Future of Architects: Extinction or Irrelevance

08Jun17

by Barbara Bryson @ Design Intelligence

Eric Cesal was frustrated when he graduated from architecture school in the winter of 2008, the year the financial world and architecture world came apart.

In his book, Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice (2010), Eric observed that architects were among the hardest hit and as a new addition to the profession, he worried, “…the response from architects I knew was typically muted…older architects remembered prior recessions and opined that we will survive this one too.” Even more troubling, he observed, “These exchanges were for me a window into an unsettling aspect of architectural professional culture. We seem to wear these tough times almost as a badge of honor—they reveal how much we love our craft…but we don’t seem to discuss why things are so tough in the first place.”

On our best days, architects understand complex contexts and develop multiple solutions to difficult problems. Design thinking, the empathetic problem-solving methodology, grew, in part, out of our architectural problem-solving design methodologies. Education innovators are also taking lessons from architecture schools. Active learning, making spaces, and student engagement all have roots in the studio process. The rest of the world is learning from our processes, grabbing our best material, and moving on to success and relevance. Architects, on the other hand, are impossibly stagnant in process and perspective, incredibly vulnerable to irrelevance and even extinction. I believe we have been on this road for decades, and we need to make some profound changes if we as architects are to have an impact on the built environment in the future and if we wish to be relevant.

Relevance

Relevance is connected to five critical characteristics: 1) size or scope; 2) stability; 3) connectedness; 4) effectiveness; and 5) resiliency. I am concerned about irrelevance and extinction because our profession lacks:

  1. Size and Scope—Architects have limited impact. Not only have we left the suburbs, strip centers, and the worst parts of town to others to shape, but we let lawyers and insurers talk us into avoiding risk and retreating from responsibility. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the world is now built without architects and thanks to our reluctance to embrace and manage risk (see the AIA contracts), architects contract for a smaller percentage of project responsibilities than ever before. The current limited scope of architects is in large part a result of being taught “what to think” rather than “how to think” about the business of design and construction. As Indy Johar stated in Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, “Economics is a territory that’s normally relegated to the developer or clients; we don’t seem to worry about the money except how much the building costs.”

To be relevant, we must educate our students and train our interns to be as creative in business as they are in design. We must prepare young architects to imagine revenue flows other than simply asking owners for more fees and to invent better ways of adding value to the processes of planning, design, and construction. If we teach young professionals how to think about the business of design and construction, it will open the door for revenue streams from intellectual property and new services to expand the influence of the problem-solving architect.

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