Clients need to know that they are in the hands of competent and inspirational practitioners, writes Emily Booth
The marginalisation of architects is denting the power of the profession. The issue has been decades in the making but is now coming to a head. So Claire Bennie’s hard-hitting analysis in this week’s AJ makes insightful reading. She’s a respected client with huge experience and a track record of commissioning stand-out architecture – a champion of great design.
It’s sobering, therefore, to hear about some of the frank conversations she has with contractors. ‘We’re not using your architect, Claire. End of story. The last time we used a “design-focused” architect, it was a disaster.’ Or: ‘Claire, I can save you £100k if you use our architect.’
It’s hard for the profession to hear comments like this. But it’s important that they are heard, loud and clear. How best to respond to the deeper mistrust and lack of respect they reveal?
There is no point longing for some supposed golden age before Design and Build and Prince Charles
A change of approach would be a good start. Architects have beaten themselves up and soul-searched for long enough. And there is no point longing for some supposed golden age before Design and Build, Prince Charles, the recession or whatever knocked the profession off its glorious perch. Better to change the here and now. Better to shift perspectives about what architects and architecture do among the groups that use them: clients, contractors, the public and government. Better to look outward rather than inward or backward: to educate, convince and push forward, rather than just hold the line to protect a diminished position. In short, the profession needs to be able to think like its customers, get inside their heads and understand their concerns – and develop proactive ways to meet and address these for the best outcome.
Of course, money will be among the pressing issues, but it isn’t everything. Clients and stakeholders need reassurance, communication, a route through complicated processes, the knowledge that they are in the hands of competent practitioners – and inspiration, too. They need to know why they are hiring an architect, and then have their needs exceeded.
The good news is that there is business and creative opportunity here. And architects are already doing much of the above, day-in, day-out. (As evidence of the excellent work regularly achieved – see the shortlist for the new AJ Architecture Awards). But they need to sell their skills more effectively. If architects can change the narrative around the profession, they can help unblock its growth.
Into this challenging environment, it’s time to welcome a new RIBA president and celebrate the achievements of an outgoing one. It’s not an easy role, and Jane Duncan has kickstarted change during her time in office: chief executive Alan Vallance was appointed during her tenure; there has been far more emphasis on member support and care; and the outstanding #EthelDay was a wonderful celebration of the achievements of women architects. Now, Ben Derbyshire takes the reins with a deep understanding of the housing issue and a drive to promote the global role for British architects. We wish him luck.