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Keith Ashton, S&P, on the L’oréal factor - We must do more to prove our worth

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Seventeen years ago Manchester University Press published a book called Architecture: Art or Profession?

I was lucky enough to be given a free copy, which was particularly helpful, given that the early 1990s had been tough for newly qualified architects like me – debt-ridden but eager 20-somethings who felt slightly let down that seven long years of architectural education had perhaps not prepared us well for the difficult market conditions that lay ahead.

Re-reading the book now it’s clear that the architects’ ‘art or profession’ position can often be tracked to the shifts in economic cycles and the need for self-preservation. We are reminded that architects, as self-interested shapers of the built environment, have protected themselves and their roles: first, by following the earlier lead of engineers and institutionalising the profession in 1834; and later in post-war Britain by ensuring that they led or were at very least embedded within the planning system, usually holding top jobs within local government planning teams.

Total penetration and control of the built environment beckoned, but by the early 90s this had been almost totally eroded, triggered by the collapse of bread and butter public sector work and the growth of the contractor/developer market.

Over the period of the last Labour government we saw an exponential rise in legislation, regulation and by-laws – rules that usefully protected the public when there was no organised profession or formal architectural education, but now simply promote new disciplines and roles that the majority of architects have failed to capitalise on and run with. We are now surrounded by a multitude of disciplines needed to make things happen or sometimes otherwise.

The three shining white knights of The Lottery, free flowing credit availability and huge public spending over the last 13 years rescued the architect’s role, but moved it towards that of the artist, designing monuments and grand public buildings in many of our British towns and cities. The prolific rise of the starchitect has been welcomed by S&P, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with the very best, including Zaha Hadid on the 2012 Aquatic Centre.

However, the economic fortunes of the country are turning full circle again, so what next for architects? We’ve lost our power within the planning system, the public purse is empty, mortgages remain unaffordable, our engineering colleagues have been handed sustainability and other batons, and most importantly current lemming-like suicidal fee bids will hurt deeply when you are buried within a contractor’s long supply chain.

It is arguable that the architectural pendulum will now swing very quickly back from art to profession, perhaps so fast that it divides the role of architects in two. Even with a diminished workload, great artists will always be great artists, but the expectation will be for architects to deliver more: more value, more usefulness, more accountability.

Patronage aside, architects will need to do more to persuade their clients, and the rest of the built environment industry, that they are worthy of the positions they previously held, and can play a vital role in that industry at a time of extraordinary economic prudency. This may be a tough pitch given that, especially over the last decade, we have educated architects to mainly build monuments. Good design will always prevail; we just need to attach a value to that design.

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