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Speak up at the back! Tell the world what architecture is about

Emily Booth
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The profession needs to shake off its ‘quiet’ tag to effectively communicate why architecture matters, writes Emily Booth

‘Why are we as a profession so quiet about a process that will change our view of the world?’ asks David Chipperfield in his Brexit memo to the RIBA. It is an impassioned argument from one of the most successful architects of our time. ‘Can we imagine previous generations of architects being so quiet about an issue that will have such as important role in defining our future and what type of society we want?’ he writes.

Whatever side of the Brexit debate you’re on, and whatever your opinion of what the RIBA is doing about it, this ‘quiet’ tag used in relation to architects is one that continues to dog the profession.

It also comes across in Lisa Raynes’ recent comment piece bemoaning the fact that domestic clients often don’t realise that the technicians they are hiring aren’t architects. ‘I believe architects need to make clearer to the public the differences between the roles within our industry,’ she says.

Is there something within architects and architecture that resists the conventional approach?

Just why is the profession so quiet? It is a frustrating label. Talk to many individual architects and you will find vibrant, socially committed, intelligent and ambitious people who are hugely passionate about the role and potential of architecture to improve the way we live. So is the criticism something about the way architecture organises itself as a whole? Is there something about the profession’s broad historical roots that constrains it in the current context?

Other professions have protected functions; architects have protected title. Other professions are unionised; architecture is not. Unions organise labour and can threaten to withhold it to underline the power of their arguments.

But does architecture really want to be like other professions? Is there something within architects and architecture that resists the conventional approach? There is a certain perceived creative freedom that comes from not playing the game like the lawyers and the accountants and the doctors and the surveyors. (The irony, of course, is that this often comes at the expense of cold, hard cash.) Architects don’t lobby. Rather like scientists, they are often perceived as neutral experts, whose power to influence change has been on the wane over the past couple of decades.

Approaches and ways of working that used to help architecture have been eroded. But now, the ability to draw diverse groups and processes together (at which architects are very strong) has never been more important. Now, a lot is up for grabs. Architects should never underestimate what they do, but they must communicate what they do more effectively.

The public has hundreds of messages coming at them every day. Architecture should pick the most important one and share, encourage and educate about it. The profession doesn’t have to scream and shout, but it does have to be insistent. That means having conversations with the public; and making sure it can have a (quiet) word in the corridors of power. What about starting with: why architecture matters.

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