Tough love for architects. Sarah Hobday-North finds much to provoke thought and action in Flora Samuel’s book Why Architects Matter.
If, like me, you reach for Why Architects Matter for a bit of a professional confidence boost, you’re in for a shock. What you do with that shock is the important part, and the purpose of these 250 pages of essential reading by University of Reading Professor of Architecture, Flora Samuel. From the first chapter, Samuel’s cutting critique of the problems, indulgences and failings of the architectural profession is a wake-up call to the challenges the architectural profession faces. But don’t put it down in dismay! Persevere. Try dipping into chapters that sound interesting to you. Or treat it like a coffee table book and open it at random and read a few paragraphs. Find a way into this book and you will be rewarded. Reading it should earn you CPD points, and will be 1000 times more rewarding for your practice as well as your soul than a sandwich platter at a lunchtime presentation on applied wall finishes.
Architects, Samuel contends, have marginalised themselves as designers of buildings, makers of aesthetics, and relinquished the “straightforward well paid management of properties to others.” Architects lack diversity in forms of practice and in the people practicing. It is unclear to the public what the architecture profession is actually meant to know and why that knowledge is useful, and at worst we are the butt of jokes. At our best Samuel believes that “architects are socio-spatial problem solvers, integrators of complex bodies of knowledge of space craft.” But we must work hard to shake the “three Fs of architecture – finish, photograph and f. off.”
This is a book of tough love written for architects of all stripes. Indeed, the idea that architects need to come in different stripes, that we broaden our definition of what an architect can be, is an important theme of the book. Samuel’s critique of the profession is a call to urgent and deliberate action. As an architect myself I found it simultaneously validating, exciting and excoriating. Written from the UK perspective, it was validating to read that our British colleagues encounter many of the same issues as Australian practitioners. I challenge any architect reader to not find themselves nodding along with descriptions of issues such as our image as a luxury profession, of the public perception architects are all highly paid and probably arrogant, of the incursion of third-party project managers into services clients used to pay us to provide, or the negative affect that risk culture can have on a project team with consequences for the effectiveness of procurement. Samuel addresses real and prescient issues with precision and grit.
It was exciting to be given a new perspective on the profession and have explicitly described, for example, the difference between social-, cultural- and knowledge-centric firms. It was exciting to read that a knowledge-centric firm might not actually produce many buildings in the traditional sense of architecture, but the case Samuel makes for their importance, skill and relevance is clear and convincing. By making the case for diverse modes of practice Samuel is validating the hidden research work that many practices do, but do not get credit for. It is also a challenge to those practices to disseminate their research and make it visible in the public sphere.
Having got her readers on side with validation and excitement, Samuel’s recurring message is excoriating because the gauntlet for change is squared firmly at architecture’s own institutions, representatives and practitioners. Me. You. Us. We are failing in the way we communicate with our present and future clients, and with the political establishment. “Most attempts to demonstrate the value of architects are flawed because they focus on the finished product… the architect’s value is what they bring to the process.” Samuel articulately beseeches us that if architecture is to be relevant and valued in society the profession must alter its understanding of what “architecture” is, what constitutes “research” and actively engage in the gathering and disseminating of high quality data. The proof of our value is in the pudding, but architects are bad at bringing it to the table.
Messages of hope are more frequent in the second half of the book. For example, the idea that a finished building is a piece of research was new to me. To get value out of this complex research architects must make the case (and believe it themselves) for post-occupancy evaluation. In this endeavour facilities managers can be our partners and allies, as we explore qualitative and quantitative efficiencies together. She highlights the skills that architects share with other designers, business people and professionals and ensures we understand that this does not diminish the value of what architects know, but gives us the opportunity to work with others to increase the usefulness of our profession specific knowledge in defining and solving socio-spatial problems. “It is helpful…to reframe the activities of architects in terms of the benefits they bring in language that non-architects can use.”
Samuel presents a thorough and highly researched book, which means it can be tough going at times. Tough love. There is a problem with the public perception of architects and a false belief within the profession that the value of what “we” do is self evident. It is not. To change this, architects must provide evidence of our value using existing qualitative and quantitative models. Once we do, we can increase the reach of our socio-spatial knowledge into public policy and daily life.
I want to think favourably of my own profession, and Samuel has helped me do that with her impassioned argument for the value of architects and architectural knowledge. Her validation, articulation and evidence of the problems facing the profession is empowering and will influence my own practice. But despite her own thorough research, in stating that it is architects, not the outside world, who need to change their approaches to be properly valued I fear that some of my colleagues will resist the message. The way forward is not to double down, but to open up and share.
Seven things you can do to make sure Architects Matter:
- Talk honestly about your work with other architects. Be frank about both successes and areas for improvement.
- Talk with your clients about “experience” and “process” before you talk about “buildings”.
- Create a template questionnaire and send it to your clients 6 months after they move in. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Learn. Tell others.
- But not just shiny words to accompany shiny photographs. Write about your practice methodology (what you ask clients, how you learn about them, and what you expect from them); write about how you bring value and give evidence of that value.
- Don’t be afraid to be a “commercial” architect. Just make sure you’re still solving socio-spatial problems. We can’t all be bloody artists.
- Forge genuine long-term working relationships with other consultants. Help each other. Pitch this as an advantage to your clients.
- If you don’t enjoy architecture anymore, take a break. Look up “eudiamonic wellbeing” in the dictionary. Rest assured that if you leave, you aren’t a “drop out” and by taking your skills elsewhere you are still championing the cause of spreading the value of architects.
- Bonus point – lobby your institute for CPD sessions about research-practice partnerships.