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Time for a global slant on ARB's role

Rory Coonan is design advisor to wsp Group, a former head of architecture at the Arts Council and creator of nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. He can be contacted at Rorycoonan@cfddev.freeserve.co.uk.

The Architects Registration Board is a significant body which, over time, should establish a reputation for fairness and competence. The parochial fuss will die down. But the sideways effects of recent world events will be harder to shrug off. The announcement by Bill Gates that he has stepped down as chief executive of Microsoft, the world's most powerful corporation, occupied the front page of the Financial Times. And rightly so. When Bill Gates sneezes, the world catches a cold. But the second part of his statement also caught the attention. From now on, said the richest man on the planet, he will be known as Microsoft's 'Chief Software Architect' or csa.

Gates has changed the meaning of the word. After last week, no-one can ever use 'architect' in the confident assumption that other uses (as in 'Norman Lamont, architect of low inflation ...') are merely metaphorical and secondary, a sort of back-handed compliment to pre-eminent designers of buildings.

Gates has mastered the vocabulary of cyberspace and designed the virtual edifices on which the transactions of most Western economies depend. What makes Gates' description of his new job different is that he no longer feels the need to nod in the direction of any metaphorical use of the word. It is not surprising that such a man should neatly define the future meaning of 'architect' without the need for historical props from the old economy. He is an 'architect' simply because he says so. And who will dare to disagree ?

The effect of all this is to define more acutely that which we already know, namely that we exist in a world containing architects of different sorts, some for the material world and some for the virtual. It is certain that globally there will soon be more of the latter than the former. The notion of 'regulation' in this polyvalent world of parallel architectures, where the art, science and technologies of design are increasingly convergent, will have to be re-defined. And where virtual and material design are co-terminus, the pretence of any party to exclusive ownership of title will surely come to seem irrelevant, a fantastical presumption, whatever any particular legislature may say in statute.

What will matter more, in this age of multi- valent 'architects', will be less the protection of title than the attainment and preservation of competences. This is a fit task for a regulatory authority seriously concerned with quality rather than with the dogged pursuit of a limiting and creatively crippling monopoly. To its credit, riba seems to be light years ahead of the arb in expressing a sense of what this future might hold. The excellent education report by Sir Colin Stansfield-Smith offers the precise terms of a debate that has yet to start in earnest. By mastering the language, Bill Gates has changed the terms of engagement for this debate.

As Humpty Dumpty put it in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass: 'When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

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