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Larry Malcic: ‘Fears the profession is becoming marginalised are not new’

Larry malcic hok
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HOK chief Larry Malcic, who has recently announced his retirement, explains why a dramatically changing profession need not fear its extinction 

Architects’ current anxiety about whether the profession is becoming marginalised is not new.

At my first client meeting in London 30 years ago, the client kept asking the advice of the quantity surveyor and deferring to his opinion. When the meeting ended, the QS explained to me: ‘The client sees me as the person who saves his money, and you as the chap who wastes it.’

This was a common view at the time. Architects were eyed with suspicion or even scorn—necessary dilettantes in need of strict control.

Clients, critics and planners were pessimistic, blaming architects for banal, uninspired post-war buildings and the mid-century Brutalism that followed. I was often told that architects did not listen and were unaccountable. The negative perception that architects could not organise projects or manage costs encouraged other construction professionals to expand their roles in the building process. But it also meant clients welcomed a more service-orientated, American approach to building design.

 The client sees the QS as the person who saves his money, and you as the chap who wastes it

Three decades later the important role architects have in shaping cities and the public realm is better understood and respected.

Architects are celebrated for their ability to give identity and prominence to cities and communities; building design is a popular topic. Architecture is as much written and talked about as fashion, often using similar vocabulary. This elevation of architects in the popular consciousness has undoubtedly been amplified by social media.

Everyone now has the ability to comment on the environment and the urban realm. Buildings and the environments they create are photogenic and everyone with a mobile phone can share photos, videos and comments about what they see around them. This new visual democracy has made city skylines universally recognisable while allowing building occupiers and city inhabitants to provide real feedback on what they see and experience. And happily for architects and designers, the commentary is often positive and nuanced.

Psychologists argue that all people, regardless of culture, seek security, identity and stimulation. Architects have grown better at recognising and fulfilling these needs, especially stimulation.

While buildings have always held the power to inspire, surprise and delight the senses, for a long time the pendulum swung more toward a sterile functionalism. With the technical aid of computers, architecture has once again embarked on a journey of imagination and visual expressionism that is generally welcomed by the public.

For a long time the pendulum swung more toward a sterile functionalism

However, this newfound exuberance and innovation in both architecture and engineering does not mean that the profession is immune to threats.

Building information modelling, parametrics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality—the computer-based tools that expand the architect’s ability to conceptualise and visualise ideas—are dramatically changing the nature of our practice.

Small, nimble and individualistic practices now compete with large, more established organisations. Large practices experiment with new methods of project design and delivery as the architectural profession seems to gravitate to these two ends of the spectrum. General contractors, engineering giants, project-management firms and specialist advisers are employing technology to devise new ways to cherry-pick services that once belonged to the architect, creating more competition.

Yet the architect’s currency has always been ideas. Building provides shelter but architecture gives physical form and visual meaning to the activities of life.

The tools of technology and fluctuations of business are minor compared with the undiminished need for humane buildings and habitable, sustainable cities conceived by personal passion, optimism, knowledge and imagination. The architect’s job always remains unfinished.

Larry Malcic is a former design principal at HOK’s London Studio

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