building designers (evil, soulless creatures that we are) get 85% of the design work out there - and the grad architects I spoke to were only making 35-40K a year. Looking at Job ads, I realized that a building designer with 5 years experience earns around the same as an architect with 5 yrs experience (85-100K)-and the building designer has no HECS debt.

From my contact with the building industry so far (very minimal) it seems that architects have gotten a bad rep for often being impractical with actual building and structural specifics.

Construction is at the heart of building design and architecture. Whichever is better, if you don’t know construction and are depending on others to provide it you’re wages will reflect this. It’s that sentence, “As per engineers specifications” - everytime you write that, what you’re saying is, “I’m not capable of working this out, I’m referring it to someone who can -” and that engineer will be better paid than you because his skills are more necessary. A long time ago architects did all this technical planning themselves. The only modern equivalent is Santiago Calatrava. He says, “As per MY specifications.”

The more divorced architects become from the origin of their profession the less necessary they will be to it, and they’ll be paid less.”

Now, this comment echoes the reality of the place that architects have created for themselves. The money issue is but one manifestation of this place. The real implications are that for a process that was once architect driven, managed and owned… architects now find themselves sometimes totally ancillary, and not necessarily useful.

4 Responses to “What’s Left For Architects?”

  1. Says:

    It Starts With a New Practice

    In your question “What is Left For Architects” I would reply nothing and everything. Passive architects will continue to have nothing because their world will be designed without them. On the other hand architects that have an audacity to intervene in this world will not have their voices muted by building culture. They will be the building culture.
    I would like to direct you to an excerpt from Chauncey Bell’s blog that outlines a framework for involvement that architects should consider. (http://chaunceybell.wordpress.com/2007/09/06/my-problem-with-design/)

    “I understand the role of the designer as bringing new practices to people. Designs themselves are components of practices. A pen without ink, paper, hands, language, and writing is a component and not very interesting. The designer’s unity is a new or improved practice: human beings in the midst of concernful activities, supported by networks of equipment and help, taking care of things that matter to them. At the end of any successful design project—no matter how modest or grand—we will be able to observe a community of human beings working together in ways that are new or changed, and those new ways of working will bring specific incremental value to them.

    A number of years ago I realized that I was no less susceptible to falling in love with my “designs” than others, and that falling in love with a component was a surefire way of wasting time. So I built a conceptual structure that would let me keep track of the unity of the shifted practice, and called the structure Five Domains for Bringing a New Practice.

    * Provocation: a designer seeking to bring new practices must provide big provocations. Changing practices is expensive. To begin to work in a different way costs money; people lose power and identity; and it takes a substantial human investment to bridge the chasm from old to new. Moreover, building a new practice takes more than one provocation. Each affected party to the changes needs provocations. Executives, investors, workers, and suppliers have different kinds of concerns, and need to be provoked in positive ways. Further, the right kinds of provocations are not stable; they change over the course of a design project. Provocations sufficient for a pilot are often insufficient for constructing a whole new way of working.

    * Diagnosis: a successful change in practices is built upon a good diagnosis. “Problem solving” is a sufficient distinction for changing suppliers or the brand of some device we use, moving our office, or adding a computer, but not if we are changing essential practices. Skillful design starts with a powerful interpretation about the current situation that provides an explanation of what gave rise to the current situation, helps us to select the right team, and guides the design of a broad set of actions needed as a community moves from one world of practices to another.

    * Offers: commitment fuels the process of bringing a new practice, and starts with offers. We offer to take a look at some situation, then offer to provide proposal, prototype, pilot, plan, and budget, and manage the change involved. The process of bringing a new practice moves in a sequence of offers. The exchanges of promises (I offer you x, in exchange for y) produces the force and authority in which changes are made.

    * Mobilization: we bring the new practice to the community, and when we leave them they are working in a new and more effective way. When we move our attention from constructing components to building the unity of a new practice, we shift our attention from bringing artifacts and discrete components to habilitating the community to working in a new way. Devices, training, and the like are equipment to help us with that job.

    * Accumulation: the test of a new practice is that it allows us to accumulate value at a faster rate than before. I use the word capital to refer to “stores” of different kinds of value on which the designer puts attention while bringing a new practice: financial (money), pragmatic (know-how), or symbolic (identity). If an investment to produce a new practice does not produce increases in one or more kinds of capital, then the investment was wasted.

    In this framework, failed implementations are design errors. If a new practice is not effective, unmanageable, or the like, those are design errors.

    We human beings are wired for concernful involvement with each other. We arrive in a world already “designed” for that. Every day, everywhere we look, we can see things broken, missing, and in the way. Those with the audacity to develop themselves as designers dare to intervene in this world. They invent and bring new practices, habits, artifacts, tools and systems that help reshape the way we coordinate in our worlds.”

  2. Jeff Coffey Says:

    “You don’t get the privilege of designing something unless you have the capability of building it with your own hands.” –Burt Rutan

    (referring to his employees at Scaled Composites, which designed and built Voyager, GlobalFlyer and Spaceship One as well as dozens of other break-through aircraft)

  3. John Schneider Says:

    Great quote from a great innovator, and quite contrary to the typical design mindset. This focus surely is a part of his continued success in an industry dominated by enormous global companies. You’ve inspired me to do a piece on Rutan.

  4. “Failure Leads To Understanding” - Burt Rutan - schneiderism Says:

    [...] be the difference between whether or not you are relevant next year. Anyway, a comment on my post What’s Left For Architects offered up a quote from Burt Rutan in reference to his employees at Scaled Composites, the company [...]

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