Building the future with the next generation of architects

A new generation of architects is needed to build our cities. Flickr/MorBCN

The “future” is something which manifests nowhere more potently than in our cities.

Yet a substantial transformation over the past twenty years in the way cities are being made – both in terms of their economy and finance but also the managerial approach to city making which accompanies this economic context – has drastically altered the context for architects and challenge the way that the profession itself is currently constructed.

Smaller boutique practices are being eaten away by larger conglomerates from one direction, and nimble single-skill consultancies on the other.

In the making of cities the architect has gradually been replaced by the strategic designer, the management consultant and the futurologist. But it’s time for architects to stop acting like victims. The profession must change.

At the same time, massive changes have occurred within the traditional domain of architectural practice itself. It’s not simply a building business anymore.

There’s been an exponential increase in the involvement of specialised consultants to address the increasingly complex technical, logistical and legal frameworks.

Changing perspective

Almost twenty years ago Magali Sarfatti Larson reminded us of the difficulty for a profession which combines the autonomous nature of spatial knowledge and the conditions within which architects work, with many players and various types of expertise.

This confusion has made it difficult for the profession to assert its significance and exert its authority in the making of cities. As a result, for much of the twentieth century, architects retreated from the city to the design of single objects.

Architecture schools should be the place where the transformation of (or recovery of) the profession should be addressed. However, they (with of course some key exceptions) have appeared reluctant or incapable of addressing these issues.

A lack of staff with current experience and skills in the complex and dirty business of making buildings in a political and economic context is combined with a school requirement to teach courses established by the professional bodies. However, these structures reinforce the current (or old) order and are not projective. Yet architecture schools are the very places which should be adapting to the change.

Rebuilding the role of the architect

We need to reconfigure the profession, so the architect re-appears in a central role in city-making.

We should draw on Aaron Betsky’s differentiation between architecture and building. He suggests the architect moving from “building designer” to that of “public intellectual in the field of city making”.

It means we can no longer look at a building and say “what a great piece of architecture.” Rather, we might now say “what a great building” as it is a building like any other but has an exceptional quality as a result of the architectural work which went into it.

This distinction is important, for we can now question how to locate the architect’s capacity to address complex problems and to clearly articulate spatial propositions to address them.

Of the many ways this idea might be extended, is the concept of spatial intelligence as redescribed by Leon van Schaik. He gives specific focus to Betsky’s distinction between architecture and building by isolating the architect’s skill.

Educating the next generation

In framing an approach to architectural education I suggest that an answer might lie between the differing conceptions at two universities where I am engaged as Professor – the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark and the University of Technology (UTS) Sydney.

Aarhus is an arts school while UTS has still contains its legacy as a technical college.

AAA is conceived in the Beaux Arts tradition and as such is founded on an educational premise based “more on skill than on knowledge”.

Most international schools focus on theory, history, structure and so on, but the AAA positions the design studio as the sole subject in the curriculum with all other inputs occurring through this studio environment.

The radicalism of this approach is what makes the AAA so distinctive. An independent architectural expression is developed by students via a series of techniques aimed at instilling a deep aesthetic sensibility. They have a familiarity with materials and an insistence on quality.

At UTS the dominance of the design studio is both balanced and informed by a professional practice stream which dissects the various aspects of the profession as it is constructed now and could be imagined in the future.

The course teaches them how to deal with the perils of modern architecture - the contracts, construction documentation and co-ordinating with subcontractors. And they think about the skill of city-making.

They are asked to imagine a different future for the architect and to consider how to negotiate their way through political and economic structures.

Rethinking our cities

By combining these schools’ approaches, we can see our students will able to dissect the role of the architect, and can hope they will see the profession differently.

As a new breed of graduates enters the market with the spatial and intellectual tools to engage with the politics and economy of city making, we could well see the end of the generalist architect. There could be a sea of specialists in areas as diverse as strategic design or materials performance.

We may not be able to predict the future, but by teaching students to value their spatial ability and to be critical thinkers we will have prepared them for the unknown.

A longer version of this article features in edition 8, 2011 of Conditions Magazine.