Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

It's really a debate about status

  • Comment
The current concern about professionalism in architecture is actually just protectionism rearing its ugly head once again

Lord Rogers' name is not Roy and there are no cowboys called Norman, Terry or Nicholas. But the baddies never, unfortunately, get star billing.

There is architecture and then there is what architects euphemistically call 'bread and butter'. For the big-name practices that are regularly invited to participate in interesting projects, even cash-flow problems do not necessarily induce them to take on demeaning work. As with bankable Hollywood stars, status brings with it an ability to turn work down - but it also attracts higher quality offers in the first place.

Architects working for themselves, or salaried architects carrying out private commissions late into the night (often to supplement poor pay scales), initiate a large proportion of building work in this country. These people are not usually prone to the niceties of fame, nor even the commercial advances of companies using computer-aided design, since it is cheaper, quicker and easier to work at the drawing board.

CAD technology has not yet been developed satisfactorily to deal with this market layer. Unless small, fast, user-friendly CAD packages are developed that are compatible with the user's given knowledge base, private work (the 'guvvy job') will continue to be a hand-drawn process.

The current debate about 'trophy' architects is a perverse take on this reality. Any client, especially those that operate with both eyes on the bottom line, will choose the architect best suited for the job while ensuring that they obtain maximum advantage from them.

Architects might feel aggrieved, but is there really anyone out there who is unaware of the harsh commercial realities of life? After all, finding out that you have not been novated in a design-and-build situation has been many an architect's gripe for years.

To call 'foul' sounds like a call for the protectionism of the privileged.

Trophy architects should realize that the phrase is a compliment. Unfortunately they are reacting like those Hollywood stars who refuse to sign autographs in case their signatures get sold off.

As it happens, it is the bread-andbutter architects that get screwed every day of their working lives who would most love the chance of simply submitting a planning application on a major commission, getting the glory and not having to follow up the costly practical management of the scheme on site.

However, while the midnight oil burns in garrets throughout the country, the great and the good are talking about the need for more architectural 'delight' - aesthetic quality - as a systematic and quantitative objective.

In the guise of a worthy attempt to elevate the standard of architectural design in the country, this might be seen as an excuse to reject schemes that do not come up to the standards set by a variety of unelected government quangos.

It seems like a straightforward and common-sense objective to stop architects designing badly, or at least to ensure that they do not churn out any old rubbish, but we must not pretend that most architects do - most make an effort, at least, as much as the multinational commercial enterprises.

There are certain projects for which few architects have the luxury of designing 'delight'-fully. Fasttrack projects for night club managers in the provinces spring to mind, but kitchen extensions for first-time buyers, conservatories for suburbanites and granny flats for grannies are the staple of many oneman bands.

Although their architect might try to focus attention on design integrity, form and detail, homeowners and club proprietors are not usually impressed with such minutiae, for budgetary, functional and resale reasons. And for about £1,500 all-in, the architect would be committing commercial suicide to force the issue.

This layer of the profession is the essential foundation holding up the rest of the architectural superstructure. It fulfils a demand and satisfies the basic desires of a large percentage of the population.

It is not very gratifying work and margins are tight, but still architects are willing to provide a valuable service - especially in terms of hand-holding, guidance, advice and project management.

Many are portrayed as cowboys because they try to evade the tax structure (many do not earn enough to have the luxury of falling into the VAT trap), design the basics and 'forget' the smallprint of the Codes of Practice - especially the rigours of unpaid paperwork.

To assume that this gives the profession 'a bad name' is turning the debate upside down. These people are a necessary layer; just as society needs the unglamorous service sector, so architecture needs the basics carried out by dedicated individuals whose aspirations are normally set higher than they are able to go.

The current concern about architects' professionalism is really about protectionism and preservation of status. Maybe it is the tone of this increasingly incestuous debate that actually brings the architect into disrepute in the eyes of the public.

David Zinar is an architect

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs