Reformulating architectural practice opinion Sam Jacob

"Architecture might have to become less architectural"

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.