Ability must match ambition in the quest to do it better
As consultants analysing a client's requirement for a building, we have a well-defined role.
We react to a brief or situation and develop responses that usually emerge as a proposition for the adjustment or creation of a building; a proposition that we hope would, if ever built or published, be recognised as architecture.
Increasingly, we respond with a proposal that does not suggest building as solution; we suggest an adjustment to a client's life, its working methods, its aspirations or, in extremis, a radical lifestyle shift: the couple that think they want an extension would often be better off with a divorce.
Whether we suggest building or divorce, we are consultants with an ability and interest in defining the core problem and offering solutions. This is why, as designers of opportunities, we should be less inclined to focus on building and more on charging for our ability to visualise and represent, in clear intelligible notes, drawings and diagrams.
We are significantly better at it than the host of highly paid management consultants who often pre-date our involvement in the analysis of client need. You only have to think back to the pre-Millennium Lottery funding that was poured into the creation of theatres short of not only an audience but also acting companies; of the always-empty Museum of Pop; the troubled Great Glasshouse in Wales; the plethora of pointless visitor centres (has there ever before been such a useless typology of tea-towel sales? ); and, of course, the Dome.
I would like to argue that if architects had become involved earlier, we could have highlighted the pointlessness of some of these non-briefs for projects, and encouraged the applicants for the trough of cash to rethink.
Unfortunately, as built evidence suggests, this was rarely the case. I can understand why the architects took the brief (fee and opportunity) and built it out: a chance to make something new and different clouds the ability to think.
Anyway, the management-consultant fees had been wasted upstream along with the responsibility to question need.
Which brings me on to the difficulties of architectural education. There are three models for our training: one is that we are trained to think about problem-solving as an opportunity to build architecture of inspiration and idea; two, that we are trained to think we are building architecture of inspiration when we are not; and three, that we are trained to produce. Is it any wonder, therefore, that there is some doubt and disillusion among the recently, and indeed not so recently, qualified?
The key question we face is whether, in our professional career, we are serving client needs, our need to build beautifully, or the need to build at all. Few enter their professional training with the idea that they are servants of someone else's need, or indeed that they could - or should - become management consultants.
They enter because they are intrigued by the potential glory of making things beautifully, intelligently and elegantly.
All this helps to explain the fuss being made over Graham Morrison's considered reflection on, or snipe (depends on where you think you sit) at, the worst of the architectural icons. We like to think we can dazzle our peers with our brilliance - regardless of whether that is in the production of icons of surprising form, or the painful process of hushed humility that results in the much-hyped modest ordinary.
Icon or ordinary, we find it hard to say no to the opportunity to attempt to do it a little bit better than our peers. And that is right - if we lose the ambition to do things better, we have lost everything. It is just a question of whether ability matches ambition.