President’s Comment – November 2022

John Held , 9 November 2022

ACA President John Held takes us through the highs and lows of the month, from an uplifting NEC meeting in Adelaide to the profitless boom, regulatory battles and poor procurement practices, and the need to work towards better quality of life for practice owners, their staff, their clients, our society and the planet.

The last month has been one of highs and lows.

The Highs? The chance for the ACA National Executive to meet in person for two days (and in Adelaide, no less).  It’s a joy to be together, and we covered many topics in that time – including a side visit to the UniSA Architecture Museum, and discussions with Builders, Insurers, Regulators and emerging architects.

The Lows? Realising the loss of hand drafting and watercolour skills when looking at the museum’s old drawings. Fighting more regulatory battles and poor procurement practices. The belittling of architects by a former prime minister. And the feeling this last year – what some have labelled the profitless boom – that has been harder and less joyous than usual. Listening to the woes of young architects, and seeing the connections, borne out by research, of the link between low fees, long hours and wellbeing. Reading the critiques of starchitects selling their souls to work on international megaprojects. Seeing Federal regulators accusing architects of cartel behaviour. Not to mention the gloom that will accompany COP27.

There are other highs, of course, when you work every day with committed people doing good work. Within the ACA it’s wonderful to see the work a small team can do to improve the lot of architects.

Rachael Bernstone’s excellent weekly roundup of architectural news had a link last week to a talk by Sarah Wigglesworth “On Value and Values”. It clarified for me the reasons for some of the highs and the lows: the debasement of terms such as “value” to mean “cost”, or “sustainability” to mean “greenwash”. She talks about the need to value ourselves and our contributions: “We must show the public that the value we bring is about making life work better through design”. She also notes that architects must reacquire the role of being the golden thread of continuity throughout the design and construction process.

What role does the ACA have in that process? With a clear strategic goal to lead the discussion of business and employment matters in Australian Architecture, are we straying out of our territory worrying about these wider issues? Or should we in fact be even more outward-facing in being able to represent to our clients, governments and the wider public that good business and employment practices have a moral and ethical dimension? That quality of life for practice owners, their staff, their clients, our society and the planet are all intertwined?

This puts the onus back on us not to just complain about inadequate fees but to start a different and more complex conversation about the big picture. It also provides different challenges for small and large practices, with the former often living hand to mouth but having the agility to create new forms of practice, and the latter more wedded to, and often more captured by, the realities of the commercial world. In a spirit of collaboration, ACA should be the place where these forces meet and strengthen each other’s resolve to be better.

Sarah Wigglesworth sums this up on what should be a high note:

“I strongly believe that, by allying ourselves with the moral and ethical imperatives for a survivable future we will reconnect with society and signal our commitment to the broader good. Narrow protectionism, professional boundaries, fear and entrenchment have no place in this mission to do good for humankind and for the world. We must start by valuing ourselves, look to the horizon and demonstrate our relevance. Then we will have secured our value going forward.”