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Don’t take the rap for things you have no control over

Paul Finch
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Assumptions about what architects can be held liable for are changing almost daily, says Paul Finch

Many years ago, I took an editorial team to lunch at the old Royal Fine Art Commission, at its Lutyens headquarters in St James’s Square. The splendidly patrician Lord St John of Fawsley, chair of the commission, was our host, along with the commission’s secretary, Sherban Cantacuzino (a former Architectural Review editor whose family tree was grander than the Queen’s).

The lunchtime conversation turned to the differences and similarities between the work of the commission and the architectural media. After all, we had much in common, in the sense that we were both interested in promoting high standards of architecture and improving the communication of its importance to the public at large, as well as within the profession.

In my little speech of thanks, I recalled that killer description of the press as having ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’, coined by Rudyard Kipling but made famous in a speech by his cousin, Stanley Baldwin, in which he attacked the proprietors of the Express and the Mail: Beaverbrook and Rothermere.

The Royal Fine Art Commission, I suggested to Fawsley, was in the reverse situation: it had responsibility without power. He did not defer from this observation, probably because it was absolutely true. While the commission had the ‘power’ to ask to see drawings of submitted planning applications, it could neither approve nor reject design proposals, however brilliant or dreadful it felt them to be.

What it had, of course, was influence – which it exercised pretty wisely in the years when I observed it at work. Its successor body, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, was neither given, nor sought, powers to approve or veto designs. And quite right, too; that is properly a matter for the elected, guided by professional advice.

However, the distinction between power and responsibility when it comes to the role of architects is a matter of great importance, since ambiguity about where the two overlap and where they are separated is increasingly emerging as a legal, practical and moral concern. Ambiguity has increased because of a series of connected but disparate changes in the relationship between client, architect, contractor, the world of regulation and the insurance industry.

Assumptions about what architects can be held liable for are having to change almost daily, depending on contract forms, design and build management structures, assumptions in regulations and ‘guidance’ about who is doing what. It takes disasters and tragedies to shine a light on all this. In the meantime, the message to the profession is that under no circumstances should any practice take on responsibility (ie liability) for anything for which it is not being paid, and/or which is not spelled out in whatever contract forms are being used.

Under no circumstances should any practice take on responsibility for anything for which it is not being paid

The problem for architects is that everyone knows they have indemnity insurance. That exists to cover professional mistakes. It is not there as scenery for a make-believe world in which designers should take the rap for decisions over which they have no proper control.

Working without reward means someone else pays

It is disturbing to hear about practices asking employees to sign away their rights, under the EU Working Time Directive, to work for no more than an average of 48 hours a week.

A culture of long hours and unpaid overtime is a hopeless recipe for a profession reinventing itself in the 21st century – and stems from the equally hopeless habit of doing work for nothing (leaving aside pro bono work for charities). Until practices say no to unscrupulous demands for ideas, models, presentations and, despicably, copyright on ideas which have not been paid for, the result will be pressure on salaries and conditions.

In recent years, the flood of incomer architects from EU countries whose economies have been wrecked by the fixed-currency Euro and the concomitant use of mass unemployment as an economic regulator, has held down salaries in the usual market economy way. It is not the architects’ fault, any more than is the unemployment in their home countries.

Hear all about it

A young architect called Bruce Buckland has started a podcast series, which so far has featured the critic and teacher Tim Brittain-Catlin, and your humble correspondent, talking about current concerns. If you’re interested, you can tune in via iTunesSpotify or Podbean

Happy listening – although for the moment, concerns rather outweigh the joys in architectural life.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • In terms of working without reward, we could start by boycotting architectural competitions, as they are exploitative. As I haven’t seen any barristers’ competitions for the best skeleton argument, I assume that we are the only profession that values our expertise so lightly that we give it away for free.

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