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Architects must commit to change

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If people tabled a vote of no confidence in the profession, would we survive it? asks James Berry

It was 241 years ago that 34 artists and architects were sufficiently concerned about the public understanding and appreciation of art that they used their influence to persuade the king to give his money and patronage to form the Royal Academy. They passionately believed the training of artists needed to improve, that a system of expert judgement had to be established, and that understanding and appreciation of the arts had to be made accessible to as many people as possible.

I think we face a similar turning point for architecture. A real and urgent change is necessary in the way that we train, organise and regulate those responsible for the design of the built environment. Why? Because of the combined challenges presented by climate change, the global meltdown of our financial institutions, the rapid urbanisation of our planet, and the transparently poor quality of the vast majority of our built environment.

We have all heard the inconvenient truth about the potentially disastrous impact of human activity on our delicate ecosystem. But it is worth reminding ourselves of just how much of this is down to the raw material of architecture. The construction and operation of buildings is responsible for over 40 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions.

The G8 are now preparing to tell the world that the human-induced temperature rise must be held below 2°. Such a rise could leave between 15 and 40 per cent of the world’s species facing extinction. Every day in North America people use five billion gallons of drinking-quality water just to flush their toilets, while some 1.6 million urban dwellers – many, if not most of them, children – die each year due to causes associated with a lack of clean water and sanitation.

But do we really see a dramatic change in the concerns of architecture to address this ecological imperative? How much of the millions of square feet of office space built in London gets close to being carbon-neutral?

We now have a significant and growing raft of legislation, organisations and standards, but do we really see an urgent, tangible change in design thinking? Meanwhile we rearrange different styles of deckchairs on the parade ground at Chelsea Barracks.

Isn’t it time architects focused on the problems of the real world?

We have now passed the half-way mark in urban living – more than 50 per cent of the world’s population now lives in cities. Over the past few decades we have seen the growth of the world’s mega-cities: Tokyo, with 28 million inhabitants; Mumbai, São Paulo and Mexico City each with 18 million inhabitants. UN figures show that 60 million people are added to the planet’s cities and suburbs each year. Of the 3 billion people who live in cities today, about 1 billion are in slums without clean water, adequate toilet facilities or durable housing. We have to ask ourselves if architecture can or should make a contribution to providing a safe and humane habitat on this scale. Is architecture focusing on the problems of the real world? At a time when the production line continues to deliver more and more beautifully designed, more reliable, more recyclable MP3 players, phones, cars, computers and clothes at lower cost, why are most buildings still poorly designed - and why do they cost more in real terms than they did a decade ago?

We have to ask ourselves: are we trained, organised and integrated with the other disciplines and members of the construction industry in a way that will allow us to do this? The issues before us are clearly significant and urgent. All will require sustained economic and political action.

Architects will remain central as the technology of building becomes more complex, specialists proliferate, and the need for broadly trained individuals who can see the bigger picture and take the design beyond the prosaic becomes self-evident. This is where the architect can demonstrate the pivotal importance of creativity, combined with collaborative leadership, that allows the focus to remain on sustainable solutions that solve the problems of the real world.

You may have seen the recent Cabinet Office research that shows architecture remains the most socially exclusive profession in the UK, ahead of law, medicine and accountancy. We need the first stage of architectural education to be open to many, many more people. And it should be studied and valued in the same way as languages, literature or history – as a general and rigorous humanities discipline, but not necessarily leading to a vocation. At the other end of the process, we need to improve dramatically the skill base and capability of those who do go on to become architects. The second stage of architectural education needs to be highly selective, undertaken by the best minds from across the social spectrum.

And architects have to get back into the mainstream of the design and construction industry. As Chris Luebkeman of Arup has suggested: ‘It is easy to imagine that the role of the architect in society will continue to slide from its once lofty position. As a profession it will most likely become similar to that of the blacksmith today; people know about it, a few might even know an individual engaged in practising it, but they are utterly irrelevant to mainstream society.’

Architecture is still the most socially exclusive profession in the country

Architects have to be willing to take a full role in the process of designing and delivering better buildings. To do this they need to lead and manage the design process, take real ownership for cost, as they do in Germany and in the USA, and be organised to deliver information that supports an efficient procurement and construction process.

How do we expect clients to understand the value of a service that cannot give them confidence around how much they will have to pay? Quantity surveyors have stepped in to provide the service, adding another layer and interface, fragmenting the industry and adding cost to the process. It is also why, understandably, contractors have been successful with design and build forms of contract, which, as we all know, allow the final product to become compromised.

For architects to take a more central role, I suggest we need different structures of practice. We need stronger, more democratic, medium-sized and larger practices that can pool knowledge and afford proper research and development in the same way as many of the larger engineering firms. And these larger organisations should be structured in a more egalitarian way, which recognises the contribution of all and helps retain staff, avoiding the disillusion which forces talented people to leave and form their own small firms, which are, naturally, less capable of withstanding recession. 

And as this value proposition improves, so the profession will become better rewarded. The same recent Cabinet Office research shows that architects have the lowest starting salary of any of the professions – not much more than a secretary. This is not the way to attract the brightest and best to solve some of the most significant problems of our time.

So, if we are able to make this paradigm shift from the historical image of the architect that haunts our education system and models of practice, to become a group capable of addressing the real and present issues, and if we can design beautiful, sustainable environments for all in a world of mass urbanisation, then the confidence of society will surely return. Then, perhaps, one day we will all be wondering why there was ever such a debate about icons or a prince inviting architects to join him on the path to ‘the middle of the maze whose magic centre is tradition’.

A vote of no confidence? There should be absolute confidence. We should take heart from those who lit a beacon at the RA 241 years ago and commit ourselves to change.

Abridged text of the address given on 7 July to the AJ/Bovis Lend Lease Architecture Awards Dinner at the RoyalAcademy by James Berry, main board director and managing principal of the London office of HOK

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