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What does it mean to be an architect today (and tomorrow)?

Opposing views about what education is for go to the core of what it means to be an architect, says Rory Olcayto

If, many moons ago, you were taught how to compose an elevation during your five years at architecture school you probably:

1) wince every time you see a barcode facade (moronically cut-and-pasted with CAD tools);

2) yawn at every lazy brick-clad building that seems pleased with itself just because its brick (especially when you can sense the original intention was to use an aluminium cladding system);

3) hold back tears when you see a collage of materials (usually render, something else and cedar cladding) that is so badly arranged you know its been derived from CABE planning advice that encouraged a mix of materials on elevations (to make it ‘contextual’).

Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Wince. Yawn away. Don’t hold back the tears. Because this apparent inability to capture what was once considered a fundamental architectural skill (a skill, you might argue, that sets the practice of architecture apart from the other building arts) riled our critic-at-large, Ellis Woodman, too.

In his brilliant essay ‘Should architecture schools focus on a singular approach?’ in which he analyses the different approaches UK schools take in shaping the outlook of prospective architects, he notes that ‘one in 10 students at best had designed an elevation’ when he toured an institution that he mercifully refused to name.

But then is this really something we should worry about? No, says Neil Spiller, the University of Greenwich’s Hawksmoor chair of architecture and landscape, who, while not directly saying ‘Don’t worry about facade design’, pretty much makes the point by highlighting all the new areas that architects should be trained in if they’re going to stay relevant in the coming decades.

Really, why should Classical and Modernist ideas about proportion, balance and symmetry matter when, as Spiller says, ‘our cones of vision have multiplied a thousand times in the last half-century’?

These opposing views, however, raise an even bigger question: what does it mean to be an architect today (and tomorrow)? If we can work that out, what we should be teaching at our schools will surely follow.

Getting cross with Crossrail

What does it mean to be an architect today? In our story on Crossrail’s failure to live up to our country’s great (ahem) track record of railway architecture, Richard Rogers raises this very question. ‘Architects,’ he says, ‘without doubt are slowly losing control of buildings because they are used as consultants or sketch artists rather than as building architects.’

It’s a problem you, too, must be aware of, and our schools and how they prepare the next generation of professionals are a big part of the answer. There’s no point in denying the rather obvious link that correlates the increasingly esoteric concerns of unit masters in a host of British schools with the continued sidelining of architects within the design and delivery of what, in the old days, was commonly known as architecture.

Unless of course, you want your profession to go the way of poetry. Or sheet music, even.

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