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Why clients today think less of architects than they used to

Paul Finch

Confidence and leadership are essential to creating better futures, says Paul Finch

A survey of practices, undertaken as part of last week’s Vision event in London, asked them what their main concerns were for the future. The five main issues, in no particular order, were: Marginalisation; Sustainability; Technology; Communication; and Bureaucracy (for which read planning and regulation).

A few of the bullet-point comments struck me as interesting, because they give a clue to the key over-arching problem of marginalisation. Here they are:

  • Architects are increasingly undervalued, underpaid and obliged to shoulder a disproportionate amount of risk.
  • The problem is exacerbated by those who work for low or non-existent fees. We all have an obligation to get clients to appreciate and acknowledge the value of good design.
  • Architects have been slow to grasp the potential of innovations such as BIM and AI and too willing to cling on to outdated ways of building.
  • We need to embrace modern methods of construction to bring about improvements in efficiency, profitability and quality and to bring our profession up-to-date.
  • Box-ticking and bureaucratic hurdles are the enemy of innovation, creativity and joy.

I don’t suppose too many architects would argue with much of this, but you have to wonder about cause and effect. If, for example, the profession clings to outdated ways of building, is it surprising that others jump in to take advantage of change? Similarly, a failure to ‘bring the profession up to date’ looks like a self-inflicted wound, rather than the consequence of the malign behaviour of some other group.

While innovation, creativity and joy are (or should be) part and parcel of architectural life, they have to be combined with the mundane business of winning planning permission and conforming with building regulations. There is then the key requirement – as BIG’s chief executive officer told the American Institute of Architects’ convention in New York last week – to ‘win work and get paid’.

Marginalisation is certainly an issue, raised at last year’s World Architecture Festival in Berlin in an opening keynote address by Rafael Viñoly, because the proportion of buildings which are the result of, and characterised by, architectural design is diminishing, as is fee income. The obligations and demands on the profession show no sign of diminishing, and indeed it is a requirement for professionals to have indemnity insurance which is not required of contractors. (If the iron laws of competition are to be the context for all business, you wonder why designers should be hamstrung by obligations which disadvantage them.)

If the profession clings to outdated ways of building, is it surprising that others jump in to take advantage of change? 

A more constructive way of thinking about this is to address the question of why clients apparently think less of architects than they a did a generation or two ago, which is the implication of marginalisation. In a discussion about the ‘five worries’ above, Rab Bennetts (whose practice celebrates 30 successful years this week) suggested that what seemed to be missing was leadership – of practices themselves, and spreading out to the profession as a whole. As he spoke, it occurred to me that ‘innovation, creativity and joy’ don’t sound as though they have much to do with team management.

So what can be done? There is no reason to be paralysed by worry. After all, in its daily activities the profession takes on tough challenges constantly, and generally responds well to them. It is collective activity which seems more difficult, not least because design is so personal a matter, whereas devising policies for a whole profession is different in kind as well as degree.

In the end, communication will be critical. It is by no means commonly understood what it is that architects do – that extraordinary combination of art, science, and intellectual speculation, set in a context of inevitable rules and regulations – or even what architecture represents.

That is why the broad cultural programmes of public bodies like the RIBA are critical. They are reminders of what can and might happen given the right circumstances, and how high aspirations can generate good buildings in which live, work and play. If only the opposite were not all too true.


Readers' comments (3)

  • It is always in the tension between competition and cooperation where architects struggle. There is a dire need for some collective effort on this issue..but it is like herding cats.

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  • Phil Parker

    Excellent facsimile of what I also see happening in architecture in the U.K. I agree with all Paul writes. I believe the RIBA have a very important role to play, they have sufficient funds but are fundamentally failing to deliver year in year out. Members should take over the institute, redirect it to supporting the role of architect and the importance of good design. The RIBA programmes, initiatives, consultations and events continually miss the target. Time for change. Or an alternative institute of professional architects.

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  • Well said Paul! I'm more than happy to lose the 'Royal' bit of the RIBA to achieve this if necessary. The BMA and ICE don't have it and still appear to be listened to.

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