Michael Manser with the Pattern of English Building by Alec Clifton-Taylor.Source: Ed Tyler
When Michael Manser, 80, began his career, architects still sat at drawing boards wearing smocks
Things had moved on quite a bit by the time BD launched in 1970, but nonetheless these past four decades have seen huge changes in the way architecture is practised — from the massive impact of computers and the internet to the huge changes in procurement and the role of the architect. But what has this meant for the individual across the generations? To find out, we spoke to three architects aged 40, 60, and 80 and to one student still a few years off emerging into the profession. All are preoccupied with the recession but, as Manser points out, boom and bust was ever thus — he’s seen four in his time. What’s different now is that students such as Harri Williams-Jones not only have uncertain job prospects but are weighed down with years of debt — completely unthinkable in 1970. John Lyall has seen the architect’s role challenged for the worse but public opinion change for the better. Meanwhile Polly Damen is an example of the huge influx of women into the profession in BD’s time and of the growing scope for more flexible working arrangements. Each of them has been photographed with an object that is important or inspirational to them as designers.
Michael Manser set up his own practice in 1960, and became RIBApresident in 1983. He is now semi-retired from the Manser Practice, which is run by his son Jonathan.
When I started out there was a tendency for successful architects to be prima donnas and practice was very hierarchical and incredibly archaic — no fax, no emails, just dyelines. It was much slower. I think it’s far better now. Our staff are continually astonished at how bright and intelligent young architects are now. And there are so many women architects — we have around 50%, hiring solely on ability and sense of humour.
It’s no longer possible for architects to be arrogant. The bureaucratic sieve everything has to be pushed through is overwhelming. Nowadays architects aren’t so much leaders of the team but chairman of the team. There are so many consultants. It’s teamwork all the way down the line and buildings are better for it.
The market has always been volatile. I’ve seen about four boom and busts — generally it’s every 10 years, so you must put something away in the good times. The recession at the beginning of the 1990s was the worst and caused chaos. This time, work has diminished but there’s still some coming through. The planning system was in many ways better for architects in the 1960s. The 1980s was a good time too.
It’s bad that the number of architects in the public sector has been reduced. Someone like Colin Stansfield Smith at Hampshire County Council was a terrific enabler, finding good clients, sites and matching them with good architects. The most savage destroyer of the environment in my time has been the commercial housebuilder, ruining swathes of countryside with inadequate homes, with architects not really involved until recently. It’s been the most terrible thing.
The Prince Charles episode [in 1984] was significant. At the time a number of practices including mine suffered a great deal. Developers wouldn’t come near us. And that attitude is still around — Chelsea Barracks brought all the reactionary slugs out of the woodwork. I was shaken at how vituperative the criticism of Rogers was. The public isn’t that conservative in taste. They are far more are interested in new things compared with when I started in architecture. But the public still don’t quite understand what we do.
As for the future, there has to be some loosening up of the regulations that architects face. There’s a whole raft of inspectors who aren’t high calibre and just want to tick boxes. That’s very frustrating.
Looking back, there was no one golden period.
I think anyone who hangs around long enough has a vague disappointment they didn’t do enough. But I get huge pleasure in seeing the practice expand without any of the stress.
John Lyall studied at the AA and worked for Cedric Price and Piano & Rogers before forming Alsop & Lyall with Will Alsop in 1979. He set up his own practice in 1991.
The architect was the jack-of-all-trades who designed and managed with a degree of authority when I started in the profession. Now, sometimes you’re marginalised however good you are. There’s a mindset that everyone else knows best. I’m very concerned that there are a lot of “experts” out there, project managers, QSs and some clients, who feel value is measured by construction cost. Thankfully there are clients who do value quality.
The most damaging words of the last 10-20 years are “value engineering”, coupled with the use of “design and build” — now the client wants to hand over the design and construction risk to the contractors as soon as possible and the architect has to struggle to keep up and maintain quality. When I was doing my training it wasn’t like that.
Increasingly you have to justify your work. You really have to be on your mettle. Otherwise your design will be taken from you or dumbed down. Good design that does get through has to have an identifiable design philosophy. It’s a tough world out there.
I suppose it has been a rollercoaster ride with the economy — I’ve been through two or three ups and downs. I’ve always tried not to specialise and keep a spread of public and private work, but 20 years ago the notion of a generalist architect was frowned about. Now it’s the thing that stands you in good stead.
Then there was Prince Charles. His views had a very negative effect and continue to do so, turning people away from certain types of architecture. The sad thing is that some of the victims have been some of the leading architects of the profession.
In the last 40 years the fashions have got quicker and haven’t lasted so long. The other thing that’s arisen in the last 10-15 years is the icon. Everyone wants an iconic building. It’s rather shallow.
Media exposure is quite a good thing. People have more of an understanding of what good design is. In the 1960s and 1970s, architects started getting a bad name for problems like high-rise housing. I think architects are held in better esteem nowadays.
Increasingly, we’re not blamed for everything. And if you talk to students, they want to be an architect not because it’s a job but because there’s a social conscience. There’s a heartfelt sense of wanting to make things better. That’s how it as when I was a student in the seventies but in the Thatcher years, that went.
The work I’m enjoying most and am most proud of is what I’m doing now. As you get older, you get wiser and more self-confident about your opinions, and justifiably so. That’s why you don’t want to give up.
Polly Damen studied at Bath University from 1988-1992 then worked in Hong Kong and France. She is associate director at Assael. She has two children and works a four-day week.
I’ve lived through two recessions in architecture. The first was only Europe-based so I went further afield and got a job in Hong Kong. But this time it’s affected the whole world. Sometimes a recession is good for architecture. It knocks you back to reality.
Architects had become complacent. Before there were a lot more trips for the offices, and more power lunches — fees just came in. Recession kicks everyone back into action. It makes everyone more competitive. You feel grateful you still have a job and you all pull together.
Now everyone in the office is told to look for work, not just the directors — that’s changed. It’s everyone’s duty to get the money in — you can’t leave it to accounts. You can’t just sit back and do a drawing. In a recession, people are depressed. When colleagues leave, the spring in the step of the office goes. Now it’s picking up again. I hope we’ll remember the hard times.
This last decade has been fantastic for architecture in terms of exposure to the public. I think programmes like Grand Designs and events like Open House have really opened up the eyes of the public to the profession and that’s great. It was a closed profession when I was younger. No one really knew what was going on. Now the public is aware of what we do and appreciates what we do.
I think architects are still very much the lead consultants, chairing the meetings, but I think the whole “starchitects” thing is wrong —it tends to be the same five or six firms, and there’s plenty of young talent out there. Nor do I think the public like the same people taking up swathes of London.
Sustainable design is still a bit of a box-ticking exercise for a lot of architects. Developers worry that going green will cost money and just want to get a stamp of approval. It will get to be a bigger and bigger issue. At the moment the criteria are so confusing. Sustainability needs to become part of the whole philosophy of design.
Attitudes to women architects have changed a lot, but the only way you can manage to work with young children is by having an understanding, flexible employer. I work four days and for different hours and it hasn’t stopped me being promoted. But a lot of employers won’t give you that flexibility. I consider myself very lucky.
In the future, I think we’ll all be working from home; offices will become redundant in 10 years, although there will always be a need for meeting spaces.
Harri Williams-Jones is a second year part I student at the AA, where he went after a foundation year at the London College of Fashion.
By the time I’ve finished my training I hope we’ll be in better times in terms of employment. While it is not impossible to get a job, it is still very tough to get the one you want. It’s also very difficult to get work experience for the year out — one of my friends had a few things lined up but in the end he isn’t even working in architecture. There is a bit of a general undertone of doom and gloom. I think this may be a reason why some people may consider other career paths even after completing a seven-year degree.
I’m putting off thinking about the debt. Everyone works — I’ve been a waiter and friends of mine have worked in shops and pubs but it’s completely detrimental to being a student. And at the end of the seven years, the debt amounts to a big sum and that’s something that puts people off studying architecture, as well as the time it takes. I take the view that if it’s really what you want to do, you have to commit to it.
The AA is well known for its style of parametric architecture but I’m not personally so interested in that. I may well do my part II somewhere else to get a broader experience. At the moment I’m quite excited by the narrative-based architecture of R&Sie in Paris. I like the way they take the narrative right into the building and it’s something you experience as you walk around it. My other favoured architects are John Pawson and Tadao Ando.
I think the public are generally misinformed that all architects have a lucrative career but I would like to think that it is still highly regarded.
I definitely want my own practice. I’d like to work in both a small and a large firm to get experience of both ends of the spectrum and hopefully set up on my own a few years down the line. But we’ll have to see what happens. I haven’t had any experience of building so it’s too early to think about what areas I’d like to work in.
I hope I can engage with projects of social interest. I also want my business to deal with the ecological aspects of architecture, but I don’t think this is necessarily a mutual attitude of the rest of my colleagues.
I’ve just started a new project for a stem cell clinic. I have a far-out starting point and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops. It’s very exciting as a student not to have to think about costs. It’s a real luxury and I’m trying to take full advantage of that while I can.
Portraits by Ed Tyler. With many thanks to the Architectural Association for the use of its studio.
11 October 2010
16 September 2010
15 September 2010
14 September 2010