[To all you lucky licensed guys out there] What is an architect?
[To all you guys sour about the whole licensing spiel] What is an architect?
But really, what is it? What does it mean to architect? Okay, I know, the Mirriam-Webster definition says:
"architect: n. a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction"
Of course, NCARB would certainly agree with that as well, but today I think we're all lying to ourselves if we think that within our profession, and publicly, that we see ourselves through the same lens. The field and the term are so broad, I know people who associate themselves as architects but have never touched a CD set nor do they actually work on buildings, per-se. In the same breath, I know architects who are architects. They took the tests, they sit in on all those dreadful meetings picking out the correct pull bars for the ADA stalls and fight with contractors and engineers until the wee hours of the morning. There are also 'architects' who never actually have anything built, they just write and draw and use advanced visualization to envision a futuristic society through the architect's lens.
But what is an architect in terms of straight semiotics? Let's leave the discussion of licensure out of it today and focus on what people see us as and even how we view ourselves. The term 'architect' is probably the broadest it's ever been. Even counting when architects literally did everything from engineering to physically assembling the structures they planned. Yes today there are so many possibilities with our saintly B.Arch or M.Arch degrees, but are we still architects in the specific sense or is it really much more than that? I'm not even sure I'll propose an answer in this article because I don't know. Perhaps that's because I'm unsure of where I want to take my B.Arch degree, but I still know the lay of the land is as wide as my degree can see.
Do You Architect?
I want to pin two completely different people doing two completely different things against one another right now. They each have one commonality, however which is that they associate themselves with the good old clan of architects and the built environment.
Woods versus 'Architect' at (insert firm name here)
Ah, we have ourselves two people which clash at almost every point besides their passion for the built environment. Lebbeus Woods (may he rest in peace) is going head to head with 'Architect' (let's call him Tom) at a traditional firm. Tom's daily tasks include checking phases of his different projects which have been delegated to his co-workers, making site visits for C&A and sitting in on meetings deciding why the electrical work can't begin until another month from now. He's a traditional guy, wears plaid with khakis and has a family at home. Woods, on the other hand, is a theorist. He writes, draws and thinks all day. While not far removed from many designers in these traditional firms, he makes his livelihood from discussing concepts in the field all the while never really having anything (barring a few structures) erected. He is a new-age theoretical - or paper - architect. He makes his living from thinking and expressing his views on how architecture should be and may be in the future.
Both of these men are very well-respected. Tom's buildings come in under budget and the contractors only want to kill him 25% of the time, down from the usual 155%. Lebbeus Woods is seen as a visionary who creates worlds, fictional or not, which display how architecture is a catalyst for social change and an art form through and through. Pin these two against one another and the amount of hostility is staggering. But why would this exist since they are both of the same profession, thinking of similar things during their careers and even possibly referencing one or the other from time to time? We've allowed ourselves to become stagnant again in our thinking and being architects. With the rough economy and lack of interest (America) in projects that promote public interest in culture and arts, architects have had to remain conservative, forgetting that above and beyond all we do is the wildly abstract concept that we manifest space. We do something that men in our same shoes were once deified for, yet our spec manuals now are our proudest achievements. We have forgotten that we are not only one thing.
An 'architect' is everything. We can do just about anything and as a matter of fact we have proved that over the course of our being (the career that is, I've done very little to actually validate my architectural existence at my ripe age). We can think, we can philosophize, we can make, we can awe and all at the same time we can understand the laws of physics and be a politician. We are slowly but surely returning to the age of the Renaissance man, except now we have so many more balls to juggle. It's time to end the hostility that exists between the Tom's and the Lebbeus Woods. End the disrespect that some of the greatest achievers in the field get daily because they are not the traditional architects that were prescribed in the 50's. We are all architects if we think about buildings and find ways to better them, innovate them or even write about them. Simply because Zaha Hadid is an expressionist when it comes to her buildings makes her no less of an achiever than Tom, and vice versa. The fact of the matter is that we all need one another to make our complex creations work. New innovations being thought of by people such as Skylar Tibbits everyday will one day breach back into architecture, the same way that Tom's system of delivering projects on time and on budget will help Bjarke Ingels keep his lavish clients happy.
We all need one another to succeed. So while the profession may start to return to its roots as a Renaissance job, we will never truly grasp everything in the field. And this is fine, as long as we learn to appreciate that we are not only about making buildings in the traditional sense. Some may crumple paper up and call it a building (Oh, Gehry), some may be fully integrated in BIM to deliver impressive deadlines and drawing sets, while others are fine with creating a science fiction architecture that is bound by no imagination and one day my be possible. No matter our daily tasks or lifeline work, if it involves creating space and thinking about how to make the built environment, we all fall under the vast and wild umbrella called architecture.