Architects risk losing the ability to influence if we don’t try harder to engage with the rest of industry and explain more convincingly the value of good design

Sadie morgan bw 2017

I’m not one for snappy headlines, but I was recently the centre of one, when quoted from a speech saying “architects are sleepwalking into irrelevance”. Perhaps I could have been more careful with my phrasing, but the message is consistent and I’ve been saying it for some time.

Last July I wrote a piece here noting that as a profession architects have to think hard about our relevance in a world where technology and digital advances are likely to change the built environment beyond recognition. And I’m not alone in sounding the warning bells; my partners in crime are not disgruntled naysayers but friends and advocates of the profession. As such, their critique should be taken in the spirit in which it is given – in good grace. 

The developer Mike Hussey, sponsor of the Stirling prize, recently joined the debate by claiming that “the design industry [is] in danger of being, not just marginalised, but wiped out”. He went on to talk of the “massive disconnect” between designers and the rest of the industry, and urged them to engage more with the construction phase and with “the commercial pressures that we have as a client”, as well as with rapid change in the industry. 

The design industry has failed to articulate the argument that good design doesn’t cost more, but rather adds to the quality of our lives

His outburst generated much discussion and plenty of introspection about why the profession has become marginalised, and many well-known voices gave astute and thoughtful responses on what has gone wrong. These included: the rise of offsite manufacturing, meaning products and packages can be bought rather than designed; the prevalence of design and build, which shifts risk and therefore decision-making power onto the contractor and away from architects; and an education culture that focuses on arresting images and concepts over learning basic skills such as organisation, management and leadership. An overriding theme, however, was how the design industry has failed to articulate the argument that good design doesn’t cost more, but rather adds to the quality of our lives.

In the words of architect Maggie Mullan: “We are taught that the profession knows best and it is our responsibility to further the cause of architecture at all costs – to fight the ‘good’ fight. As a consequence ‘design’ has become a devalued currency, seen as something wilfully and expensively ‘bestowed’ on the ignorant masses.”

So how do we change the perception that good design costs more? 

First, we have to make sure that we do better at highlighting the “beautiful ordinary” in design. We can all point to an overly expensive, over-the-top grand project by a star architect for an extravagant developer that says more about the egos of both than the world that surrounds it. But that is the exception, not the norm.

Next, architects must reconnect with the world in an unpatronising and meaningful way, to demonstrate that we understand our clients’ pressures, risks and financial drivers, and to be prepared to think about the pragmatics of long-term management and maintenance. Most of all, we have to learn how to compromise by being smart rather than by being “value-engineered”. In the words of Simon Alford: “Let’s stop moaning and start acting ever more professionally.”

We can all point to an overly expensive, over-the-top grand project. But that is the exception, not the norm 

I agree that we need to stop complaining, and if we are these great problem-solvers then we have to start coming up with some solutions. So, you may reasonably ask, what am I going to do to address my own complaints?

Through my work at the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), I have helped put into practice two initiatives that I hope will be a good start. One is the setting up of a design taskforce to create a detailed proposal for ensuring quality design in major infrastructure, recommend a working model and remit for any future group, and establish initial design principles. Our work will be published alongside the National Infrastructure Assessment and our recommendations, I hope, will be taken up by government. 

The second is the launch of the NIC Young Professionals Panel, a group of people at the outset of their careers. They come from a mix of disciplines but all with unabashed enthusiasm and great ideas to make a positive contribution to the debate around our national infrastructure. They were chosen because they all had the right skills to support the work of the NIC, namely adaptability, inventiveness and imagination, coupled with the ability to multitask and make decisions quickly. Most importantly, they have nothing to lose and all to play for. 

Unlike the rest of the commissioners, they are likely to be alive in the 30- to 50-year horizon that defines the timeline for the commission’s remit. With a perspective shaped by the most recent advances, they can think freely. They are also keen to preach to the unconverted in all the ways that social media allows when you know how. 

Ultimately, they might become a loud enough voice to wake up some of the “sleepwalkers” to whom I referred. If not, at least there’ll be someone relevant enough to tackle the huge challenges we must all face in the years ahead and add the real value of what we do well: solve problems, maximise space and light, and create healthy, sustainable environments for us all.