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Architecture education

"Architecture is a hollowed-out profession with architects seemingly less vital than ever"

As architecture has evolved it has become detached from an understanding of construction and engineering that was once at the profession's core, writes Eleanor Jolliffe.

There have always been architects. They, we, are a necessary, even vital, component to human society. Architects may not always have been called architects but for most of history there have been someones who "designed" shelter and guided its construction.

Paul Crosby and I have explored the last 3,000 years of the western history of these someones, charting the evolution of their practice and education for our recently released book Architect: the evolving story of a profession. What we found however, was that after 3,000 years of well-meant adaptation and evolution architecture is a hollowed-out profession with architects seemingly less vital than ever.

For the Romans, architecture encompassed everything in the physical and intellectual life of humankind

The Roman architect Vitruvius would barely recognise the modern profession. The architect he describes designs not only buildings but military machines, aqueducts and whole cities. His 10 books on architecture cover everything from inappropriate decoration on columns to the basics of hydraulic engineering. The role he describes as architect is a combination of master craftsman, engineer and artist. For the Romans, architecture encompassed everything in the physical and intellectual life of humankind.

Vitruvius wasn't alone. The ancient Greeks also regarded the role of architect as impressively broad. Both Plato and Aristotle use the term "to architect" as a verb to describe a form of civic and intellectual leadership that applied great knowledge in practical ways for the common good.

It isn't just the ancient world either. Even after the fall of Rome and amidst the turmoil of the middle ages architects were necessary in Europe, evolving to a craft-based role more suited to the localised economies of their time.

From this the astounding polymaths of the master masons emerged – their knowledge of materials, design and engineering combining to guide the construction of cathedrals and palaces of such astounding skill and beauty that they still awe us today.

Even the most artistic of Renaissance architects had a grasp of engineering

Approaching the Italian Renaissance we see an intellectualising of architecture that begins to divorce the architect from their understanding of the materials they work with.

However, even the most artistic of Renaissance architects had a grasp of engineering and of how the main materials they designed with were worked. Approaching modernity architects continue to remain skilled polymaths – drawing away perhaps from the builder-designer of the middle ages, but always remaining close to the technical aspects of their trade.

Is architecture a profession or an art? The answers, as they have come, are never final. Each century requires its own interpretation. The answer the last few centuries have decided upon has been an odd one, though.

In the UK the RIBA was formed in the mid 1800s to begin to regulate the architectural profession. It was founded on the divisive stance that architects could not join the new society if they had any involvement at all in the building trades. This controversial clause had come about in a well-meaning attempt to distance architects from the rampant fraud in the booming construction industry of the time.

This attempt to protect and professionalise architects however, began to fracture the overlapping roles of the construction industry. Nearly a century later, in 1958, a conference on architectural education took things a step further. In order to raise standards and competency, all architects would need to have a university level of education (resulting in the current three part UK system).

The logic is understandable, the outcome disastrous

"Architect" was from this point on to be a university-educated role, covering design, project management, leadership and so forth; with a new vocationally trained role: "architectural technician", created to do the construction detailing. Greater specialisation had become necessary and appropriate as construction grew in complexity, and they felt this compartmentalisation of roles would allow all aspects of architectural work to be carried out more skilfully.

The logic is understandable, the outcome disastrous. They had decided on the question of "profession or art" by cleaving the profession in half. Perhaps accidentally, they had removed the knowledge the architect would need to fulfil their role from architectural education.

No one would consider removing the understanding of oil paints from a painter; but to remove the majority of the knowledge of construction skills and engineering from architects has somehow seemed logical.

The trajectory that followed from here has continued with the further delegation of the original role of architects. There are generalisations within these statements of course, it cannot be denied that architects do and will exist who buck this broad trend.

The majority of architects have done little to heal this fracture

The reports into procurement and construction industry relations of the 1980s and '90s demonstrate and highlight the dangers of division in the construction industry. The Glasgow School of Art and Grenfell fire disasters, and their subsequent inquiries, highlight the hideous consequences of industry fragmentation and mismanagement.

The majority of architects have done little to heal this fracture, or to re-establish the social value of the process of construction. I am not sure if some individuals even believe in its value themselves.

Architects will always exist – they are vital, history has shown us this. The role we currently label as architect though, perhaps that is due some evolution.

Eleanor Jolliffe is an architect and writer based in London. She has a regular column in UK architecture title Building Design, and is co-author of Architect: The evolving story of a profession.

The main image is of architecture students on site in the 1950s, courtesy of RIBA collections.

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