In the final instalment of his 12-part series on the history of architects, Jonathan Foyle looks at the rapidly changing professional status of the architect as the 20th century got under way.
The dawn of the 20th century brought with it much debate about how architects could express the new age. Yet their inf luence on the built environment was limited, as the mechanised production of building materials, speculative suburban development and the emergent medium of advertising encouraged a pandemic of cheap, stylistically confused houses that appealed to Everyman. The effects of two world wars greatly reduced standards of public building projects. So how did the architectural profession respond?
The Victorians had risen to the challenges of urban expansion and created large offices of drafting and surveying staff, resembling modern practices. But Pugin and Ruskin's dream of the architect as controller of a morally 'correct' environment in which materials and form were 'truthfully' expressed in the medieval spirit of asymmetrical planning and arcuate masonry persisted through to the 1890s, and even successful commercial architects saw themselves as artistic supervisors of craftsmen rather than a rank of professionals.
However, the tide of modernity was against this defiant nostalgia and, by 1900, building standards were being founded, with early legislation responding to urban overcrowding.
The national scope of building standards was recognised by 1875, when countrywide laws were applied to at least give the impression of comprehensive control over urban building, even if it took a decade or more for architects to truly follow it. By 1890 the Public Health Amendment Act extended the standards set for urban houses to rural areas, and thus national regulation was achieved. Standardisation was encouraged by the production and transportation of materials - cheap housing from around 1900 can be characterised more by the date of its construction rather than by any materials or traditions of its genius loci, an aesthetic perhaps ironically encouraged by Arts and Crafts architects such as Voysey, who loved showcasing combinations of materials brought far from their origins to places like Chorleywood and Chelsea. Any pebbledash and fake half-timbering capped by plain red tiles in your area? No? You must live somewhere near Cirencester.
This aesthetic was integral to the greatest age of speculative development: the creation of the suburbs. New standards of construction included the separation of plots for ventilation, satisfying the desire for spacious, wide-fronted, low suburban villas. Properly spaced and serviced terraces were easy to build, and crowded enclosed courtyards with pumps soon became a thing of the past as trams and cars rolled into view (well, except in Leeds, where back-to-backs were built until 1937).
In cities, high land-values released by the demolition of tenements were maximised by building taller structures and new transport infrastructure. London saw three new underground lines in the Edwardian era, electricity enabling commuters to travel from the suburbs without suffering from the pollution of sulphur dioxide.
Steel frames were raised to hold the vast floors of department stores, as well as for increasingly large factories. The changes in the cities of Edwardian Britain were so immense that architects could no longer feign to represent an old world order.
Architects soon increased their numbers. There were 3,000 in 1851 when, according to Mickelthwaite, 'any man worth a brass plate and a door to put it on may call himself an architect'. Then, 8 per cent were members of the RIBA. By 1901 there were 10,000 architects, and 15 per cent of these were RIBAfiaffiliated. The institute found itself in a paradoxical situation. In 1889 a bylaw was passed that allowed the RIBA to ally itself with other architectural societies 'in the United Kingdom and in the Empire overseas.' Prima facie, the amalgamation of regional societies sounded a noble pursuit, but the RIBA ran the risk of becoming an umbrella organisation for bodies with very different standards of practice and recruitment, thus potentially achieving the opposite of establishing national standards of competence. Another paradox was the potential for a lowering of standards as the RIBA - the arbiter of those standards - attempted to become more accessible.
Britain's regional diversity complicated the question of the architect's role. Apprenticeships could teach the responsibilities of a particular practice, but it became clear that architectural education was key: if curricula were established then training could be made comprehensive. In 1892 King's College, London, offered a full-time three-year course under Sir Bannister Fletcher, whose much-revised classic, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, became the standard text on the evolution of world buildings, replete with measurements and scale line-drawings. Liverpool followed suit with a three-year course, and the RIBA soon recognised its students by exempting them from its entrance-level exams.
The impetus for universityfiled training came from an international drive. The International Congress of Architects (held between 1900 and 1911 in Paris, London, Vienna and Rome) initiated a systematic campaign to educate architects: 'Steps [should be taken] to protect and secure respect for the title of architect by reserving it for the future for architects provided with a certificate of capability or by forbidding its use by others, and further, should place such a certificate within the reach of all by the spreading of special architectural education and training.'
In 1920 Liverpool pioneered the five-year course that remains standard today: then, as now, that half-decade of determination removed the need for RIBA examinations until Part 3. The drive towards education as qualification saw a steady rise in the number of architects taking up RIBA affiliation: by 1921 almost 50 per cent of architects were members.
The conf lict of the RIBA's popularity with its exclusivity as a governing institute was negotiated by the creation of licentiates: architects with five years' experience as a principal architect, or 10 years in the field of architecture. Licentiates could hold no post on the council, so their inuence was limited. The upper echelons guarded their territory: from 1913, anyone aiming for associate status had to take a set of formal qualifications, so those with established careers prior to the new university courses were effectively barred. However, a clause introduced after 1909 enabled promotion to fellowship status by vote of council.
The RIBA was by no means the country's only architectural society. It was not until after the disruptions of the First World War that architects were finally able to put in place a registration act that both enabled a client to check the qualifications and educational background of the architect they were intending to employ, and offered the opportunity to appeal at a disciplinary committee in cases of malpractice.
In 1931 the Architects Act was passed and put into practice on 1 January, 1932. Its object was 'to protect the public from persons who are unqualified to exercise the profession, and to cofiordinate the numerous associations and societies of architects which have been established'.
The Architects' Registration Council of the United Kingdom (ARCUK), had the task of compiling the imaginativelytitled 'Register of Registered Architects'. But registration remained voluntary and there was no law against simply declaring oneself an architect. The prestige of those registered was, therefore, no surety against public disappointment. The RIBA was mindful of this fundamental shortfall and, allegedly, hijacked the ARCUK board so that it became known as 'the gramophone' - dedicated not to the improvement of architects but to the 'glorification and predominance of the Royal Institute of British Architects'. The council planned amendments which eventually passed through parliament in 1938, a year before war put the brakes on architectural projects nationwide, and it is this act which finally restricted the title of 'architect' to those who had registered.
So, the plea for the standards of competence that define an architect was finally met. George Grey Wornum's 66 Portland Place brilliantly represents the modern creation of the architectural profession by combining cultural influences into a non-partisan abstraction, offering physical and metaphorical elevation by way of the dramatic staircase that leads to spaces for forums and discussion and the flexibility to provide for exhibitions.
As the profession of architect has in its true sense arrived in the final instalment of this 12-part series on the history of architecture, it is sobering that this protected status has been established for only 68 years - or 1/30th of the time-span between Imperial Rome and today. Whether this protection is necessary, or even helpful, is another debate entirely. If you undergo five years of architectural education but do not complete the RIBA Part 3 exams, you cannot be an architect. This guarantee of professionalism carries far more importance than just enabling clients to sue designers for incompetence. And other professional titles are remarkably more flexible: if you become a consultant surgeon you pass through 'doctor' and revert to 'mister', perhaps with an edge of gravitas. Or, take a PhD in engineering and you can call yourself a doctor.
Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter