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The RIBA report got it wrong – of course there is a future for architects

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The profession will survive if it focuses on client requirements

The problem is simply put: if architectural practices with between 25 and 150 staff are doomed to failure, as the recent RIBA report on the future of the profession suggests, how, precisely, does a successful, growing small practice manage to survive the interim stage before ascending to the 150-plus nirvana?

A cursory glance at the AJ100 list of the UK’s biggest firms over the past 15 years would show that practices have grown, shrunk, gone out of business, been taken over, merged and jumped into the list from nowhere. This is a dynamic situation in which all-or-nothing prognostications should be taken with a massive dose of salt.

I’m sure Ron German won’t mind me recalling his prediction in the 1990s, as a property developer, that architects would soon be out of business. It should have happened by now. He was following an honourable tradition started by sandwich-board men in Oxford Street announcing the imminent end of the world. Financier Mark Weinberg had said exactly the same thing about property developers two decades before German’s speech, predicting that financial institutions (such as his own) would make the independent property entrepreneur unnecessary.

How is it that architects and developers seem to struggle through despite predictions of their demise? No doubt it is partly Darwinian: you adapt to the circumstances in which you find yourself or you really do disappear. But that is to take the view that survival is all about the behaviour of the supplier, when the behaviour of the consumer is not only critical, but is itself dynamic.

This point is usually underestimated by surveys into the future conducted among those in the thick of it. Is it true, for instance, that clients in general wish to have all their professional services in relation to buildings supplied by one mega-organisation? In general, no. Clients are not wild about putting all their eggs in one basket; if they were, the multi-disciplinary practices would have wiped everyone else out years ago.

Do most clients want to do business with very large organisations? Again the answer must be no, though some do. Moreover, if an architectural practice with 125 staff is regarded as ‘not large’, there must be some problem with definitions. Just how many architects do you need to handle a really big project? If you have a team of 15, couldn’t you do almost anything (other than knocking out all the details on a really big project)?

From the client’s side, if your main interest is in single-point responsibility, then the mega-firm might look like a good bet. It is a short step to think that it would be even better if the contractor owned all the professionals. You could have regular meetings with just the mega-firm to resolve all issues.

This might look as though it works in theory – but does it work in practice? No. And the reason is: client attitudes to architects and what they provide. I can’t help noticing that when developers extend their homes, or have new ones built, these most hard-headed of people a) use architects and b) tend to use the sort of practices that the RIBA report says won’t be with us much longer. They must know something that the report has missed.

The question for the architectural profession and its institutions, including the schools of architecture, is how to ensure that architects design in the fullest sense of that word. That is to say synthesise the myriad elements in any programme and produce designs that are capable of translation into buildings, interiors, landscapes and so on, taking into account the contexts that will be crucial to the project’s success. These include physical and historical context, cost, construction, delivery, energy use and longevity.

Architects are more than capable of taking this on, provided they have the knowledge and appetite to focus on client requirements (including the public interest). Navel-gazing, of which we have seen plenty recently, will get us nowhere at all.

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