‘One new role of the architect is being a leader in sustainability, a champion for low energy, non-polluting innovation’
Has the career path for young(ish) architects changed much for the past generation or two? This question is the focus of this issue of the Bulletin. Some choices perhaps remain unchanged: the choice of work in a small or large practice established by others, perhaps with the aim of eventually gaining a senior or even ownership position, or joining a government agency with its job stability and predetermined progression, or to forge a new practice with others or on your own.
This last pathway is all too familiar to me: as an architect who started my own practice 30 years ago (OMG), I have been asked to look at what has and hasn’t changed for young practitioners today, in a bigger, faster and more information-rich world.
What hasn’t changed is the need for three basic attributes: talent, hard work and good luck, all critically important. The ‘hard work’ requires not just a level of detail care but a constant awareness of the big picture, from the politics of the project to its overall architectural intent. On a more basic level, the daily tasks of ordinary business management remain fundamental: control of cash flow, minimising capital expenditure and avoiding disputes – especially in court.
What has changed is the mechanics of production and communication in architecture – the world of ‘e’ and ‘i’, of CAD and Instagram, of the instant exchange of messages and the sweeping availability of information about almost anything. No longer are small practices faced with dustily stacked and often out-of-date catalogues, slow responses to requests for information, or ‘cheque’s in the mail’. And no longer do we need tedious manual bookkeeping or the endless scratching out of ink lines on tracing paper – this is a big win!
This shift of focus away from the often repetitive and routine tasks of production leads to the question of: where does the focus of the new model of practice lie? Our core skill as architects is our creativity, with the added requirement of being able to successfully translate creative ideas into built form, and here nothing much has changed. Being the creator of ‘content’ for the world of information can only strengthen our position, but whether the short attention span of this market favours deeply considered and durable work remains to be seen.
Whilst the powerful modelling ability of our computers enables the delivery of forms and processes way beyond the fantasies of the last century, there is still the need to imagine these forms as fitting responses to genuine needs, an aspect vital for a small practice with its focus on small and often domestic projects. Once imagined, these forms need to be made realisable, and the craft of building hasn’t changed much in even 50 years, with only small incursions of 3D printers and CNC robots into the world of saws and hammers. The foundation of the construction industry remains on craft, on people doing things with their hands, and this is only slowly changing.
One new role of the architect is being a leader in sustainability, a champion for low energy, non-polluting innovation. We are unquestionably leaders here, the very public face of a movement that is as essential as it is innovative.
It is not only the people on site whom we rely on to deliver our ideas, it is all those who conceive of the project, finance it and approve it, and so an architect, now and then, must be a combination of politician, PR guru, salesperson and often marriage guidance counsellor – able to talk as well as listen, sometimes masking creativity in pragmatism. Today’s shifting digital platform hasn’t altered that.
So architecture is still (indefinably) architecture, and the aims of architects remain fairly constant. We all want to make good buildings that fulfil genuine needs and we all want to make enough money to live the kind of life we design for others.
Director of Tonkin Zulaikha Greer