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What Do Architects Do, If Not Design Buildings?

Posted on: July 7, 2021

Written by James Tait, Architect, Educator and Author of Entering Architectural Practice.

Architecture is ‘building’

Architects design buildings. Recent attempts to redefine this deceptively simple definition seem premature.

Some say architecture is not about what we create but how we respond to urgent needs. That we should be less concerned with a buildings’ physical properties, spatial qualities, or aesthetic value and more concerned with how our buildings cater for current societal demands in response to climate change, inequalities, and disaster relief.  Architecture must undoubtedly respond to these crises. But I think this approach, of architecture as crisis management, needs to accept that societal needs change over time. That as well as responding to current needs we must also think about what we are leaving behind for those that follow us. The buildings that continue to endure and captivate beyond a generation – Gothic Cathedrals, Renaissance Palazzos, Brutalist megastructures - are those whose physical, spatial, and aesthetic qualities elevate them beyond mere utilitarian buildings designed purely for temporary needs.

Some also say that designing buildings is an old-fashioned way to practice architecture. That architects should instead use their design expertise to affect other fields. Why? What gives us the right act to as quack philosophers, artists, politicians, and entrepreneurs without going through the specialist training these fields require? Designing buildings is important, expansive, and complicated enough. Perhaps if we focused on this core task, we would be prouder of the built residue humankind leaves on the planet.

From House to City

The design of a building is a primarily collaborative act.  An idea, formed upon the needs and desires of a client or community, shaped and modulated by various external parameters and forces to become a concrete proposal. This proposal must then be communicated – to hundreds of different designers, makers, and stakeholders - through drawings, models, and images. This proposal then must prove it satisfies or exceeds the initial idea as well as the external forces acting upon it. The key role then of the architect is as a collaborator and a communicator.  This is not an isolated and irrelevant task as some might say. If practiced successfully it can be crucial to society.

Hannah Arendt defines society as a form of mutual dependence for the sake of life. In this context, the architect’s role as designer of buildings takes on vital significance. Firstly, to provide shelter by providing protection from the elements, other species, and ourselves. Secondly, to provide the appropriate sequence and arrangement of spaces for society to fulfil its essential needs and urges. To eat, sleep, produce and reproduce, work, and play. 

Beyond these two vital roles, buildings have the capacity to bring joy and wonder to human beings through the experiential effects created by their design. Through impossibility and strangeness of form; careful manipulation of scale and proportion for both collective and individual needs; through the richness and depth of materiality and detailing; the considered co-ordination of light and dark, solid and void – a building can transcend its inanimate components. The architect becomes a provider of the conditions that allow human beings to experience wonder and joy.

Architecture can be expansive as human life itself. As Louis I Kahn has said: ‘the Architect can build a house and build a city in the same breath’. The architect then, through the design of buildings, has the capacity to provide not only for shelter and human needs, but also, to enrich our daily lives. 

From a House...
Fisher House. Pennsylvania, USA. 1967. Louis I. Kahn. © Fisher Family Collection,
The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

To a City...
Civic Center Studies. Philadelphia, USA. 1956–1957. Louis I. Kahn. © Louis I. Kahn
Collection, University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum


What is architecture, if not ‘building’


So, what is architecture if not building? Is there more to architecture than designing buildings as Marwa El Mubark recently states? What does the architect do if not design buildings? Urban researcher?  Focus group leader? Community educator? Client counsellor? Urban visionary? Contractors’ conscience? These are all roles that architects should be carrying out anyway in the complex process of designing buildings. They are not future niches or routes for the profession. Instead, they are current responsibilities which should form the core of what architects do in their role as building designers.  What El Mubark and others propose is not actually a decentring of the profession but instead the decoupling of it from its output.  A separation of architecture from its reason for being – the building.

The arguments which promote reappraisal, or even severing, of the link between architect and building to better collaborate with society and its needs on an ecological, economic, and social level are not as radical as they hope.  Instead, these arguments often return the architect to their key roles as building designers:
- To identify the need which has arisen within a community for a building to be built.
- Assess what resources are required to create it.
- Devise the sequence of spaces and forms which allow the need to be accommodated and flourish, and
- Create an artful and lasting expression for these spaces and forms through the careful coordination of various actors in making our sketches, models, specifications real. 

This is what architects have been doing, through building, since at least the Neolithic period. We have only stopped designing and engaging in this more direct way because we have allowed others to reduce our role to the pursuit of novel forms or facilitation of floor space creation.   

It is estimated that around 75% of all buildings erected today are done so without the involvement of an architect. When we are involved in building, we are often employed for the minimum input, gaining the necessary approvals then allowing others to fill in the detail of our 1:100 scale outlines – no longer involved in the ‘nitty gritty of actual building’. Perhaps it is our disconnection with the built environment, both in the extent of our involvement and scope of our role, that makes us less relevant to society. A building designer who only designs 25% of them. A building designer marginalised in many of the detailed decisions (space standards, ceiling heights, window sizes, material choices and so on) that allow buildings to impart value beyond the financial and endure beyond a generation. Buildings will continue to be built whether we further vacate our historic role as designers of them or not. 

Rory Hyde and Roberta Marcaccio say that to ‘limit architecture to buildings is to do it a disservice’ and that value needs to be found in architecture beyond bricks and mortar. Yet, perhaps neglecting our core responsibility of designing buildings in fact does a disservice to what architecture is. Allowing this role to diminish will consequently diminish the quality of the built environment – the tangible reality of architecture that society experiences. Any campaign to recalibrate the role of the architect beyond bricks and mortar must first recognise the inherent value contained within bricks and mortar.

If we diminish our core task of designing buildings, we risk diminishing the consequences of this role.  The buildings that have the capacity to furnish and nourish human existence.  The question should not be, ‘What else can architects do?’  Instead, ‘How can architects do what they do in a more meaningful way?’  We don’t need to decentre or decouple ourselves from building.  Instead, we need to re-connect with it.