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Keeping an open approach to foster the building of knowledge and ideas

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My friend Jeff Tidmarsh dropped into the office the other day for a chat. Such impromptu sessions are important: the opportunity to share experiences, and ideas, with another architect is precious.

Cedric Price has always encouraged 'visitors'.

When I worked there I met a steady stream of politicians, journalists, academics, historians, critics and, of course, practising engineers and architects - all with much to share.

Sharing and exchanging ideas, as well as exposing and testing our differences, is an essential part of professional life, and this is why I instinctively warmed to Peter Blake's book entitled, No Place Like Utopia. Its subtitle, Modern architecture and the company we kept , is however, more revealing of this American architect's rich career that has embraced architectural theory, practice and journalism across some five decades.

In this post-Thatcherite era, architectural practice has become intensely competitive.

Ethics and purpose in every aspect of our work, from our role as employer to the service we give to our community, is therefore increasingly compromised by the demands of commerce. The need to meet, share and reflect is accordingly stronger than ever.

That is why we so welcome the steady stream of students who come to our office for tutorials with Ariel Dunkel, who now combines his work with us with teaching at the AA. But in this context Jeff Tidmarsh brings a sharp new experience - as my partner Adam Whiteley and I learned over a mid-afternoon bottle of wine. For Tidmarsh has traded private practice for a period in construction, having joined Sir Robert McAlpine on one of its major projects in London's Royal Docks.

So Tidmarsh, with a CV that includes periods in a number of leading practices before setting up his own office, now offers a valuable insight into the state of our profession, as perceived by contractors. And it's not all good. Responsible for ensuring that McAlpine meets its design and build obligations, his is tough territory that gives him experience of which both our practitioners and educationalists should take note.

Tidmarsh points to a crisis within the architectural profession, as perceived by builders, which is that we suffer a chronic shortage of middle management in our offices. He says that the ratio of 'grey-hairs' to bright young graduates is considered to be 'hopeless'. There simply are not enough middle-ranking architects within professional practice with adequate grounding and experience in building. The crisis is among the 35 to 40 year olds.

I suppose this is a consequence of three things - firstly, the recession of the late 80s and early 90s which denied a large proportion of that generation the opportunity to gain appropriate work experience. Secondly, the ever increasing shift, certainly on larger jobs, to design and build procurement routes which have done so much to deny our profession what was traditionally a major part of its work load - that is production information, and contract administration. And thirdly, the continued shift of interest away from construction and technology which has, in recent decades, been evident in many schools.

However, Tidmarsh also brings good news.

He claims that architects are the best equipped group, through their project-based training, to service the builder's information needs, but he insists that we need to regain their trust. To do so, we must train our graduates to do their job properly and we must recognise the contractor's needs with respect to information - the demands for detailed specification, accurate dimensions, and properly co-ordinated information. And above all, the need for information to the agreed programme.

His concerns as a design and build contractor's co-ordination manager are technical performance, programme, cost and risk control. In this context, Tidmarsh says, we need to sharpen up as a profession, define our territory and deliver effectively.

That may be an unpalatable message for many in our colleges, but it is one that they must heed. We have no God-given right to be involved in building, but we have a major role to play when we perform reliably and usefully.

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