- Digest by Maeve Dolan
On entering architecture school, the average student probably has ‘the building’ positioned quite firmly in the forefront of their mind. Considering that data from the RIBA show less than half of those completing their undergraduate degree go on to become architects, one would be safe to assume that ‘the building’ is no longer the core ambition of many graduating students. Architects after Architecture maps 40 diverse practitioners who have not followed the conventional RIBA route. While some are still closely enmeshed with the trimmings of architecture, there are many now positioned in entirely different fields; tech, humanitarian design, museum curation, policy writing to name a few. Common among all those profiled is a thread that can be confidently traced back to their architectural education and how this represented the beginning of the development of their professional skills and interests – not a false start.
The book is an engaging read for students and practitioners alike. Anyone who does not see their professional path as a fixed set of stepping stones may find inspiration and encouragement from the diverse set of ideas, mindsets and methodologies that are laid out in the book. Architects after Architecture offers the opportunity to reflect on motivation – how to discern, distil and focus it.
The book also celebrates those who have deviated off path in quite a strategic and determined manner, as well as those whose careers have been more marked by serendipity and coincidence. Miriam Bellard, art director at Rockstar North, realised early on that she didn’t want to be a ‘real’ architect – but understood the dexterity of her architectural skills and how these could be redeployed in set and video game design. Jos Boys, on the other hand, describes how ‘creative floundering’ characterised her position within the feminist collective Matrix, trying to find new ways to think and practise.
Many of those that the book profiles seem to have benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Roger Zogolovitch’s early career, for example, coincided with a time when London had an excess of old redundant warehouses and when the B1 Use Class was newly created to permit industrial, office and research uses all within the same class – thus paving the way for warehouse studios, the development of which became the focus of his practice. But it would be an injustice to say that the luck of aligning stars was all there was to it; it is a skill to be able to recognise, seize and accelerate from such opportunities.
The question of what success in architecture looks like is brought into focus. The editors ask that a broader set of practices can be permitted to find a welcoming home within the ecosystem of architecture – encouraging those who are not working with ARB after their name to still feel legitimacy in stating that they work ‘in architecture’. Holly Lewis of We Made That, whose portfolio does not feature many projects that move neatly through RIBA Stages 0-7, recounts having to often fend off the question: ‘You’re not really an architect then, are you?’ Behind such a question is often a (misjudged) attitude that if one is working on the edges of conventional practice then it must be the result of some form of defeat or a lack of aptitude or drive. But if the profession is to benefit from the experiences of such practitioners, and as Justine Clark of Parlour states, then it should understand them as ‘a vital extension of the professional landscape, rather than positioned as atypical or alternative’. Perhaps becoming more comfortable with a broader frame would allow the profession to strengthen its relevance, value and resilience.
Alongside questioning what is encompassed by architecture, the issue of who is encompassed is also raised. To whom does the title feel accessible and relatable? Whose contributions are overlooked or not asked for? Who feels peripheral from the get-go? Education is important on all these points. The contributions of women and BIPOC are rarely taught – a balance which Pascale Sablan (the ‘315th living African American female registered architect in the US’) is seeking to address through the Great Diverse Designers Library, a database that helps redivert online searches for ‘great architects’ away from the usual suspects. By diversifying the faces that are elevated, a more diverse range of working methodologies and values will also be on hand for young generations to be encouraged and inspired by.
The role of the misfit is actively celebrated by Jos Boys, an attitude that led her to co-found Matrix. She argues that (while not without challenges) the role can ‘richly inform creativity … misfitting can be unpicked to reveal the worst of normative practices’. Those positioned outside the mainstream are able to provide a necessary challenge to design conventions, which too often start unthinkingly from the position of prevailing social norms.
Public responsibility is an oft-cited theme among the book’s interviewees. Architecture is recognised not just as a spatial endeavour, but one that is ineradicably political and social. Whether we care to admit it or not, how and what we build as a society is an expression of values. When the social value of architecture is brought to centre stage, then there is a shift from product to process, from clients to users, from building to occupancy, from financial metrics to wellbeing. Central to the ethos of practices such as muf, Public Works and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée is the drive to bring more voices to the table. carried out a co-design process for a large new playscape which involved appointing a ‘Youth Advisory Committee’ to evaluate emerging and evolving designs – a process which puts to shame the perfunctory nod to community engagement that is all too often rolled out in conventional practice.
Architects after Architecture was published at the end of last year – the timing of which feels quite poignant. The profession last took a hard hit in 2008, after which there was a notable upsurge in divergent practice. And one can only assume that in the post-pandemic landscape (not to mention the growing climate crisis) there will be another shift. Will this period mark a move away from the building as the primary output of architecture? Will there be a widening of the professional territory to become equally welcoming to all the shades of architectural knowledge and intelligence? In times of such flux, it is those whose approach is nimble, curious and embracing of complexity who will be able to take advantage of the changing winds – rather than be buffeted by them. As Jeremy Till notes: ‘The danger of crisis is twinned with potential’. Precarity can present an opportunity to redefine the questions and reset the parameters.