The invisible profession

invisible man

We have observed with growing disquiet over recent years that architecture is fast becoming the invisible profession. Be it in the papers, on talkback radio or coming directly from parliament, rarely are the opinions of architects publicly sought on issues that affect the built environment.

Over and over again, builders, planners, real estate agents, plumbers and property developers are all consulted, yet strangely and infuriatingly architects are not. The most recent example of this worrying state of affairs arrived in the form of an announcement last week from the Victorian Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, concerning the future of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria.

The ARBV

According to a report in The Age last week, Guy is due to announce the abolition of the ARBV as part of wider reforms to the building certification process. Along with the Building Commission and Plumbing Industry Commission, it will be replaced by a newly formed Victorian Building Authority (VBA).

The purpose of these reforms is to create “a simpler and more transparent complaints and disciplinary process [in the building industry]” and “ensure the ad hoc approach to industry regulation over the past decade is brought to an end”. This comes after a “damning Auditor-General’s report found that 96% of 401 building permits it examined failed to meet basic standards”.

What is not at all clear is what this has to do with architects and the ARBV.

a fresh start for building industry regulation

As discussed in detail by Peter Johns on Butterpaper here and here, the report released by Guy’s office, A Fresh Start for Building Industry Regulation, discusses at great length the issues with the current regulatory framework (a framework that, as Johns wryly points out, was introduced by Guy’s Liberal Party predecessor, Jeff Kennett) and the negative findings of the Auditor-General. The report is 9 pages long and numbers over 3,000 words, yet architects are mentioned only twice, both in the same sentence:

The new VBA will integrate the functions of the Building Commission, Plumbing Industry Commission and the Architects Registration Board of Victoria to provide a single point of governance for building and plumbing practitioners and architects.

Guy claims that the primary goal of the reforms is to restructure the building surveyor’s role in issuing building permits, yet architects, who outnumber building surveyors in Victoria by more than twenty to one, have been casually and perhaps carelessly thrown into the mix.

What’s worse, the report states that,

Throughout December 2012, meetings will be held with key industry stakeholders including the Housing Industry Association, Master Builders Association Victoria, Australian Institute of Building Surveyors and the Property Council of Australia.

Why is the Australian Institute of Architects not included on this list? And why has Guy’s boss, Premier Ted Baillieu, an architect himself and a paid up member of the AIA, not made sure of it?

There is even alarming conjecture that this could lead to deregulation of the profession. Long a topic of nervous discussion, deregulation of architects has so far been staved off by the Architects Act, a piece of legislation introduced in 1991 and upheld by the ARBV. In addition to protecting the use of the term architect, and describing the minimum professional standards required of one, this legislation empowers the ARBV to manage the registration of architects, maintain a register of practitioners and field complaints.

For an institutional body that has been in continuous existence since 1923, a single line in a report seemingly about someone else is an ignominious way to go. As for the architectural profession itself, Guy’s inexplicable silence on the role we will have in his reforms cannot be positive. No matter which way we look at it, we are simply unable to see anything good coming from the ARBV’s dissolution.

Real estate

Other, perhaps less significant but certainly more persistent, evidence of the invisible profession can be traced to the allied world of real estate. Browsing the Domain section of The Age over the weekend, we came across three Marshall White auction notices for architect designed houses, none of which attributed authorship of the designs.

On face value, it appears that Marshall White has hoped the glamour of architecture will rub off on its properties, a tawdry and superficial agenda that has no need for actual architects, only their reputation. We contacted the agents for each of the three properties and asked three questions:

  1. Who is the architect of the advertised house?
  2. Why is his / her name not included in your advertising material?
  3. Are you aware that under the the moral rights section of the Copyright Act 1968, it is illegal to publish a representation of an artistic work, which includes works of architecture, without attributing that work to its author?

cruikshank street

The architect for 161 Cruikshank Street, Chan Architecture, is credited in online material but not printed media. According to the agent for the property, he is however extensively promoted during open for inspections. A limited word count was blamed for the absence of printed attribution, though curiously the advert appears within dedicated Marshall White space so is not subject to word limits. The agent was not aware of the Moral Rights Act, even suggesting that architects have no right to free publicity off vendors’ investment in advertising material. He also commented that while works by architects like Chan and SJB might be sought after, architects with poor public profiles are generally omitted from advertising material as they don’t assist sales.

bevan street

The architect for 22 Bevan Street is credited in neither digital nor printed media. The agent confessed to not knowing who the architect is, but did advise that the architect designed the house when it was originally built 30 years ago and was omitted from advertising material on vendor orders. He was not familiar with the Moral Rights Act nor had ever advised a vendor of his or her responsibilities under the Act. He did say that around three quarters of architect designed Marshall White properties are correctly credited and promised to find out the identity of the architect and get back to us.

lynch street

Finally, 8 Lynch Street is a curious case as its advertising material does not claim an architectural pedigree, only that it is an architect’s own home. Neither digital nor printed media credit the vendor for the design, if indeed he or she is its author. We tried to get in contact with the agent on a number of occasions, but failed to reach her. Perhaps more than the other two cases, this house exemplifies the attitude that the term architect bestows a perception of quality, but that unless the architect is already well known, identification is not deemed important enough for diligent inclusion as it generally holds little value for resale.

This small sample reveals a few issues of concern:

  • There is in fact an associated commercial value to architectural design, or at the very least a perception of quality that can attract potential purchasers
  • Attribution of architectural design is a hit and miss affair
  • Real estate agents are generally ignorant of their responsibilities under the moral rights section of the Copyright Act and do not communicate such to vendors
  • Real estate agents are dismissive of authorship attribution unless it serves their own commercial purposes

This laissez fair approach to attribution of authorship may be a small detail, particularly in light of bigger issues like the dissolution of the ARBV, however we believe it to be yet another piece in the larger puzzle of the invisible profession. In an increasingly design-savvy country, why does architecture continue to receive second rate public attention when compared to both designers from other disciplines and other professionals within the construction industry?

The Australian Institute of Architects

Before, dear reader, you accuse us of casting unwarranted blame on politicians and real estate agents, our most pressing question at the end of the above discussion is this: what are we, the architecture profession, doing about our own invisibility? More poignantly, what is our institutional representative doing about it? The AIA may be perfectly capable of helping architects talk to architects, but its lack of public advocacy is deeply unnerving.

Our invisibility persists largely because we let it. The AIA needs to make one of its Council members available to Jon Faine for an expert opinion every time Matthew Guy releases a new tranche of outer suburban land for development, re-writes the Victorian planning laws or decides to abolish our regulatory body. Its representatives should be quoted in every paper from the Financial Review to the Herald Sun on every built environment issue from housing quality to public transport. It needs to chase every real estate agent that fails to attribute design authorship. It needs to thrust itself into the public eye on issues that matter to the public: jury presentation days for the Architecture Awards are all well and good, but where is the AIA when McMansions in Greenvale are being discussed?

In short, what is the AIA doing to help architects talk to everyone else?

The answer, we fear, is not much.

But to internalise the blame one step further, the AIA is only so terrible at public advocacy because its members, ourselves included, do not demand it. Collectively, the architecture profession needs to take a long hard look at itself in the mirror. Are we interested in surviving? Are we interested in making a meaningful contribution to the lives of the vast majority of people who live, work and play in buildings devoid of design integrity? If so, we need to get much better at being less invisible. We need to disprove the general consensus that we are mere beautifiers of buildings.

Melbourne is heading fast towards a crisis point, with a rapidly increasing population unable to be accommodated in limited housing stock of generally low quality, with overwhelmed public infrastructure in the unaffordable inner suburbs and non-existent infrastructure in the vacuous outer suburbs. The architecture profession has the right paradigms, experience and skill sets to tackle many of these problems in a proactive and productive manner. While the State Government blithely continues to bloat the footprint of this great city, we need to shake off our shroud and get busy being more active on issues that matter.

10 thoughts on “The invisible profession

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  1. Whilst there is a severe lack of advocacy from the Institute in regards to matters to like this one would expect that we would hear something from the Victorian State Government Architect. But like with all architecture related matters in Victoria (I was going to say this state but I’m in Canberra at the moment) the Government Architect is always very silent. Both the Institute and the Government Architect need to be at the forefront of promoting architecture in Victoria and they both do it very poorly. Whilst Canberra’s architecture scene is fairly conservative it is pleasing to see the Chapter President regularly in the paper giving quotes about planning and architectural matters.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with the thrust of your argument. For me, though, the rot sets in well before the sale of a property or the opening of a project. It appears to have various causes: be it partial commissions, small-mindedness or selfishness or basic impoliteness, but clients and organisations seem very reluctant to acknowledge the architect by name, to recognise/broadcast that the architect had any role in the realisation of the project. Builders mostly get a look in, engineers sometimes- especially in local government but the architect is often invisible. A quick look at any building opening plaque before say 1975 shows this was not always the way.

    1. I’m interested in your comment about partial commissions, small-mindedness et al. Do you think this is a general state of being amongst the general public or a more specific approach to architectural engagement?

  3. This article hits the nail on the head. It is incredibly frustrating to be involved in a profession that continues to shoot itself in the foot through poor management and an unwillingness to get it’s hands dirty – be it the unwillingness to promote our value to the wider public, reluctance to involve ourselves in the basic finances that underpin any project or a lack of involvement in managing projects that has led to the birth of the over-rated and over-paid ‘project manager.’ We only have ourselves to blame and it will take a collective effort by all of the architecture community to emerge from this delusional self-absorbed bubble and re-claim the respect that the title ‘architect’ once carried. Wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments in this article and commend you for getting some sort of word out there! Hopefully someone from the AIA manages to read this and pull themselves (pun absolutely intended) from the visual masturbation of ‘architecture awards nights’ and focus on the pressing issues such as the survival of our profession.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Nick. I agree with your sentiments about the project manager. Check out our recently published article, Iron triangle. I’d like to see the field of architecture expand into new territory, not just yearn for past, lost responsibilities.

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