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Monday28 July 2014

Young architects deserve better than a pop-up future

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This year’s YAYA shortlist offers hope, but what the profession needs is a new generation of good clients

Amanda Baillieu

Amanda Baillieu — editor in chief

A generation consigned to designing temporary structures, often self-initiated and self-funded, makes good television — as witnessed by a recent BBC Culture Show — but is this really what’s going on? Do young architects face a future when the only work they expect is a “pop-up” on a derelict site?

The prognosis doesn’t look good.

A quarter of architects said this week that they are under-employed, while UK construction is forecast to suffer a further decline next year.

Certainly the pop-up phenomenon is helped by the fact the protagonists are usually middle class, articulate and make architecture look a lot of fun — particularly when it involves wielding hammers and saws. But it’s not the whole story, thank goodness.

The newest generation of young architects is just like those before: passionate to leave a mark — but also with a business plan. It does not make as good television but, as a barometer for the health of the profession, the five practices shortlisted for this year’s Young Architect of the Year Award offer more hope than those building pop-ups in the summer holidays.

The challenge, as ever, is finding the right client. One prepared to take a risk in the knowledge that a young practice will bring energy and enthusiasm that, properly channelled, can deliver something remarkable.

Such clients are thin on the ground. At the same time, competing for public work is almost impossible without experience. So, young architects need clients to believe in them, clients such as Nick Johnson.

Johnson, who is to leave developer Urban Splash, was instrumental in giving Fat, de Metz Forbes Knight and Mae their first housing work.

There is no shortage of young talented architects, but what we need is the next generation of clients prepared to hire them.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Estimating and minimising risk is a normal and understandable position for clients to take. On the surface, choosing to commission and risk trusting your capital to a young practice with less building experience is not an obvious thing to do. The case needs to be made strongly by the voices of the profession why choosing a young gun over and old hand could make sense. Compared to many other european countries, the UK profession is miserable at this, constantly feting large practices with mediocre output over small, determined outfits. Needless to say, procurement in the UK exacerbates this. The UK architectural press is often little better - why BD continues to copy and paste the press releases of the huge new shopping centres by huge practice Pounds, Pence and Partner etc. doesn't help matters. There needs to be a simple recognition that all young practices are the successful offices of the future, and need positive advocacy to make it. The RIBA needs to step up to the mark here and doesn't. The problem is not confined to the UK obviously, but for example in Germany and Holland it is perfectly normal for competitions to have a compulsory proportion of young offices. This has nothing to do with enlightened clients at all - it is because the architect's registration bodies in those countries understand the importance of this and insist upon it to commissioning bodies. In Germany there's a name for it - Nachwuchsförderung - left to their own devices, clients there would opt for established firms too.

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