Constructing change


Is this the end of the architectural profession as we know it? Amanda Baillieu sees cause for optimism in how architects could build on lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis.

Architects are used to being told their existence is threatened.

As well as those forces outside their control, namely recessions and the demands of a global economy, the profession has proved slow to adapt and prone to introspection.

Add to this, risk aversion among clients, the profession’s reluctance to collaborate to solve pressing social issues and the stark fact that buildings designed by architects account for no more than two per cent of global construction, the profession’s future is not bright.

But no one factored in a global virus that keeps us contained in our homes, that’s closing down nations and bringing the world economy to a standstill.

Should architects see this as yet another setback? Or the reverse – that a crisis, even one as devastating as this one, presents opportunities?

I am going to come down on the side of optimism having witnessed two recessions (1991 and 2007) and the gradual sidelining of the profession by successive governments.

The profession needs to show real leadership rather than being obsessed with the next job opportunity

London’s ExCel exhibition centre was repurposed into the 4,000-bed NHS Nightingale by BDP within a matter of weeks. The public will expect the government to demonstrate the same decisiveness and speed in addressing other areas of need.

Of course, practices of all sizes will need to lay off staff and some will inevitably close their doors altogether. Practices are vulnerable to downturns. But history also shows architects have a way of pulling through and coming out the other side re-energised.

So, my predictions are that once the health emergency is over, society will demand change that architects can respond to.

We are seeing already that in an emergency, governments are prepared to act fast, spend money to get things done. If we can build an emergency hospital in the space of two weeks, people will rightly demand to know why the government can’t fund the building of decent homes with the same sense of urgency.

Second, our environment will seem even more precious. Allowed out for our daily walk, those with access to parks and open spaces count themselves lucky. But for many, open space is the street with no tree in sight. It’s too early to say how our newfound acquaintance with silence, cleaner air and time to appreciate nature will translate into city making – but it will.

Third, the profession can be both fractious and fractured – the main reasons why respect for it has diminished. But as we all search for answers, the profession needs to show real leadership in these areas rather than being perpetually obsessed with the next job opportunity as the work starts to trickle back.

Finally, we are being forced to revise our very conception of what makes a successful community. So perhaps a positive outcome of COVID-19 will be to challenge the financially driven, short-term outlook that determines how places are planned, designed and built, and promise to do better.

Author bio

Amanda Baillieu is the former editor of Building Design and RIBA Journal and founder of architecture platform Archiboo.