Something's very wrong with architecture.

People will probably say it's the conservatism of old age but I find most new buildings strive too hard for novelty in their external appearance, and to say the least, the results are not always successful. Emphasis on this one aspect of building design (albeit an important one) is one of the many symptoms that something is very wrong with architecture as it is practised today.

This is most evident in the work of the so called starchitects (dreadful word!) and particularly that of Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, with their emphasis on reproducing a recognisable personal style, and silly people wanting a 'name' building regardless of use.  Both design 'sculptural' buildings that are best suited for open-ended buildings like art galleries or sports stadia that don't have a lot of detailed requirements.  Despite some of the beguiling brickwork of Gehry's UTS building in Sydney, the need to accommodate a whole set of functional spaces with specific requirements has made it one of his less successful buildings.

Most of the adverse changes that are reducing the traditional scope of the architect's work, and that are putting stress on the survival of the profession are largely ones generated by failings on the part of the profession itself.  Professional groups of engineers, project managers, urban planners and landscape architects, programmers, environmental, heritage, interior design and building regulation consultants are only filling the gaps lacking in the ever tightening services that architects provide.  

The erection of developer financed buildings as commodities for sale has further changed the way building design services are procured and has accelerated many of these changes.

All of these changes, combined with a government Competition Policy, have not only led to a tightening of fees but have forced architects to spend time 'marketing' like any commercial enterprise.  It's not all bad of course, that architects have been forced to become more organised and efficient but the inevitable belt tightening has exaggerated even further the traditional ethos of long hours, no paid overtime and the generally poor remuneration of most architects.

Architects are quick to bemoan what is happening, and some of the larger firms have diversified into multi disciplinary practices along corporate lines in an effort to overcome some of these shortcomings.

We should remember that architecture practised as a profession hasn't been around all that long.  It wasn't until the 19th century that people designing buildings first started to consider themselves members of a learned profession with all sorts of privileges.  The illustrious historical background of architecture not only gave credence to the registration and protection of those claiming the title of architect, but it also encouraged the arrogant assumption of total design superiority about everything on the part of most architects.  If architects are to escape the self imposed alienation from society that stems from this sense of superiority, they will have to change the way they see themselves and the nature of their work.

For more examples of this widening dichotomy between profession and the community, also read my earlier pieces:  'Will architecture survive as a separate profession,' and 'I can do anything better than you.'

Architects have been slow to see that their assumed superiority has played a role in the slow emasculation of the profession I've known over the last 60 years.  There are exceptions of course, but the designs that most architects produce largely reflect their own aesthetic preoccupations rather the values of the community they serve.  Some apartment plans are simply a disgrace for anyone who considers themselves an architect.

This all results in an inward looking profession giving annual awards to one another at black tie functions that are so expensive that they are out of the range of young architects, and where there is little involvement of the general public. 

An exhibition of all the entries for this year's Awards was held at Federation Square.  Each entry was an A2 sized panel (600 mm high x 420 mms wide) arranged three high so that the bottom of the lower panel was at knee height and the top of the upper panel was above head height.  Some of the entrants were smart enough to accept the limitations and submitted only one large photograph but most of them tried to include not only photographs but also plans and text.  Of necessity the lettering on some was 12 point or smaller, and plans were so small they were unreadable; you'd have to lie on the ground to read the lower panel at knee height and stand on something to read the upper one! 

As an exhibition aiming to communicate the virtues of architectural design to the general public it was a complete fuck-you!  If I were a potential client it wouldn't give me great confidence to entrust the design of a complex building costing a lot of money to the care of a member of a professional group that couldn't even get a simple exhibition right!

The conflict of interest that results from the historical way the profession has developed is deeply imbedded and gives them the arrogance to mount an exhibition that simply didn't communicate.  This attitude is part of the reason the external groups mentioned have been successful in taking over parts of the architectural role. 

Some of the blame must go to the way architects are trained but I'm not familiar enough with the details of current academic education to offer any comments on this aspect.  But if everything continues like this, there is simply no guarantee that the architectural profession will survive in its current form. 

The unique range of skills of a good architectural designer, blending the client's brief and function with structural, legal building and sustainability requirements, along with costs and all the subtle compromises required to produce a unique design on a particular site that sits well in its environment should justly be celebrated - on the rare occasions it all comes together, that is.  But in pretty well every other way the architectural profession is in danger of becoming an endangered specie, that needs to get its act together.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
July 2015