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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.lossy-page1-950px-Blacksmith_and_his_forge._The_Pocahontas_Corporation,_Mines_33-34,_Bishop,_Tazewell_County,_Virginia._-_NARA_-_541077.tif

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.Telephone_operators,_1952

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 FacebookTwitter, and RSS feed. And now you can join the LinkedIN group too.

Comments

  • December 6, 2013
    reply

    I agree with you that far too many in the architectural profession hang on to a lost world rather like many retirees hang on to the myth that the American way of life is all about driving gas guzzlers and shifting education funds into highway construction and shopping malls.

    Architects spend a lot of time hand-wringing over “beauty” and “architectural theory” (whatever that is) but do precious little to ensure that our human habitat (the places we build for a wide array of human cultural, industrial and social endeavors) measurably supports the many dimensions of wellbeing that remain largely unmet for millions if not billions of people. Being at the policy-making table is critically important but is outside of the comfort zone of many a lone-ranger architect who perhaps feel themselves to be above that messy process. Yet it is at those tables that environments, zoning, planning codes and general plans for cities are made.

    The other significant area of great concern is how few architects – especially those whose careers began in the 1980s – actually embrace BIM technology and know how to be concert pianists with those tools. I’ve lost count of the folks I know who are architects who were fresh into practice just as early forms of BIM began to emerge in the UK and the US in the early to mid 1980s. Too many of them handed off responsibility for understanding the technology and its use to “technical folks and IT experts” and thus removed any chance for them to build up essential know-how that could seriously influence the quality of design solutions.

    It also seems to me that changing out the current crop of architecture schools will be key. The stuff being taught is hardly cutting edge and is far less cross-disciplinary than it needs to be. This is especially so when admittance to a masters-level architecture program means spending 4 years doing liberal arts degree (a.k.a. high school remediation classes) with an “architectural design” major. When students are saddled with having to complete a 4 year liberal arts degree, how much time can actually be spent delving into the incredibly broad, fascinating and demanding discipline of design thinking? Industrial design and engineering programs do a much better job in this regard. There is also a huge amount of work to be done in the field of research into what makes human habitats work for our species – and I mean research far beyond point-chasing for LEED certification. Its long past due for architects to engage more fully and with greater credibility in conducting research into how design impacts people, commerce and environment. The medical profession does it so as to inform better clinical judgements, improve problem diagnosis and improve the effectiveness of surgery. Why do we hardly ever go back to buildings to find out how they really worked on many levels?

    I recall our dean of graduate studies addressing my class after we had spent 5 hours taking the RIBA Part III Professional Practice Examination in London (back in the stone age). He said to us all “I want you all to remember this; the most important advice you are ever likely to give a client is not to build anything. Your responsibility as architects is to understand the fundamental drivers of the problems your clients are trying to solve. Do not assume ever that designing a building is a solution to what may well be deeper, underlying problems that will never been solved by building something.”

    That advice stuck with me and I have to say that its has been a great deal more enabling in working in multi-disciplinary environments than if I entered my career thinking always about how to sell the next design. The bulk of my career has been in the management consulting field where buildings and built environments hardly ever were a topic of concern. However, the discipline of design thinking that my education as an architect gave me, was incredibly valuable in being able to pick apart thorny and complex problems besetting corporations and communicating ways of solving them.

    So, I’d say that yes, its a potentially gloomy outlook for architects – but ONLY if architects fail to break out of the shrinking box they’ve created for themselves by a) not being more broadly engaged in policy-making and problem solving, and b) failing to embrace and become proficient in rapidly evolving technologies that transform the process of design and the thinking that goes into it.

      • December 6, 2013

        Thanks, Jared:

        Glad my comments resonated with your post. I certainly hope that the current generation of architects do end up infecting architecture schools and spreading their influence in fields and professions well beyond the traditional “architectural practice.” It will be – I think – in this way that the architectural profession will find itself more able to influence public policy and become more broadly recognized as the “go-to” shapers and designers of human habitats. However, if the profession continues to cede the field to lawyers, economists, builders and developers, we will end up with and even bigger mess (with an even higher ugliness quotient) than the one we are surrounded by today – especially in many US cities and urbanized areas.

  • December 16, 2013
    reply

    Willard E. Williams Jr., AIA

    Technology is progressing at a rate that is astonishing, this is basically referred to as Moore’s Law. Also with this advancement we are also approaching the technological Singularity. Both very interesting theories of the evolution of technology. And architects are always on the cusp of technological evolutions just based on the amount of technology required to design and build in today’s market. Architects will have to fight amongst themselves in the coming decades to just practice architecture.

    How do these relate? Well if our computational capabilities are doubling every year that means we can build more complex projects that contain more information, but as computational power approaches the Singularity or systems are going to be able to solve problems before we know that they are there. This can start to be seen with some of the new features in Archicad 17 and it’s Building Materials attributes and background processing. We will reach a point where it will require less people to design and build a building based on the the intelligence of objects and a models inherit components, not to mention how robotics will start to play a larger role in design and construction.

    We will most likely be designing, fabricating, constructing our buildings with very few people to assist in that effort because we will be able to fabricate, design, and complete a project by ourselves. This is the architects dream as was envisioned by Thomas Cole’s, Architects Dream, 1840.

  • June 26, 2015
    reply

    Brian Lighthart

    The future of the discipline of architecture depends to a disturbing degree on the ability of the path to practice to adapt to ever-increasing complexity. Near the beginning of the path to practice are the schools of architecture and design. Most give one little reason to be optimistic.

    Most seem to prefer to coddle students with design problems which, if even appearing complex, have their solutions judged on simplistic criteria with only cursory attention to such critical issues as environmental control, resource use, structural integrity, weather-tightness, budget, and the degree to which the functional requirements are analyzed or met. This approach to architectural education is justified – even lauded by its champions – as providing students with the freedom they need to develop as designers. (They should learn all that ECS and code stuff as interns, after graduating.)

    If they have even tried to, most architecture schools have found it difficult to integrate the physics and economics of buildings with their design studios for decades. My exposure to architectural academia is limited, but this appears to have changed little, if at all in recent years.

    Application of digital tools to design problems in school seems to be largely limited to presentation graphics. Last year I was flabbergasted to find that a recent graduate of a respected university architecture program was unfamiliar with the concept of Building Information Modeling.

    Academia – particularly the soft sciences and the arts – are notoriously slow to react to change in the world around them. Architecture is a soft profession, more like teaching or law than engineering in the rationality of it’s precepts. It too is notoriously slow to react to change. This can act as a damper on a faculty and student population preoccupied with fads. (Although, in the case of architecture, it seems more often to provide fertile ground for stylistic fads as a distraction from less sexy, but more enduring design qualities.) But it can also make it impossible to keep pace with the market for skills which a responsible professional curriculum ought to be leading rather than chasing.

    I am surprised the profession of architecture has lasted as long as it has. Apparently, motivation, resources, skill, and tenacity in sufficient quantities and under the right circumstances can still result in inspiring and constructable designs. The enduring belief that having an architect involved in a project improves the chances that it will be safer and more esthetically pleasing doesn’t hurt, either. And the legal requirement for a design professional to be involved in major work combined with engineers’ distaste for working outside their specialty leaves room for architects to play the role of design team conductor.

    Then again, I don’t think we have seen any architects as the public conceives of them and as they are portrayed in popular fiction, emerge in my lifetime. If the profession really ever existed as such, it is already gone. I’ve only looked at one Frank Ghery building up close, but it was disappointing as compared with the work of Saarinen, Wright, Van de Rohe, or Kahn. I admire Ghery’s creativity, tenacity and guts, but the detailing challenges he built for himself with the EMP’s envelope looked to be unmet. I am more often impressed by engineers’ work these days than by architects’. Am I forgetting someone?

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