The State of the Profession Q&A with Flora Samuel

7 November 2018

At the recent Sydney Architecture Festival, Michael Smith interviewed visiting speaker Professor Flora Samuel about the state of the profession today, future dilemmas and challenges, and whether the world needs more or less architects.

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With technology being developed and improved at an ever-increasing speed, the profession of architecture is continually grappling with how it needs to change in order to remain relevant and survive. This need to change and adapt is nothing new, but historically architects have been quite conservative and resistant to change when it comes to how we operate. This is despite architects in essence being proactive change-makers for society and often advocating for making change to communities.

At the recent Sydney Architecture Festival, Professor Flora Samuel delivered a keynote address on how architects can better communicate their value in order to regain relevance. Samuel is the Vice President for Research at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and a Professor at the School of Architecture at Reading University. Having also recently authored a new book titled Why Architects Matter, Samuel has a unique perspective on the state of the architecture profession and the challenges that need to be overcome.

Michael Smith – Architecture seems to have been in a continual crisis for the last 50 years, or perhaps more. From your research, how dire is that current situation?

Flora Samuel – Architecture does seem to be in a perpetual crisis, but I’m hopeful –certainly from the UK point of view. There are things happening now in this era that I gather is called pro-social, that suggest that maybe we’ve hit the bottom, and might be going up, and that actually people are starting to really realise the cost of poor design on society, on the environment and everything.

So, I’m actually feeling quite hopeful about it. That’s of course if the environment keeps going and climate change doesn’t wipe us out or whatever, but I really do think people realise that this can’t go on.

MS – Over that period of time there’s been a transformation in technologies that have made architecture practices more and more efficient. Yet we never seem to be able to capitalise on that efficiency. Why do you think that might be?

FS – Well, there are some that say there’s a vested interest in not embracing technology to the extent that we could, particularly in the areas where there is a kind of grunt work and repetition of basic architecture practice, because it keeps people employed. I think that architects aren’t quite ready yet to face up to the reality of what technology’s going to bring, such as automation, which is going to impact very many aspects of the job that we hold dear. At some point we’ll have to face up to that, that architecture may become quite a different thing. I think it is going to be more around the experience economy and user experience, the design of transformations in people.

So, I think that there is perhaps an unspoken nervousness about the true impact of technology on the profession, if we really took it to the extreme.

MS – And with that as a backdrop, do you think the world needs more or less architects?

FS – Well, I think the world needs more architects. Architects are being pumped out of architecture schools in large numbers, far bigger than the profession can actually employ. But maybe we need the widening of what it means to be an architect – and those people can go out into other spheres of the working world and use their influence and power and knowledge to design better society really.

MS – With the prospect of the rise in artificial intelligence, is there a risk of architects being replaced entirely or will there always be things that humans can do that computers will never be able to do?

FS – Well, this is all crystal ball stuff, but there’s a BBC website on how likely it is that a robot will take your job, and they say there’s only a 3% likelihood that robots are going to take on architectural jobs because architects use empathy.

Now, I believe (and I’ve tried this idea out on many people) that many architects are not using any empathy at all – and not even that much in the way of design skills. So, I think that AI may actually sometimes design things better, but somebody’s got to program those machines and set them off in the right direction. I think it’s a curation of those user interfaces – that’s where architecture is likely to go.

MS – In the local architecture profession here, I’ve noticed a rise in practices, particularly in the early stages of their career, doing architecture combined with a separate focus, such as teaching, media, technology or app design. Do you see this is a sign of a profession in trouble, or is it a solution to bring greater value and relevance?

FS – It’s a really good question. To be honest, I think the fact that people are diversifying is a good thing. It’s all architecture. These areas – the apps, the teaching, all of that – is part of the skillset of architects and maybe we need to open up what we think architects actually do do.

MS – In your book, you emphasise the importance of ethics in our profession. One of the trickier questions is: “When should architects refuse a project?” How do you think our profession as a whole should square up to this dilemma?

FS – One of the things that got me out of practice was the black market – people wanting to work on the cash economy – and I have no illusions about how hard it is to be an ethical architect. But the UK profession, for example, has a royal charter because it has a commitment to be good for the public and good for society.

There are many that say that architects, in not adhering to that, have given themselves a bad name. What it is to be a professional is in theory to have the greater good of society in the front of your mind. I think that architects have taken bad jobs, and the architecture profession can sometimes be connected to very troubling kind of work. Someone even pointed out to me that architects were designing execution rooms in the USA at the moment, which I hadn’t even thought about.

I personally think that sometimes we keep architects employed on pitiful wages doing dreary jobs, just to keep them employed, and actually everyone would be better off letting those people be free to do other professions and have a few people doing architecture really well.

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Flora Samuel addressing the audience about Why Architects Matter at the Sydney Architecture Festival. Photos: Michael Smith.

 

MS – What do you see as the path forward for our profession in these uncertain times?

FS – I think it all comes down to the way that the profession uses its knowledge, and currently the profession uses its knowledge really, really badly. It doesn’t gather it up into any kind of useful data. It doesn’t gather it into big data. It doesn’t take its own knowledge seriously. It doesn’t even say what its knowledge is vis a vis other kinds of building professionals. Consequently, the public are not very clear about what an architect actually is.

I think that it’s important that we get canny about how architects use their knowledge, actually evaluating it and showing its impact in the long term. This comes back to post-occupancy evaluation, not just for energy, but for all sorts of other kinds of societal benefits. We simply don’t gather data on the other impacts that architects have, and therefore we’re not able to promote what architects do, and we’re not even able to build on the knowledge to do it better in the future.

I think it’s all about research, the ability to gather evidence, gather data, to reflect rigorously about what we do, and to speak the same languages of the disciplines, to speak the language of research and of evidence. I think architects better get their act together on research and talking in a way that other people understand.

MS – How can we get closer relationships between architectural practice and academia to happen?

FS – I would absolutely love to see academia and architectural practice work together. In the UK there’s a gulf between them, which is really, really problematic. There is also a lack of respect between them, combined with a feeling that students aren’t being prepared for useful jobs in the outside world, which I think is completely disgraceful considering how much a UK student pays for their education. As far as a way forward with that, we’re trying to develop research projects with practice; we’re trying to bring forward a new generation of academic architects who speak the language of practice, who work on this in-between sphere of knowledge exchange.

There are all sorts of places where architects can practice and schools can work together in fab labs, in urban rooms, and we can use teaching studio projects in a much cleverer way as research projects for architects in the real world to make cities into true laboratories. We can also work much better when students go out and have student work experience in practice. That’s an opportunity for crossover that we really, really don’t capitalise on. And more and more schools in the UK are starting to have more closely integrated industry and practice education.

In the old days, apprenticeships didn’t really work because they didn’t deliver an adequate education. However, if you get the right kind of practice, as we are at the University of Reading where I am, then University and practice are all on the same page. We can then deliver a unified education, which is really useful to students.

MS – In regards to that though, there is a bit of a double-edged sword, with the potential for practices to basically exploit the internships, which are not paid. If it’s part of the education they don’t have to pay for the students to be in the office, and then they can exploit the students to do the grunt work of the office. Do you see that as a potential danger that we need to avoid?

FS – The UK profession has zero tolerance on unpaid internships – certainly through the professional bodies – and in every practice I know, there is zero tolerance of that. There is a danger that students who are relating their work to practice when they’re in college, might be being exploited. There has been a tradition of live projects in which that does happen and it’s not fair when a school of architecture undercuts local practices.

But actually, there’s this wonderful school, Northumbria, in Newcastle in the UK, where the students join architectural projects to do the research the practice wouldn’t otherwise be able to do or to resource – and that’s when it all starts really making good sense. But you’re absolutely right. We have to be totally wary of such things.

MS – One of the issues that has plagued the architectural profession and society as a whole is inequity in terms of gender diversity. How important is it for our profession to be a sustainable profession to solve that inequity?

FS – It’s fundamental because research shows that the more diverse the practice, the more innovative it is, because obviously it has a bigger pool of ideas, which have greater relevance to the whole of society. So, if you have a profession that’s totally lacking diversity, it’s lacking innovation, lacking in ideas, and lacking in a general resourcefulness. I think the profession is very tough for anybody coming through, and we have to make sure that architects are better paid and have better life chances. That affects men and women, whoever, because we will not get a diverse profession when it’s so badly paid and certainly in the UK, it’s becoming something that you can only do when you’ve got money behind you.

MS – As a final question, how should architects approach communicating their professional value to the public?

FS – The public listens to evidence. Unfortunately, it listens largely to quantitative evidence, and we have to use that cleverly. Quantitative evidence has to be backed up with qualitative stories of why architecture works, but I think we do need to develop evidence.

We also need to improve the way architects market themselves. In the UK, marketing is a kind of dirty word for architects, but the largest and the most successful practices take marketing and PR very, very seriously. It is also about the way that they put themselves out there, so I think that’s something that we have to teach people, and certainly teach students.

Primarily architects need to talk in the languages the other people talk. We also have to get away from this thing whereby the media shows these star architects who are, maybe, 3% of the profession and acts like that’s what all architects are like. I think we really need to get over the diversity of the profession and to show there are just as many people that are working, for example, in a really grass roots way with communities, sustainability, and many other things.

The zip file of the meaning of ‘architect’ is a successful cultural trope, used often to express lone creative genius. We need to change that zip file to something more relevant and it’s a multi-pronged activity I’d say.

MS – Thank you very much for your time.

Architecture is for everyone.

Flora Samuel is the first elected Vice President for Research at the Royal Institute of British Architects where she has been fighting the cause of research in practice for over five years. An architect and historian, she was the first female Head of the highly ranked University of Sheffield School of Architecture before moving to the University of Reading to help set up a new industry-led architecture school in close collaboration with construction. She is critical of architectural education in its current UK format. Flora is an internationally renowned writer on Le Corbusier, but has more recently turned her attention to the issue of Why Architects Matter (Routledge, 2018), the title of her most recent book. Other publications include Demystifying Architectural Research: Adding Value to your Practice (with Anne Dye, RIBA Publishing, 2015) and a series of reports developed with the RIBA, most notably Building Knowledge: Pathways to Post Occupancy Evaluation (2016).


Michael Smith is an architect and co-founder of Atelier Red + Black, an emerging architecture practice in Fitzroy, Victoria. Michael has a Bachelor of Architecture and Bachelor of Construction Management from Deakin University. He was a founding member of the Australian Institute of Architects National Committee for Gender Equity (NCGE). 


This interview first appeared on Michael's excellent blog The Red and Black Architect, and is republished here with permission. Many thanks to the Sydney Architecture Festival and the Built Environment Channel for making this interview possible.

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