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Architects need to protect the most valuable asset they have: their ideas

The ability of architects to invent puts them at an advantage in the Conceptual Age, says Christine Murray

Last week, I attended the opening of Haworth Tompkins’ ‘art factory’, the new Dyson Building for Royal College of Art. James Dyson, who part-funded the building, gave a speech on the importance of art and design in an age where anything can be replicated and manufactured elsewhere. A patented product can now be copied, he pointed out, in China or India. But art and design, he said, holds promise for our economy.

Dyson’s speech echoed something I’d recently read in Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, which describes how the ‘future belongs to designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers’ as we enter the Conceptual Age. Creativity leads to new ideas through the synthesis of disparate things. This is invention, and it is priceless. It can only be copied after it exists, so the value is in being the person who thinks it up.

It struck me that this describes architecture; a profession that creates solutions to problems that exist in a particular place, and can’t be easily copied or manufactured elsewhere.

The challenge is that a good idea for a building or a place is exactly what architects have a tendency to give away for free, particularly in competitions. Ironic, as every other part of a project can actually be completed by other consultants, but not without a starting point.

How can we rethink the fee structure and competition system so that architects protect the most valuable asset they have: the idea? I urge you to think about what your practice’s most valuable asset is - be it your expertise in masterplanning, school design, housing, or public space - then make sure you never give it away.

Zumthor honoured with Royal Gold Medal

When I visited Peter Zumthor’s office in 2011 (AJ 06.06.11), I was invited to lunch with some of his young staff before sitting down to interview the architect. The 10 or so who joined me all happened to be women in their twenties and thirties, intelligent, sociable and creative.

Over wine, quiche and salad, they spoke honestly about the amazing work being undertaken by the office, and how they were surprised to be appointed project architect so young: ‘No one else would trust us with the work we are doing here.’ They spoke appreciatively of Zumthor’s genius, generosity and charm, but also of temper tantrums, smashed models, and outbursts over perceived insubordination.

One employee suggested Zumthor liked working with young people because they were creative, but not threatening. But they also said Zumthor would ask their opinion and listen to their ideas, which made them feel part of the work.

This week Zumthor has been declared the next recipient of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. He is worthy of this honour for his architecture, if not his unorthodox approach to management. Zumthor does not regurgitate form or materiality, but combines raw elements to make something wholly original. This is his value to architecture - the new, yet immediately recognisable, idea; a chapel like all chapels, but also like no other.

Congratulations to Zumthor, but also to the office of young talent that supports him.

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