Is social status of Architects in shambles in 21st century?

Social status of architects has declined to a point of no return. More than a century ago, the manifesto of Deutscher Architekten, the German parallel to RIBA and AIA, expressed great disappointment at the loss of architects’ professional goodwill, acceptability and affordability. Their manifesto called upon architects to make all possible efforts, at all levels, to win back their professional due place in the ever-widening construction industry.

The world of design

According to Bruce Mau, there is still a significant gap between ‘the world of design’ and the ‘design of the world’ (Mau in Hyde, 2012). While sharing knowledge was a slow process in the past, the exponential rise of digital technologies and the internet has enabled advanced radical exchanges to occur rapidly between disciplines. One reason why people hire architects is that they believe that architects can translate their unestablished and unforeseen needs and make them a beautiful home while keeping their interests and investments secure from novice contractors and inferior workmanship. Hence, architects are entrusted to take on the ethical responsibility of doing the right thing by mediating and negotiating the best possible solution.

Arguably, architects are able to convince their peers via their theoretical writings (Banham, 1996), but what about their clients and other lay people who use their buildings? Do they commission architects to give them functional, practical and economical buildings? Do they pay for the concepts, so that the architects can write about them only to gain a competitive edge over other architects? Moreover, how good is a building if it has to be appreciated only after understanding conceptual and theoretical underpinnings or by reading what its author thinks about it? At least from the clients’ viewpoint?

Therefore, this article contends that it is high time for architects to respond to the call for radical change in their outlook and working practices, as expressed in an open letter (addressed to professional institute published in the RIBA publication ‘Practice Futures)’. The letter Implies that ‘at the decade where the capacity of citizens to engage, map, mobilise and co-produce has been revolutionised by Web 2.0, why were the architects still focussing largely on CAD?  The letter charges architects to analyse everything through the lens of social usefulness in the period of change and the liquidity of modern society. It asks them to reflect on whether they have designed places that ‘deliver the best possible social and economic outcomes or the most substantial rate of interest for short-term financial investments’. Or if they have ‘relinquished their professional duty to uphold the public good, just to become consultants to financial instruments’.

Architects situation in the UK

Looking at the current state of affairs in the UK, it is slowly becoming apparent that, Architect-Client Relationship plays a significant role in the successful completion of a project and yet remains largely neglected aspect during education and training of architects. Chris Ivory (2004) argues that an architect’s reputation is tied to their earlier works, which act as a living advertisement to ensure future commissions. Hence, for architects, ‘innovation becomes central to this process because a building which looks good, even if it is only because of an innovative roof or cladding system, will always speak better of the architect than a more mundane creation’. Moreover, since they work for a fee as a specialist consultant, they anyway run a relatively lower risk compared to other project stakeholders.

It is strange in a way that, while architects get awarded every year at various award functions, clients are hardly recognised for their contribution to the process. Very few exceptions, such as RIBA’s ‘Client of the Year Award’, to recognise the best client of the year, but sadly, most of the time these clients often represent trusts, housing associations and real estate developers – rarely are they an end user client. Moreover, apart from being excellent ‘pay-master’ clients, they are usually nominated by the architects and represent only a segment of corporate clients who retain their architects throughout a project. Perhaps it is easier for architects to deal with local authorities and corporate clients since they are most risk-averse and least keen to question an architect’s propositions. One question that needs to be asked, however, is whether there are any satisfied end users or non-corporate clients worthy of nomination for such awards or recognition?

Once an item is decided in a project, it affects the total project cost, upon which the architects’ and contractors’ profits depend, and even if clients come across a cheaper substitute, they are unable to get approval from the architect, since it will drive down their fee percentage, apart from other concerns. According to Amanda Baillieu, the complaints of managers, contractors, public sector officers and developers suggest that architects lose interest in a job soon after construction begins on site (Baillieu, 2015). For example, looking at the RIBA plan of work stages, many architects feel that at stage 5 (after technical design and before construction), their part of the job is 80% done. Architects think that after finishing the drawings, it is up to clients whether or not to accept what has been drawn, and, in case they want any changes made, they should be paid again.

The recent study by RIBA, Client & Architect: Developing The Essential Relationship, suggests that ‘clients certainly felt let down in a way by the architects’ and that ‘clients think architects who listen and understand properly are rare. That must change’. One participant in RIBA study, Gregor Mitchell, who voiced contractor-clients’ concerns, said that there was no point in hiring an architect if they were unable to ‘significantly improve profitability by reducing costs or squeezing more space out of a building’. Many surveys and research projects commissioned by RIBA suggest that architects are not only ‘losing their ground’ but also their professional status, which is becoming highly speculative as clients look desperately for alternatives. Baillieu questions the purpose of such studies and research projects and asks ‘what the point of all these hundreds of client interviews was, unless it’s to address the skewed procurement system and the reality of what’s really happening’. She alleges that such research projects are merely an attempt to reverse the old image of RIBA being anti-change and protectionist.

Burr and Jones (2010) conducted a study to examine the current position and explore the future possibilities and indications of the architect’s role. Using a series of Delphi rounds, they sought to evaluate and build consensus on ‘what it means to be an architect’ in present times. Their results report that the majority of panel members described an architect as ‘one who functions as the creator of the building’s design’. They also report that the influence and professional significance of an architect in the construction phase are nowhere near that of a general contractor. The majority of the panel stated that poor communication between an architect and general contractor would most likely cause conflict between them. The overall concern of the panel members was that ‘the role of the architect is not clear and is not heading in a positive direction’. According to Burr and Jones, there exists a ‘discrepancy between the actual and the perceived-and-desired level of collaboration and communication…If architects, general contractors, construction managers, engineers, and sub-consultants all agreed that there should be a higher level of collaboration, then why isn’t there?’.

Ideally, an Architect-Client Relationship should be a kind of consortium where one party requires service, and the other provides it. Accordingly, for the smooth functioning of this venture, it is essential that both parties invest equally to benefit mutually. Whereas, in reality, clients often feel that as soon as the architects receive advance money for a project, they tend to lose much of their initial motivation. Generally, earnest money or caution money is secured from contractors, to ensure their reliability and to cover the cost of any mistakes they might make. The question is, is it only the contractors who make mistakes, while the architects are always right? It may also be noted that a construction contract is generally signed between the builder and the client directly, thereby the contract limits the role of the architect in managing or supervising the contractor’s operations. All of this works to the architects’ advantage.

References and further reading

  1. Banham, R. (1996) A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham. University of California Press.

  2. Hyde, R. (2012) Future practice: Conversations from the edge of architecture. New York: Routledge.

  3. Baillieu, A. (2015) Most clients would dispense with architects if they could | Opinion | Building Design, Building Design online
  4. Linda Stevens, Bobbie Williams, B. (2014) Client and Architect, developing the essential Relationship, RIBA Journal