Where to From Here? The View From an Emerging Practice

Michael Smith & Sonia Sarangi , 19 May 2016

Sonia Sarangi and Michael Smith of Atelier Red and Black argue that we need to understand and ‘own’ the changes facing the profession, to help make them work for rather than against us.

1 - Where to from here

This is part of the ACA’s Where to From Here? series, which invites reflections on the recent ACA – SA State of the Profession research to provoke discussion about the future. 

The architectural profession in Australia must look incredibly different from different angles. In large practice, city-scale projects are being proposed and delivered at a seemingly increasing speed. In small practice the picture is harder to define due to a diversity of business models, local markets and practice age. Broadly speaking, there appears to be a lot of work out there, as evidenced by substantial numbers of job adverts, but it may not necessarily mean that this work is being shared evenly.

For well-established practices that have been around for more than a decade or two, it would be easy to pursue a business-as-usual approach. Word-of-mouth and personal connections are very strong forces behind a practice landing new work. Consequently these practices are less likely to change until absolutely necessary. On the other hand, emerging practices are looking for ways to get a foothold by doing things differently. With an influx of new technologies and no shortage of built environment problems to solve, it is easy to feel like the architecture profession is a little bit like the Wild West. Traditional ideas and ways of doing things are being challenged by new approaches to architecture.

Some of this innovation is coming via looking at other industries. In the software industry for example, open-source software has long been a practice model. In the United States one group is already attempting a similar model where designs are paid for in the first use and then made freely available online. Theoretically clients would only need to pay for a modification to the design to make it suitable for their site rather than starting from scratch. This may or may not prove to be a successful or even desired evolution for the architecture profession, but it is clearly evidence of new practice models in incubation that might have big impacts.

For the less-established and smaller practices, one of the big challenges is winning work. This can be a time-consuming and frustrating process, which has been identified by several new companies attempting to wrestle this work from architects and making it a business in its own right. At least two local websites now ask architects to pay for project leads. These pose a significant danger to architect fees as architecture work is essentially auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Obviously this is something we can ill afford as a profession and we should resist it on principle.

As directors of architectural practice would know, the minute you announce your arrival as a practice, a stampede of businesses come running to extract money from you as a new potential client. SEO services, advertising websites, 3D modelling and artist impression providers, financial services, IT hardware and software – the list of goods and services targeted at architects goes on and on. On the flip side, architects can be quite narrow in thinking who their clients might be and what services could be provided. Recently at the Australian Institute of Architects National Conference we heard from Thomas Fisher on the opportunities for architects to provide design thinking as a service. This may or may not involve a building being designed – it might lead a discussion on strategy, on training staff to think creatively or on rethinking how an organisation works from a user point of view. All of these present opportunities for architects to become the providers rather than the receivers of professional services.

Another likely change is the number of international practices that will be prepared to open offices in Australia and operate without needing to collaborate locally. There will be no insider advantage for local practices that know the planning system and regulations. Only the best idea will win. This could hopefully lead to more local design competitions (open or by invitation). Already in Europe a much larger proportion of work is awarded via competition. This can be a great leveller of the playing field, where even an emerging practice can land a museum commission. Why is it that an institution of the Guggenheim’s stature is perfectly comfortable letting the best design idea win but local government projects here require a long list of previously completed work to design even their smallest projects?

As for architecture produced by the profession, we would predict that the defining identity for Australian architecture will gradually no longer be the single-detached house but large projects within our cities. Get ready for a shift in scale from the domestic to urban in a few decades. This will erode the status quo of creating signature buildings in areas marked for regeneration towards a keener understanding of what good ‘infill’ projects can do – that is, it will blur the boundary between the existing city and landscape. The High Line is a good example of urban infill that is made up of very small, detailed elements but ultimately works on an urban, citywide scale. Infill should not mean just new buildings on underused/disused lots, it can be so much else.

Ultimately we should all be expecting and preparing for change. In the last decade we have seen very stable industries rocked to the core by a new idea which changes everything. These changes are not always for the better, but if we engage with them and in a sense own the change, we are more likely to make it work for us, rather than against us.

Sonia Sarangi and Michael Smith are Directors of Melbourne-based practice Atelier Red & Black. Michael blogs at The Red and Black Architect and Sonia can be found on Instagram at @thesarangi