Published in Design Intelligence magazine, Q2 2022
‘You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today’. Never were those words of Abraham Lincoln more prescient than now….
For the architect the terms professional and authority are synonymous with responsibility. The former establishes the obligation, the latter facilitates its dispatch.
In its narrowest sense professional relates, of course, to the standard of service expected, both in the context of law and ethically. The opening lines of any Barrister’s examination of an architect in an English court will run something like ‘….and you were, at all times during the service that you provided, a professional, registered architect’. This sets the benchmark against which the service as delivered is to be measured – that is of a reasonably competent architect. Not a brilliant architect, note, just a reasonably competent architect, albeit often, where the appointment terms so stipulate, one that carries experience in the design of buildings of similar scale, complexity, and function.
Yet against the limited confines of contractual duty, there is a much higher calling to which architects should aspire. I was alerted to that on day one, semester one, year one of my training when our tutor threw the gauntlet down by demanding that we never forget that beyond any contractual duty to clients, we would carry a responsibility to the users of our buildings, and to the public who would pass them by, every day, evermore.
I never forgot those words, but how important they have proved to be in the context of the two biggest external factors that have to date affected my career: climate change and the Grenfell Tower fire.
The former is of course universal in its relevance; we live in a finite environment and the collective impact of the buildings that we design must be controlled in terms of their effect on the environment. This we all now know, and surely all now accept. And despite the undeniable progress within the construction world, we all know that there’s still a long way to go. In fact, we have only just started out on that journey….
But, in terms of responsibility, the point is that irrespective of any contractual duty to individual clients – that is, to those who pay us – we have, as designers, a wider duty to the public, and to future generations, to ensure that our buildings are ecologically sustainable. The problem here, however, is that whilst we can encourage, we don’t have the authority to impose sustainable architecture. That is why enlightened and progressive building regulations are so crucial. The architect has a standing obligation to comply with code, so therein lies the authority to ensure that any design solution is responsible in terms of the eco-agenda. And whilst this may matter little to the paying client, or the person or organisation to which we are contracted, it certainly does matter to the wider public, and to future generations to which we owe a responsibility but to whom we have no contractual obligation.
So much for the design responsibility to those who may not use our buildings but who are nevertheless affected by their performance. Here in London a recent and dreadful tragedy has served to place into the sharpest relief the responsibility that my tutor insisted was ours to carry evermore on behalf of those who actually do use our buildings……irrespective of whether they had commissioned them. The fire at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 has led to the largest and most far-reaching Inquiry ever undertaken in the UK (and probably worldwide) into the function and operation of the building industry. Its Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is soon to commence work on Phase Three which will deal with Recommendations, and whilst it is not for me to anticipate what they may comprise, we can all safely anticipate that they will be as wide in scope as they will be profound in impact.
Many commentators expect that whatever recommendations are forthcoming, the issue of authority will come to the fore because responsibility for the design, sanction, construction, and inspection of any building must carry with it the authority necessary to ensure that the standards of safety, as set, are delivered. Which brings me to Winston Churchill’s words, equally prescient in this context: ‘…..you have no right (to) ask me to bear responsibility without the power of action.’ For power of action, of course, take authority.
All of which brings me to the responsibility that we, as architects, carry as leaders, both in our firms and within our industry, to those whom we train and those we employ. That is, that we must ensure that through our programmes of education, and thereafter within our offices, those coming into our profession are properly equipped to discharge their responsibilities, both competently and effectively. That means that they have the know-how, as well as the time and the fees, to enable them so to do. But it also means that they have the authority to ensure proper delivery of their work and critically, back to my tutor and his ‘call to arms’, that they have inculcated within them that wider sense of duty that goes way beyond any contractual obligation to a paying client.
We owe that to all who use, and will use, our buildings…..