The industry needs a designer who understands the art of architecture, and grasps the technical details of construction, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

In 1946 Lancelot Keay was elected as the first RIBA President to be a salaried architect in public practice. It marked the climax of a struggle between two wings of the profession- those in (usually small) private practices; and those working for the public sector- usually as salaried members of local authority architect’s departments.

That moment in 1946 marked the first point at which public architects were seen as serious holders of the architect title. Until the post Second World War building boom public architects had been tolerated rather than embraced by the established profession. Private practice offered the potential for higher salaries and prestige but could be volatile, especially in times of recession. Public practice usually had lower base salaries but offered a pension (something few jobs in private practice offered) and, in this post-war period, the chance to quite literally rebuild the cities of Britain enacting architectural philosophies on a grand scale.

The waves of austerity, recession and materials rationing all impacted the relative success and prosperity of the two camps (I won’t go into detail here – read my book for the rest!). The tension between the two sides of the profession continued for decades though – only really abating when government competition policies all but abolished public architects departments in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The profession that has emerged following this is a profession closer to the image of the public architect though – largely mid to large size practices (albeit privately rather than publicly owned), staffed by ranks of salaried architects.

We now have a new tension emerging; between architects in more traditional practice, and those who have gone ‘client side’ or ‘contractor side’.

Last year Muyiwa Oki was sworn in as, I believe, the first RIBA President to be employed by a construction company since the institute’s inception in 1834. This would have been especially controversial to the original founders of the RIBA as they originally excluded membership to any architect who had “any interest or participation in any trade or contract connected with building” as a way of reducing perceived conflicts of interest. I am not suggesting Oki has conflicts of interest in his role at MACE though – I am instead wondering if we have reached a new ‘1946 moment’ in our profession.

Future of the Profession

For years architects have bemoaned the loss of influence the profession has suffered within the wider construction industry. I have written previously of my belief that this stems from a lack of knowledge and engagement with the process of construction itself, and an over-aggrandisement of the architectural concept. The wider industry needs a designer who engages with the process of construction; one who is a better inheritor of the historic role of the architect than the increasingly intellectualised version we have been forming over the last few decades.

Perhaps it already exists though. Perhaps the ‘contractor side’ architectural design manager may be where the future of architectural influence lies. Much like the public architects of the early 1940s it has been snobbishly seen as a ‘lesser’ form of architectural practice. However, the perks and seriousness of this role are growing as it evolves.

I know very few early to mid-career architects who have not at least considered the higher salaries and apparent perks of life ‘contractor side’ over decades of slow ladder climbing at established architectural practices. Multiple friends have tried roles contractor and client side and found them rewarding. I’ve considered it myself – though haven’t yet decided to swap life in an architectural studio for one in a site hut.

Occasionally though, the appeal of being on the ground getting things built rather than often years long RIBA stages, followed by seeing everything re-drawn when novated to the contractor, looks appealing. My perspective is of someone at a large practice, usually working on large scale, and therefore often slow moving projects, but a version of this is experienced by an increasingly high percentage of the junior end of our profession.

A serious architectural role fully integrated with the contractor’s team moves the skills and influence of the profession back towards its roots in building. The industry needs a designer who understands the art of architecture, and grasps the technical details of construction. In the contractor side architectural design manager are we seeing the beginnings of this urgently needed role?

In 1946 Lancelot Keay’s election marked the beginning of a shift towards a new future for British architectural practice. Could Muyiwa Oki’s presidency signal the same?

>> Also read: Architects are snobs. It’s time to lose the pretensions and celebrate the glorious mundanity of architecture