Architect: A Powerless Profession?


Discourse, 10 June 2021

A photograph of us during the freshie year in the studio, when we had no any clue about architecture

Amid heading towards my graduation of Master’s Degree in Architecture and searching for jobs, I was having some spare time to rethink architecture as a career, or perhaps as part of me. Especially in the recent years when I grew my reach and knowledge regarding architect as profession, I’ve come to start questioning the supposed position of architects in our world.

Of what roles are architects represent in our society? Are architects or their works always speak for a predominant agenda? Or their responsibility is purely constructing a building in the name to serve any client? To what extend the architects and their works could impact society, the intimate environment, or the architectural industry itself? Perhaps everything about their works is just simply a by-product of their clients? Are architects’ works in the state of obsolescence?

In Malaysia’s context, the official definition of ‘Architect’ in general can be referred as the person who is entitled to design and construct a legal building. Such entitlement is a transmission of power and responsibility, legalization of profession- which has little, or nothing relate to design. Though I am sceptical about this entitlement can uphold its power for how long, as if the legislative power is the only threshold to differ what architects can do. The advancement of technology and tools today have made the architectural knowledge and skillset much accessible than ever. Yet, the relatively stagnant situation in Malaysia has made the profession relies heavily on this entitlement in a defensive way- is this a healthy phenomenon or the only way we could do to sustain the architect’s profession?

On the other hand, during the years in school, we are reminded to uphold the responsibility of an architect, not only by the legality of building, but also through the act of design- even though sometimes I found it comes with the monotonous reading of issues and their relationships, resulting in oversimplification towards the whole context. Thus, for such a long time in school, we begin our architectural design as a measure to address common issues, or even solve them hypothetically. The bright side is, we trained to be more sensitive to relate the topic of built environment with many ongoing issues for various contexts, to look a little bit beyond what architecture is.

However, this sounds very ideal, in fact too ideal to consider the designer as a problem-solver of many conditions in the worlds we live in. This reminds me of the counterstatement in the letter written by Jacques Herzog to David Chipperfield:

“Dear David, you ask me what we architects should do about the unmistakably impending environmental catastrophe. About social inequality. About poverty. About the degradation of this planet’s resources. About the pandemic, which has placed us in an almost surreal mode that begs description. All of which is being managed by political leaders, whose cynicism and absurd actions put the Marx Brothers to shame. Dear David, the answer is: nothing.

… Architects have always kept company with the world’s mighty.”

The whole writing can refer to:

From the entire reading, it implied the passive nature lies within the profession of an architect. It does not completely deny the tangible contribution that can be made by architects’ works, but it raises how powerless an architect is when it comes to the decisive issues which are omnipresent around the world. This is quite contradicting to the belief of many young, passionate architects who wish their works contribute to the betterment of the world, seeing them has very little to do with addressing the issues in reality. But at the very least, all we had left is the architecture itself. I tend not to think pessimistically regarding architect’s position, but I have not yet found an answer to these doubts.

Anyway, I would love to cite Reinier de Graaf’s words in Failed Architecture: Architecture is in a State of Denial which expresses the similar thought with my current apprehension:

“An architect is not supposed to be nostalgic but forward-looking. But I’m nostalgic for a time when mankind was a lot more forward-looking than it is today; for a gradual optimism about the future. That’s the paradox.”

The whole writing can refer to:

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