Will architecture survive as a separate profession?

Car makers and fruit canners aren't the only ones affected by global changes in our economy.  Architectural practice has also been changing steadily over the last fifty years in major ways that most architects aren't at all happy about.  

Readers should appreciate that architecture hasn't been a recognised profession for all that long.  It wasn't until the 19th century that people called themselves architects and started to consider themselves members of a learned profession with all sorts of privileges.  In medieval times the superb geometry of the vaulting in gothic cathedrals was set out by master masons, and in the Renaissance, painters and sculptors like Bernini and Michelangelo also designed buildings. Andrea Palladio was the most influential architects ever and he started life as a mason!  And in the ensuing centuries, it was common for educated gentlemen to turn their hand to designing buildings. As well as helping to draft the US Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson also designed the University of Virginia and his own house in nearby Monticello.

The formal organisation of the profession of architecture in Australia was consummated by the founding of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1929 (along with a Scale of Minimum Professional Charges) after years of various State organisations.  Victoria was the oldest because of all the work generated by the Gold Rush and the first Architects Registration Act was in NSW in 1921.  These things, and the eventual creation of schools of architecture at the universities, all led to the professional organisation of the profession.

The Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) is the body that represents architects today.  Until August 2008 it was called the Royal AIA, but to satisfy a general wish to drop the Royal title, and at the same time to avoid the embarrassment of handing back the Royal Charter, the name Royal Australian Institute of Architects still remains its official name and members can include the R or not as they wish in the initials after their names!  It shows how flexible (or hopeless) we are, right!

The Institute has a complex role representing employer as well as employee architects, plays a major role in continuing education, publishesArchitecture Australiamonthly, negotiates with government and industry agencies over contracts, building regulations and other arcane matters, and promotes good architecture by a series of awards.

But if you ask an ordinary member what the Institute does for her or him, you'd get a lot of head shaking.  The annual fee is in the order of $900 and young architects often can't see much value in membership.  Fortunately old Life Fellows like me aren't charged or I'd be shaking my head too!

The Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) is a parallel organization that perhaps represents the interests of employer architects better on issues issues like employment contracts, management tools, salary surveys etc.

You don't have to be a member of the Institute to work as an architect, but if you want to call yourself an architect and offer architectural services in Victoria, you are required to register with the Architects Registration Board of Victoria; it's been like that since 1922, and it's the same in the other states.  To maintain annual registration requires continuing education and Professional Indemnity Insurance cover.

Until the Second World War buildings were mainly built to satisfy the needs of individuals, companies or institutions for new premises for themselves.  The concept of buildings developed and built solely for sale, only started after the war. 

It had of course, happened in the past, the most notable example being the redevelopment of Paris in the second half of the 19th century by Baron Haussmann but that was a special case.  And in Australia there had always been 'spec' builders who built houses speculatively to rent. This was very common in terrace house areas like Paddington in Sydney, where it was common for a builder to build a row of houses, live in one and rent out the others.

Rapid population growth and pent up demand after the War led to the rise of a new group of building professionals called developers who borrowed money, acquired land, had buildings designed and built, and then sold them at a profit.

The classic developer scenario was to build an office building and when it was fully let and showing an adequate financial return, to sell it on at a profit to an insurance company as a long-term investment.  Or units in apartment buildings were sold under the new Strata Title Act that had been specifically evolved to enable developers to sell apartments unit by unit. 

As buildings got bigger and more complex, some developers became large, smart organisations like Lend Lease, run by people with building, engineering, accounting and marketing backgrounds.  Some developers became hit and run operators who built cheaply, cut corners and maximised profits and it's these that have given the word such ugly public overtones. 

The game of maximising the size of buildings (more building area equals more profits) put local government and the manipulation of it's planning regulations in the box seat and opened the way for influence, manipulation and corrupt practices.  At the same time planning regulations became more complex and to satisfy this aspect of building design took up more and more of architects' time.

Builder-developers commissioned architects of course but reduced the scope of their services.  To start with they saw no need for the architect's services during the construction phase, and this process of reducing the role, and the fees of the architect, has continued unabated ever since.

A new profession of Project Management also grew up in direct competition with architects to manage the whole project, claiming to guarantee that buildings would be finished on time and within the budget, something for which architects didn't have a good reputation.  Some project managers knew what they were doing and were good managers, others were not, but the net effect was to further whittle down the role and responsibility of the architect.

There were also political changes. A Government Enquiry decided that the RAIA Scale of Minimum Professional Charges was a form of price fixing (which it was) and it was abolished as part of a new Competition Policy intended to invigorate our economy.  This led to competitive fee bidding and architects were forced to tender for work like a builder.  Over a short time what had been a normal minimum fee of six percent of the cost of the building for full services, dropped to between four and five percent.  The minimum fee scale was a swings and round-about system, you lost on some jobs and made it up on others, but it seemed to work out overall and enabled architects to provide a good service.  Under the new system architects did what you'd expect, and tailored the work to the reduced fee.

An interesting consequence of this ideologically driven change was revealed by a CSIRO study several years later which found that screwing architects and engineers had certainly saved clients money on fees, but that building costs had gone up by a much higher percentage than that saved because of less complete detailing, fewer drawings, and delays while the builder worked out what to do. So much for free market, economic rationalism and ever since the architect's role has been under attack.

Rather than the normal process of tendering on a common set of design drawings prepared by an architect, a bad system developed where developers or land owners asked builders to submit what are called Design & Construct bids for the maximum development of a particular site.  Builders are required to submit a building design allied with a fixed cost to build the design they proposed.  No fees were paid to those who weren't selected, so for the builder it was just like a normal tender and they expected their architect to design a building at no cost also.  Comparing apples and oranges with the Design-Construct system was always difficult and the lowest cost was usually more important than the best design so there were always pressures to lower quality.  And if the job was won, the architect was in effect working for the builder with continuing pressures to cut corners and reduce costs further.  Not a good system to achieve great architecture!

 To avoid the conflict between design and cost, another system has since been developed that separates the two aspects.  An architect is chosen by competition based on reputation, background experience and (mainly) fees. The architect then designs the building and negotiates the local government planning approvals. Then the architect and his work (usually a Planning Permit) is novated by the initial client (who could be a government agency or a private developer) to a Design and Construct Contractor, who then retains and pays the architect for Design Development, Contract Documentation and Advice during Construction, including co-ordination of all the sub-consultants.  Fees have been driven down further and fees of between 2.5 and 3% (excluding full contract administration) for this work are not uncommon.

The Contractor and the Architect sign a Professional Services Agreement (PSA), based on the architects offer of scope of services and fee.  PSA's can be very onerous, and prudent architectural firms make sure they are well covered by Professional Indemnity Insurance in a pretty unforgiving world. 

 So the architect is not quite a subcontractor but the final result is that the architect's role has been reduced and they don't have such a key role as 50 years ago.  Many architects were therefore disappointed when the Victorian Chapter of the AIA recently developed a site on the corner of Exhibition Street and Flinders Lane as a business venture that also included space for the Institute, and rather than have the architect supply full services in the traditional way, they novated the contract so the builder-developer played the major role.  It was a sort of own goal in the opinion of many!

When I started in architecture fifty years ago the biggest firms in Melbourne and Sydney, firms like Bates Smart McCutcheon, Leighton Irwin and Stephenson & Turner were all 200 to 300 people strong (including a building engineering arm) but most firms were much smaller.  Since then the profession has further polarised into at least 15 very large firms between 100 and 500 people in size, with the majority of architects consisting of small firms of two or three people mainly doing domestic architecture.  There are still some middle sized firms of 10 to 20 people well capable of doing larger buildings but they are in direct competition with the big boys and will, I fear, be squeezed out or taken over by them in time.

Size shouldn't be equated with quality of course, and some small offices and individual architects have designed notable buildings.  At its height for example, the Seidler office never exceeded forty people and yet it created a major series of distinguished office towers.

In a changing world most of the larger firms have become multi disciplinary offices employing urban designers and town planners, environmental engineers and quantity surveyors, landscape architects and interior designers as well as architects and offer a far greater range of services than simply the design of buildings.  They have become very efficient in a highly competitive world and mostly give good service and design good competent buildings.  These larger firms have been quick to embrace a corporate structure and culture and to find work in other countries.  One or two have even gone public and floated their shares on the stock market       

As a matter of historical record and some little pride let me record in passing that it was George Clarke, Peter Yeomans and myself who started the first truly professional multi disciplinary design firm in Australia in 1960.  It grew to employ over seventy professionals including planners, urban geographers and traffic engineers as well as architects and urban designers, with offices in all States except Tasmania.  In those twenty years the Clarke Gazzard office was responsible for the first Strategic Plans for the cities of Sydney and Adelaide, Martin Place and a number of award winning buildings.   However the multi disciplinary concept was too far ahead of the times, and both George and myself wanted to do the work rather than manage a big practice, so we dissolved it in 1982. 

I went back to being a single architect and continued to practice, eventually as Gazzard Sheldon Architects (GSA) until I opted out in 1994.  At that point there were 18 people including Mark Sheldon and me in the office.     The small building below was designed for our own office use.  I've always thought it was important that architects should be prepared to demonstrate the value of good design in the buildings they themselves occupy.

 Office of Gazzard Sheldon Architects

Office of Gazzard Sheldon Architects 1984-1998 
(since demolished)                        Photo by Gerrit Fokkema

Mark has since expanded the practice as GroupGSA and the office now consists of 140 people covering a range of disciplines (Architecture, Interior Design, Urban Design and Landscape architecture) from offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. 

The professionalism of the larger firms is part of the reason for their success overseas and as long as their fees are competitive in a global market it will continue.  A cautionary tale however; for a few years one large local firms was documenting (the term used for preparing construction drawings) very large projects in the United States. Because the Australian dollar was valued much less than the greenback, even without cutting fees, it saved the US developer a lot of money to have the computer generated working drawings prepared here!

It came to a halt when our dollar soared in the same way that fruit canners at Shepparton and other local exporters have been affected.  Already Indian architects are documenting buildings in Australia because their fees are lower; working outside your own country is more to do with competence and fees rather than exporting design and culture!  And as part of a global economy there is an increasing trend to bring in so-called 'starchitects' from overseas, largely (though not always) for marketing reasons; it's thought that their names will help sell the building design and increase the value of the building.  We can't really complain, it's the flip side of all those buildings Australians are designing in foreign countries.  Proposals of mergers to give Oz firms more clout to counter this trend are reported.  As it is, new buildings by Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel are already in train in Sydney, and at last count there wasn't one local firm in the running as lead consultant for the second $1 billion Sydney casino at Barangaroo.

While competition may be a good thing, time will tell whether it increases our stock of good buildings; it might turn out to be as illusory as the advantages of fee competition!  Architects quite often don't do their best buildings in these commissions away from their home base, but it does help explain why our best big buildings can hardly be claimed to be Australian any more than Foster's designs can be seen as quintessentially English or Piano's as distinctively Italian. 

In a global world there aren't many regionally identifiable differences, particularly in tall office buildings, and I'm not persuaded by Rem Koolhas or Kenneth Frampton about so called 'critical regionalism'.  Some of our better individual buildings may well be worthy of greater than passing notice, but it's not sensible to make pompous claims for the cultural importance of Australian architecture as a whole, as some academics have done recently.  History shows that most self-conscious attempts to create nationalist art forms, ranging from the wedding cake buildings and heroic sculptures of Stalinist Russia down to our own Jindyworobak poetry movement have failed.  In fact there may never be unique 'national' styles in a globalised world and it's not as though this lack of national styles is a new thing.  Before the modern movement the same classical architectural style largely prevailed in the Western world for the four hundred years after the death of Andrea Palladio in 1580!

IN his book 'The Making of a Profession'(Angus & Robertson 1971) Max Freeland explains that one of the reasons architects banded together back in the 1800's was because of the unscrupulous competition that was often forced on them.  Clients exploited architects by getting them to compete by preparing detailed design drawings and estimates.  In some instances clients amalgamating bits of the different designs submitted that they liked into one design and then bargaining with the architects to reduce their fees.

This led to a policy where members of the newly formed Institute of Architects agreed only to participate in competitions where the competition was approved by the Institute and conformed to their rules.  The rules were that the entries must be submitted anonymously, a majority of the jury should be registered architects, and that the winner was not only paid a fee for winning the competition but was also awarded the ongoing job at a proper fee if it proceeded.  Like unionists, architects had to learn that 'united we stand, divided we fall', and this system worked successfully for many years and gave architects like Jorn Utzorn their chance. 

So I was disappointed that four leading Melbourne firms (Denton Corker Marshall, Jackson Clements Burrows, Sean Godsell, and Robert Simeoni) were all prepared to participate in a limited competition without the traditional safeguards when the Stokehouse, a two storey restaurant on St Kilda Beach, burnt down recently.  Why didn't they ring one another up and insist on it being a proper competition? What other profession would do so much work speculatively?  It's a further symptom of the decline of the profession.  The designs submitted were all good of course but I thought most of them were a bit over-designed; my money is on Jackson Clements Burrows!

This non-competition with the owner deciding which design he likes is a telling reminder of the lack of unity to which the profession has been reduced!  Why didn't Mr Van Handel simply select a good architect?  Although it's on a prominent site it's not a big job.  For this size building it's a pity rather that it wasn't a anonymous open competition judged by a professional jury so all younger architects would be given the opportunity to break through; this after all, is after all one of the virtues and justification of the competition system.

 All these things and the reductions in the scope of their work obviously affects the livelihood of practising architects, but it's only fair to ask whether it has resulted in less good buildings or has affected the public in some other way?  On balance, I'd have to say probably not, but some pessimists think that the architectural role will continue to shrink until the architect is regarded as an artist who solely designs the external appearances of buildings. 

There are already architects who ally themselves more with the visual arts than professional architecture, and the recentMelbourne Nowexhibition at the St Kilda Road and Potter Galleries of the NGV included a few architects who are extending attitudes to architecture and it's relationship to the visual arts.

Some writers on the effects of climate change think that things will get so bad in forty or fifty years time that global trade will grind to a halt and that import replacement industries (making things again) will save our economic bacon; let's hope we still have an architectural profession to resurrect when that happens!

 In the end of course, it doesn't matter what the people who design buildings are called as long as we get good buildings in better, more attractive and more efficient cities.  The way the development industry is expanding could well lead to the death of the profession I knew for fifty years.  Technical change has already marked the passing of the craft of architectural drafting where, unlike computer drafting, you could always tell who had done the drawing.

 Despite all this, I'm as optimistic as I was when I started in practice in 1960.  Architects, or rather designers, need to concentrate on designing much better buildings, particularly in all the environmental aspects.  Multi disciplinary offices might be the key to achieving this, but I'm also sure that the need for small, specialised boutique architectural practices will remain as long as they can continue to manage with uncertain incomes in an uncertain world.

 Don Gazzard LFAIA

May 2014.

Postscript:  Following the above I had an email from a senior architect who had been on the AIA Council when the Exhibition Street building was being discussed. He reports that the reason given for the novation contract was that it was the "most cost effective  way of doing it because we didn't have to pay the architect's fees from the AIA account, it could be seen as part of the loan", in other words, the AIA saw itself as a developer before it saw itself as protecting member interests by promoting the services architects provide; and worse, the superintendent was not even an architect.  He was so disillusioned he didn't run for national council again in the next elections.