When people ask me what it is I do for a living I am always in doubt wether to say I am an architect. When I reckon that these people have seen at least one of the ‘the architect’ titled movies (did you know there’s nine(!) when counting ‘der’ and ‘my’ architect(s)?), I would rather just say I am a bartender. Do not get me wrong, when I started my study on architecture I have to admit the Fountainhead (1949) was my favourite movie for some time. But as I progressed I found that what I believe I am doing, to be a bit different. Since an architect can be explained in more than one way, I am looking for a definition that can better represent my views of the profession.
I am an architect. Master builder, director of works. One who plans, designs and reviews the construction of buildings. Ever since the phenomenon of civilisation there has been a need for someone who can oversee and guide the process of structures. As art and craft enter the domain of the built we can trace buildings in history as a part of culture. A part of their own time.
‘To practice architecture means to provide services in connection with the aesthetic design of buildings and the space within the site surrounding the buildings, that have as their principal purpose human occupancy or use.’ This definition leans towards an understanding that an architect is only responsible for what a building looks like and that and the contractor is actually the one making the building happen. We are left with an image of a somewhat corbusier-esque dandy in all black clothing sporting glasses twice his head size dropping models on inner-city Paris like Kanye dropped the mic.
It is precisely this image that I wish to address. ‘Especially at a time when the role of the architect and the urban planner changes continuously in the building process due to external factors, when the role of the architect and urban planner can no longer be unequivocally defined…’ As the profession has grown more complex the lone architectural genius has become a thing of the past. Through placing the educational chairs that make up my masters degree among the current debate I find a position for my own thought on the role of the architect.
Swiss Army Man
‘Architects are divided amongst themselves as to the role and tasks of the architect.’ Some only focus on the preliminary design and conceptualisation others take on the part of master builder, the confidant of the client, the project manager. An image that has dominated our minds is that of the creative genius. In time of the renaissance, after anonymity ruled the middle ages, focus shifted to the individual. The accreditation of efforts and permittance of unquenchable curiosity allowed for the coming of the polymath, such as Leonardo Da Vinci. A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. In time the role of architect has grown from master builder to include artist, inventor, engineer. Not only the designer of the totality of the building but moreover prime in control of the building process.
As buildings became more complex the profession became more difficult and the architect would appoint assistants who would aid in the work of drawing and calculating these structures. It was a time of architect’s like Behrens, including his office of workmen. Amongst them even Van der Rohe. This changed in the 1930’s when companies like SOM believed in a cooperation of architects over the individual, a corporate representation of their work. As our structures gained more specific requirements the profession of master builder has slowly been split in specialisations. Currently we graduate in architecture, urbanism, real estate or building technology and find our profession accordingly. ‘…the lone architectural genius from the past no longer exists and has been replaced by a team of specialists.’ Asselbergs even notes we must ‘be aware of sapping powers of the architect and turning him or her into a stylist.’. So if the role of one person has been split into parts and is now being filled by specialists I am left wondering what it is that an architect, more than a stylist, should do.
Kaan and Asselbergs both reference Buckminster Fuller as a source in their position on the role of the architect. Bucky is known for stating ’I would describe myself a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist…an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.’ Yet both Kaan and Asselbergs argue that the time of the creative genius is over. If we look more closely at the image of the architect genius that they discuss we can see they have the same person in mind. Howard Roark, misunderstood futurist, making all decisions from his chieftain role of master builder. Both Kaan and Asselbergs agree that there is need for a team of specialists that come together in order to formulate an answer to the growlingly complex task that is currently our built environment. This train of thought aligns with the movement of architectural firms as opposed to the individual.
Straus and Doyle argue there is, and will continue to be, one role for the architect. That of creative problem solver. ’Given a program, the architect uses his or her problem solving skills to design a workable and aesthetically pleasing environment.’ They continue to state that there is however, a change rising in the way of problem solving. A change more critical to the succes of the planning process as a whole. They argue a shift from problem solver, to facilitator of problem solving. This places the focus more on process shaper and manager as apposed to just presenter of definite and final results.
Rebel Without a Cause
The role of the architect is also affected by what he is accounted for. The profession of the architect is concerned with our built environment and thus public safety. As such there are several professional requirements. Related to this are legal responsibilities for failures in aspects of the building proces and result. This draws the architect into a role where he does what he is accountable for. In reverse, defining what it is an architect does can help describe what it is he is responsible for. Then can be noted how responsibility differs from accountability in that there are no legal effects.Current debate
The Big Short
When asked what it is an architect does I suggest that he creates value. As any problem solver, the architect formulates an answer to the task of the client. ’The creation of value encompasses two elements: economic value and cultural value… Economics and cultural life are interwoven…’ Culture is more of an all encompassing term I admit, but it captures the shared experience of activities that take place in our urban environment. It is the part of the assignment that requires insights in society, and the future of our development as urban man. An understanding of the complex relations that make up our use of the urban fabric. These characteristics are a thing less measurable, things of no legal accountability yet precisely that which I believe proves the quality of an intervention over a passing of time. ‘Cultural value can lead to sustainability or longevity, but that need not always reflect economic value.’ Economic value is somewhat of a more practical approach where choices can be weighed on the scale of the budget and feasibility. This value is something I place more in line with accountability and the side of the profession that requires an acknowledged professional degree.
Band of Brothers
How we realise these qualities has changed in the past decades. Da Vinci would conceive his buildings almost entirely by himself, Mies might give some advice to Behrens but Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were among the first to equally collaborate in praxis. As our cities grew bigger, the task was not simply to make a new building anymore. Society demanded more of our structures. We are growingly able to do more with our structures. Architectural practices now employ or consult a number of specialist in order to correctly address this growing demand of our built environment. The architect is no longer in an independent position. Every specialist is better informed in their area of expertise than the architect. This gives them the opportunity to inform the architect of thorough research and just decisions in their jurisdiction. It is the architect who combines, organises and complements information from multiple areas of expertise to a whole. The person whose expertise spans, though perhaps less specialised, a significant number of different subject areas and can not only draw on but can moreover combine, relate and balance these epistemes to solve complex challenges we currently face in our built environment. A critical thinking that works all scales and requires an understanding that transcends linear roles such as planning, construction and urban design. Perhaps more of a critical type communicator or facilitator in a process where ’Synergy between all parties involved in the design and construction is essential…’ to lead to problem solving. To inform and be informed by a team of specialists in a process oriented method towards creating value.
A New Hope
‘The current architectural debate is characterised by the threat of a split between proponents of change and renewal as the motive and motor of progress and the advocates of the tried and tested, and therefore timeless, skills and qualities in architecture.’ With this freedom, our building design industry has fallen to a level of mere instruments of marketing. A problem in contemporary developments is that our gaze on change and renewal is blurring our appreciation for quality assets of the built environment. As our building industry has become greatly market effected ’Many architects are desperately striving for originality, but this is leading to an environment glutted with an artificial range of miscellaneous shapes.’. As a building is inevitably but a tool to facilitate human activity we lose a great deal of deeper significance to a careless culture where ’…we tire quickly of products as well as buildings; we want to be continually surprised.’. This is exactly why an architect can never act merely as a stylist.
The complexity of our built environment has become too great to bear alone. When embracing this stance of the architect amidst a team we can move towards the opportunities that lie in collaboration. ’Creativity is the adding of value. Cultural value, use value and economic value shape the trinity for architectural quality.’ Integrating, combining and even customising these many specialised aspects allows for the creating of unique circumstances. To serve the community, the users of architecture, as one who designs for social impact more than buildings. Shifting towards adding cultural value as a long term sustainable asset.
The age of the lone architectural genius is over. But we would be wrong as to see an architect merely as a stylist among specialists. The role of the architect is that of the facilitator polymath. The person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Able to combine, organise and complement a multitude of information. Not one man knowing all, but enough to act as a spider in the web of expertises. Every specialist is better informed in their area of expertise than the architect. This gives them the opportunity to combine their knowledge to create a greater body of work than any of the separate parts would be able to create. The combination of these specialisations allows for a greater innovation in collaboration to occur. This innovation that can add value well beyond the level of problem solving that was originally required.
Adding to this I believe an architect is needed to take account for less measurable aspects of the interventions. Things of no legal accountability. The part of the assignment that requires insights in society, and the future of our development as urban man. The one to ask: ’How can you make something with your architecture that escapes the issues of the day, the zeitgeist?’. The 21st century architect is an applied philosopher weighing cultural values towards a social impact.
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Straus, D. & Doyle, M. (1978). The Architect as Facilitator: A New Role. published in Journal of Architectural Education, Volume 31(4), p.13-17.
Image from: http://www.legosaurus.com/post/127549999522/le-corbusier-lego-edition-image-by-bauhaus