The Old Man’s Profession

Saturday, October 14, 1995

Timothy Hewitt-Coleman, Young Architect.

“Ah, but its an old man’s profession”, is what established firms like to tell their young graduates when they complain about receiving pay cheques less than the sweepers at VW. This priceless wisdom is generally imparted with a patronising tone of finality that makes it clear that the subject of pay is not one that is to be brought up by the young and underly. And, after all, Frank Lloyd Wright never paid his interns at all!

But, is liberation from this bondage and “initiation” attained upon completion of the period of Architect in Training? No, sadly not; and in fact this whole article deals with the plight of the young Architect in the “Old Man’s Profession” and tries to look at ways in which the youth can claim the power they need in order to leave their mark on the profession and the built environment in general.

Architectural graduates not only leave university powerless but seem to grow very slowly out of their powerlessness into the full status of what an Architect is and needs to be. Now this is not because it is inhumanly difficult to learn all that needs to be learned, but rather because it is in the interests of those Architects who have this power and knowledge not to allow young Architects to grow powerful enough to challenge their domain.

In attaining full status as an Architect all of us must work through and grow old with three “Old Men’s” institutions; University, Practice and Institute. Each of these, in their own special, way add to the frustration of a young Architect trying to grow into the fullness of her chosen profession. Each of these promote the status quo of domination by established interest groups and each of these in the final analysis also play their part in damaging the profession and the quality of the built environment as a whole.

University

We must commend our university for the unquestionably high standard of education that it provides its Architectural graduates. A five year degree at UPE or similar courses at other universities equips the graduate with probably the most intense design training that can be obtained. Sadly however this rich training does not result in skills being acquired that are in great demand in the profession and the pitiful salaries earned by young graduates attest to this. The practice of architecture is a very specific kind of enterprise. It has very particular limitations, advantages and opportunities and it would seem that Architectural Graduates though highly educated struggle to apply their skills when faced with the constraints of Architectural practice. This situation makes it difficult for the Architectural Graduate to enter a practice with the confidence to demand proper reward for the work that is to be done, and having entered the practice on a weak footing, a low base is created from where salaries will be increased.

The second great shortcoming of the University, is the failure of the degree course to in any way equip the young Architect to enter into a practice or partnership of her own. Here the need is not for practical skills because those are learnt elsewhere. Rather the young Architect requires perspective and clarity on ways to apply the creative skills that have been acquired, to try and sell them on the market. This role of preparation for private practice must be assumed by the University because it is clearly not in the interests of established practices to do so. Even the Institute could face loosing the support of its established firms if it were to train young Architects in the mutinous skills of setting up for private practice.

Practice.

Architect’s-in-Training are seen as a predictable source of cheap labour and are very seldom exposed to any structured training programmes within practices. The tradition in architectural practices has become that new graduates would endure a period of internship and then very slowly rise in the practice, being exposed to more and more responsibility and gradually gaining more insight. Of course only a very small number of Architects can ever become partners in established firms and therefore many hopefuls allow themselves to stagnate, believing that they will eventually be selected as a partner after many years of loyal service. This system may function well to motivate young Architects to do their best for their bosses, but it is not a system that best promotes the individual advancement of Architects into professional maturity. It is a system that has evolved to meet the needs of established and entrenched practices over many years but is being seriously challenged and questioned by a young generation of Architects with an appetite for free information exchange, transparency and open networks. These young Architects don’t take as easily to hierarchy, but work better witin collaborative management structures. Many progressive thinking young Architects are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the tendency of large firms to limit the exposure of the salaried architect so that she does not become familiar with the inner workings and management of the practice. Exposure that desperately needs to be acquired in order to function as a professional in the fullest sense. Skills essential to an Architect are not passed on to the youth. The profession suffers and the built environment suffers with it.

Institute

But what of the young architect who embarks against all odds and good advice to set up alone in private practice? The high design training received at varsity does not put bread on the table and she is lacking in important skills that should have been attained as an Architect-in-Training. But faced with the pitiful salaries offered to qualified Architects in private practices a few (more desperate) young Architects to go it alone. Only there, to be confronted with the overwhelming ignorance among small to medium sized clients about the role and funtion of the Architect. Larger clients, generally enlightened as to the role of the Architect in the construction industry, are harder to attract because they have been cornered by the established practices. Even more potential small clients are lost to young Architects because of a lack of awareness of what services an Architect could offer them. Clearly the marketing of the Architect’s profession in such away to assist small practices is not happening in any significant way. This kind of marketing (the same kind that encouraged the public to “ask their Pharmacist”) is what one would expect the Institute to co-ordinate but instead they seem to be concentrating their efforts at a national level in continuous negotiations with government and other sponsors of large construction projects destined for he drawing boards of the old established firms. (notice how much better of the established firms rate on the Pilot Roster than the small young firms!) The Institute of SA Architects has no visible programmes to assist clients in selecting an Architect appropriate for the project at hand and thereby entrenches the status quo where large commercial clients appoint the same firm time and time again making it difficult for the young architect to gain access. In fact the Institute has very little at all to offer young Architects in their plight. Here we must also remember to that by far the largest majority of young Architects are salaried and the only representative voice that they have is the Institute, who has repeatedly failed them, leaving them unorganised to ply their individual wits against organised established practices.

But perhaps now is an oppourtune time for young Architects to ensure that the new, voluntary Institute will represent there interests. If a voluntary institute is to be successful in any region in South Africa it will have to convince young Architects what programmes will be installed to further their interests. If the new institute does rise to this occasion it could become the platform from which young Architects reach out to the universities, the established practices and the potential client base and as a result not only advance the interests of young architects earning salaries but also those in private practice. If the new voluntary institute does however not embrace the concerns of young Architects, we will have to find some other means to secure our careers and our futures or we will have to be content to remain weak and powerless to the detriment of ourselves our profession and the built environment as a whole.

Author: buildingfreedomtoday

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

2 thoughts on “The Old Man’s Profession”

  1. Tim, my mate, you talk of things that have been talked about for decades before you boet. Yet you sound like a sage. Thank god for the new technology hey! Where would you be without it? Just another nogschlepper.

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  2. I appreciate the time you have taken to read the article and to leave a comment. I have never really thought of myself as a “nogschlepper” (….or a Sage). In fact, I dont spend very much time at all thinking about what opinions people may form of me.I will think about your comments for a while. Perhaps I will grow from them.

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