"Architecture might have to become
less architectural"

| 16 comments

Reformulating architectural practice opinion Sam Jacob

Opinion: in his latest column, Sam Jacob argues that architects "might have to learn from communications agencies, advertising and design" in order to regain the social significance they once enjoyed.


It's a familiar refrain in the whitewashed bars frequented by architects: the despair at the reduced role of architects in contemporary public life, either as public intellectuals or engaged in the formulation of policy and agendas that shape the contemporary built environment.

As architect and theorist Alejandro Zaera Polo argues, the act of architecture has been reduced to a zone comprising the few hundred millimetres of a building's envelope, the building itself - mass, floor plate, programme and so on - having been defined long before in the formulas of developers' spreadsheets.

The traditional role of an architect has, over recent time, been eroded. Undermined and usurped by a cocktail of processes and practices, by new kinds of contract, by the rise of other building specialists, and by forms of procurement, which have all taken chunks out of the tweedy old professional body of architecture.

The argument goes that if only we could re-engage in a dialogue with the public and politicians, if only we could get architecture back on the agenda - just like it used to be at some point fast dissolving into the mists of time - then everything would work out again.

I don't buy this. It's not that those arguments have simply been forgotten. It's more fundamental: the terms of architecture's engagement with the world have entirely changed.

For a period between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s, architecture was a central activity in the construction of civil society. It was both a way of building for society, and a means of conceiving visions of what society could be and how it might work. Architecture was public in many senses: who it was built for and who it was funded by. Architects themselves were likely to be public servants.

Architecture, development and construction are now conceived and implemented as almost wholly private enterprises. There are, for example, very few publicly employed architects now. Architectural services are provided by the multitudes of private firms: good/bad, big/small, young/old, corporate/community. Even at its most social ends, development is now determined by market conditions.

We remain nostalgic for the old days (and why, given the respect once accorded to the architect, wouldn’t we?) but the route to regaining a more central significance can't come from looking back. The old arguments just don't make sense because the terms of engagement themselves have drastically altered. Instead we need to figure out new ways for architecture to regain a central social significance. How, in other words, can architecture regain significance beyond the production of envelopes?

In many other disciplines, design has evolved from the production of stuff into a wider, more diffuse set of activities. The focus on the object as the thing that design produces has been pulled so that a whole other range of activities come into view.

In part this is due to the rise of digital products, but it's also the design of information, systems, forms of innovation and the power of ideas like "design thinking", which applies a design approach to all manner of things that once were well beyond the scope of design. Almost anything from money to healthcare to the functioning of democracy can be now be framed as a design problem.

The real motivations for design's contemporary mutations are not rhetorical, but neither are they venal. They come from changes in design's habitat - the way the world works. Perhaps, as more youthful forms of creative practice, these forms of design have adapted faster to their circumstances; faster at least than architecture and property, two industries with the turning circle of a supertanker.

Society has become increasingly networked, increasingly information- and media-based. As it has, design's relationship with the world has changed too: the physical stuff of things now exists within contexts of the mediated and the digital.

That's why we see close relationships between digital, technological, information and communication design. It's why advertising agencies and design consultancies are increasingly converging. It's because the distance between thing, service and communication has shrunk - often occurring within the same space, within different components of the same design project. In these worlds, too, the space between investment, innovation, production and distribution has also shrunk, as has the distance between traditional roles of designer, manufacturer and consumer.

In other words, in parts of what we might loosely describe as the design world, the very idea of what design is and what a designer might do is evolving at a rapid pace. This is in marked contrast to architecture, whose declining position within the design team and flatlining fee rates tell a very different story. Architects - and of course creatives in many other areas of design - remain hung up on what they perceive to be their rightful role and their moral purpose.

Rather than despair or rail against architecture's prevailing conditions, we need to find new positions for the profession; new arguments for a new terrain. We need to recognise that the context within which we produce architecture has changed and from this form persuasive arguments for its place at the centre of society.

A modern product is now much more than a thing. It's also packaging, the environment in which you encounter it, the media and conversations around it, the service that supports it, the qualities of the brand that produces it, the embodiment of ethics and integrity within all of these disparate elements and, most likely, much more than this. The task of the contemporary designer is to corral all of these aspects, all these diverse forms of media, operations, and systems into something coherent, something appealing, something we want. Design, in other words, becomes a kind of glue between a huge range of scales and services and substances.

A similar argument can be made for architecture. It too may well be a physical thing, but it's also the place where investment, communications, marketing and media all come together, where these issues congeal into built form.

For example, the distance between a developer, the investment they need, the architecture they commission, the public permissions and partnerships they require, the vision they create, the publicity they generate, the buy-in of a community, and the market they seek are intrinsically linked - one is nested within the the other. Trying to separate "architecture" out of these processes, as a traditional definition of architecture might do, is to defuse architecture's potential to engage in the very real politics, vision and social possibility embedded in these relationships. It's in the interweaving of these concerns where value - social as well as economic - is created, where architecture really happens.

Just as design has expanded its role, we need to argue that contemporary architecture is much more than simply the production of buildings. Or, to put it another way, buildings are just one of many outcomes of architectural production, part of an activity that might also include the construction of collective vision that brings together investors, planners, the public and users. As a form of practice embeds ideas and ethics within the built environment, a practice that can develop the services, processes and programmes alongside physical things. It could position itself as the place where design, engineering, planning, sales and marketing come together.

Perhaps architecture should step back from the act of building as its ultimate fulfilment in order to provide a deeper, more significant vision of how we are going to live, work and play and how places can become economically and socially meaningful and sustainable in the long term for the people who live in them.

In other words, we might have found ourselves in an ironic situation where in order to fulfil architecture's core ambitions it might have to become less architectural. It might have to model itself on more youthful and vigorous forms of creative practice. It might have to (or better, want to) learn from communications agencies, from advertising, from digital and interaction design and from research and innovation experts. Rather than selling out, we need to see this wider definition of architecture as a way of really fulfilling the core disciplinary remit of making the world a better place.

This, I would argue, is one way architecture can regain a centrality within contemporary life and escape from the shrinking limitations of its professional remit. By immersing ourselves in the realities of our contemporary circumstance we might find ways to forcefully argue for the absolute necessity of architecture to clients, to the public and to society at large.


Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

  • Niccolo Boldrin

    Very nice article describing a salient current in architectural development. The arrogance of self-referentiality currently prevailing in the profession will never prevail. Adapt or die. Unfortunately this understanding of the situation is still alien to most educational institutions, where the desire to uphold and transmit an anachronistic ‘golden age’ of architectural method is still prevalent.

  • Godzilla

    It all starts with education, which is in a state of stagnation for already a decade or more. Having just graduated from one of the top UK architecture schools, I was shocked how insulated the curriculum was in regard to the ongoing outside processes. With anti-austerity protests happening just across the street, architects were filling their ‘radically’ designed spaces with ungrounded programs and devoting most of their time for developing what eventually are aestheticised objects with grand narratives. I was a client, I myself would not pay for such work, which is coming out of most architecture schools or even highly regarded offices. If neoliberalism has undermined the relevance of architecture, architects have undermined their own credibility.

    Therefore, it comes as no wonder that architects are left to design only the building’s envelope. They are just not taught skills to develop a sensible program, design processes or strategies. Instead, most emphasis in the academia are still put the design itself, rather than design thinking. There is a great difference between scripting a beautiful Grasshopper facade and conceptualizing building’s lifespan strategies, analysing its economical impact etc. Most such processes have become increasingly complex, and require another degree of competence, however, generalism inevitably leads to shallowness, therefore I am not convinced that diversifying their competences will allow architects to produce a better world, whatever it means in 2014.

  • Dbz123

    Based on what Mr. Zara Polo said, it would seem he is working in Miami. Here everything is planned out by others and the only thing that is left is the design of the balconies and the roof.

    But getting back to the main point, architect’s have lost their power to persuade the clients to follow them. Part of the reason is that architects don’t know anything about the price of materials, construction, value of money over times, loans, investor requirements, etc. They only know how to design nice boxes. If they can show what are the effects of cost, construction in real time they have a better chance of being able to bring clients along with them.

    The profession of architecture has become too complex and architects have to know too many things. They have to be able to get business, keep business, plan projects, know construction, be contractors and bankers, friends, bosses, lawyers, politicians, psychologists and everything else.
    What architects don’t understand is that most of the time clients don’t want design, they want a building that makes money with a certain amount of money. Architects have to first meet those needs while forcing on the design later on.

  • pipe

    Isn’t the problem with this sort of argument the simple fact that architecture is architecture. It is not communications or advertising and its professional remit is the profession of architecture. Design requires a piece of paper and scissors, anyone can do it and it is of little surprise that it remains diffuse.

    Architecture requires between five and seven years of tertiary education and subsequent professional accreditation. We cannot think of the profession without its professional components and if the argument here is that we need to dissolve the profession in order to save (or sell) our souls then woe betide us all.

    Of course if the argument is, let’s make some f****** money, then that’s great but don’t try to call it architecture.

    • Romain_M

      I’ve always been under the impression that design was 90% investigation and 10% “paper and scissors”.

      Don’t let the overwhelming amount of “furniture design” fool you, there are still a lot of designers out there who actually inquire on the needs of their users (and I hope they won’t give up!). Correctly assessing the issues within the day-to-day lives of the users requires both a strong academic background and a whole lot of experience.

      Am I wrong in thinking that you’ve just exhibited a bit of “silo mentality” in your assessment of design and architecture? If I am, my dearest apologies. If not, I’d be glad to continue discussing this issue :)

    • Matt

      I think this comment kind of proves the author’s point.

  • Rimshot

    I totally agree to most of soar points. I think the will to shape a better world should define the professional ethos. However, you can’t realise this noble remit without considering reality. Every building costs money and I think it is a moral duty to make the best out of the given means. And a less moral argument would be: you’ll be a successful architect if you are able to use resources in their most efficient way on any level. Unfortunately architecture schools do not teach that skill.

    Regarding the article: when I look around my periphery I notice that the most successful and influential offices and firms are following the integral approach proposed by the author. What I see, seems to prove his theories to be right.

  • George Valdes

    I couldn’t agree more with the arguments in this article. As a Wearables UX Designer / Researcher at Augmate, I’ve been pushing forward the notion that as the Internet of Things unfolds before us we need to apply out architectural training to understand and design for new spatial relationships that will affect a larger population at scale.

    Architecture education however is incredibly insular which is why Adrian Von der Osten and I started a number of initiatives in order to promote strategic and entrepreneurial thinking in to the discourse of Architecture. For one, we started Built-In:

    Architecture and Entrepreneurship Meetup in NYC in order to gather like minded members of the A/E/C community together to discuss how technology might improve processes within practice and beyond. We’ve also started teaching this semester an online course on the same topic at Florida International University as part of the Landscape Architecture program at the School of Architecture.

    Sam, your assessment of the current state of world couldn’t be more important to the discourse and I hope it catalyses more investment and agency from people in the profession. Thank you for this article, we’ll be assigning it in our course.

  • mhaggerty2012

    Isn’t this precisely what urban designers and planners do everyday around the world? The corralling of politics, finance, communication, building, vision, infrastructure, and social development just about sounds like the job description of every urban designer or planner I happen to know.

    They work for both architecture offices and public agencies. The points made here are appreciated, but architects need not be so cynical as to look to advertising companies for professional cues when they work and study alongside designers who are already engaged in these issues.

  • Michael Badu

    I’m sorry but this article is so wrong I don’t no how to even begin answering.

  • dave

    If information PR campaigns can be associated with private capitalist ideals and goals, then architecture is its arch-nemesis, the embodiment of socialist, egalitarian agendas.

    How did the author even equate these polarising notions?

    I don’t speak for all architects, I got into this profession with a depressingly realistic understanding that I am at the whim of political and financial dictation. But I still went in because I got fed up with the private sector manipulating “architecture” purely for their own gains. I went in on the infinitesimally small chance that I can intervene in the process and bring humanity back into the materialistic consumerist dystopia.

    I need to work within the system to change the system, But DO NOT for once be mistaken that just because I must tolerate it, it can be allowed to fester and diminish the real purpose of architecture.

    It’s like politics for the sake of politics – what originated as good intention for society transformed into a battle for power for change, and then to reducing change to appease a greater voting base to stay in power! See how the intended tool for the goal turned into THE goal itself?!

    And see how change is no longer the priority? And how this irksome middle-man is actually detrimental to the efforts of change?
    ——————————-
    Commercialisation is a creation of mankind, it’s a sad and ironic day when the created dictates the creator – and it’s even sadder to see proponents of this policy of APPEASEMENT.

  • pd1990

    Strongly disagree. The reason I chose a path in architecture was to be an architect, with the ambition to design buildings. I understand that there are numerous reasons why the architects role as a designer has diminished but I think that this is something that needs fighting for on a political level.

    I agree that an architects role is about more than building four walls but should not be about marketing etc. If I wanted to create marketing material I would have chosen a different career path.

    • KK500

      The trail of the responses, however valid or not they may individually be, reveals that Sam Jacob’s thoughtful and central point hasn’t really come across – the need for a 360 degree response to a client brief. In the wider consumer goods industry, this would be called being ‘customer-centric’. Awful jargon I know, but there is no denying the power of the approach.

      It is not as daunting as it may seem. Who says that all those adjacent skills have to be in-house? Why is no-one talking of skill partnerships or an ‘internal’ project coalition? One reason, I suggest, is that architectural practices, especially the bigger ones, find it very hard to admit to themselves that they are not the best at absolutely everything. Our company – an analytics and innovation consultancy – works almost exclusively with blue-chip developers only, but I would have no problem whatever in joining forces with edgy, forward-looking practices to deliver even better value to clients.

  • Rimshot

    If architecture is the embodiment of socialist, egalitarian agendas, then it is also the embodiment of total design and super egos. In the best case this leeds to visionary designs and perhaps to some beautiful models.

    However, such thinking won’t improve neither the built environment, nor any single human life. I think architecture should be more humble and less ideological in order to accept current conditions and to use any chance to gain more significance. Maybe then you can do something good for humanity.

    • dave

      Architecture is an all-encompassing discipline from the micro of empirical individualism to macro-scale urban planning and socio-political connotations. If you strip architecture of its ideologies then all that’s left are empty boxes, that can be copied and pasted infinite number of times by developers. What do you need architects for? For aesthetics? Have we became so decadent and oblivious to social inequality that architecture now, ideologically, exclusively caters to the rich looking for something “pretty”?

      Perhaps it’s the peculiar consumerist institutions of America that emphasises value of capital above all else, and for decades used propaganda to redefine “socialism” as “totalitarian control”. The irony of this thought aside, consumerist capitalism is NOT the standard of human civilisation, and I see it a sad day to see architecture and society further saturated by this view.

  • Mark Bligh

    The preoccupation with form has left architecture that relates to the soul (of humanity) with a certain handicap. When this discussion resumes in earnest we will see the relevance of architecture freshly reinstated.