Does the Title of “Architect” Deserve To Be Protected?

  • 07 Nov 2013
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According to some, Peter Zumthor, Daniel Libeskind, and Renzo Piano should not be referred to as architects (at least in the UK), since they are not registered with the Architects’ Registration Board.. Image Courtesy of Keystone / Christian Beutler (Zumthor); Flickr CC User Tomasz Kulbowski (Libeskind); Architectural Review (Piano)

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.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Does the Title of “Architect” Deserve To Be Protected?" 07 Nov 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 May 2015. <>
  • Drew Paul Bell

    I love this article. But I think that we are seeing the boundaries beginning to be removed and knowledge stitching together with the rise of cross disciplinary interest. Which, in turn, is compounded by the hyper-connected world we find ourselves in now. I strongly disagree with the “good luck with that” attitude towards young architects sharing ideas. But GREAT article.

  • Paul Harding, FAIA

    In answer to your question, we are a profession. The title deserved to be protected. We do enormous good for society and what little benefits that go along with being an architect deserve to be protected. The suggestion that an ersatz architect with an engineer to stamp his/her drawings is somehow the equivalent of a registered architect is absurd, not to mention illegal in most states.

    • Simon

      The article isn’t suggesting that at all. They ARE registered architects, in many countries, and so have had a similar education, and pass similar exams. They do just as much good for society, and if they are chosen above architects from that country in a competition they have the right to work in that country.
      However this article suggests that they don’t have the right to call them selves an Architect in that country. But imagine the public response if a newspaper had a story saying that the Shard, or other building, wasn’t designed by an architect.

  • Peter Z

    People have been building for thousands of years, and yet the title of architect has only recently required protection. Architectural History is full of people who never held a designation, but a refereed to as architects. Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.

    The greek root of Architect means Chief Builder. There should be many paths to this position and any modern chief builder should be an architect and not simply someone who was accepted to and completed some path of formal schooling.

    • Tomek

      I agree. I’m in my early 40s and have had a career change from software engineering to architecture. I will probably never be able to practice as an “architect” because of the time scales involved in the only path to obtaining the necessary certification. At least not where I live in New Zealand.

    • Daniel L

      Peter Zumthor, is that you?

      I totally agree, by the way.

    • Daniel L

      Peter Zumthor,

      Is that you?

      I totally agree, by the way.

  • JDD

    Paul – The drawings of the unlicensed Corbusier have done more for the profession and discourse of architecture than you could ever hope to accomplish—regardless of how ever many initials come after your name. I don’t mean that as a pejorative. You may be a great architect, however my statement would still hold true.

    The problem is that there are two different and equally valid ways to understand the meaning of the word architect. One is as it relates to specifications and the technical and the other is cultural and discursive. Peter Z is right. Protected; possibly. However, the path should become much more inclusive that the current bloated bureaucracies of the AIA and NCARB proscribe.

  • brenda m

    I just want to point out that in the medical profession, doctors are called doctors from the moment of graduation from an accredited medical school. In other words, RESIDENTS (ie doctors in training) are STILL entitled to their title as DOCTOR.

  • Palladio

    Daniel Libeskind should not be considered an architect in any country. He did not even sit the licensing exam in New York State. He used political connections (via Gov. George Pataki) to be ‘given’ a special license so Pataki could cover his behind after he realized the buffoon he supported and promoted for the Ground Zero competition wasn’t even professionally qualified to take on the job.

  • Pablo Galicer

    I think that in cases such as the ones presented, specially with Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor, with the age they have, is taking in consideration how things were done at it’s time. By that meaning we shouldn’t be calling Frank Lloyd Wright an architect either as he only has an honorary doctorate of fine arts, but nobody would ever, ever dare to call him less than an architect.
    Now, things have changed, and yes, we should take concern on protecting the title which those who earned it, have put as much effort as they have, but we should not be hunting old ghosts produced by an old and permissive educational system and professional comunity.

  • http://Matthew Matthew

    It is abundantly clear that the author has little understanding of the profession as a whole. The vast majority of architects still manage projects and coordinate and do field work. The need for liability and proven competence in building are still very real when it comes to the viability of materials, details, and building codes (to name a few) in a given context.

    If you’d like to make licensure more easily attainable and the role of the architect to be less technically pronounced yet required by law (similar to France), I’d be open to that. There have certainly been many influential figures in the field who were not ‘licensed’ in one jurisdiction or another, but the legal standing of the professional is why we have such a robust profession in the first place.

    If you diminish the legal standing of the professional, architecture will return to its previous status as an elitist academic pursuit for the wealthy. This movement is propogated by those who climb the ivory towers of academia and think so highly of themselves that they need not learn the intricacies of practice and work for some years to do so. There is a wide difference between the thinker/designer and the architect, the latter of which takes on the former’s role plus so much more. I have no intentions of giving up my standing as a professional so that the feelings of a few starchitects and wannabes aren’t hurt or because the prima donnas don’t want to pay their dues.

    An alumnus of ivory tower climbing and licensed professional

    • PhillipN

      “… architecture will return to its previous status as an elitist academic pursuit for the wealthy.” Isn’t that exactly what it is at the moment. How many ‘poor’ people do you know who employ ‘architects’ to design their houses?

  • Tung Cab

    Yes!!!! Please, let’s protect the title architect. Because the title itself is being used very very loosely in the IT industry and making them as if they are very important.

  • Maykel Dominguez

    The silliness that is licensing personified.


    A lawyer who passes the bar in one country doesn’t have to change his title when he leaves that country. He might not be able to practice, but he’s still a lawyer.

    An architect can practice outside his registered country, but he can’t be called an architect? Seems backwards to me.

  • Rick Muijen

    To succesfully design a building it is far more important to have relevant knowledge then to have the title architect. A title is just a title. I think we should rethink the title architect and not only focus on architecture as an artform but also as a practical profession. In order to design a good building you need to know how a building works, also technical.

    But in the end it is not about the title, it is about designing and building high quality buildings. The architecture schools should teach that.

    • Ajay

      Re: “…… it is not about the title, it is about designing and building high quality buildings. The architecture schools should teach that.” You are absolutely right. But unfortunately the schools do NOT teach that. Most schools are caught up in pretentious form making, packaged with pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook. The wrongheadedness of much of current architectural ‘teaching’ produces egotistical but worthless celebrities like Daniel Libeskind who undermine the value of real design the world over.

    • Robin

      That is like saying “doctor” is just a title and nothing more. You don’t go to any random guy when you are ill, you go to someone who has been qualified and has the relevant knowledge and skill (that you refer to), and calls himself a “doctor”. You are reducing the concept of making buildings into something that “everyone” can do if there is no title associated with the practice -which I would argue isn’t the case.

  • Mr S Giliomee

    Thank you Rick!

    I’ve been in architecture for the last 8 years, starting as paper boy and started doing general window and door schedules (always under the watchful eye of my mentor – himself only a senior architectural technologist) Having absolute now formal schooling in architecture, only technical drawings in school, I was slowly allowed to start with more complex designs, meeting with client, spending time on sites and working in an environment where the best technical drawings was a must. I now have a broader knowledge about the profession than I would’ve had if I had studied. I still learn every single day – still meeting with clients, following the build process and complying to the latest regulations and laws as they come into effect.

    If I want the recognition of the word “architect” I must quit my job, leave my wife at home and go study for a minimum of 4 years…The SOUTH AFRICAN COUNCIL OF ARCHITECTURE PROFESSION will only grand me a draughtsman qualification and without studying not grand me any any higher qualification ever.

    Now…not being called an “Architect” does that take away my knowledge of architecture? How many real Architects are so involve in the whole process of building these days?

    • PhillipN

      Please send that comment to the Competition Commission. They are presently evaluating all those silly rules.

    • ds

      In University it teachs you how to think space, not only draught correct technicall drawings, or meet clients, etc etc It exists for some reason and not only for some kind of flag… You should inform better

  • Edward

    Why can’t we just call them architects but also publish the country where they are registered. Seems like a sensible compromise. Great. Britain isn’t the Mecca for architects.

  • Harold Effron

    Daniel Libeskind ‘designs’ buildings that (i) are hated by the public, (ii) destroy architectural history (eg. Dresden, Toronto, V&A), (iii) leak or have other significant technical failures. Under no circumstances should he EVER be referred to as an architect. Calling Libeskind an architect does a great disservice to anyone else who legitimately uses the name and takes the profession seriously, something Libeskind does not understand.

  • Donatello D’Anconia

    Isn’t the licence still relevant because law dictates that certain projects require a licensed architect. This is the relevance of an architectural licence.

  • Cass Gilbert

    If a person designs or builds a quality building that contributes in a meaningful way to culture and the environment, I could care less whether or not they have an architectural degree or if they call themselves an engineer. The corollary is also true. People like Daniel Libeskind who are a corrosive force and do grave harm to the profession and to our cities do not deserve to be called architect in any country. Libeskind should more correctly be called a vandal or a thug.

  • Aaron

    Libeskind is a relentless self promoter despite his total lack of ability. But his success in getting media coverage should not be mistaken for him being a real architect.

  • Michael Tolleson, Architect

    I was recently asked a question I am often asked:

    “What can an Architect do that a Designer cannot?”

    I gave my recently prepared answer:

    “An Architect is qualified to provide a solution for a Building. A Designer is qualified to provide a solution for the ribbon that might be cut to christen the Building.”

    So, extrapolating, a Designer working with an Engineer would be qualified to provide a solution for the span of the ribbon that might be cut to christen the Building.

    : – )

    • PhillipN

      Really! What a silly reply.

    • Phillip Newmarch

      Really? I hope your buildings aren’t also ‘prepared answers’.

    • Michael Tolleson, Architect

      I love it!
      The lowest comment rating by far.
      And I’m not even voting against myself!
      : – )

  • david

    las arquitecturas son exelentes

  • Edward Holden, Architect

    Singlehandedly, Daniel Libeskind has done more to discredit the professaion than anyone I can think of. Between his ridiculous buildings and his pompous personality he does great disservice to a once noble art. That alone should disqualify him from ever using the term ‘architect’ in any country and on any continent.

  • Dustin

    People who call themselves architects and worry when a designer calls themselves one are just paper pushers who have no talent.

  • Arch.Yamen Raei

    I think what really should protect or focus on rules are the standards in Architecture practice and design .Not to put input lead to failed output .

  • aldrian

    what to say…
    everyone has protect their job, and this is organitation job :D

  • Joel Niemi Architect

    To safeguard the public, the architect of record absolutely needs to be on the proper side of local registration laws. Whether the designer is an Architect or an architect is less important.

    If “title” protection is what you’re after, how about the plethora of software-industry self-labeled “architects”? There’s the real misuse of the name.

  • Eva

    I think the focus of all the architects licensed or not should be towards eliminating use of term Architect and Architecture in other fields. What is it: “brand architect”?…. and others. This should be globally against the law.

  • M.Arch.itect

    How about those with a +5 year bachelor+master degree in architecture from european countries who do not require anything but a membership of the given countries architects association to have the title of Architect, such as Bjarke Ingels of Denmark. No licensing or additional exams required. Should they not be considered architects outside their country of education?

  • Andrea

    Ask Tadao Ando…

  • Eastwood

    Whatever title you use, ‘architect’ or otherwise, you cannot apply it equally to all three of these men. What Zumthor and Piano do is quite different from what Libeskind does. Zumthor and Piano produce fine buildings imbued with craftsmanship, sensitivity to site and context and responsive to the specific design problem. On the other hand, what Libeskind does is roll out the same old cliched gestures and banal shapes imbued only with a sense of his own great ignorance of culture, architecture, history and any respect for the sense of place. What libeskind does is driven by his need to brand the type of schlock he delivers by repeating it ad nauseum. This is not design.. Ergo Libeskind is not an architect.

    • Al Gore

      Sounds like someone is full of themself.

  • Claudio

    It’s interesting, I have been reading this article and some of comments and it’s clear how many people don’t have any idea how is work beyond their country frontiers, the way practice is in other places and the way other cultures see the term Architecture or even in between their own states. And that’s why it is so difficult to have a general consensus about what the term and profession means for every culture. Of course there’s the need to have regulations and a straight forward way to achieve the “Architect” title, that it’s common sense, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be other ways to achieve the title. I’m sure there are a lot of guys all over the world invading Architects work field without any knowledge, but there are Architects coming from university degree that they have no idea what they are doing either. We need to understand that there are a lot of misconception on the term within the public and even in the own guild. We often tend to mismatch the knowledge on how to build or even drafting with Architecture. Building Science is required for get the building done safely and functional, but it’s only a tool for achieve Architecture. It’s like saying that due we use a CAD or BIM software and a computer, we are capable to make a project. We could have that technical knowledge, being able to make space arrays, solving some social needs in dwelling and working spaces, but if we are not capable to make people feel goosebumps and emotions when they get into an office building, commercial plaza, a house…we are only layering bricks and panels but for that there’s no need an Architect. So why a guy that is using his skills to achieve that, that teach himself what he needs, surrounded by the right staff and consultants team couldn’t be named Architect? I’m sure none of us knows everything about what our craft could encompass and we had to use and search for people that does. Now, personally I’m not big fan of Libeskind and some other Star Architects, in fact some of those buildings out there I hate them badly but I understand that’s part of profession. They dare to do things other Architects don’t, and that it’s also a part of being an Architect. They know how to sell themselves too. Are they doing right? It’s not allow to show an idea, no matter how much it will cost and then realize it was a mistake? I don’t know, history will tell and future generation may have a different idea what it should be appreciated as Architecture. Protectionism lead to mediocrity. Charlatans will never disappear, it’s embedded in human kind genetic code, and there will be always a way to work around laws and people ready to buy those ideas from them. So why instead to try to protect ourselves in a pity way we just don’t challenge us to do our best and create that master piece that enclose the Architecture title.