Architects After Architecture: Alternative Pathways for Practice
Hariett Harriss, Rory Hyde, and Roberta Marcaccio
The image of the architect as a singular hero is a stubbornly persistent one. The most famous instance of this stereotype is Howard Roark, the uncompromising genius conceived by Ayn Rand in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead, and played with sin- gular intensity by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film. Roark is deter- mined to make his mark on the world, to create great works of art, in fulfilment of what he perceives to be his life’s destiny. But beneath this narrative of purpose and ambition lies a far darker philosophy of individualism and greed. When the client changes his design, Roark chooses to destroy the building rather than see it built imperfectly. In his defence, he argues that ‘The first right on earth is the right of the ego’.
If you thought that the stereotype of Roark was just that, with little bearing on the reality of the architect today, you would be mistaken.1 The Fountainhead is a libertarian fantasy, a dream-world where the architect’s individual genius, authority and control is held up high above the meddling clients who commission them, and the little people who occupy their buildings. This fantasy is given form today in the guise of the ‘starchitect’, the globe-trotting superstar designer, creating lunging forms for the covers of magazines, and often working for unscrupulous clients.
It’s what many students have been pedagogically primed to become, and the clearest expression of what success in architecture looks like, reinforced by the awards system, media attention, and commissions, in a self-preserving cycle.
What’s so unhelpful about this image of the Randian starchitect is that it perpetuates the idea that architecture is about form rather than use, about the individual rather than the collective, about perfection rather than constructive compromise, and about artistry rather than social purpose. It contains within it a whole set of assumptions about how architects are supposed to work, where, and for whom.
It also couldn’t be further from reality. The most effective architects are not those who seek to control every detail, but who are open collaborators in a productive process. They are professional generalists, who know a little bit about a lot of things, able to ask the right questions to get the best out of a team. They are good hosts, able to invite the right people around the table, in order to better define the brief, and to consider it from multiple perspectives. They are synthesists, able to process this often contradictory information, to satisfy multiple goals and stakeholders. And they are propositional, able to transform this raw material of people, perspectives and ambitions into an actionable vision for the future, something which can spark excitement, garner support, and show the way forward. They are microscopes and macroscopes, able to operate at the scale of a glazing detail, at the scale of the city, and all that lies between. Architecture requires a unique combination of pragmatism and emotion, of technical problem-solving and imaginary vision. In this version, the architect is recast as a creative mediator, bridging between different forms of knowledge, seeking clarity amongst complexity, bringing together disparate communities, building and combining emotional power with pragmatic potential. The form-making for which the starchitect is known is only a small proportion of the job, and far from the most important aspect.
This version of the architect as mediator may not sound as glamorous as the starchitect, but it is a more useful one. And, in our experience as educators, despite much latent hero-worship, we find many students would prefer it this way.
Increasingly, architecture schools seek to imbue students with a practical idealism and social purpose, setting students the task of designing libraries and museums, social housing and public transport systems. They are motivated by a desire to improve the city and positively impact society, rather than to build their own reputations. This is where students want to be. And yet despite this civic education, the unquestioned assumption of many schools of architecture is that upon graduation the natural destination is to enter a private practice, in an urban centre, to work on projects commissioned by those who can afford it. It is the aim of this book to expand this horizon of possibility, to reveal alternative pathways for architects.
PLUS AND BEYOND
Architects After Architecture draws together the people and practices who are collectively expanding this horizon, by questioning what can be considered architecture. They have gone beyond the conventional notion of practice, to redefine who they work for, where they work, what kinds of questions they ask, and what kinds of answers they can give. Together, these examples point toward a version of architecture that is plural and diverse, with many paths toward reclaiming broader relevance to society.
These people and practices fall roughly into two groups. The first, gathered under the heading of ‘Plus’, are those who
consider themselves to be still working within architecture, but who are stretching the boundaries, redefining what is possible. These are architects who are working with the public sector, designing social housing, enabling communities, designing with nature, tackling the climate emergency, advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, working in post-conflict zones, and more.
The second group, under the heading of ‘Beyond’, is made up of those who have ‘left’ architecture to apply their skills in other disciplines. They have recognised the broad applicability of the architect – as integrator, as professional generalist, as practical idealist – and applied these skills in service of other questions beyond the building. These people have studied architecture, but now find themselves in technology, in politics, in advocacy, in videogames, in property development, in design thinking, in art, in museums, and more.
By bringing these two groups together in one volume, we can create a broad and inclusive definition of what architecture is; by neither turning our backs on those who leave, or pigeonholing those who stay. We can acknowledge that making a videogame, a policy, or a legal case, is simply architecture by other means, thereby legitimising the work of those who leave – they are not ‘abandoning’ architecture, but expanding its relevance into other adjacent territories. And on the other side of the same coin, we hope this expanded definition also offers permission for many others to stay, particularly those who may not see themselves in traditional practice, and who are reaching for other business models (or role models) with which to apply their training.
The number of architects who either leave or redefine what they do is surprisingly high. In the UK, data from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) show more than half of the students who have completed the undergraduate bachelor of architecture degree, known as Part I, do not go on to complete the post-graduate Part III, a requirement for registration as an architect, representing a gap of around 1,600 students per year.2 With some claiming the ratio of those who become registered architects versus those who embark on the degree is as low as one in 14.3 In the US, the gap between graduates and those registered is narrower, with 37 percent not ultimately registering as an architect, or about 2,500 per year.4 This is perhaps due to the far greater total cost of a US education, at an average of $190,000 for a four year professional degree.5
It’s unclear where these students go or what they end up doing, as their pathways are not captured in the research. Anecdotally, we know that many graduates of architecture continue to work in architectural practice while never registering as architects. Many will go elsewhere. We are hesitant to place too much emphasis on the statistics, as few professional bodies or schools have set out to specifically capture the professional destination of those who have left. It’s simply not in their interests; what’s the point of five years of vocational training if you don’t even become an architect? This is not the sort of thing universities write in their prospectuses.
But rather than sweeping this cohort under the carpet, pretending that they don’t exist, and letting them find their own way, what if we were instead to acknowledge their diverse roles and pathways as a sign of success? The broad applicability of architectural thinking beyond the building is surely a strength rather than a weakness, it suggests a flexibility of mind, and a high level of transferable competence. What if architecture were promoted as a generalist degree, a way of thinking about the world, rather than a step toward professional accreditation?
It is this flexibility of mind that society needs most of all today. The great challenges we face, from the climate emergency to the housing crisis, the rise of the right to global pandemics, do not conform to neat disciplinary silos, but cross over into the messy space between politics, economics, culture, and – critically for architects – spatial thinking. These challenges are defined by their interconnectedness and by change.
They cannot be solved with the old processes, but require new forms of thinking and working, combining a planetary consciousness with a responsible humanism that respects and enables local expertise. As Bruce Mau has said, ‘If you think about architecture as a methodology – independent from the outcome – you would see that architecture has a deep culture of synthesis informed by civic values. If you have that capacity, that’s the most valuable capacity of this time in history.’6 We find this to be hugely encouraging, a reminder that the architect’s combination of skills is what is needed now, if only we were brave enough to free these skills from the constraints of the building.
But why should architects apply their skills elsewhere? ‘Stay in your lane!’ you cry. ’Focus on designing buildings, on what you’re good at!’. A fair point perhaps, but it overlooks two things: the broader obligation of the profession to society, and the state architecture finds itself in today.
Firstly, to this obligation. Academics Richard and Daniel Susskind define the purpose of the professions – law, medicine, accountancy, teaching, and architecture, among others – as to regulate the way in which specialist expertise is made available in society.7 This asymmetrical relationship is governed by what is known as a ‘grand bargain’, a social contract that grants exclusivity over a domain of knowledge in exchange for agreeing to apply this knowledge for the benefit of all. So architects are granted protection of title, preventing anyone who can use a pencil from calling themselves an architect, with the expectation that they will then serve society as a whole. This is not the case however. In the UK for instance, while doctors have the National Health Service and lawyers have Legal Aid, architects have their private practices, working for whomever can afford to pay them, a vanishingly small proportion of the public. By neglecting the vast majority of people, architects are arguably in breach of this grand bargain.8
You would think that given they’re having their cake and eating it, things would be looking up for architects. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A recent article in The Architect’s Journal, citing research from the Federation of Master Builders and the Office of National Statistics, states that ‘Brickies earn more than architects’.9 There is no reason why a brickie shouldn’t be paid more – it’s a hard job, and you should be rewarded for doing it – but given the time and expense it takes to train as an architect, this should be a harsh wake up call for the perceived value of architecture today.
This state of affairs, we contend, requires a radical rethink. By applying architectural knowledge beyond the policed boundaries of the profession,10 there is an opportunity to recast who architects work for, how they work, where they work, what kinds of questions they can ask, and the answers they can give. All of which can help them to get back on the path to rebuilding relevance to the public, and with it, their value.
In this attempt to recapture architecture’s public relevance by redefining the boundaries of architecture, we build upon the work of many thinkers and practitioners before us. Here we compile an incomplete list of quotes and projects.
Our title is a riff on Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects, a book and exhibition at MoMA in 1964 which celebrated the ingenuity of vernacular building across the globe, which he termed ‘non-pedigreed architecture’.11 By looking far beyond the western canon, Rudofsky radically recast the boundaries of what was considered architecture.
We were inspired by a quote from Charlotte Perriand, who in 1936 wrote to Pierre Jeanneret, ‘If I abandon the “profession of architecture” in order to focus on problems more directly connected with life, it is to be able to see more clearly into these problems.’12 Perriand steps blithely over the disciplinary boundary of architecture, to form a practice comprising art, photography, furniture, graphic design, urban planning, exhibitions, and architecture for extreme environments.
Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Structure in the 1970s, developed a series of manuals to enable the democratisation of architectural knowledge, placing it into the hands of citizens. ‘Without the help of architects or planners’, Alexander writes, ‘if you are working in the timeless way, a town will grow under your hands, as steady as the flowers in your garden.’13
Lina Bo Bardi, who was first honoured with an exhibition of her work when she was 74 years old, dismissed architecture’s ‘traditions’ as a ‘set of classical rules that were codified in books and erudite treatises,’ and placed emphasis upon the need to ‘forge another “true present” that could not be found in books, but rather expresses a need.’14
The critic Reyner Banham disapproved of the architectural guides to Los Angeles that came before him, noting they included ‘neither hamburger bars and other Pop ephemeridae at one extreme, nor freeway structures and other civil engineering at the other.’15 By examining non-canonical and infrastructural forms such as these, in his Four Ecologies, Banham is able to connect architecture back to larger forces of landscape, ecology and culture.
Similarly, when Cedric Price said that ‘The quality of air conditioning is more important than the shape of a building’, he effortlessly upended the assumed priorities of architecture, looking beyond form to technological systems, and clearing the path for a mode of practice that asked more questions than it gave answers.16
For Sharon Egretta Sutton pushing beyond architecture began with a direct confrontation of the inherent power imbalances within education. She recounts the bold cohort of ethnic minority students who earned degrees from Columbia University School of Architecture during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, in the face of much institutional resistance.17 This episode shows that architecture’s domain extends well beyond the spaces it shapes, encompassing struggles for racial, social and economic equality.
Denise Scott Brown first invited Robert Venturi, and then their students from Yale, to Las Vegas, a place so far off the orthodox architectural map that it was actively despised. By suspending judgement, and seeing it through fresh eyes, they were able to glimpse a new form of American urbanism, writing that ‘We believe a careful documentation and analysis of [Las Vegas’] physical form is as important to architects and urbanists today as were the studies of medieval Europe and ancient Rome and Greece to earlier generations.’18
Frank Duffy, with his consultancy DEGW, developed a mode of practice as a flexible form of knowledge, using scientific methods to address broad questions from organisational change to the adoption of new technologies. Writing in 1997, he defined architecture as ‘an inherently idea-hungry, project-based, solution-oriented discipline, open-ended and systemic, capable of connecting anything with anything’.19
Rem Koolhaas describes a similar epiphany in the founding of AMO, a think tank directed to providing answers to architectural questions that may not result in a building. ‘Liberated from the obligation to construct’, he writes, ‘architecture can become a way of thinking about anything – a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything.’20
These architects, and many others like them, saw the arbitrary limits of the profession for what they were and stepped right over them. By seeing the world through new eyes, by redefining the canon, by subverting the exclusive hold over architectural knowledge, and by empowering the public to participate, they opened up productive new territories for the expansion of the discipline, and suggested new pathways for reclaiming architecture’s public relevance.
CRISIS AND REINVENTION
This questioning of the arbitrary limits of architectural practice received a considerable boost in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, the aftershocks of which continue to be felt today. Architecture was one of the hardest-hit professions, with a huge proportion of the workforce being laid off, and a substantial cohort of graduates unable to find work in the first place.21 The recession revealed how architecture’s close dependency upon real-estate and speculative development left the profession in a precarious position. It’s no surprise then that architects went looking for ‘other ways of doing architecture’.22
Viewed in purely economic terms, the expansion of the discipline and the experimentation with alternate forms of architecture practice was not simply a new trend – the next stage in architecture’s parade of styles – but a survival tactic. As Paul Nakazawa, professor of practice at Harvard, remarked at the time, ‘let’s be clear, the foreseeable future only requires about half of the pre-recession workforce in architecture. Those who remain in the profession need to augment their knowledge.’23
For many, this has meant throwing away the inherited business model of architecture, where upon graduation you hang up your sign and wait for the phone to ring, and striking out in new entrepreneurial directions. For others, it has meant seeking out greener pastures. A number of contributors to this volume made the jump to technology, an industry in exponential expansion over the past decade, while architects have struggled to get back on their feet.
The need to develop new ways of working existed long before the economic crisis. The conventional architectural practice – with its masochistic culture, expectation of long working hours, limited flexibility, vast gender pay gap, and cult of the ‘master’ – has proven stubbornly resistant to adaptation, leading many to leave. In the UK, US and Australia, men and women graduate from architecture degrees in roughly equal numbers, and yet on average 72 percent of registered architects are male.24 With this in mind, it is not surprising that a number of the contributions to this volume come from a feminist position. As Parlour co-founder Justine Clark discusses here, the reasons for leaving are many, and not all women feel pushed out, but many are pulled toward greater opportunity.25
This story is also true of those from diverse backgrounds. In the US 30 percent of new architects identified as non-white, compared to 60 percent of the population as a whole. In the UK, only 11 percent of all architects are Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority (BAME), despite comprising 19 percent of the population, with the Mayor of London’s Supporting Diversity initiative reporting that BAME architects ‘continue to face discrimination in the workplace or on site’.26 Leaving one to wonder, what does architecture need to offer in order to achieve better representation?
For those architects still nurturing their social purpose, the hollow centre of architecture had become all too apparent. Rather than following commercial developers meekly in tow, these architects sought to recapture architecture’s civic responsibility. They went far outside of the urban centres to apply their knowledge in refugee camps; they challenged the ‘standardised’ design solutions, to create space for the full spectrum of gender and cultural identity; and they sought to reinvent building to address the climate emergency.
A number of the contributions here take the form of the personal narrative, the journey from architecture to their ultimate destination. It is our hope that through these individual stories, of pursuing passion and opportunity, the reader may recognise their own ambitions, and discover a path which they may learn from. But more importantly, through the accumulation of these stories, we hope to illustrate a version of architecture where the limits are no longer fixed, but able to be designed and redesigned, making the most out of the unique form of intelligence that architecture can offer.
It is no coincidence that Ayn Rand’s creation of Howard Roark is an architect. His individualism, ego, arrogance, confidence and self-regard at the expense of all others, is merely a distillation of how architects saw, and continue to see, themselves. Roark’s ‘virtue of selfishness’, as Rand has described it, is made all the more believable by simply playing to type. This poisonous vision is now taking over the world.
The Fountainhead has become a touchpoint for conservative politicians in the US, the UK, and beyond, offering validation for the shameless pursuit of wealth and power at any cost. The UK’s former chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, claims to read The Fountainhead twice a year; the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, is famous for giving every new member of his staff a copy of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s door-stopping follow up. And, naturally, the commander in chief himself, president Donald Trump, has declared The Fountainhead as his favourite book, saying ‘it relates to business, beauty, life and inner emotions. That book relates to... everything.’27
If, in a way, this ideology begins in architecture, does architecture hold some responsibility for setting things right? It is our hope that these stories of architects as collaborators, as integrators, as enablers and listeners can stand as a powerful alternative to the stubbornly resilient image of the architect as a singular hero. It is by charting these many alternate pathways that we can begin to reset this perception, and discover the unrealised potential of architects after architecture.
1. To make this point, Jeremy Till cites a regular feature in Building Design magazine, which asked architects ‘what is your favourite book?’ Over 12 weeks, four architects named The Fountainhead, leading Till to suggest – only half jokingly – that one in four architects think it is the greatest book ever written. Jeremy Till, ‘Beyond The Fountainhead’, lecture at Columbia GSAPP, Studio-X Rio, 16 September 2014
2. RIBA Education Statistics, 2015/16 , published April 2017. This data shows 2,925 students completing Part I in 2014/15 – the latest year studied – and 1,309 students completing Part III.
3. Bob Sheil, ‘The After Life’, in Harriet Harriss and Daisy Froud (eds.), Radical Pedagogies, RIBA Publishing, 2015, p.106
4. The National Architectural Accrediting Board, ‘2018 Annual Report on Architecture Education’, accessed January 2020
5. US Department of Education, IPEDS Survey 2017-2018
6. Bruce Mau, ‘The Massive Changer’ (interview), in Rory Hyde, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, Routledge, 2012, p.26
7. Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Oxford University Press, 2015, p.9
8. This argument is developed further here: Rory Hyde, ‘Architecture is in Breach of the Social Contract’, in Rob Hyde and Alan Jones (eds.), Defining Contemporary Professionalism: For Architects in Practice and Education, RIBA Publishing, 2019
9. Greg Pitcher, ‘Brickies earn more than architects’, The Architects’ Journal, 6 March 2018
10. Frank Duffy has forcefully questioned the role of these professional boundaries, writing: ‘The classical hallmarks of professionalism – restricted entry, standardized and visible qualifications, fixed fees, the publishing and policing of codes of conduct – are more concerned with keeping things as they are than with developing an intellectual programme.’ Francis Duffy with Les Hutton, Architectural Knowledge, Routledge, 1997, p.viii
11. Bernard Rudofsky, Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, University of New Mexico Press, 1964
12. This quote was printed as a wall text in the exhibition ‘Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World’, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, 2019
13. Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, Oxford University Press, 1979, p.8
14. Lina Bo Bardi lecture at the Architecture and Urbanism College of University of São Paulo (FAU- USP), 14 April 1989. Transcript by the Instituto Lina Bo e PM Bardi (ILBPMB)
15. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, University of California Press,
16. Cedric Price, quoted by Andrea Branzi, in Hans Ulrich Obrist (ed.), Re:CP, Birkhauser Verlag, 2003, p.42
17. Sharon Egretta Sutton, When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America’s Cities and Universities. Fordham Univ Press, 2017, p.1
18. Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT Press, 1972
19.Francis Duffy, Architectural Knowledge, Routledge, 1997, p.xiv
20. Rem Koolhaas, Content, Taschen, 2005, p.20
21. Christopher Sell, ‘Number of Architects Claiming Benefits Rises by 760 Percent’, The Architects’ Journal, 20 March 2009
22. Nishat Aswan, Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till, Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, Routledge, 2011
23. Paul Nakazawa, ‘Embrace the Change’, Architect magazine, January 2011
24. According to the RIBA, in the UK, 51 percent of architecture graduates are male, and 49 percent are female, while 72 percent of registered architects are male. In the US, NCARB data shows 52 percent of architecture graduates are male, and 48 percent female, while 70 percent of registered architects are male. In Australia, research group Parlour has drawn upon data from the national census, as well as professional bodies, to show 56 percent of graduates are male, and 44 percent female, while 76 percent of registered architects are male.
25. See Justine Clark’s chapter ‘Spaces to Speak’, p.49
26. US figures are reported by NCARB, in their 2019 ‘NCARB by the Numbers’ report. UK figures are reported by the RIBA Journal, ‘Drop in BAME architects across UK’s top practices, new data reveals’, 14 June 2019, and by the Mayor of London’s ‘Supporting Diversity Handbook’, 2019. Data for ethnic minority architects in Australia is incomplete (Yvonne Meng, ‘Cultural diversity in architecture’, Parlour, 8 June 2016), but anecdotal evidence suggests BAME people are similarly underrepresented.
27. Jonathan Freedland, ‘The new age of Ayn Rand: how she won over Trump and Silicon Valley’, The Guardian, 10 April 2017