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We should heed Amanda Levete’s call to take back more control

Paul Finch
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When you resist responsibility for things, it diminishes your income prospects and puts you under someone else’s thumb, says Paul Finch

Amanda Levete made a clarion call for a change in attitude at the annual Women in Architecture awards lunch last week. Actually not in respect of gender equality, but in respect of the profession’s willingness to take on risk.

On the face of it, that is what architects already do. That is why they are required to have professional indemnity insurance (unlike any contractor, however ‘professional’ they may be). But taking a historical view of the profession, it must be said that avoiding risk, and shuffling off responsibilities, has become something of a trademark.

In the late 19th century, the RIBA expelled the ‘measurers’, who went off and formed their own institute – of quantity surveyors. Admittedly this had more to do with aesthetic dislike than risk aversion, but one has to say that the abandonment of cost responsibility as an integral part of the architectural profession was a long-term disaster.

Where does this all end? The architect as concept designer, winning planning permission then vanishing from the scene?

Similarly, the reluctance to engage fully with the emerging profession of planning resulted in another damaging long-term consequence: the removal of authority from architects in respect of masterplanning, regeneration and urbanism in favour of new professionals, some without formal training in design.

Even routine activities like house surveys are now not generally considered to be the province of the architect, though in living memory it was by no means uncommon for this sort of bread and butter work to be a routine part of the income of smaller or sole practitioners.

The message is that when you cease to have responsibility for things, whatever it does for your risk profile, it diminishes your income prospects and puts you under someone else’s thumb. The desire on the part of some architects to let other people do detailed design work inevitably means that more and more manufacturers assume that architects not only do not want to get involved in, say, façade design, but would not be capable of it anyway.

Where does this all end? The architect as concept designer, doing enough to win planning permission then vanishing from the scene? Well, not quite, but that eventuality doesn’t sound completely incredible.

Levete’s call for architects to take back more control, and thus risk, is against recent trends. But it would be no bad thing, as recent trends in the wider construction industry are showing us. One is the way that risk was managed by Carillion in recent years. And, come to that, the way that accountants and auditors (don’t mention bankers) appear to have abandoned any notion of professional responsibility as they suck fees out of what are supposedly going concerns, when in fact the only place they are going is out of business. The myth that financial experts are brilliant and architects don’t understand money needs to be exposed.

More important is the likely impact of technology, from software programmes to robotic construction, which will transform the way we design and build over the next 25 years. The consequence could be a boost to the way we assess architectural practices, with a premium on idea-generators and creative judgement. The basic stuff will be done by machine. Will ideas be generated by machine too? Who can say, but the interaction between creatives, clients, and the multiple parties involved in any significant building projects suggest otherwise.

But there is another factor at work in relation to risk and responsibility just now: the Grenfell Tower disaster. If there was ever an example of risk transfer being taken to grotesque degrees, this was it. Let’s hope that the whole ghastly panoply of public procurement, regulatory obscurity and, most shamefully, the erosion of professional values, amid a welter of intermediation, will be well and truly nailed.

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