Harnessing the Architect’s Potential for Expanded Agency within Contemporary Design and Development Practices

By Associate Professor Kirsten Orr; Melonie Bayl-Smith; Dr Jason Prior

Architects have changed how they think about their role in, and influence on, the built environment but this is not reflected in the policies regulating Australian architectural practice. Our project seeks to understand the changing values, worldviews and imperatives of the architectural profession and to compare them with the quantifiable measures of performance that are embedded in Australian processes for the registration of architects and national competency standards in architecture. Do existing performance measures adequately describe the contemporary architect? Does it remain possible to think of the architect as a single type? What does this mean for the regulation of the architectural profession?

The project is building a new strategic research alliance between the NSW Architects Registration Board, the University of Technology, Sydney and Bijl Architecture.

Twelve in-depth interviews with architects will provide a means to reflect upon and understand the ways in which architects see themselves within the dynamic and complex professional context. Australian architects’ understanding of their place in the construction industry, the built environment and broader society is being challenged by the advent of new digital design tools, construction technologies, building procurement practices, innovative materials and alternative ways of thinking.1 To this list must be added the effects of changing financial markets, volatile ecologies, social transformation and the subsequent increasing complexity of development practice. Rory Hyde’s blog and recent book2 speculate about what all this might mean for the architectural profession. Most recently, the exhibition Formations: New Practices in Australian Architecture, in the Australian Pavilion for the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, has explored innovative architectural practice types and their design output.3 There is strong evidence that the profession is evolving and is adjusting its aspirations, expectations and actions.

Complementing the formal interviews with architects, our project will engage the wider architectural community by means of an online survey, dialogue facilitated by social media and by a series of consultative change-management workshops that reflect on current thinking and practices as a means to inform thinking about future practices. We will explore the reflective space of architecture and track the shifting foundations that legitimise the profession within contemporary society.

The definition of what architects are qualified to do and the skill sets they are expected to have are clearly delineated by the requirements of Australian architectural registration processes4 and The National Competency Standards in Architecture.5 However, changes to the agency roles assumed by architects, to the boundaries of the discipline and to the rules of the ‘game’ demand evaluation. There is a growing schism between the realities of contemporary practice and the quantifiable measures of performance that govern it. By highlighting discrepancies, our project seeks to inspire changes in the regulation of architecture. This is significant at a time when a national system for the registration of Australian architects is being finalised and when national competency standards are soon to be reviewed. We hope our project will also have substantial benefits in terms of clarifying more broadly the profession’s changing relationship with the construction industry – a sector that lags in its adoption and integration of innovative practices, processes, systems and materials. Through our research we are seeking to provide leadership and frameworks for the renewal of the built environment professions generally.

At present the project is being supported by a $10,000 research grant from the NSW Architects Registration Board. A further $30,000 cash funding has been requested from UTS through the University’s Partnership Grants Scheme. This will be supplemented with substantial in-kind contributions totalling over $180,000 from the Board, Bijl Architecture and UTS. It is anticipated that the findings will inform a future project that re-evaluates Australian federal and state government policy regulating the participation of architects in the built environment, both now and in the future. If you are interested in contributing to this project please email Kirsten.orr@uts.edu.au.

1 Paolo Tombesi, Blair Gardiner & Anthony Mussen, Take 5 Looking Ahead: Defining the Terms of a Sustainable Architectural Profession, Red Hill: Royal Australian Institute of Architects, 2007.

2 Rory Hyde, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, New York: Routledge, 2012. Also, http://roryhyde.com/blog/?p=614.

3 Anthony Burke & Gerard Reinmuth, Formations: New Practices in Australian Architecture 13th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice, Italy, 2012, Canberra: Australian Institute of Architects, 2012.

4 For example, NSW Architects Act 2003 No 89, available online http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/viewtop/inforce/act+89+2003+cd+0+N/.

5 Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, The National Competency Standards in Architecture, 2008, available online http://www.aaca.org.au/publications/.