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Tobias Davidson rejects Philip Johnson's example and returns to sole practice

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Why Tobias Davidson of Tobias Davidson Architects would rather co-operate than compete with colleagues

‘I am a whore (and am paid very well to design high-rise buildings)’. More than 30 years on, the unrepentant cynicism of Philip Johnson’s notorious quip remains as breathtaking as ever. However, those architects who find Johnson’s particular brand of commercial opportunism distasteful should remember that we are all commercial architects now.  Even social housing, schools and hospitals are procured through the private sector and, with the end of the professional regulation of fees, we are all chasing the bottom line. According to the logic of contemporary architectural practice, Johnson’s career should be our benchmark for success.

But if, like me, you are reactionary enough to consider architecture to be a vocation, not a service industry, and the likes of Johnson our bêtes noires rather than role models, getting a job in a reputable practice, putting your head down and hoping for the best may no longer be a credible option. The practice of architecture requires time for research and reflection if it is to address the most pressing social needs of our time – the shaping of an equitable and sustainable polity in the face of population expansion and climate change.

As an associate in a large practice, I found I had little time or appetite to engage proactively with these issues. The long hours, often unpaid and unappreciated, the corner-cutting at the expense of technical quality and sound professional habits, the tendency for competition rather than co-operation between colleagues, all mitigated against the development of a wider collective mission.

It is for this reason that I recently rebooted my sole practice. While, for the time being, I will no doubt have to ‘win the work, win the work, win the work’ (Johnson again), I hope to rediscover architecture’s vocational spirit and – perhaps counter-intuitively – to find the time to make a more significant contribution to the ‘Good Society’ than I was able within a successful commercial practice.

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