“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Despite Winston Churchill’s words, architects are shaped by our culture, and our work reacts to it. Because our culture evolves, the practice of architecture evolves. What is “New” in architectural practice has had accelerating change, exploding in the 21st century because new technologies have changed everything on a level of the Industrial Revolution, 200 years ago.
The Megalithic Temples of Malta are deemed to be the first designed buildings, built over 5,000 years ago. The “Master Builder” mode of building creation was the way buildings happened for the next 4,800 years. A central figure ran the design and construction of public buildings. That way of creating developed a system of apprenticeship and assembling of personal libraries for education, and that “Master Builder” architectural practice created ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek, Asian, Gothic, Mesoamerican, and Renaissance architecture.
The Industrial Revolution completely changed how humanity lived our lives, and thus architectural practice. In 1819 at The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, architects began to be formally educated, like surgeons or clerics. That educational system was in a Western, white, male-dominated world, with the entitled having full access, and then that same demographic judged, published, and commissioned the designs, physically built by those excluded from the system.
In 1973 I entered the Ivy League world of Cornell University’s School of Architecture, Art, and Planning and that system was fully in place after 150 years of practice. As a private-schooled, white, straight, American, male, whose parents were fully in the upper-middle-class culture of the suburban American Dream I own part of that system. There were no female professors, but there were efforts to make diversity a goal, but 2/3 of my class was me.
In the last 50 years, things have changed in architectural practice because our culture has changed. It is now conventional wisdom that the traditional “Design” degree is just the central pedagogy in a growing constellation of career directions. It turns out that the “Mother of the Arts” can have many offspring. Construction management, product design, set design, cartooning, wall/roof specialization, sustainability, resilience, and preservation are all careers that now spring from architecture. Websites like arch2o and archipreneur have described the explosion of uses of architects and architectural education that have evolved as technologies have changed the way buildings are described and communicated.
The essential role of the “Architect” has been widened to become the developer of projects. Enormously successful professionals like Jonathan Segal, FAIA, and Bruce Becker FAIA have ended the requirement that architects have patrons, with younger firms like F9 Productions following through on the direct connection between capital and design.
Beyond the structural change in the organizational model of how buildings are made, the last twenty years of technological explosive change in our culture may mean that buildings may be unnecessary to create architecture. Blockworks defines “experience architecture” as a direct extension of the appreciation of form and space directly into the brain, without the three-dimensional world being apprehended and processed by your senses.
The net result of this explosion of change may be the end of the grandchild of the “Master Builder” practice – the “Starchitect”- the central wizard of construction. Humanity created the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Since that moment, human design has been a part of a building, as the human design has created cuisine in food and couture in clothing. That common humanity will be found in Artificial Intelligence which will access all the tools once controlled by an educated elite. With Artificial Intelligence “Practice” may simply come to mean “listening” to our empowered humanity – allowing our common and cultural values to be present in architecture – rather than the values of the “Master Builder” or “Starchitect”.