Architectural Blatherations

Design Rules: Architects Justify Themselves

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The Good Oil

In the eternal competition between the occupation of architecture and its rivals in the construction industry for a cut of the cake, we always find it interesting to examine the arguments that the combatants use to justify extending their own jurisdictions, or reducing those of others.

How architects justify themselves

For almost all the occupation's history, these arguments have been directed towards architecture's clients; the people who want buildings built. The underlying message has always been the same: we can do a better job, and we'll show you. Over the past century architects have been obliged to direct their attentions elsewhere.

As countries have proceeded to regulate architects and what they do, the opinions of clients have come to mean less. Nowadays, architects must put their arguments to the state and, indirectly, to public opinion; not directly to clients. Rather than demonstrating their superior skills in the marketplace, and negotiating with those who will buy those skills, they have come to rely on persuading the state to pass laws in their favour, so as to force the potential buyers of their labour to employ them.

The market for building designers

The result of increasing state intervention has been to create two markets for those involved in the design of buildings. One is that of registered architects, those people who are officially certified by the state as having some sort of competence to carry out some sort of design work. To avoid confusion, I'll call these people by the full title of 'registered architects'. A second market consists of people who design buildings, but who are not registered by the state. I'll refer to these people as 'building designers'.

One important point: these designers may have exactly the same qualifications as the registered individuals. The only distinction we are making is between those who have taken the examinations required for registration, and those who have not. So in our terminology the young architecture student who has just graduated is a building designer, not a (registered) architect.

The size of these two groups varies considerably between countries. In Scandinavia, there are no registered architects, and the market consist entirely of building designers. In the United Kingdom and our own country of Australia, both groups exist, and both can carry out any sort of building design work they please: there are no (or very few) laws stating that registered architects must be used rather than the unregistered designers. In these countries, the market of designers is quite large: in Australia, for example, the number of building designers (about 6,000) is comparable to that of architects (about 8,600).

Architects take on their lessers

In the United States of America, by comparison, the market of designers is quite small. Very rigid laws exist that forbid anyone except registered architects from carrying on on any sort of building design work. However, all states exempt certain sorts of building, typically single-dwellings. It is in this market that building designers operate.

Because they have a near-monopoly, the only real argument that American architects can use to fend off attacks from encroaching occupations is one based on health and safety. As you can see from their battle with the interior designers, they base their case entirely on the notion that the public is endangered if non-registered architects get their hands on the pens or mice.

Why Daniel Libeskind embarrases American architects

Of course, there are some things American architects don't like to bring to the public's attention. Such as the fact that Daniel Libeskind, winner of the World Trade Center competition, only became a bona fide architect after he won the competition. Before that, he was but a humble building designer, an occupation despised by American architects. You know, those building designers can do some great work!

Australian architects against the building designers

Australian (and British) architects do not enjoy the protective umbrella of the state that American architects hide underneath. They have always had to compete, to some degree or other, with their unregistered colleagues. They cannot use the health and safety argument, because these matters are handled by building certifiers in Australia. This is a wholly separate occupation from architecture.

Instead, Aussie architects take the line that they are better designers than their unregistered colleagues. In a recent document, Achieving Better Design (hereafter ABD), commissioned by the Premier of our home state, New South Wales, they argue that we will have a better world if only registered architects are allowed to design multiple occupancy dwellings (that's apartment buildings, to you and us). The government seems to have bought ABD's arguments, and moves are in the works to legislate accordingly.

Why architects should not be granted a monopoly

You may find it odd that we are not at all convinced that architects should be granted this monopoly. Here's why.

The argument from professionalism

One argument is that architects are professionals, building designers are not:

What chance is there for having better designed buildings if you don't have the appropriately qualified people designing them? After all we don't allow butchers to operate on people, plumbers to fill teeth, how can we allow non-professionals to create something as important as the built environment?; (Peter Spira, Meriton Apartments, quoted in ABD, p 9.)

First, let us say, we find it both funny and staggeringly disingenuous that someone from Meriton is calling for better apartment buildings. Meriton is notorious for designing gargantuan estates of great ugliness that have as much empathy with the surrounding environment as a German skinhead at a bar mitzvah.

Anyway: this seems to us a silly thing to say. We don't allow architects to operate on people either, but so what? We regard 'professional' as a simple scare word, trotted out when people can't think of any other way of distinguishing themselves or their skills from those they consider to be of the lower orders. As far as we're concerned, a self-declared 'professional' is just a person with an inflated opinion of his or her own job. Even if you accept the concept of 'professional', why are building designers regarded as 'non-professionals'? What makes them any less the professional than the architect?

The argument from better education

To the public and the politicians, architects harp on the superiority of their education and training:

Within the industry the skill base of those designing residential flat developments varies from registered architects to those with architectural degrees, architectural and drafting technicians (some with TAFE qualifications [post-secondary]), builders, building graduates and project managers. The majority of these categories reflects no significant design training, and in many cases no design training at all. (ABD, p 9)

Amongst themselves, architects are vicious and vociferous critics of their own education system (we talk about some of their more egregious educational misconceptions here). Year after year you will find endless complaints from architects about what a bad job the schools are doing: graduates can't draw, don't know anything about building, etc. As in other occupations, most of the stuff that makes you useful for the job is actually learnt on the job: the very place that building designers learn it!

If the architects want to keep saying in public how grand their education is, they should stop their private whining and incessant carping criticism of the schools.

And, as a sidenote, architecture students don't think they get a great educational deal: they consistently rate their education as extremely poor compared to graduates from other disciplines.

The argument from design quality

It is acknowledged that some registered architects are better than others, and that not all buildings designed by registered architects are necessarily of the highest quality. However, all registered architects have at least 5 years of design training or the equivalent competency and, generally speaking, the body of work produced by registered architects is of a much higher standard than the body of work produced by those without this training and qualification. And certainly the best and most innovative buildings are designed by registered architects, as evidenced by the heritage register of buildings in all states. (ABD, p 9)

You don't need to be a building designer to produce an ugly building. Registered architects are quite capable of doing that all by themselves. As evidence, we refer you to an interesting article, in our local newspaper of record, the Sydney Morning Herald, by Richard Ackland. Mr Ackland is a commentator on legal affairs, not on architecture. His point is that quite a lot of Sydney's ugliness derives from bad decisions of the Land and Environment court, the body that builders and developers appeal to when their plans have been knocked back by the local authorities.

He mentioned several examples from the inner-city Sydney suburbs of Pyrmont and Ultimo. The residential sections of these old working-class areas consisted of many small terraces. Over the past twenty years they have been replaced by huge apartment blocks (some by Meriton!), often against the will of the Sydney City Council. In his article, Mr Ackland recorded in detail the role that the court has played in permitting unsympathetic development. He also notes the key role played by architects in defending their employer's monstrous developments (you can check out one case here).

Architects as altruistic defenders of all that is great and good in the built environment? Forget it: as with so many things, he who pays the bucks writes the tune.

An example of architectural design quality...Not!

We would also like to cite the building in which Dr Garry used to work as a prime example of incompetent environmental design. This structure, the Citigroup building at 2 Park St, Sydney is a prestigious skyscraper in the heart of the CBD {downtown}: a very three-piece suit sort of place. Rents are premium. No building designers laboured here, only highly paid and highly qualified architects from Crone Associates.

These are the people who are the supposed masters of the architectural universe, with powers and abilities far beyond the humble building designer.

Yet their expensive taxpayer-funded educations have failed to inform them that the sun sets in the west, and that when it does so on a blisteringly hot Sydney summer day, it fills their glass-walled skyscrapers with heat and glare. Why is it that architects have so much difficulty with this concept?

To remedy Crone Associates' architectural blunder, Dr Garry and his colleagues resorted to ripping up their cardboard moving boxes and tacking them up on the oh-so-beautiful and oh-so-bloody-stupid acres of glass.

To be sure, within a few weeks internal blinds had been installed. Thereafter, at 2pm each day the workers all pulled these down to protect them from the radiant heat and glare that the architectural geniuses at Crone Associates had decided was their rightful due. Of course, this did nothing to relieve the immense load imposed on the air-conditioning system.

Memo to Crone Associates: sunshading is very simple to do. Why don't you try it some time?

Better design?

Our own opinion is that registered architects only have a limited role in producing quality design, with the exception of signature buildings whose whole point is to advertise their client's aesthetic sense. If you really want better design, money and a sympathetic client are the key.