To make it as an architect you have to be prepared to endure long periods of evil luck as you wait for the phone call that will turn everything around …
Sunand Prasad, the president of the RIBA estimates that 30% of architects are unemployed, or at least under-employed. I’ve had plenty of people working for me whom I consider under-employed, but that is more a matter of spending too much time researching Reynolds tubing for their bikes and not enough time working out invert levels. And of course there are all those people who are supremely competent at standing around talking about something, or arguing in favour of it or against it or discussing it in its wider context who somehow manage not to actually get round to doing anything.
Shortly after I qualified, I remember going to see a friend of mine who was working for Norman Foster (as he then was) in his zippy office in Great Portland Street. He pointed out an employee whose sole job it was to research the provision of wheels and the “trucks” needed to make a skateboard.
Architects have always demonstrated how clever they are by using artifacts that have been designed for a different purpose or even a different industry. Vast concrete sewer rings have been up-ended and used to contain spiral staircases; spring cleats made to restrain billowing sails in force 10 gales have been used on roller blinds. Indeed, Foster’s office at that time had bulkhead doors designed for submarines. And of course someone would have been employed to search through catalogues to find that bulkhead light. They were fantastically atmospheric with all those portholes and shiny dome-headed bolts, but of course it was also bloody inconvenient to have to step over the high thresholds. Now when real work begins to dry up, all this activity has to stop because nobody can afford to pay for it.
I remember one chap at a large practice I worked for who would do almost anything rather than produce any actual work. “I’ve found it,” he announced one day. ”There’s a company in Falkirk that imports 5.5mm ply faced in Norwegian spruce for use in lining trawler divot hatches. That means it’s the same colour and thickness as the sheet flooring we’ve found that the French use in surgery wards.” I suppose this arcane sourcing exercise would be worthwhile for an Oxford Street fit-out, but it seemed contrived for a meter cupboard in a common hall.
I don’t think you’ve billed us anything yet so stick in your invoice at 35% as we’d like to pay it before our accounting year ends in a fortnight
When times are lean you need multi-taskers. Architects have skills that are probably more useful across a broader range of sectors than almost any other profession (rights of light surveyor anyone?). In fact, Prasad says just this. As architecture and construction are notoriously cyclical, and we all know practices that have 10 staff one year, 30 the next and then back to 10 the year after that.
On the other hand, architects don’t seem to go broke as often or as dramatically as contractors, and they are used to sudden reversals of fortune. One of my fellow architects used to have a practice of 40 people designing hospitals. The seventies recession struck and he found himself down to two. He was on the point of shutting up shop when the phone went. “You tendered for a roofing job a few years ago … do you still want it?”
He looked through the files and found that four years ago a former associate had tendered to oversee the re-roofing of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich. “Yes I think we might be able to fit that in,” he said. “Good. Come and see us next Wednesday.” In the three days before he met them, he’d worked out that he could do it on his own, armed only with a folder of leadwork details. Out of the blue he’d found himself handling a £3m job in today’s money. What’s more, he didn’t even have to get planning permission.
He went to the meeting waiting for the snag to be revealed. When he arrived, he was told: “I don’t think you’ve billed us anything yet so stick in your invoice at 35% as we’d like to pay it before our accounting year ends in a fortnight. Oh, and yes, we’re getting funding for the other wings. We’d like you do do them as well … if you’re not too busy of course.”
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London