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Generalists or Specialists

This article was originally presented as part of the The Walter Wagner Education Foundation Discussion at the American Institute of Architecture Students Forum in Chicago, Illinois, November 1988.

The Performance of Architects

Architects' are currently underperforming in all the areas they claim to be their domain.

In art, the emphasis on the 'expression' of the 'surface layer' of the Post-Modern movement reflects a low level of conceptual thought; incompatible to the fundamental basis of architecture.

In science, computer applications lag relative to almost all other fields. The use of the computer for drafting purposes is a shallow application relative to the potential of the computer medium.

Construction technology remains in the 'dark ages' in comparison to the space industry, automobile and general manufacturing. The continued use of the timber frame and the brick, epitomize the lack of development.

In business, the lack of penetration into the housing market suggests that Architects' are not supplying the demands of the people. Estimates show that architects directly influence between 2 to 5% of all buildings throughout the world. (1)

The challenge of delivering 'design' services to the public is not being met by Architects. The cause of this problem is the fragmented and specialist nature of the architectural world.

The Fragmentation

The fragmentation of the architectural profession has continued at an alarming rate in recent years. Not only is the construction totally in the hands of builders, but the construction management is no longer under the architects' umbrella. Building' services and structural performance are handed to engineers. Interiors, landscaping, material quantities, etc are performed by consultants to the architect. The division of labour continues within the office. All large practices comprise a series of specialists: renderers; specification writers; specialists in specific building types; draftsmen; designers; management; etc.

Architects have become so specialized that many Architects differentiate between Architecture and building. Le Corbusier defines architecture on the basis of the level of emotion he derives from a building. He proclaims: "This is beautiful. That is Architecture.". (2) This notion relies on the establishment of a subjective judgement and induces the notion of an 'avant garde'.

Tom Wolfe describes this problem in his parody of the architectural game, "From Bauhaus to Our House". Wolfe talks of the compounds, the inner circle who prescribes the 'preferred taste' of architectural style; and the derision inferred toward the clients, the non-architects, and other architects who suffer from a lack of 'educated taste'.(3)

The Architects' Role

Many Architects' no longer realize the true nature of their role. Architect's are blinded by the conventions of a "traditional industry".(4) The use of current technology is restricted by stereotypes of what the building should be. What does a house really look like? Comparatively, in a "pioneer industry", such as N.A.S.A.'s space program, design logic is the key to development.(5)

An important component of the education process is to instill a questioning approach in all students. Architects must re-examine the problem of shelter, removed from the aesthetics of conventions.

The most obvious example is the insistence upon cartesian co-ordinates and cubic space. (6) Architects rarely question this premise, thereby reducing the opportunity to develop a more appropriate design response.

The emphasis on History has become the malignant growth of our education system. The future and the past are independent events. The value of history is limited to the suggestion of forthcoming trends. For example, in architecture, the study of the Renaissance has very little relevance to our understanding of current design problems. Materials are different; lifestyle patterns are different; the needs of society are different. The entire context of the design problem is different. (7)

The Separation of Design and Manufacturing

One of the major fragmentations within architecture is the separation of the design sequence from the construction and the manufacturing process. (8)

Manufacturers develop products independent of the Architect; the Architect designs independent of the manufacturer and the contractor; and the contractor erects the structure independently of the other two.

Specialization Gaps

This highlights one of the major problems of specialization. Gaps in the understanding of the problem develop; and misaligned solutions are created.

The perceptions of students must be changed in this area. The current aversion to technology, industry and the construction process is part of the misunderstanding of the Architects' role. The practice of education that teaches construction and design in separate compartments continues to fuel this problem, this situation must be changed.(9)

An extension to this problem is the lack of architectural research. The deficiency of unity between the design, education, manufacturing and construction fields scatters the available research funds over a vast area. The independence of each group often means that the advances of one group are re-invented by the next, promoting very slow development. (10)

Re-uniting Industry

A merging of the participants of the building industry, is omnipotent not only to unite the entire design process, but to establish a research base. The current organization of Architectural practices lack the resources of time and money to develop research facilities. (11)

The automobile industry may serve as an appropriate model to view the future Architect's role. As Safdie points out, the production run of automobiles provides a small percentage per unit, to be applied toward research. (12) The current, one-off nature of architectural design denies this possibility.

The traditional role of Universities is that of a research institution. If governments can provide funding for space programs and 'atom smashers' in the light of their advancement of humankind, then in the light of the 'homeless' problem, funding for suitable architectural research should be possible. But, it will only be forthcoming if a return on the investment can be envisaged.

Architectural Practice

If a merging of Architects, manufacturers and construction takes place, the independent Architectural practice may be absorbed under the wings of companies, and disappear. The role of the Architect will most certainly change.

The advent of franchise outlets may also develop. (13) Design of the architectural system will take place at a centralized research center and the remaining architectural offices will act as showrooms for the designs. Some Architects may find their role redirected toward sales rather than design.

Re-inventing Design

If Architects are to continue to participate as designers they must adjust the basis of their design method and focus toward contemporary industrial conceptualization. Architects must move from the permanent, to the flexible and the non-permanent; from the finished result, to the components and the method of assembly; from the site specific, to the site adaptable; and from the specific element, to the overall system. (14) The visual qualities of buildings will take second place to the importance of the relationship of the elements to the whole. This also follows the pattern suggested by the computer medium; the transfer from the subjective to the objective.

The Computer

The computer is a tool that offers enormous potential to Architects, and may hold the key to the future.

The most significant change may be the unification of all the current specialists and consultants. Access to the required information, at the press of a keyboard, will allow the architect to resume the role of building co-ordinator. An increase in available research funding will accelerate the development of architectural computer applications thus presenting a number of impressive scenarios.

Computer Modelling

For example, computer modelling will measure the efficiency of circulation to the building volume; calculate the extent of heat gain from the sun; the correct heating and cooling requirements for the building; test the acoustic levels and give an immediate cost estimate of design options. Once this type of system is developed, clients will demand this service. For too long the client has had to wait until the building has been designed, constructed and used for several months before he can begin to comprehend the value of his investment. The arbitrariness of the resultant design will be reduced due to the scientific base of the computer simulation analysis.

The ability to simulate a walk through a building, computer control of all building services and the creation of automated construction techniques with the use of robots; all represent emerging trends.

But, the most significant change facing the Architectural Profession will be the development of expert computer systems that can actually design. In theory, the computer has the ability to sort design data according to functional requirements and the three-dimensional application through an appropriate building system can be developed.

The development of such a system may replace approximately 90% of all architects. Do not dismiss the possibility that such a computer system will be available within 10 years! The technology to complete the task is available today.

The process of de-employment is rapidly following the development of automation. Why should Architects' escape the pattern?

The Role of Education

This brings us to the point of considering the value of our education.

Currently, education is vocation oriented. This must change. Current trends indicate a shift toward the liberal arts, and away from specific professional training. Education must begin to focus on research and personal development. (15)

The existing emphasis in education is the accumulation of knowledge. The computer revolution and the information explosion is rendering this process obsolete. (16) Conservative estimates suggest that human knowledge is currently doubling every five years. (17)

In the same manner as the availability of the pocket calculators has reduced the need to physically multiply, subtract, divide and add numbers; the computer reduces the need to remember specific information. Due to the enormous amount of information accessible via the computer medium, the new model for education is the structuring of this information and the creation of new knowledge. Research and research method are the key to the future of education.

The computer offers an inherent education quality. To learn to use the computer requires a heuristic method of application; learning by doing. The notion of the learned scholar imparting his infinite wisdom and knowledge is outdated. One can only learn to use the computer by working with a computer.

A major component of education will be becoming familiar with the computer. Architects cannot be expected to implement new design methods if their understanding of the computer is limited. Hopefully, from the experience of computer interaction, familiarity will breed a greater understanding of the nature of the computer medium and an increase in effectiveness will transcend.


In conclusion, there appears to be little choice but to abandon the specialist approach that architects currently follow.

The major risk of becoming overly specialized in a rapidly changing world, is that an unexpected and unpredictable event can occur that renders the entire specialization obsolete. The motor car replaced the need for horse shoes. The airplane replaced the emphasis on commercial shipping lines. Television replaced the emphasis on the radio.

In the short term, Architects' must bridge the gap between design, construction and manufacture.

In the longer term, it appears likely that automation will induce the leisure age and the need for employment will be diminished

No one can be sure what the future holds but we can all make efforts to be aware of possible outcomes. The only guarantee is that change will continue to occur, often in unexpected directions.


(1) Doxiadis C.; Architecture in Transition; Oxford University Press; New York; 1963; P.71.
(2) Le Corbusier; Towards a New Architecture; The Architectural Press; London;1927; p.187
(3) T. Wolfe; From Bauhaus to Our House; Farrar Straus Giroux; New York; 1981.
(4) J Bronowski; The Visionary Eye; The MIT Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1978;.P40
(5) Loc cit.
(6) Derived from: H. Kenner; Bucky: A guided tour of Buckminster Fuller; William Morrow and Co. Inc.; New York; 1973.
(7) Based upon: M. McLuhan and Q. Fiore; The Medium is the Massage; Bantam Books; New York; 1967; P.74-5.
(8) Based upon: J Bronowski; ibid.
(9) M. McLuhan and Q. Fiore; ibid; P. 54-5.
(10) M. Safdie; Beyond Habitat; The M.I.T. Press; Cambridge, Mass.; 1970; P.111.
(11) J. Meller; The Buckminster Fuller Reader; Jonathon Cape Ltd.; London; 1970.
(12) M. Safdie; ibid; P.112.
(13) W, Ketchen; The Franchise Architect; Unpublished Thesis; Deakin University; Geelong; 1986.
(14) D. Schon; Design in the light of the year 2000; from N. Cross, D. Elliott and R. Roy; Man-Made Futures: Readings in Technology and Design; Hutchinson Educational; London; 1974.
(15) Jones B.; Sleepers Wake! Technology and the future of work; Oxford University Press; Melbourne; 1982.
(16) M. McLuhan and Q. Fiore; ibid; P.63.
(17) Jones B.; ibid.

The Future of Architecture Table of Contents


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