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Finn Williams, Common Office, on the profession - ' We’re more than mere elevation designers'

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There is a fact-turned-proverb that says only 5 per cent of buildings in the world have been designed by architects

Whether accurate or not, it stands as a reminder that architects – and the professional press – are often looking in the wrong direction. Architects are invited to work within a slim sector of the built environment with big budgets, but little real need. They also rarely go beyond their briefs to learn from or contribute to people’s experiences of the other 95 per cent.

Of course, in the UK the profession’s slice of influence is more substantial. According to the Royal Town Planning Institute, one third of new planning applications for housing come into contact with an architect. But without protection of function, or an effort to expand their agency, architects have allowed themselves to become marginalised as a luxury. For most of the built environment, architecture is unnecessary.

By defending the ideal of the architect as a creative visionary, the profession has retreated from ‘dirtier’ disciplines where the decisions get made: development consultancy, planning advice, costing, project management. Most of a building’s parameters are set before the architect receives the commission – where it is, what it is, who it is for, how big it is, how much it costs. Architects are left to suggest what it looks like from the outside.

Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s General Theory of the Building Envelope justifies concentrating design on the skin of a building because ‘the envelope has become the last realm of architectural power’. If anything, this theory is a pragmatic response to the type of work his practice is increasingly asked to do – putting facades on predetermined boxes. In the volume house building industry this is called ‘jacketing’; wrapping the same house type in different cladding to satisfy local planners and the market.

This retreat to superficies is a symptom of being sandwiched between the ever-more powerful forces of politics and economics, planners and developers, bureaucracy and budgets. At the same time, the technical, legislative and legal complexity of the building process has generated a cast of specialists who threaten to upstage the architect. So should the profession, as Zaera-Polo suggests, accept a diminished role and design in elevation only? Or should architects question their job description?

This is not a call for architects to re-conquer lost ground, or claim the right to design every aspect of the built environment. There are new opportunities to create conditions for good architecture by engaging with development economics and politics; designing without drawing lines.

With local authorities expected to outsource all or any of their planning services, could architects step in to work with councils on a collaborative rather than combative basis?

With a Localism Bill that looks likely to amplify the loudest voices, could architects help communities that are harder to hear generate their own neighbourhood plans?

Or with increasingly demanding standards of sustainability, could architects minimise ecological and economical costs by designing out the need for new buildings?

As generalists, architects are well placed to apply creative spatial thinking to other fields – cost management or management consultancy, development or diplomacy. The scope of the profession may have shrunk, but it has left room for architects to work as professional amateurs who build their own briefs.

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