RIBA needs to broaden its definition of what it means to be an architect if it wants to welcome back the diaspora, writes Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Architecture attracts people with a hugely diverse range of aptitudes, from those who excel at running a business to those who love nothing more than getting stuck into a tender package or resolving a technical challenge on site. And by its very nature it has an appeal that cuts across academic disciplines. It’s this mix that lies at the core of the profession’s strength. Indeed, what many architects love most about their job is its diversity and the opportunity it provides to be challenged daily in so many different ways.

Unsurprisingly, these broad interests sometimes lead architecture graduates to leave traditional practice behind to pursue other parallel career paths. Some move into film, project management, law, and a myriad of other areas. In their minds they remain connected to architecture, but the architectural profession spurns them as outcasts. But what if rather than forcing these free spirits to leave “architecture” behind, the architectural profession was able to expand its definition of professional practice to accommodate more of them within a new conception of what it is to be an architect?

Future of the Profession

For decades architecture has seen its sphere of expertise and influence shrink. Quantity surveying, planning and project management have all to some extent been carved out from areas that used to be part of the architect’s remit. Was this inevitable? What if instead of retrenching to an ever more narrowly prescribed role, the profession had taken an expansive view, standing up for a broader definition of what it is to be an architect, with specialist qualifications and membership streams for architect-planners and architect-cost consultants? Rather than being constantly on the defensive, the profession could have been pushing into new areas and demonstrating ever greater diversity of expertise with all the associated responsibilities this would entail.

In a recent speech at Portland Place, Simon Allford set out his vision for his presidency. He said that RIBA must “welcome back the architectural diaspora. Those who studied (architecture) but work elsewhere, be it construction or film, government or artificial intelligence… they have not left architecture but they have left our building.” Allford gave little detail about what this would mean in practice but it gave a tantalising glimpse of what might be possible if RIBA were to embrace a more inclusive idea of what an architect is in the 21st century.

Today, as Allford points out, we continue to treat architectural graduates who work in other sectors as not being architects. This means that as a profession we are losing a huge number of what are often the most creative and highly innovative architecture graduates to other fields. RIBA’s existing affiliate membership does provide an opportunity for “non-architects” to engage with the institute, but this is still a long way from recognising or providing professional endorsement to what architecture graduates do in the world beyond traditional practice.

They’d not be qualified to design your kitchen extension, but they’d happily create a parallel universe for you

One example is how for a number of years now the gaming industry has been seeking out architecture graduates to realise their computer-generated worlds. With the growth of virtual reality, more and more people will be experiencing architecture that is not physically tangible but has still been designed and realised by someone with an architectural background. Why doesn’t RIBA create a membership category specifically for those working exclusively in digital architecture – perhaps with their own RIBA-D suffix? They’d not be qualified to design your kitchen extension, but they’d happily create a parallel universe for you. And instead of turning its back on the future, RIBA would be laying down a marker for the profession in the lucrative and infinitive digital space.

This may raise issues around the protection of title but given that “architect” is today as much associated with the IT industry as it is with people who design buildings, this is perhaps a reckoning that is long overdue. The reality is that the one-size-fits-all part III qualification is increasingly redundant. Probably only a minority of those on the Arb register now undertake the work of a traditional architect, as defined by the parameters of the RIBA part III examination, with its outdated focus on the architect as contract administrator.

It’s questionable whether a professional qualification geared towards sole practitioners adequately serves the interests and aspirations of today’s graduates. Not everyone wants their own practice. Fewer and fewer architects will ever administer a contract. Meanwhile the world moves on and our professional and academic frameworks seem ever more antediluvian.

We could learn a lot from how the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) defines the parameters of its profession and structures its routes to qualification accordingly. Instead of having just one pathway to becoming a chartered surveyor, RICS has 22 “sector pathways”, covering areas as diverse as project management, valuations and management consultancy. Maybe it’s time for RIBA to offer its own specialist accreditations, that better reflect the full range of architectural endeavour across so many sectors.

As a profession we increasingly resemble little more than an embattled closed shop, fighting and failing on multiple fronts to protect our status and fend off incursions from other more agile and progressive players on the same stage. Rather than requiring architecture graduates with divergent interests to go elsewhere, we need to break out of our rigid silo mindsets and celebrate the reality of what architects have already become in this diverse architectural multiverse.