Dr Garry Looks at Architects

The Name of the Architect

top rule

The Good Oil

This is an extended version of the original piece published in ArchVoices, in response to a call for architects to lobby for the word architect to be restricted to only those sanctioned by the state. We also have a whack at the Pritzker laureates.

On Being Precious

We don't think it pays for those in the occupation to be too precious about the word and title architect. The profession is a past master at hoisting petards; and this – perhaps – is the oldest, most enduring and saddest example of the intellectual befuddlement that is the permanent condition of the profession's thinking about its place in society.

Three reality checks for all those registered (licensed) architects incensed about faux architects.

First reality check: Mr Daniel Libeskind

First reality check concerns registered (licensed) architects versus lesser beings, usually known as building designers. The architect's unions—sorry, professional associations—of the major Anglophone nations (the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) make much ado about ensuring that their publics are protected against the depredations of people pretending to be architects. They weep, they wail, they gnash their teeth.

Their proxies, the regulation and licensing boards, have no hesitation in prosecuting building designers who claim the august title without appropriate sanction. We always get a frisson from the various publications of the Californian state chapter of the AIA, and its police arm and regulatory poodle the California Architects Board; who delight in gleefully listing the legal actions taken against various poor sods.

But when it comes to the Big End of town, the story is very different. Then the AIA and all its members roll belly-up and ask for their tummies to be tickled. Case in point: Mr Daniel Libeskind, noted architect, who won the competition for the World Trade Center site in February 2003. Genius! Genius! cried the profession. The AIA could not wait to lick his boots.

Pity Mr Libeskind was not an architect when the AIA began fawning over him: he was a mere building designer. As reported in the New York Times (16 July 2003), Mr Libeskind only became a licensed architect in New York state in July 2003, several months after he won the World Trade Center competition. While we are at it, we should mention that the architect of the original World Trade Center—Mr Minoru Yamasaki—was not a registered architect, either.

Any discussions of these realities are simply swept under the table, since a rational deliberation would be embarrassing, if not humiliating. At the best you get a whole world of denial and cognitive dissonance.

Second reality check: Shakespeare

Second reality-check is that the word architect has meant a designer of any sort for just as long as it has referred to someone who designs building. At the same time as the word was coming to describe a building designer, a young Will Shakespeare got his first big hit with the crowd-pleasing gore-fest Titus Andronicus. Towards the end (v.3.118), Marcus Andronicus says:

Now is my turn to speak. Behold the child.
Of this was Tamora delivered,
The issue of an irreligious Moor,
Chief architect and plotter of these woes.

Accept it: architect is not the property of the profession. There is no stewardship of the term. The truth is precisely the opposite. Building designers (aka architects) have spent a century or more in trying to expropriate as their exclusive property a word used in many senses in English for more than 400 years. Get over it, guys.

Any number of architects will froth at the mouth at such terms as systems architect. How dare they! Building designers lost the terminological battle with naval architects and landscape architects some time ago, but, gosh darn, no-one else is getting their hands on our title. So we see the authorities in the United Kingdom spending much of their time making sure that those pesky system architect frauds aren't selling their clients a high-performance file server and network instead of that bedroom addition they thought they were getting.

Engineers are not precious about their name. You won't find them throwing a hissy-fit if someone introduces themselves as a jelly-bean engineer. Yeah, ok, if that's what you want. They recognize that the word has performed solid service in English since the mid-1400s, and that as a professional title they really can't stake a claim until the early 1800s. Instead of poncing around in a tizz for the entire 19th century, they accepted the brute fact and got on with their business.

Third reality check: the Pritzker Prize winners

Let's take a look at the Pritzker Prize for architecture: the Nobel Prize of architecture, as the Pritzker site so modestly describes itself. For the last thirty years it has striven to honour the greatest living architects. Whether it succeeds we know not. Since we haven't heard any architectural mass-uprising against the Pritzker committee's decisions, we'll assume they know what they are doing.

Three winners from Japan. That's impressive. Only the United States has more laureates (remind us—where are those Pritzker folks from?). A testament to Japan's licensure and education system? Ah, no. A university education is not required to be an architect in Japan. You can walk out of high school into an office in Japan and win a Pritzker thirty or forty years later. Whoa! Let's not upset anyone by mentioning that a university education is irrelevant, as Japan so amply demonstrates.

We examined the Pritzker laureates, and the countries they came from. We divided them into two groups: those whose nations protected the title of architect (such as the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia); and those who would let anyone call themselves an architect (unprotected; such as most of Scandinavia).

We figured the best basis for comparison would be a per capita one (Pritzker's per person). Here is what we found:

Those nations who are happy to let a cat call itself an architect are seven times more likely to produce a Pritzker laureate than those countries that require all the paraphernalia of education, qualification, licensure or registration.

We were especially taken by the fact that 2003's winner, Jørn Utzon, was from Denmark, a nation in which herrings may appropriate the supposedly sacred title. The case of the Swiss winners, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, in 2001 was a little tricky. Some Swiss cantons protect, others let any old ski bunny call him- or herself an architect. These Swiss worthies were born, bred and educated in the canton of Basel, in which there is no title protection.

Why the Pritzker Prize is a crock

While we are on the subject of the Pritzkers, we turn the stage over to our favourite architecture critic, Witold Rybczynski, writing in Slate (1 April, 2008) (his quote, our title line):

The Pritzker Prize…is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture. It is an inaccurate analogy. Nobel Prizes, whether in literature, chemistry, or physics, are given to individuals for individual work; buildings are the result of teamwork.

The Pritzker Prize promotes the fiction that buildings spring from the imagination of an individual architect—the master builder. This wasn't true in the Middle Ages, when there were real master builders, and it isn't true today. The modern architect works with scores of specialists. … Given the messy and unpredictable nature of construction, it is often the person on the building site who makes critical design decisions.

…The Academy Awards recognize that the auteur theory of filmmaking has little relevance to making major movies; that's why Oscars are awarded in all those categories—art direction, sound mixing, makeup—and why the best-picture prize is given to the producers, not the director, writer, or actors. Perhaps the Pritzker should be given to the best building.. The prize would be picked up by the architect, the engineer, the builder, and, oh yes, the client.