The past ten years have brought revolutionary changes to practically every area of the architecture industry. No corner has escaped its share of disruption. Major socio-economic shifts and technological advancements have forever altered the design and build process, firms’ organisational structure, the skills and mindset of up-and-coming professionals, the competitive landscape and even the relevance of architecture as a profession. Before our very eyes, architecture as an institutionalised, canonised and elitist profession is dissolving and morphing into something totally different.
I truly believe that the combined fallout from all of these micro-movements will eventually strengthen the field of architecture, partly because it will force out those practices that have been unable to keep up with the currents sweeping through the profession. At the same time it will (and already has) opened the doors to other practices that do.
The truth is architecture today is home to two parallel movements (or perhaps, universes is a better word). On one side are the firms that “get it,” the ones that are adaptive, crystal clear about the value they have to offer and hyper-connected to the needs of their clients. On the other side is a growing pool of practices big and small, well-known and obscure, that are slowly losing touch with reality.
A Disconnect is Born
It’s fair to say that this disconnect starts in higher educational programs where a hands-on approach to learning the profession is practically ignored in favor of theoretical and abstract creativity. More time at university is spent designing pretty portfolios and building Styrofoam models than acquiring any practical design experience. Upon graduation, this attitude is only reinforced in the accreditation process and further egged on by the industry’s most prestigious organisations and awards. Even the topics for discussion among architecture circles as well as the content that fills our professional architectural publications, symposiums, and workshops reveal a stunning detachment from people, spaces, and even buildings.
Design technology has only exacerbated the situation.
Many architect practices are quite comfortable these days letting their software do the heavy lifting in the design process. They willingly give up control over how their designs are built and fundamental problems are solved in the name of saving time and money. Less focus is being placed on on-site learning and analysis, or even speaking to the people who will use or live next to the built space. The human-side of design, among these firms at least, is getting lost.
As parts of the professional architecture community appear to lose touch with society, it seems that neither architects nor the institutions that support them want to acknowledge the issue, let alone take any responsibility for it. Instead, they deep dive into a sea of discourse on urbanisation, diversity, and an ever broadening range of abstract, philosophical, yet barely architectural, topics. It feels like a kind of diversion, a desire to just ignore the problem instead of working through it.
Architects Are Part of the Solution
But the truth is that architects are as much a part of the solution as a part of the problem. The idea of architects as skilled listeners and collaborators, ones who are willing and able to incorporate the needs of the surrounding environment into their designs, is slowly making its way into mainstream architecture and community development. There are a growing number of practices across the globe which work according to the ethos that private and public buildings, transportation hubs, and public outdoor spaces should not be out of step with the very people who use them.
While this movement is stronger in parts of Europe and North America, right here in Australia it has been gaining traction, as well. Over the past few years, we’ve been witnessing a burgeoning drive to design new buildings while actively seeking feedback from those who will be using them the most.
Not all projects need a big scale effort. But, it’s vital for architecture practices to understand people want above all that the discourse as well as the design of buildings and spaces should focus on them and their needs- not just the artistic whims of some distant software program.