In August, the AIA posted a topic on its LinkedIn discussion board entitled “Misrepresenting Oneself as an Architect on LinkedIn”. Ever since (and once again), the issue of protecting the title of “Architect” has been a hot topic, as explained in this article on Fast Company. This follows the revelation in BD last year that the Architects’ Registration Board ordered the British architectural media to cease referring to Renzo Piano and Daniel Libeskind as Architects. With the topic appearing so frequently, and in different countries each time, Fast Company conjures images of a “raging global debate”. But what, really, is going on in the world of architecture to fuel such a debate? Read on to find out more.
First of all, in reality this topic contains two separate problems. In the case of the UK debacle last year, the simple fact is that both Renzo Piano and Daniel Libeskind are architects, registered as such in multiple countries. It just so happens that while they have both worked in the UK, neither are registered with the ARB, and are therefore not recognized as ‘Architects’ under that organization’s rules.
It’s not as if there was ever a question of Piano being qualified to design Europe’s tallest building in London – this is simply a sad case of a national institution struggling to come to terms with today’s international design world. Similarly, in one of the comments under the Fast Company article, a reader who has had a prolific career in Washington DC tells of his struggle to be recognized as an Architect in Florida.
The ARB in fact apologized following the backlash from the incident, and is now working with the RIBA to make mutual recognition across countries of the title “Architect” much easier. This is a trend that will likely become more prevalent as architectural institutions (slowly) come to terms with the global reality of today’s industry.
That’s one aspect of the “global debate” dealt with – so far, so simple. But much more complex is the debate over the very principle of protecting a title. According to Fast Company, “the real issue has nothing to do with legality and everything to do with relevance”. Increasingly, young architects (sorry, ‘designers’) are finding ways around licensure, by getting engineers to sign off buildings and other similar tricks. It seems that, ultimately, one does not have to be an Architect to practice architecture – and many establishment figures and institutions fear that this devalues the profession and puts its future, and the future of the built environment, at risk.
It might be worthwhile at this point to establish precisely what protecting a professional title is supposed to achieve. First and foremost it is done in the public interest, to establish technical and legal responsibility for a certain job. Secondly, it both establishes and legitimizes a certain body of knowledge, stating that this knowledge is necessary to do this job. For example, In the Medical profession (which during these debates architects love to compare themselves to), protection of title establishes that there is a lot to learn before you can treat another human being, and punishes those who fraudulently claim to be privy to this knowledge. In turn, qualified Doctors are held responsible when they fail to live up to the standards that their profession requires.
But – and this fact cannot be stressed enough – architecture is not medicine. We have already established that legal responsibility for a building’s performance can largely be passed to engineers, along with a portion of what once made up architecture’s protected body of knowledge. Another portion of this knowledge, the knowledge of how to manage a project, is now largely passed to professional Project Managers.
Of course, architecture isn’t all structure and management. It’s aesthetics, poetics, symbolism, environmental psychology, social policy, and all sorts of other things which make up the wide-ranging field of “design”. This body of knowledge is indeed something which we have kept for ourselves.
Though while the medical profession builds up its own body of knowledge, adding to it piece by piece for the benefit of every professional practitioner it serves, the architecture profession has treated its own knowledge very differently: twice in the last 100 years, we have systematically dismantled our knowledge, claiming everything we once knew to be false. Going first from traditional design to modernism, and then from modernism to postmodernism, we have split our knowledge into pieces. Now, the revelation that young architects are refusing to buy into the profession is symptomatic of the fact that they have no desire to inherit the knowledge of their elders. Outraged at the unsustainable, insensitive design of the previous generation, they may be on the verge of building architectural knowledge, once again, from scratch.
What we are left with now is a plethora of competing factions, each claiming a different form of knowledge yet all claiming to be architects. Furthermore, as long as each faction is registered with the relevant body, each claim is seen as equally valid. What we have left is not so much a body of knowledge as a dismembered corpse.
So, with the technical aspects of our profession outsourced to engineers, the managerial aspects outsourced to project managers, and the remaining aspects fractured and broken, what is actually left to protect? It is no wonder the profession struggles so hard to assert its relevance, and no wonder that attempts to protect the word “Architect” often come across as merely self-serving.
If we are to move forward from our current situation, we have two options: either start making friends, removing the ideological boundaries between factions, and piecing our tattered knowledge together into something we all agree on (good luck with that); or give up on the outdated notion that we are a profession at all. This would mean doing away with governing bodies, protection of title and so on – or at least consigning these aspects to a severely diminished role – and getting on with the serious business of making designing buildings a job worth doing again. Relevance will not be established by institutions building a fence around architecture, but by architects going out into the wider world and demonstrating their value with hard work, delicate skill and boisterous persuasion.
And if that approach sounds drastic and difficult, remember: you all brought it upon yourselves.