Thursday24 July 2014

From drawing boards to debt: Michael Manser

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Michael Manser looks back at a career spanning more than five decades

When Michael Manser (80) began his career, architects still sat at drawing boards wearing smocks. Things had moved on quite a bit by the time BD launched in 1970, but nonetheless these past four decades have seen huge changes in the way architecture is practiced, from the massive impact of computers and the internet to the huge changes in procurement and the role of the architect. But what has this meant for the individual across the generations?

To find out, we spoke to three architects aged 40, 60, and 80 and to one student still a few years off emerging into the profession which will run as a series this week ahead of our 40th birthday party.

Michael Manser (80)

Michael Manser set up his own practice in 1960, and became RIBA president in 1983. He is now semi-retired from the Manser Practice, which is run by his son Jonathan.

Michael Manser small headshot

When I started out there was a tendency for successful architects to be prima donnas and practice was very hierarchical and incredibly archaic — no fax, no emails, just dyelines. It was much slower. I think it’s far better now. Our staff are continually astonished at how bright and intelligent young architects are now. And there are so many women architects — we have around 50%, hiring solely on ability and sense of humour.

It’s no longer possible for architects to be arrogant. The bureaucratic sieve everything has to be pushed through is overwhelming. Nowadays architects aren’t so much leaders of the team but chairman of the team. There are so many consultants. It’s teamwork all the way down the line and buildings are better for it.

The market has always been volatile. I’ve seen about four boom and busts — generally it’s every 10 years, so you must put something away in the good times. The recession at the beginning of the 1990s was the worst and caused chaos. This time, work has diminished but there’s still some coming through. The planning system was in many ways better for architects in the 1960s. The 1980s was a good time too.

It’s bad that the number of architects in the public sector has been reduced. Someone like Colin Stansfield Smith at Hampshire County Council was a terrific enabler, finding good clients, sites and matching them with good architects. The most savage destroyer of the environment in my time has been the commercial housebuilder, ruining swathes of countryside with inadequate homes, with architects not really involved until recently. It’s been the most terrible thing.

The Prince Charles episode [in 1984] was significant. At the time a number of practices including mine suffered a great deal. Developers wouldn’t come near us. And that attitude is still around — Chelsea Barracks brought all the reactionary slugs out of the woodwork. I was shaken at how vituperative the criticism of Rogers was. The public isn’t that conservative in taste. They are far more are interested in new things compared with when I started in architecture. But the public still don’t quite understand what we do.

As for the future, there has to be some loosening up of the regulations that architects face. There’s a whole raft of inspectors who aren’t high calibre and just want to tick boxes. That’s very frustrating.

Looking back, there was no one golden period.

I think anyone who hangs around long enough has a vague disappointment they didn’t do enough. But I get huge pleasure in seeing the practice expand without any of the stress.



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