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Monday28 July 2014

From drawing boards to debt: John Lyall

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John Lyall ruminates on how the architect’s role has changed since the 1980s

John Lyall (60)

John Lyall studied at the AA and worked for Cedric Price and Piano & Rogers before forming Alsop & Lyall with Will Alsop in 1979. He set up his own practice in 1991.

John Lyall small headshot

The architect was the jack-of-all-trades who designed and managed with a degree of authority when I started in the profession. Now, sometimes you’re marginalised however good you are. There’s a mindset that everyone else knows best. I’m very concerned that there are a lot of “experts” out there, project managers, QSs and some clients, who feel value is measured by construction cost. Thankfully there are clients who do value quality.

The most damaging words of the last 10-20 years are “value engineering”, coupled with the use of “design and build” — now the client wants to hand over the design and construction risk to the contractors as soon as possible and the architect has to struggle to keep up and maintain quality. When I was doing my training it wasn’t like that.

Increasingly you have to justify your work. You really have to be on your mettle. Otherwise your design will be taken from you or dumbed down. Good design that does get through has to have an identifiable design philosophy. It’s a tough world out there.

I suppose it has been a rollercoaster ride with the economy — I’ve been through two or three ups and downs. I’ve always tried not to specialise and keep a spread of public and private work, but 20 years ago the notion of a generalist architect was frowned about. Now it’s the thing that stands you in good stead.

Then there was Prince Charles. His views had a very negative effect and continue to do so, turning people away from certain types of architecture. The sad thing is that some of the victims have been some of the leading architects of the profession.

In the last 40 years the fashions have got quicker and haven’t lasted so long. The other thing that’s arisen in the last 10-15 years is the icon. Everyone wants an iconic building. It’s rather shallow.

Media exposure is quite a good thing. People have more of an understanding of what good design is. In the 1960s and 1970s, architects started getting a bad name for problems like high-rise housing. I think architects are held in better esteem nowadays.

Increasingly, we’re not blamed for everything. And if you talk to students, they want to be an architect not because it’s a job but because there’s a social conscience. There’s a heartfelt sense of wanting to make things better. That’s how it as when I was a student in the seventies but in the Thatcher years, that went.

The work I’m enjoying most and am most proud of is what I’m doing now. As you get older, you get wiser and more self-confident about your opinions, and justifiably so. That’s why you don’t want to give up.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Wise words

    The sectet with D&B is to get as much information in the tender as a conventional tender, if only in written form. Then any change by the contractor has to be aurthorised by the project manager - if they can understand the implication.

    D&B is often sold on the basis of reducing the construction period, using reduced tender documentation. The rest of the job is spent arguing over the interpretation of the 'performance specification'. The MOD defence procurement complex near Bristol was a classic, by hey - it was only taxpayers money.

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  • Refreshing to hear somebody say that there is still a place for the generalist architect. A generalist doesn't have to mean a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. A generalist can be a well-educated and sagacious professional.

    It seems many are far too willing to accept that architects now need to become specialists to survive. This adopted attitude allows others to take up the roles that architects no longer wish to do, or are no longer educated to do.

    Of course architects will never know it all because legislation tends to change before the ink has dried, but they should at least attempt to become polymaths as having all of your eggs in one basket never seems like a good idea to me.

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  • I agree whole heartedly with JL The Architects position and authority has steadily declined. All the other professions and Clients still need the Architects originality and conceptual skills before they can begin so why are we being sidelined?
    I think RIBA needs to become a real spokesman for Architects. not just a 'Premium Brand' less squabbling with ARB and more and more promotion of the individual skills the Architect possesses

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