Blacksmith, Telephone Operator, Architect
I tend towards pessimism when I reflect on the role of architects twenty years from now. Many of our prominent voices promote the myth of the lone visionary, fail to support less experienced colleagues, and continue to link our value to methodologies and techniques based on a romanticized past, rather than the realities of our evolving future. In 2033 we could live in a world where architects are marginalized and become a nostalgic profession, one relegated to stories of bygone eras or to servicing the frivolous whims of only the wealthiest clients. Yes, there would still be people licensed and able to professionally call themselves ‘Architects,’ but their roll would either be one of legal and procedural necessity or one focused on decorating others’ technical expertise.
It is easy to prognosticate our obsolescence. Others in the construction industry are evolving and adapting in a more robust manner than we are. We see this today with contractors adopting and utilizing BIM at a faster rate than architects. According to The Business Value of BIM in North America: Multi-Year Trend Analysis and User Ratings (2007-2012) by McGraw-Hill Construction, in 2009 Architects led in BIM adoption with 58% using BIM (compared to 50% of contractors). In 2012, the roles were reversed and contractors were in the vanguard with an adoption rate of 74% (compared to 70% of architects). While just one example of process change implementation, I view this reversal of our positions—not to mention the shift in the conversation about the value of BIM to the AECO ecosystem—as symptomatic of our deeper failure to be leaders and manage current trends.
Not only are we as a profession struggling to adapt to the changing technological landscape, our duties and responsibilities are constantly eaten away by others—the interior designers, the engineers, the sustainability consultants, the code checkers, the construction managers, the experts of this or that. As a result, I foresee our remaining job description in 2033 being something just as easily accomplished by someone without the education or certification. If the architect’s role is to provide beauty rather than health, safety, and welfare (all the things we more and more relegate to others), then that role can be fulfilled by anyone with a good eye, whether they spent years getting a B Arch, M Arch, or D Arch, or just got a job in the construction industry after studying Theater or English Literature.
While we struggle with our current duties, the built environment is changing as well. Buildings are more complex today than they were twenty years ago, and they will be magnitudes more complex in 2033. Climate change will continue to put pressure on existing and future building stock. The diversity of new construction methods due to advances in materials science will make science fiction from the 20th century feel mundane and shortsighted. All this increased complexity means that the dream of the Master Builder is dead. We can’t know all these changes, systems and materials. We can’t pretend to lead from a position of superior knowledge. We must instead master the technology used to execute our own work, and possess understanding of, and curiosity in, the technologies used by others. We must focus and be able to elucidate what matters to those it matters to. We must concentrate on asking the right questions rather than knowing the right answers. We must become mentors and guides of the building process. We must become completely team-centric and abandon the concept of the lone design genius. We must become stewards of the whole process, letting others focus on the minutia. We must let go of the position we think we have to capture the position we should have in the future.
Some professions die in the face of technological advances. Others evolve. Some professions refuse to acknowledge changes in their value propositions. Others adapt to new niches. In our modern world of smart phones and VOIP there is no place for telephone operators. Most of us probably didn’t even notice their disappearance. One day it was just easier to use Google. The next we’d all forgotten how often we once dialed zero for everything. It’s hard to argue that the world is now worse off. Blacksmiths, conversely, are still around in our world of robot filled factories churning out millions of advanced cars. Once they were an iconic part of the community; now they are hyper-specialists and outside the common human experience. Once seen as craftsmen, they are now just as often something closer to artists. Their numbers have dwindled to a fraction of their original size and the remaining blacksmiths now serve niche markets, like Hollywood or Renaissance Festivals. They are still respected and valued, but in ways unrecognizable to their 19th century counterparts.
There is still huge potential for architects in the coming decades. But we need to be deliberate about our chosen paths. We need to accept change and let go of some of our old responsibilities while refocusing on a new agenda. We must discover a new identity for the 21st century. Failure to focus on a corrective course runs the grave risk of architects becoming an anecdote like the telephone operator or a small, marginalized group of artists like the modern blacksmith.
What do you think architects will be like in 2033? Share your thoughts below. Or better yet, e-mail them to me and be a guest blogger. I love having guest bloggers. Subscribe to my blog to read more about the future of BIM and the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feed. And now you can join the LinkedIN group too.