What’s in a name?

freedom of information
Farrah Tomazin, The Age, p. 13, 18th November 2012

architect \ˈär-kə-ˌtekt\
1) a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction
2) a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking

In Australia, there are many who claim ownership of the name, architect, but who among them truly deserve it?

First of the aspirants are the professionals: those who adhere to the registration requirements of the Architects Act. To become registered, and gain the legal right to use the name, one must first graduate from an approved architecture school, then gain experience under another architect, and finally pass a series of registration exams. This is the group most commonly understood to uphold the first dictionary definition of the name.

However, even within this group of some 11,000 registered architects, there is limited homogeneity. There are many who are little more than technicians: CAD architects whose experience of building goes no further than the edges of their computer screens. There are those whose expertise lies in sketch design but have never had to devise a waterproofing detail; or those who live day in and day out on site, but have no interest in design. This group is unified by their education and the titles on their business cards, but little else.

Second are the architect wannabes: building designers, design and construct practitioners, and draftspeople all clamouring at the door of the professionals’ shaky stronghold. They are individuals commissioned in similar ways to the architect, in the design (if in only a limited way) of buildings, but they have not survived the many years of study and apprenticeship required of formal registration.

Third and further afield are the curiously un-litigated misuses of the name: the interior architect is somewhat allied to the ambit of the architect, but is nothing more than a sly semantic evolution from the interior designer. Entirely unrelated are the systems architect, enterprise architect, data architect, solutions architect and software architect, new professions that owe allegiance to the second dictionary definition, but have no role whatsoever in the design and construction of buildings.

Finally, there are the journalistic uses of the name: the architect might be responsible for an Act of parliament, a new computer design or a war. The applications vary, however they share the same sinister tone, the architect being synonymous with inventor or mastermind.

beyond the fall of night
Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford, Beyond the Fall of Night, p. 307

What defines an architect?

The key to understanding the architect is to understand her unique world view, one whose seeds are planted at university and continue to grow as she travels and works. Hers is a paradigm that believes in the power of good design to affect positive change. It is the rare merging of ideas and craft, the mental and physical realms coexisting and enhancing one another. It is both science and art, the functional and philosophical shaping of lives and activities. It enables the architect to see the bigger picture of every decision, places the importance of the built and natural environments above other concerns.

The architect is not only invested in her current project, she is invested in all projects, in whole cities and countries. Hers is an occupation that requires visionary acts to write the built future not yet written. She is passionate about that future, fights to protect it when others are incapable of glimpsing it. She is a true tightrope walker: thinker and maker; scientist and artist; historian and prophet.

It is not sufficient to define an architect therefore as a person registered with the appropriate authority. We have known plenty who are architects from 9am to 5pm only. During evenings, weekends and holidays, they switch off. For them, architecture is merely a job, a means to an ends like any other. The registration process in Australia establishes a minimum requirement but not a maximum: it is a measure of one’s ability to survive the obstacle course of contemporary regulation but not of one’s capacity for design.

Likewise, it is not sufficient to define an architect as a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction. A building designer can be said to do this, but there is a significant gulf between her and the architect. By dint of personality or experience she might gain the architect’s world view, in which case we may very well refer to her as an architect in all but name, but she does not develop it a priori. She lacks the values transmitted osmotically during a tertiary education: the personal and unequivocal investment in the built environment.

Lastly, it is not sufficient to define an architect as the designer of a plan or undertaking. The IT industry cannot simply attach the name to its collective chest like a shiny name tag at a high school reunion. The systems architect might have many responsibilities resonant of the architect’s, but she has no expertise in the making of buildings, no interest in the built environment. Perhaps the distinction between real and digital environments is growing ever more blurry, but the latter has yet to evolve an appreciation of craft: effort spent by skilled trades in the making of things with their hands. The architect knows this effort and is rewarded by it.

mechanical computers
MX, p.10, 25th July 2007

What do we think?

We think the architect is many things:

The architect is a problem solver. Presented with a loosely assembled host of questions (of site, client, budget, climate, urbanism, regulation), she uncovers unlikely and singular answers. She juggles structure, materials and finishes, and the construction industry that employs them. She is logical, a lover of hierarchy, sequence and proportion. She is committed to the slow experimentation of architecture, constantly revising and improving ideas and details.

The architect is a creative thinker. She is able to see far outside the box and anticipate uses and programmatic arrangements otherwise unthinkable. She presents outcomes that not only meet expectations but exceed them. She ensures her projects are flexible, adaptable and resilient, built not only for her clients but for future generations as yet unborn.

The architect is a craftswoman. She cultivates both the brilliance of her broad design strategies and the technique of her detailing, following Robin Boyd‘s command to imbue her work with her clients’ spirit and ideals. She understands the work of the carpenter, mason and joiner. She manipulates tonnes of concrete with the same ease and confidence an artists manipulates tubes of paint.

The architect is a scholar. She respects the history of her profession, the many centuries of thought that precede her. She understands the city, produces architecture that is not aloof but part of it. She cherishes the built fabric that pre-exists her projects, the stories it tells and values it represents, preserving it without mimicking or pandering to it. She conserves both its embodied energy and its meaning.

The architect is a leader. She drives projects through the minefield of regulatory authority, user group discord, allied professions, budget cuts and environmental sustainability. She inspires both her peers and younger generations, resisting all setbacks in the endless pursuit of greatness. She belongs to her community and listens to their needs, but she is also apart from them, entrusted to fashion buildings that delight and uplift them.

The architect is a teacher. She recognises her role in the ongoing pedagogy of architectural education, shaping young minds in the way hers once was. She applies the insights of her practice to her students and draws inspiration from their enthusiasm. She imparts lessons on design specifically and life generally, knowledge mingled freely with wisdom.

The architect is a businessperson. She manages staff, deadlines and resources. She knows her way around profit and loss statements, time management software and accounting packages. She understands both cashflow and the long play, accepts commissions that provide the former while simultaneously paving the way for the latter.

The architect is a politician. She faces down vested interests, massages egos and navigates the shifting terrain of project procurement. She is an orator, comfortable in front of an audience of angry neighbours or skeptical engineers. She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

The architect is a polyglot. She speaks the languages of client, cost estimator, planner, neighbour, engineer, builder and plumber. She shapes and reshapes the dialogue of her project to appeal to their diverse agendas, so they may not only understand it but share in its ownership. She weaves together ideas, aspirations, patterns and relationships: she is a story-teller.

architects of warDavid Jackson, The Age, p. 13, 16th December 2004

What can we learn?

Late last year, someone somewhere in the world asked Google whether it is boring to work as an architect, and for unknown reasons this anonymous person arrived at our blog. We don’t know what it was she was seeking, nor whether she found it here. But our answer should she ever return is: no, never. The architect is many things, but never boring. She is forever on her toes, steps with ease from design studio, to construction site, from engineering workshop to council chambers.

Perhaps the architect should recognise the compliment inherent in the journalistic uses of her name. In ascribing the grand plan to the architect, the journalist invokes the mystique that still clings to her, inferring both deep intellect and prescience. The architect is a jack of all trades, the last of the Renaissance women. She has the appropriate education and accreditation and is involved in the making of buildings. But she is also, to paraphrase Gregg Pasquarelli, a custodian of the built environment. She is charged with care for our buildings and cities, forever crafting her contemporary architecture to better enable her vision of the future.

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