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Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.
Rory Hyde is associate professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne and a design advocate for the Mayor of London. He is also co-editor of Architects After Architecture; a collection of essays that asks what can be achieved with a degree in architecture beyond the design of buildings. The short answer? Plenty.
It’s a genuinely intriguing read that provokes, challenges and subverts common understandings of the profession with confidence and wit. In the book Rory and co-editors Harriet Harriss and Roberta Marcaccio invite forty practitioners to share their experience through profiles, case studies and interviews. In doing so the potential for architectural training to tackle the climate crisis, work with refugees, advocate for diversity, alleviate homelessness, draft public policy, and shape public discourse is illuminated. A must read for anyone with an interest in architecture and the value of design.
Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna sat down with Rory to learn more about Architects After Architecture. This is their conversation.
Portrait courtesy of V&A.
NHK: Hi Rory. Welcome to Book Club. We’re delighted you could join us to discuss Architects After Architecture, a book we’ve been devouring here at NHO. Before we dive into the book, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your relationship with architecture and design?
RH: I studied architecture at RMIT here in Melbourne, and worked in practice here for a while too. I then went to the Netherlands chasing the tail end of the ‘Super Dutch’, a brief movement that combined the absurd with the rigorous to arrive at extreme ideas for projects. Like MVRDV’s ‘Pig City’, where all Holland’s pigs are rehoused in these giant towers to free up farmland. I worked on a number of books with practices which really opened up the possibility that architecture could be ideas, not just buildings. And also opened a door into the curatorial world, which led to me working as a curator the V&A some time later.
NHK: What a wonderfully diverse journey. The book is surprisingly provocative – chastising many elements of the architectural profession from education, to ego, to sustainability, with particular derision for the ‘starchitect’ who creates “lunging forms for the covers of magazines…perpetuating the idea that architecture is about form rather than use, about the individual rather than a collective, about perfection rather than social purpose.” We’re curious to know if this criticism was something that drove the creation of the book, and what you hope to achieve by holding up a mirror to the profession? As Roger Zogolovitch observes, “Being right requires disruption of the status quo, [but] it doesn’t necessarily bring you friends.”
RH: There’s definitely a critique of starchitecture practice in there. But we’re not out to tear it down, instead we want to say ‘Look! Here’s 40 other ways of being an architect that are useful and generous and addressing big questions and working for people who need your help!’ So our answer is simply to expand the horizon of what it means to be an architect by highlighting all these other possibilities. And a big part of the book is to look outside of architecture too, to recognise the pathways of people who ‘leave’, and fold these practices back into a bigger, broader definition of what it can mean to be an architect. As to Roger’s point, we don’t expect to make friends with the big end of town, but we have made plenty of friends.
“A big part of the book is to look outside of architecture too, to recognise the pathways of people who ‘leave’, and fold these practices back into a bigger, broader definition of what it can mean to be an architect.” – Rory Hyde
NHK: You certainly have. Speaking of Zogolovitch, the business of design is an area of particular interest at NHO, so we were intrigued by his reflection on where “the real agency lies in shaping the city” – a new model of practice he terms the ‘architect-developer’. Zogolovitch writes in depth about the tension between business and design, or more specifically developer and architect. Do you feel architects and designers are embracing a more entrepreneurial spirit, and if so, is this something to celebrate?
RH: Roger is a brilliant thinker and has been extremely successful in working in this entrepreneurial mode. He has decades of experience of evaluating the potential of difficult sites, and backs himself to create something new and of value to the city. But it’s not for everyone. We are witnessing in Melbourne with the apparent implosion of Nightingale how hard it can be for architects to adopt this role. It’s extremely complex and large sums of money are involved. I definitely think that as architects we ought to know more about feasibility modelling, about debt, about development in general, but it’s a whole other world of expertise, and I expect many of us would rather just do the drawings.
NHK: There is demand for such a specialised cross-over and a rising awareness of its value. It would be remiss to talk about contemporary architecture without examining its impact on our planet. Jeremy Till’s contribution calls out “virtue-signalling architects who trumpet their environmental credentials while continuing to build airports.” Most architects would agree that it’s a work in progress – new technologies, policies and building practices – however, as Till admits, he doesn’t have the answers. Ultimately, can a profession that uses vast resources ever be truly sustainable, and should the focus be on building less, not just building better?
RH: Buildings contribute something like 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, if you add up embodied energy, transport, construction and heating and cooling. It’s unbelievable. And Jeremy’s point is that we sign these declarations, but then continue with business as usual. It’s extreme greenwashing, shameful stuff. To make the profession truly sustainable would require a complete 180 from where we are today. Yes, start by building less – the ‘retro-first’ campaign in the UK is a good example – by retaining buildings as much as possible, and making what we do build carbon neutral. Mass timber construction can do all of these things, as it locks carbon into its structure. So we have the means. But the real problem is that the entire narrative and purpose of architecture is geared toward novelty and invention, and until we can remake this culture to be one that is slower and more responsible, we will only be fighting ourselves.
NHK: It’s a responsibility for us all to pivot and expand the focus on building for purpose and longevity. There are references throughout the book to the education system, the standard of which differs between countries and cities. What role has education played in the way the world views the architecture profession, and do you think it’s the responsibility of educators to broaden architecture’s definition and therefore the potential of students?
RH: As editors we are all heavily engaged in architectural education. Harriet is dean of architecture at Pratt in New York, Roberta teaches at the Architectural Association in London, and I’ve recently started at the University of Melbourne. One of the things we are each exploring in our own ways is questioning the assumptions of what an architect does, what skills you need, and your pathway upon graduation. In the book we argue that architecture is not just about designing buildings, but is a versatile way of thinking and acting on the world. This redefines our potential field of action, and allows us to apply these skills and processes to questions that we wouldn’t otherwise be asked as architects. But architecture degrees are constrained in their own ways, particularly by the professional accreditation system, which typically prefers to have a fairly conventional definition of what architecture is. So there’s still a lot to do. What would a ‘real-world’ architecture degree look like? One that started in first year with questions like the housing crisis, climate change, social justice, or health and well-being? I would argue that these ought to be considered our real professional competencies.
“The real problem is that the entire narrative and purpose of architecture is geared toward novelty and invention, and until we can remake this culture to be one that is slower and more responsible, we will only be fighting ourselves.” – Rory Hyde
NHK: Indeed – underpinning an architecture degree with these fundamentals may change the focus or trajectory of graduates. We were intrigued to read about Sweden’s approach to architectural organisation in Peggy Deamer’s essay on ‘deprofessionalisation’. Unlike most jurisdictions, in Sweden architects are not licensed and as a result the profession is unionised. Deamer argues that this leads to better cooperation, and in the Swedish example, a voice within the political system. What are your thoughts on the merits of such an approach? Do you think it could work in countries such as the UK, USA or Australia?
RH: Yes, Deamer’s piece is brilliant as in the Swedish example, she presents a viable alternative to one of the big unchallenged structures that govern what we do. Underneath it is the bigger question: ‘Who do we work for?’ She shows how architects have for centuries been complicit with the ruling classes and with empire. It’s hardwired into our professional status, our institutional charters, our contracts, everything. Solving this isn’t going to be as simple as swapping one system for another – Swedish or otherwise. I think we need to completely rebuild what we do around the principle of public service, in the same way that medicine did in the 1940s with the creation of public health and the National Health Service. I imagine a new kind of architect modelled on the GP, working for those who need it, not just those who can pay.
NHK: It would be revelatory to put some of these principles in motion. Finally, in the preface of the book you and your fellow editors wrote at the time (April 2020), “It is not the time for optimism. And yet, we believe we must find hope in what is to come. We must work together to rebuild the way we live, to strike a new social and ecological contract, to support those who are most vulnerable, and to defend against other crises.” So, a little more than 12 months on, tell us, has anything changed? Do we yet have reason for optimism?
RH: Well, no and yes. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, with tens of thousands dying every day, so it’s hard to be optimistic. But I do feel like the window of possibility is shifting. My students are incredible. They’re principled, ambitious, and they don’t take any bullshit. I’m hopeful for what comes next.
NHK: Thank you for joining us, Rory. It’s been a delight.
Architects After Architecture is published by Routledge Publications and available for purchase here.
“In the book we argue that architecture is not just about designing buildings, but is a versatile way of thinking and acting on the world.” – Rory Hyde