The evolving role of architects in society

What is architecture's role in society?

The evolving role of architects puts into focus the importance of their voice in cultural debates - such as tackling climate change.
What is the role of architecture? Should architects determine how we live? Do architects have the skills needed to operate in a more fluid environment?
These are some of the questions which will be debated when the nation’s leading practitioners gather in Perth for the 2020 National Architecture Conference (7-9 May). Creative directors Justine Clark, Maryam Gusheh, Emma Williamson and Kieran Wong have announced that the theme of the conference will be “Leverage” – with a focus on the challenges and opportunities facing today’s architects.
“The role of the architect in contemporary society is shifting from a service provider to new roles that have the potential for transformative influence,” say the creative directors in a joint statement.
The topic could not be more timely as architects grapple with many new challenges such as climate change, high-density housing and the increasing dependence on sophisticated computer-aided design (CAD) tools.
Many Australian architects, especially those under 40, are already moving away from their traditional role as service providers and want to have a greater influence shaping the urban environment and the texture of day-to-day life.

Young gun architects

Dino Vrynios, director of Das Studio in Adelaide, says that younger architects are much more driven by a concern for society and the environment than their predecessors.
“There is a schism emerging between the younger and older practitioners in architecture,” he says. “The baby boomers are at the end of their careers and there are some Gen Xers in the middle who are doing some really great stuff. Then you have a younger cohort who have a strong social conscience and alignment.”
Vrynios believes that modern technology and Australia’s more cosmopolitan outlook have changed the way younger architects like himself approach their work.
In addition to setting up his own boutique design studio, Vrynios is the co-founder of Escapod, which creates pre-fabricated, eco-friendly buildings for the hospitality sector.
“The younger generation has a different set of views and expectations about the built environment,” he says.

A design concept for an Escapod (Image credit: @escapodaustralia).

While Bob Nation, design adviser to the Barangaroo Delivery Authority in Sydney, strongly rejects the idea that older architects are indifferent to environmental and social issues, he concedes that the profession does need to have a much stronger public role.
“I think it’s very important: if you are going to achieve anything in the built environment you have to have a major political voice,” he says. “Architects need to take a more forthright position.”

Architecture as a cultural timestamp

This passion for innovation seems to be the hallmark of architecture – a profession that dates to the 1st century BCE when the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that a good building should possess durability, utility and beauty. But the impulse to create monumental structures pre-dates the Classical era. The Gobekli Tepe, Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Giza demonstrate that human beings have always had a fascination with geometric structures.
Some scholars claim that buildings such as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Chrysler Building and The Guggenheim are part of humanity’s innate desire to achieve immortality.

Detailed view of The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Biscay, Basque Country, Spain. Designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

A cursory look at the history of Western architecture from the Classical era onwards suggests a narrative of perpetual flux as each period – such as Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque – creates a new aesthetic which, in retrospect, helps to define a distinct moment in time.
“Architecture is part of our culture – it has been called the mother of all arts,” says architectural academic Martha Thorne. “It is certainly part of how we see ourselves, and part of how we see the world. The unique aspect of architecture is that, in its physical incarnation of buildings, it may last for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Are architects the new arbiters of style?

The 21st century finds architecture once again trying to re-invent itself, as Postmodernism gives way to the confused and often contradictory dictates of Neo-Modernism. At the same time, today’s architects must grapple with environmental, political and social issues more pressing than those that may have troubled their predecessors.
Rather than working quietly in their studios, architects such as Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Lord Norman Foster are now expected to fulfil a much wider role in society as arbiters of style and taste.
“Architecture is an expression of values – the way we build is a reflection of the way we live,” says Norman Foster, the British architect behind “the Gherkin” in London and the HSBC building in Hong Kong. “At its most noble, architecture is the embodiment of our civic values.”

The Gherkin, London, by British architect Norman Foster.

Award-winning Sydney-based architect William Smart supports the idea of architects taking part in such important cultural debates, but says his profession does not enjoy the status it probably deserves in Australia.
“Having worked in Europe, I’d say the regard for architects is higher there than it is in Australia,” he says.

Advocating for Australian architects on large projects

Smart, the founder and creative director of Smart Design Studio, says that in NSW architects are under-utilised in major urban projects, such as new apartment blocks, because of the restrictive design guidelines and tight budgets imposed by developers.
“The demand for new apartment blocks gives us a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to shape our cities that will last for many years,” he says.
“So we have this chance to create something with great longevity and yet our role is that of a consultant providing a little bit of service to get planning approval.”
According to Smart, working on more boutique projects, such as small-scale residential developments or art galleries, is much more rewarding and engaging.

Smart Design Studio's recent project, the Arlington. Photography: Ross Honeysett.

“I enjoy the more holistic approach to architecture which may include the landscape of the building, the building, the interiors, the furniture and artwork,” he says.
When asked the same question, Bob, who previously served as a president of the Australian Institute of Architects, said he fully appreciates that architects often feel sidelined when it comes to having a major influence on large projects, but urges them to defend their own vision.
“So many architects are just manipulated by developers. There is a tendency, I guess, to be submissive,” he says.
“There is also this perception in Australia that better architects come from offshore, but there’s great talent in this country. They need to stand and state their case.”

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