In an age of leadership vacuum, architects ‘need to be more entrepreneurial’

Architects have been urged to reclaim power in the face of a “massive vacuum” of political leadership.

Elizabeth Diller and Amanda Levete, two of the world’s leading architects, said now is the time for architects to seize the initiative. They were both speaking at the RIBA’s international conference yesterday.

Levete said: “In the UK we are missing leadership. It’s a massive vacuum.”

While some speakers urged architects to engage with policymaking, Levete warned this would take too long, probably ending up mired in bureaucracy and politics.

Instead she urged architects to identify areas where they could make a difference and get involved – consulting with communities, doing research and raising finance.

“As architects we have great responsibility to get beyond our field and to become more entrepreneurial,” she said.

“It may be about starting small, but small projects can be a great prompt for things to develop at a much bigger scale.

“We need to generate projects for things that we wouldn’t be commissioned for. We are never asked to do social housing so why don’t we find a way round it?”

She added: “We have to go beyond the red line of our brief and site. We have a responsibility not just to design better buildings but to invest them with a sense of social purpose.”

Elizabeth Diller, whose practice Diller Scofidio & Renfro designed New York’s High Line, said it was easy to feel powerless but that architects had plenty to offer, especially working at grass roots level.

“Typically architects receive projects,” she said. “I strongly believe architects have to expand the agency of the discipline; not only to respond but to put forward ideas.”

They must learn to think through the lens of the decision-maker and accompany their proposals with an economic rationale, she said.

“We look at government as inept, at developers as evil, and we have very little power. It’s time to claim that back,” she said.

This could be achieved in part through education, by resisting specialisation and returning to the notion of the generalist architect with a deep understanding of their city.

It could be time to re-embrace the “single heroic architectural figure”, she added.

French architect Odile Decq, also part of the panel, said: “We need to be problem solvers and thinkers for the world.”