To rebuild the profession’s relevance architects must embrace a role as designers in industry

Ben Derbyshire

This is the last of a series of three blogs I have written for Building on the decline in influence of architecture over the last half a century, and its current signs of a potential renaissance. In this final contribution, I sketch out a vision for architectural practice of the future.

To find a new raison d’être, architects must embed themselves in the means of production - in the industrial complex of the development process – both planning and manufacture. And in this milieu, they must understand that it is the consumer of the development process who must benefit from the value added by design. To remain outside or above the process might once have been tolerated, but no more. 

Now architects must roll up their sleeves and become designers in industry. And as in all industrial processes, success will rest entirely upon whether design is perceived by consumers to add value. 

It is absolutely no use the profession hurling ‘shameful shoebox’ invective at developers 

Is this socially purposeful, or merely cynically commercial, I hear you ask? To which I would counter that it can be both - socially and commercial successful. In my view designers are far more likely to add value to society if their contribution is tested in the marketplace. The market mechanism self regulates and prevents the kind of expensive disaster that resulted in so much of the post-war production being wastefully demolished, and the reputation of the profession disastrously damaged.

That’s why the profession needs to get alongside, then inside, the producers and why Stephen Hodder is right to enrich the profession’s dialogue with contractors. It is absolutely no use the profession hurling (“shameful shoebox”) invective at developers. What’s required is a marketing job by means of which the profession and the educators prepare architects to meet the design needs of the producers, improving the design of the product from within. In the era of small government and the return to growth, we must infiltrate industry, and put dreams of government patronage for an architect designed utopia behind us.

We should celebrate the contribution that the great designers in industry have made to society, with popular and iconic products that have changed the way we live: Andre Lefebre and the Citroen DS, James Dyson and cyclonic cleaners, Jonathan Ive and the iPod. These designers were only able to innovate in a way that has so captured the public imagination because they were immersed in the technology and the marketplace. 

Andre LeFebre, for example, started as an apprentice at Voisin (Corbusier’s transport of choice) then Renault before moving to Citroen where he designed the 2CV and, at the apogee of his career, collaborated with the sculptor Bertoni to make the most beautiful car of the 20th Century. Today, maybe Thomas Heatherwick shows the way forward.

We can begin to envision a consumer-driven social relevance that is a far cry from the idealistic social engineering of the post war years.

Complementing all of this, of course, is a new role for consumers, because politics in Britain has at last caught up with society’s appetite for choice - in the provision of local services, and in involvement in decisions about the built environment. In the era of localism, once radical experiments in advocacy and participation are now finding their way into mainstream policy and planning. 

The current round of deregulation could be the stimulus of a consumer led revolution in quality that will unfold as it’s natural companion. We have, for example, the prospect of space labelling being recognised as a legitimate tool for levering quality and value in the government’s consultation on housing standards.

Underpinning a new social purpose for architecture is the rapidly evolving world of information technology and social media, allowing triangulation and validation on open sourceprinciples. Neighbourhood planning and pre-application planning consultation portals will emerge to give designers access to real-time feedback at the planning stage. BIM and CADCAM create the possibility of previously unheard of consumer information, choice and mass customisation of the housing product as never before.

We can begin to envision a consumer-driven social relevance that is a far cry from the idealistic social engineering of the post-war years. A social engineering which I described in the first of these three blogs – a false utopia that, in hindsight, starts to look like a paternalistic professional conspiracy by comparison with what now appears possible.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design