Have the UK’s ageing architects built enough for retirement, and can the next generation afford to stay in the profession?

When Philip Johnson retires at 98 and Richard Rogers says he may go on until he’s 80, it makes Norman Foster’s victory in the Stirling Prize at the age of 69 seem like a victory for the youth camp.

In its upper reaches, architecture is fast becoming a grey profession, dominated by silver-haired Svengalis — just look at the Stirling shortlist. Four of the six places were taken by grey-haired pensioners: Peter Cook, Richard MacCormac and Foster, twice. But the trend is also spreading further down the ranks. More than half the architects featuring in a survey of the UK’s professional register boast more than two decades in the game and one in eight are aged over 60 — the time that most of the population wants to be wintering in southern Spain or building model railways. The oldest working architect we found this week was the remarkable Anthony Swain, 91, who only gave up climbing scaffolds last year (see Soapbox, page 13).

But is it healthy for architects to work into their dotage? It may damage the effectiveness of the architecture the profession produces and it may stifle the growth of the next generation of architects.

More worryingly, ministers warned Britain last week that we are failing to prepare for retirement with proper pensions. Architects must boast one of the poorest records in this department. The image of the grandfatherly architect working until the end does not always reflect dedication and love of the job but a much more worrying fight to fend off poverty.

The workers at the Architects Benevolent Society have a ringside seat. Each year the fund dispenses £1 million to architects and their families in strife. Three-quarters of that stems from architects’ failure to plan adequately for old age.

“The retirement planning of architects, particularly in small one-man practices, is woefully inadequate,” says ABS development manager Norman Webster. “What makes it all the more difficult is that work flow is not constant and all retirement planning requires a constant contribution.”

“Woeful” is the word when it comes to architects’ understanding of the poverty that awaits.

It is either that or remarkable tightfistedness. The entire profession, earning fees of £2.7 billion a year at the last count, donated just £100,000 to the ABS last year — just 400,000th of a per cent — in other words, nothing.

What the profession cannot see are the worn carpets, missing roof tiles and freezing cold homes that can be the consequence of growing old without a financial plan. These are conditions often witnessed by the ABS’s welfare officers who visit the fund’s 400 beneficiaries.

One case on Webster’s desk involves a retired architect in his late seventies living rurally with a terminally ill wife. He ran his own practice and had built up savings over his life, but these were worn away to nothing by medical expenses for his wife. Now poor, he also has to battle his own osteoporosis and he relies on the ABS to subsidise care costs.

More often, it is architects’ wives who suffer the lack of planning, as illustrated by the four architectural widows, helped by the ABS, who turned 100 in the last two years.

While the ABS looks after a generation typically well-furnished with pensions, things are likely to get worse as younger generations move into old age. Because it seems that architects today are preparing even less for retirement. In 2001, the RIBA established a stakeholder pension for architects in line with government regulations. Shortly before it became legally necessary for about 2,500 practices to set up stakeholder pensions, only six practices had signed up for the scheme. It wasn’t long until it was closed to new members due to a lack of interest.

When BD called, the RIBA’s practice department was woolly about its advice on pensions.

“We are concerned and we try to give guidance,” was about as much as practice director Richard Brindley could say.

Perhaps the institute is put off by the relatively young profile of its members — average age 49 and a quarter — who are getting even younger as the drive for student members and the graduate class kicks in. In reality, the profession cannot buck wider demographic trends.

While some architects graft on to pay for their daily bread, there are plenty of others who march on with plenty in the bank and ownership of a thriving practice that could feed them for years to come. In the UK, Farrell,

MacCormac, Foster and Rogers all fit the mould. It proves frustrating for their understudies, who can reach their fifties without a chance to take the stage, but it may also damage architectural development. Fresh architectural approaches —the kind of work produced at Kingsdale School by dRMM, for example — may not be given the oxygen to breathe. It begs the question: is an ageing profession also a dying profession?

The counter-argument is that architecture takes time. Foster recalled on Saturday night how he sketched a completely curvilinear design for the 1975 Willis Faber building, which he noted at the time would be interesting but remained impossible until technology caught up. Next month, Gateshead’s Sage Music Centre will open with more curves than a string section and proof that technology has caught up with almost any architectural design.

It’s almost as though the old line about policemen has been inverted. “Is it me or are architects getting older?” Yes they are and unfortunately, unlike policemen, they don’t have the handsome pensions to allow a graceful retirement.