To make it as an architect these days, you have to be a networking ‘archipreneur’ with a degree in economics. What happened to just designing things?
I recently attended a lecture at my old architecture school, the Bartlett, entitled The Seven Year Itch. The premise was that you’ve got about seven years after becoming a qualified architect to learn all the skills your employer has to offer (and make mistakes at their expense), before either setting up on your own or setting off on the road to partnership. A panel consisting of an architect, an urban planner and a magazine editor were on hand to discuss the matter.
The thing that struck me was how all of them impressed on us the need to diversify. Our generation of architects, they said, has to do more, be more. We can’t afford to play the blinkered “designer” (said in a flamboyant French accent) and we need to read outside the architectural press, open ourselves to the world of economics and embrace the politics of the industry. Only then would we gain a proper understanding of how we should be pitching for work.
Fair enough, I thought, but I had to draw the line at the demand that we read and absorb the Stern report on the economics of climate change. I mean, it’s more than 500 pages long (and no pictures!); I have a life to live.
I might skim through it, but their point was that we can’t just set up shop and wait for the jobs to come trundling in. We have to go out there and make things happen.
Nord, the winner of this year’s YAYAs (Young Architect of the Year Award), gained much praise for having proposed the redevelopment of a number of public loos in Glasgow to the council and turned it into a live project. Collaborative practice 00:/[Zer’o Zer’o] similarly pitched to a council for a new “ethical beach” project, eventually creating a scheme out of nothing. All of which raises some questions over how architects pitch for work in the future.
It’s a shame that young practices’ energies are being drained from their core skill and expended in the effort to find jobs that don’t exist yet
I love the idea of being an architectural entrepreneur – I even tried it once. A few years ago, I found a derelict public toilet in the City, approached the Corporation of London, did a business plan, jumped through many hoops and got extremely excited about my new life as an “archipreneur”. I could set up on my own and spend my time dreaming up developments.
One day, along came a big nasty developer who bought the site next door, which happened to include the rights to the public loo, and my dreams went down the pan. Four years later, both the loo and the site next door remain derelict. The episode taught me that I’m not a client, a developer or a contractor. I think it’s a shame young practices are telling us that their energies are being drained from their core skill and expended in the effort to find jobs that don’t exist yet.
When did being an excellent designer stop being enough? Why are so many young architects struggling? It’s obvious that jobs in the UK are given to firms with track records, rather than talent. One recent competition proudly declared its aspiration to attract only young practices while demanding that they all provide five years of accounts and bank references, cleverly excluding those they were trying to attract. Official Journal notices nearly always preclude interest from younger practices for the same reasons, leaving them in the hands of the big and nasty practices able to cope with PFI consortiums.
When it comes to the creation and procurement of projects, architects have been squeezed lower and lower down the food chain. We could lament the transfer of skills from architects to QSs and project managers, but those roles are extremely complex. This has allowed us to focus on being designers, but unfortunately this skill is not valued as a premium, and all too often we find ourselves too far from the client’s table.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop