Open mike: What relationship should architects have with project managers? Well they’re a bit like two halves of the same cortex – but there’s only room for one leader, says Keith Mason

New thinking is needed on project leadership. As construction schemes get more complex, involving the orchestration of a huge and ever-widening range of skills and activities, we are witnessing the gradual marginalisation of the architect. Project managers are now undertaking the role of looking after the wider picture, a job traditionally undertaken by architects trained to make such decisions.

But management is not the same thing as leadership, as any inspirational business seminar will tell you. So, it’s time to reassert the professional leadership role of the architect, working in amicable partnership with the project manager.

This step change needs to happen if we want to avoid the diminishment of the architect’s role to that simply of an artist, providing an aesthetic veneer to a poorly considered ragbag of unresolved demands. Understanding the bigger picture to achieve the best design possible is what architects do best, and in a world where buildings last on average a hundred years, long-term goals are more important than ever.

The project manager and the architect both have their part to play; just as any big company needs its manager and its leader: for every visionary there’s an administrator, for every Bill Gates there’s a Steve Ballmer. It’s classic left brain vs right brain thinking: the one linear, analytical, logical, verbal – the other holistic, intuitive, contextual, visual. One cortex strikes sparks off the other. Any organisation needs both sides of the brain to work well, and so does the team that comes together for a building project.

The RIBA standard agreement recognises a series of project roles. There is “project manager”, “lead consultant”, “lead designer” and “designer”, but the role specifications overlap and can be confusing. In reality, the project’s architect is usually appointed as “design team leader”. Perhaps this role should be entitled simply “project leader”.

The architect’s role is becoming that simply of an artist, providing an aesthetic veneer to a poorly considered ragbag of unresolved demands.

By project leadership, I mean the ability to pull together a whole host of issues, including those that some clients struggle to articulate: social responsibility and the wellbeing of users, for example. It means understanding the relative importance and impact of a wide variety of issues: structural and environmental engineering, regulatory change, new construction methods, sustainability, IT, acoustics, security, heritage, local politics – the list goes on. At Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, we regularly interact with and co-ordinate at least 30 design organisations on larger projects, in a leadership role.

Project leadership is about establishing a collaborative environment for designers of all types, where they can understand each others’ ideas and work together on solutions. It’s about energising and enthusing the team to achieve those moments of enlightenment – that creative spark, that intuitive flash – when everyone suddenly knows the solution is right. It’s more than just design team leadership, because it involves a direct relationship with the client, and a true partnership of equals with the project manager.

I’m not arguing that an architect should just sit around all day waiting for the imaginary light bulb to go on. Effective project leadership is hard work and needs careful internal management. Within any successful architectural practice there’s a left brain and right brain collaboration going on as well. Nor am I underestimating the value of project management. Project leadership allows the project manager to concentrate on all the other aspects of a project that need to be taken care of.

Together, the project manager and the project leader can support the client effectively in every aspect of the project and provide a conclusion that exceeds expectations.