The profession’s unprofessional origins might have something useful to say about its future, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

For centuries the education or, rather, training of architects was by apprenticeship or pupillage. Logically it would seem to be have been specific to the market in which the individual worked. In some parts of the world training may have been closer to a master mason, and in others it may have been a liberal arts education with a grounding in the classical orders. However, as Europe industrialised and a greater standardisation of process became desirable, architects also began to pursue standardisation, seeking a formal definition of the profession in law (as I discussed last month). Part of this standardisation was the acknowledgement of a formal education process.

As far back as 1860 the RIBA Council began considering the idea of an examination in architecture, seeking a consistent level of education alongside their protected legal status. The RIBA exams were first held in 1863 and remained voluntary until 1887. It should be noted that they were not a great success, with only 43 people passing the exam during this time.

Dr Patrick Zamarian of Liverpool University told me: “Until the mid-1930s clients were usually wealthy individuals, construction was done by small building firms and there were a handful of specialist subcontractors at most. To be in charge of the building process was not too demanding and did not require any type of advanced knowledge – experience and some social capital would do, and that is what pupillage offered.”

Therefore, the vocational exam offered by the RIBA was largely seen as unnecessary. The Architects Act of 1931 changed this, instituting the term “registered architect” in law and legislating the RIBA as the body which defined and accredited architectural education (a duty now shared with the Arb).

Alongside this, the building industry that emerged post-Second World War was very different to the bespoke, privatised business of the pre-war years. Projects were larger and more complex, and clients increasingly large corporate bodies rather than wealthy individuals.

Zamarian also suggested to me that, “those who promoted university education (with higher entry standards and all that came with it) felt very strongly that the way for architects to retain their leadership role was by educating the members of their profession to a higher degree than their competitors did… there can be no question that the perception of architecture changed radically when it became a university subject. Indeed, changing the perception of architecture was the whole point of the exercise.”

We listen to a product rep murder building physics in pursuit of product sales

For better or worse, therefore, architectural education in this country is now almost exclusively defined as a lengthy, beaux-arts-inspired, university-based education. But for how much longer? It is a system groaning under the strain of the realities of 21st-century life: high student debt, a vastly increased regulatory framework and PI insurers driving an increasingly risk-averse style of architectural practice. Perhaps as a result architectural apprenticeships are reappearing, albeit in a university-sanctioned format, and, oh so slowly, the wheels of change are beginning to turn once again.

Throughout the recently published book Defining Contemporary Professionalism, edited by RIBA president Alan Jones and Rob Hyde, there are myriad voices from across practice, education and related disciplines calling for educational reform, diversification and integration with practice. It is an oft-repeated idea, one I agree with and, due to word count, one I will not repeat here – you have likely read it before.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the problems in architectural education are solely linked to the way we educate architects early in their career. Apprenticeships feel like a logical return to more integrated, collaborative, professional skill building but also don’t fully answer the problems we’re facing.

Unfortunately architects often see their education as a more-or-less completable event. Professional CPD requirements, while stringent, are rarely policed. Once the part III certificate is filed away all too many of us rest on our laurels, skimming an online journal or listening to a product rep murder building physics in pursuit of product sales. The lifelong learning and digestion of academic research in peer-reviewed journals, required by so many professions, is noticeable by its absence in ours.

In Jones’ book, Flora Samuel (RIBA’s head of research) calls on the profession to increase its literacy in the “best-quality knowledge” and critiques an architectural press that “spurns research”. I instinctively sympathise with her position, especially in the current climate of environmental emergency and political and regulatory turmoil.

The discussion regarding the disconnect between academia and practice must be reframed. We cannot call for greater practice / academic integration at entry level if we do not also champion the research capability of our academic institutions as a vital part of professional practice.

There seems to me to be no other way forwards if we wish to continue as a relevant, agile and collaborative body of professionals.