Who really represents the profession to the public?
If we are talking sheer numbers, then architect Gabrielle Omar, fired from The Apprentice last week, has held the most sway over the last 10 weeks, having represented the profession to over six million viewers.
That’s two million more than last year’s most popular episode of Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs, and a cut above the 279,800-strong audience of the 2011 Stirling Prize. Add up the numbers, and the potential impact of an architect on prime-time television makes the RIBA’s influence look paltry.
In her interview with the AJ on page 18, Omar admits the profile of her practice has skyrocketed along with her celebrity, and she has picked up a number of projects off the back of The Apprentice. ‘I’ve got some new clients who admitted they’d never thought of using an architect until they’d seen the show.’
But she also encountered a lot of ignorance about the profession, suggesting architects, perhaps even more than English sparkling wine producers (episode nine), need a general awareness and branding campaign.
‘Nobody really knows what we do,’ said Omar. ‘At university, we are taught about how to design buildings but we are not taught how to brand and market ourselves. And nobody teaches you how to get a job.’
‘We need to become cool again. We need a design overhaul of the whole profession, and I want to approach the RIBA about how to do that.’
There is something cringe-worthy about architects striving to become cool, but Omar nevertheless has a point. The status and profile of British architects at home in the UK has been slipping since its pre-recession peak, even while the status and profile of British architecture internationally has continued to grow.
That may be fine for larger firms, but start-up practices need work closer to home. And it’s the bread-and-butter of the profession – small projects from house extensions to loft conversions – that should benefit the most from Omar’s appearance on The Apprentice.
Even if she was fired, Omar’s staying power showed that architects have guts, business nous, marketing and branding knowledge, and project management skills – good PR for all architects to build on.
There is a tendency to sneer at celebrities, especially those who gain fame through the seemingly indiscriminate lens of reality TV shows, but Omar’s message is a solid, perennial one.
‘We need to be seen as essential to the process of construction,’ said Oman. ‘People are bypassing us completely. The perception that we are not good value for money is ridiculous. We need to stamp our ground.’
Her celebrity has provided a unique window of opportunity to get the message out to the broader public – an audience of potential clients whose small projects are essential to the profession.
AJ Women in Architecture: Taking care of business. Walters & Cohen, AJ Woman Architect of the Year and architect Gabrielle Omar of The Apprentice will be sharing insight and practical advice on being a successful architect, marketing and running your own practice. Sponsored by Roca. 12 June at the NLA, 5.30-8pm. Free to attend, rsvp: firstname.lastname@example.org
An architect on prime-time TV could bring the profession more work