Why architects matter: book review

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Why architects matter: book review

We all experience the built environment – every day – the good – the bad.  The time has come for a total reappraisal of architects and this needs thinking that challenges the status quo and supports change.  It’s in all our shared interest that this happens.

Such a reappraisal includes engaging with evidence, ethics, and wider society, and responding to the systematic failings across the built environment sector that have contributed to tragedies like Grenfell Tower.  Flora Samuel gives voice to this in a work that must surely be the most influential thinking relevant to architects today.  It has broad relevance to many if not all built environment disciplines as well as for policy makers seeking to address issues such as population health.

I found my own experience of architectural practice over 15 years ranging both small private practice and large corporate firms reflected in the pages of this book: a very different experience to the interdisciplinary, creative, ethical, and indeed valuable practise I imagined I was first training for.

Architects seemingly talk a different language to those who ultimately have to use the products of their designs and have limited interest in involving those people in the design studio – a process that Samuel identifies as one of architects’ most unique and valuable methods.  Despite some good intentions architects seemingly have little or no idea how to engage with research and knowledge creation, never mind design a study to evidence that what is practised either works effectively or is indeed ethical.  And in their own practices architects reflect wider society so it is as unsurprising as it is iniquitous that here too, middle aged white men are very effective at keeping down the prospects of not just a future generation of architects, but also women, and any other groups not like them.

These issues are not solely the responsibility of architects: clients, funders, procurers, and constructors all play a role in creating the built environment and need to act ethically… for example, a former client and public servant who only received a suspended jail sentence for corruption is some way from the bottom of my own list of unethical people I have had to work with as an architect.

Unlike my hard-learned but nonetheless intuitive observations these issues are laid bare and critically appraised by Samuel: investigated with rigour and method.

“The architect Cedric Price presciently observed back in 1964 that it was unlikely that the architectural profession would have any real impact on society ‘until a total reappraisal of its particular expertise is self-imposed, or inflicted from outside’.  It seems that time has come.”

Having come to the conclusion that architects might not matter I was therefore not necessarily receptive to a book entitled: Why Architects Matter: Evidencing and Communicating the Value of Architects.  Samuel’s latest book however might have proved a timely antidote.  For how else might we ensure that future practise does engage in research and development; demonstrates approaches that deliver on ethics and equality not just paying it lip service; and leverage knowledge, data, and information to make things better.

With a wonderful bedside manner for the patient, who I felt at times was on critical life support, Why Architects Matter, deftly points out problematic behaviours by the subject whilst keeping the reader motivated that change may be possible. 

This purposeful approach focusses on the value of architects not architecture.  This is an urgent issue: Samuel sets out that “…a new crossroads has been reached…” citing both gender pay gaps and the Grenfell Tower tragedy as resulting from pressing inequalities in society that practitioners must respond to.  Samuel sets out a revealing history of practitioners recalcitrant to engage with regulation and standards since Victorian times.  This same treatment extends to research into the profession’s own products – so lowly valued that the Feedback (Evaluation) Stage of the architects’ Plan of Work was dropped in one version – thankfully now reinstated. 

And these flaws – for that is what they are – have become part of the canon over a hundred years.  The results, whilst not solely the responsibility of architects are plain for all to see in the built environment.

“The 2017 Grenfell Tower tragedy provides clear evidence of the failure of the construction industry to protect vulnerable people.”

Samuel works methodically across a wide range of topics including the role of educational training; what constitutes evidence in design practice; the role of public procurement; building contracts; the research culture of architects; and the value agenda.  Many of these require unpacking further and hopefully others will hear and respond to this agenda.

The book then turns with similar rigour to analyse the potential positive value of three different categories of architects: social architects; cultural architects; and knowledge architects.  This method provides a powerful analysis that readers may find helpful as I did to position my own practise: that of the social architect.  A quote from Howard Gardner certainly chimed: “with the growth of overtly ethical businesses there should be a growing market for ethical practices”.

At the same time I certainly wanted push against simple categorisation within these definitions – any work in relation to health needs to deal with information and data whether qualitative or quantitative and seems to link strongly to knowledge architects.  Indeed the aim of much research is the creation of new knowledge so this seems vitally important to any practice wishing to be evidence informed.  How does this translate into practice – well DEGW’s “…spatially based management consultancy…” seems a good starting point – perhaps re-imagined for the next generation with a focus on creating social value with communities.

The book is extensively referenced and is an excellent resource for this including both peer reviewed and practice based literature.  It is incredibly accessibly written for a practice based audience avoiding falling back into research jargon. 

As with much research it raises as many questions as it answers.  A key question for me was: so what next for architects?

This question is not due to any gap in Samuel’s analysis but rather the response from the wider profession of practitioners that is now needed and that the thinking in this book really demands.  But where is this going to come from?  The changes needed are wholesale and wide ranging: a response across the profession is needed.  Will leaders within practice make structural changes to achieve this?  My experience leads me to doubt they will.  Also, if for example as Samuel references 60% of practices don’t have a business plan never mind a research strategy do they in any case have any competence to deliver this change?

Samuel highlights Gem Barton’s observation that “…it is time to stop squeezing the innovation potential of young people into outdated moulds and to help them find new ways to fulfil that potential.”  What if new graduates decide to fix the problem by following the title of Barton’s book, Don’t get a job… make a job?  Well I’d bet on them being far more effective at addressing these challenges and perhaps today’s leaders should focus on supporting this to happen.

And Samuel in fact goes further looking earlier into the role of her own role as an educator concluding that:

“…practitioner PhDs, collaborative projects and practice monographs, fablabs and urban living labs – represent a stop-gap, a sticking plaster over a flawed system.  What is really needed is an integration of professional education, research and practice.”

A total reappraisal indeed and one that in my view makes this book the most influential thinking relevant to architects today.

 

Recommended reading for: both current and aspiring architects and those with a broader interest in design practice; those who want to better understand the structural problems of the profession and key historic moments getting to where we are now; anyone seeking forms of practice that don’t mean ‘more of the same’; thinkers who are looking for new business models based on a knowledge economy; research and evidence informed practitioners seeking practical models to embed research into practise; those wishing to practise ethically and to add value to society.  Anyone planning to write a similar book dealing with these issues from perspectives such as other design disciplines, construction, funding, and procurement!

 

About us: Urban Habitats’ vision is for a new form of practise to emerge that creates a space within which creative strategy, thinking, and making can emerge.  This practise is undertaken by coalitions of communities and practitioners working side-by-side.  We have a passion for the health of the physical and natural environment, for our neighbourhoods, and streets.  Mark Drane, leads Urban Habitats and is a Doctoral Researcher at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Healthy Urban Environments.

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