We must show the construction industry that architects can deliver projects as well as design them – otherwise our profession will continue to be eroded, writes Rab Bennetts
There is a troubling irony in the debate about delivery architects in the AJ, as it coincides with The Architectural Review’s current issue on the importance of craft and authenticity in architecture. While one title celebrates the expression of a building’s anatomy and construction, its sister publication acknowledges that many good architects are being stripped of detailed design and execution against their will.
The rise of the delivery architect could hardly be more threatening to those of us who see conceptual design and execution as a continuous process and the position of the architect as pivotal to its direction. At a time when a more fragmented profession is the last thing the industry needs, why is this happening and what can be done?
I was recently told by a senior manager at one of the UK’s largest contractors that he had ’never’ met an architect who could both design and deliver. Perhaps he was just shopping around for a cheaper fee, but among contractors and clients alike his view is a depressing refrain that can’t be ignored. Various government-inspired reports over 25 years, from Latham to Egan and Morrell, have identified similar issues but with little impact on a profession that is perceived as too remote from the needs of the industry and its clients.
Prompted by the consistency of this feedback, a few months ago I described the stereotypical architect as viewed by the industry, at a dinner discussion about the future of the RIBA. With echoes of a Hellman cartoon, the profile I volunteered was of someone who exceeds budgets, doesn’t issue information on time, designs for their peers, doesn’t understand commercial realities and so on. My caricature went down like a lead balloon of course, but my point was that, unless the issue of service delivery is addressed, the architect’s position will continue to be eroded, possibly at an even faster pace than the last 30 years.
Joe Morris of Duggan Morris recently joined a long list of architects who have proposed some sort of mandatory link between planning permissions and the originating architects, but went further to suggest that production specialists who deliver the buildings need to be vetted for their suitability. However, while the reference was meant for the usurpers, it could be aimed equally at the original designers; it cuts both ways. The solution, surely, lies not in artificially protecting the conceptual architect but in recognising that the process of delivery is an essential part of design.
The ‘accelerating search for authenticity’ championed by the AR encapsulates not only the intellectual basis for architectural form and the avoidance of superficiality, but also the mechanism – the motivation, if you like – for responsible delivery. In-depth knowledge of construction and engagement with industry are as essential for authenticity as they are for the profession’s reputation, with management of the design process as the means to achieve the end. Meeting deadlines and budgets, not to mention fighting off those who would dumb down the design, is a craft in itself.
Mastering this craft is far more difficult than submitting to the role of the stylist of course, requiring experience, discipline and nous, but if the rewards are seen in the substance of the architecture they will also be evident in the improving health of the architect’s standing in ‘the art of making’.