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Best practice: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it’

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How we transformed frustration and a desire to build into real, fee-paying work, by Chris Bryant

It has been a challenging three years to be an architect. Work is not plentiful, many architects lack job security and an increasing number of projects are based abroad where you’re unlikely even to visit the project, if indeed, it gets built at all.

On top of this, partly fuelled by very public attacks on the profession, there is a question of the value of the architect at all.

Our role continues to be reduced by the addition of ever more specialists, and there is a worrying notion that architects are a luxury, not a requirement. This has generated a palpable frustration, particularly among those who have recently graduated after enjoying years of creative freedom. This frustration can be heard clearly on any given evening in a Clerkenwell pub, but it has also manifested itself in a new wave of young practices with a great desire to ‘do’, and the skill and imagination to generate work.

Frustration and a desire to build were key catalysts for setting up our own practice, Alma-nac Collaborative Architecture. Like our contemporaries we had ambition and skills, but we had little work, nor the financial capacity to survive without fee-paying jobs. We brainstormed a number of ideas to generate work and kept coming back to this idea of ‘Free architecture’: a mobile office, where we would offer free consultations at a local market. But what was it? Was it a comment on value? Was it a piece of theatre or an installation? How would it work? Would we serve tea and have people sit down, or maybe take their pictures to record the event?

When we first started we were sent a postcard with a quote from the polymath Johann Goethe: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’

So we stopped pondering and just did it. And we were surprised: people were genuinely interested in architecture and architects and wanted to talk about it. They wanted to discuss the local architecture, the state of London’s skyline, the contrast between modern and traditional architecture and, of course, the recession.

It was through these discussions that work arrived. Our first few projects, including our first completed one, and many contacts came out of these conversations with complete strangers, and through them we have been able to gain bigger, more sustaining commissions. The purpose had always been to find work, but it also became an enjoyable day out that restored a sometimes battered belief that what we do makes a difference.

Other practices have found their own way to generate and procure work, including self-funded pop-up installations, guerrilla architecture, teaming up with larger practices, pitching speculative ideas to clients with dormant land, and many more. What links these practices is not method or style, but imagination and ambition: the willingness to ‘do’, take risks and embrace the possibility of failure, which is a critical part of learning.

The resulting installations or temporary builds engage the architect in an intimate way with the people who use our buildings and cityscapes. These seemingly minor projects and events directly inform us of the environment we are trying to influence.

We, as emerging practices, are trying to explore and discover our role as architects. It is a role, like many others, that is undergoing exciting changes that we should embrace. We believe our imagination, flexibility and willingness to ‘do’ will help us to succeed. By leaving our desks, we experience a sense of clarity about what we’re trying to do. Our frustration is gone, replaced by a new sense of freedom where possibilities are greater than ever expected.

Chris Bryant is a partner at Alma-nac Collaborative Architecture and teaches architecture at the Birmingham Institute for Art and Design

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