The demise of the mid-sized practice, a dearth of work in the UK, and no more 'architects'; the architects' profession could look radically different in 2025, according to a new study by the Royal Institute of British Architects' (RIBA) think tank Building Futures.
Setting out a radical vision for the future, The Future for Architects? examines how the demands of a global economy and economic recession have transformed business practice, and projects the evolution of these trends into 2025 by questioning:
- Who will design our built environment in 2025?
- What role might those trained in architecture have in 2025?
- How might practice change by 2025?
The study looks at how architects practice now, and predicts how this could change in the future.
One of the top issues highlighted in the study was how the label 'architect' is perceived to hold practices back in terms of the type of work they are able to do. Some practices have already created offshoot companies with a separate identity and different branding to their main practice avoiding use of the title 'architect', in order to reach more diverse markets and branch into areas such as lighting design, product design, industrial design, interior design, installation design, branding and community consultation. Many practitioners are not 'architects' in the formal sense recognised by the RIBA and the ARB, yet still have a significant role in affecting the built environment; this prompts the question whether the RIBA might need to consider evolving the 20th century definition of what it means to be an architect in order to fit better with the broader 21st century reality of the profession, or whether the title should be used at all. Students and graduates echoed these concerns, and saw the label 'architect' as restrictive and as creating a barrier between themselves and other professions such as planning and urban design.
Amongst those interviewed there was a call for architects to ensure they could navigate the dramatic changes taking place within the profession, particularly by improving their financial literacy and ability to offer a service that embraces the client's broader aims and goes beyond 'building a building'. The greatest threat was envisaged for medium sized practices, who were considered likely to threatened by larger practices with an established commercial approach towards clients, and global interdisciplinary consultancies for their ability to quickly complete different scale projects at low cost, leading to a polarisation of practices by size. One large practice felt that in the longer term future, the architects' practice could become far more nimble by reducing to a very small core group with established links to a range of cutting edge technological consultants, enabling them to keep up with advances in technology, programming and skills by having access to the best practitioners in each field.
The decline in demand for architects' services in the UK (dropping 40% since 2008) highlights how the UK's finite market has pushed architects with larger scale aspirations to look overseas for work. In many cases, larger practices looking to work effectively abroad are gaining local expertise by recruiting directly from local schools of architecture, and establishing a talent pool for each office. However, a number of small practices felt that working abroad was not a viable option for them.
"This report seeks to stimulate a discussion about the challenges and opportunities which architects in the broadest sense face, in the hope that the ensuing debate will put them in the best position to succeed," said Dickon Robinson, Chair of Building Futures.
"The past fifteen years have been particularly interesting. The combination of lottery funding, Millennium euphoria and the global debt binge have been a great period for architecture. Our cities have seen radical change. Most now boast examples of exemplary contemporary architecture, and many have been transformed by architect designed residential towers and retail developments. For perhaps the first time the public perception of architecture has been informed by direct experience of well designed buildings large and small, and by the popularity of television programmes on architecture.
However, this burst of activity, and its consequent creation of an employment bubble, has tended to obscure the continuing changes in the construction industry that creates the context in which architects work. Architects are not alone in needing to respond to the impact of a globalising economy, exploding information technology capability and cultural confusion. However in the face of a continuing erosion of traditional architectural skills to other players, the profession seems peculiarly vulnerable to a nostalgic backward glance at a bygone age in which the architect was the undisputed boss. Fortunately it is clear that many young graduates see nothing but opportunity in these extraordinary times; if they are to be fulfilled it is important that our professional institutions work to create the conditions which will optimise their chances."