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Sadie Morgan warns architects not to ‘sleepwalk’ into irrelevance

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dRMM director Sadie Morgan tells AJ100 audience to seize ‘infrastructure initiative’ and get more involved in UK infrastructure schemes

Speaking to a packed AJ100 Breakfast Club at Claridge’s in Mayfair this morning (Friday), Morgan issued a plea for the profession to take a more ‘propositional’ approach and demonstrate their problem-solving skills.

‘I don’t really know what we’re doing as an industry’, the Stirling prize winner said. ‘I think we’re sleepwalking into a place where we’re not going to be relevant anymore unless we can affect our built environment.’

Morgan is not the first AJ100 speaker to warn architects their future is under threat. Last September, Mike Hussey, the chief executive of leading property developer Almacantar warned: ‘The design industry is in danger of being, not just marginalised, but wiped out.’

Among her various government advisory roles, Morgan chairs the independent design panel for the £42bn High Speed 2 railway line. She said one of its biggest successes had been to encourage the company to employ architects who would provide specimen designs to benchmark against and act as a model for contractors. 

The panel has also changed procurement documents to give more generous weighting to design, sending a ’strong message to the building industry’. 

The design panel is made up of 50 people from different disciplines, and acts as a ‘critical friend’, explained Morgan, who argued that a non-confrontational approach was more effective.

‘It’s no good just sitting there and saying you can do it better, because the shutters will just go down and no one will listen,’ she said. ‘It’s not that we roll over but we’re criticial in a supportive way.’

Morgan also spoke of the need for design leadership on national infrastructure projects.

‘Why shouldn’t we expect our bridges, roads, viaducts, flood defences to have the same level of design thinking? To be beautiful as well as functional?’ she asked the audience, adding: ‘We can do it. We have the skills, we have the capability, we have the brilliance and the imagination – we just do it everywhere else [outside the UK].’

She added that through the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which Morgan also sits on, there is the opportunity to widen the debate and ‘convince those who would not generally prioritise design thinking to do so’.

She also urged architects to enter into dialogue with pioneering individuals who ‘understand how the world is changing’ and the technological advances that will radically alter the built environment such as automated vehicles.

One of the ways this is happening is through the NIC’s Young Professionals Panel, which includes representatives from a range of professions, and was set up after Morgan pointed out she was the youngest member of the commission and probably ‘the only person who could use an iPad’.  

She added: ‘There is a whole range of young professional people all with a willingness and enthusiasm for thinking about how we might change our built environment for the best.’

The morning was hosted by AJ managing editor Will Hurst. It was sponsored by Bespoke Careers, Deltalight, Equitone, Graphisoft, Hoare Lea, Miele, Roca, Schlüter-Systems and Schueco.


Readers' comments (5)

  • All of this fear mongering about the future of architects seems to be wildly naive. Architects have not made themselves irrelevant, they are victims of an economic model that prioritizes the profits of large developers over design quality. That's all it is. What incentives do they have to hire great designers if they can get engineers to do it cheaply and quickly? Above all else, our modern society prioritizes cost efficiency and shareholder dividends. Good design is a 'nice-to-have' but not necessary bonus.

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  • There are examples of architect initiated infrastructure projects out there. Some are just not controversial enough to be publicised.

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  • Chris Roche

    Good Design is Good Business - period. Architects are best placed to deliver good design with both quantifiable and non-quantifiable benefits. The problem historically is that architects are educated to emphasise the intangible benefits of good design - taste and style say, which are subjective, and are often discouraged from engaging with and enhancing the quantifiable - efficiency; profitability; etc. This leaving the client's priorities to be promoted by others: project managers and cost management consultants. Good Design is Good Business - both for architects and their clients. If Architects continue to sit on their assets rather than sell them, they will be seen not only to be irrelevant but also replaceable.

    Chris Roche / 11.04 Architects

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  • Excellent idea to bring more architecture into these projects. But as a practice with a significant amount of infrastructure work in Australia we have not found the UK industry very welcoming to the idea, except on occasion as a lightweight gloss to the engineering. Hopefully this will change in the future!

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  • The integration of infrastructure & built environment in the UK is almost Victorian era level now, due to our history and post 60/70s planning, new vision is essential.

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