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The Future Role of Architects? Pt1

Published on the 21st of April, 2017

“The ultimate goal of the architect…is to create a paradise. Every house, every product of architecture… should be a fruit of our endeavor to build an earthly paradise for people.” – Alvar Aalto






On the 18th of April, 2017, we asked a question to our followers on our Facebook page (link here): What do you think is the role of the architect in today’s market/culture? How do you think that has changed over time? And, most importantly, how do you think this will evolve in the future?

Right off the bat, I didn’t realize how difficult it was to respond to this question until someone dear to me asked me what my vision for the next 50 years was. I felt that I was always good at answering these type of “where do you see yourself…” questions (my classmates and I had once been tasked to write our own obituary for Architectural Business class to make sure that we lay out exactly what we would like our  contribution to society to be), but it seems that I have been too focused on the small details in front of me that I lost sight of the bigger picture. If I can’t articulately (or at let somewhat articulately) define my vision for my own future, how am I propose a vision towards the evolution of the role or architects in the future? What I found that was interested is that many of my friends that I asked to engage with this week’s question was equally stumped – many of these friends were architects and designers. It seems that many of us architects get too bogged down in what we do we lost sight of what we believe we can do. Too many of us are focused on how to make ends meet and generate more income until it becomes a habit (even when are doing well financially) that we lose sight of why we dreamed of becoming architects in the first place. I believe that this is a question that we will need to revisit periodically (every 6 months or so) because it will be interesting to see how both our friends views and our own views have changed – which is why this is part 1 of the series.

Now, there is a very pragmatic and run of the mill textbook answer to the question , especially in response to what is our role in today’s market. What laymen don’t realize is how much managerial work the architect is actually engaged and preoccupied with – be it design management in the early stages of the process, client relations, resource management, coordination, consultant management, project management, up to construction and site management. Actually, come to think of it, if we take the 80/20 rule, I spend 80% of my time managing work flow of others and 20% actually sitting down and designing. This is definitely NOT what I expected during my time in architecture school. Depending on how architecture firms are structured, you may find that most brand name design firms delegate most of the design and research work to the younger architects and those that climb up the practice’s hierarchy ladder get to do less and less of the designing (project leaders role are more synonymous to design critics as opposed to actual designers).  In some of the more corporate structures, the design is done by a senior designer with a team of young architects to do all the grunt work, and that often makes up of a small percentage of a firm which is mostly occupied by architects turned project and/or construction managers.

The point I am trying to make is the image of the master builder architect who is in control of the entire design & construction process from A to Z is mostly non-existent. The visionary individual that poetically seeks to empower society through the built environment (I am reminded of the Winston Churchill quote ” We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”) while blending their craft within the confines of their surroundings are now characters you may only meet in literature (or perhaps in a corner cafe in Piazza della Signoria in Florence marveling at the elegance of the Uffizi). You may find the remaining remnants of this dying breed in smaller practices or offices, usually run in a one man show fashion and often struggling to make ends meet. There seems to be an impending fear within the young design community that our role as architects will soon become irrelevant, but I am afraid that the definition of “Architect” that we have romanticized about in the 20th century  is now obsolete. No longer do you have the masters like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Hassan Fathy, Alvaar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe … etc – and their starchitect replacements like Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels…etc, are essentially brand ambassadors of their own design ideologies.

The above paragraph is not an attempt to anyway negate the work, talent or genius of these starchitects or other equally esteemed designers/architects that exist today, nor am I trying to make the case that the master builders of the 20th century were in any way superior – what I am trying to do is be clear (at least with myself and through my own bias, experience and understanding) on how and why the profession has evolved today in order to best predict how it may evolve in the future; as perhaps by being aware of such a trajectory we may, as individuals in the industry, be able to influence it. I believe when it comes down to it, this evolution from Master Builder to brand ambassador is a result of scale and is akin to the notion of Franchising in business. The only different is between Franchising in business and my analogy to it in respect to today’s starchitects is that these brand ambassadors are franchising their design technique, philosophy and ideology to the rest of their design team, while they come in from time to time to ensure that their vision is followed through. The speed, size and number of projects these practices deal with everyday make it impossible for one individual to oversee the entire process as was the case earlier in the 20th century, so gradually in order to compete against the large architectural corporations and offices, the design oriented architects had to follow suit and create more of a pyramid hierarchy based organization. The two tier system of Master and Apprentice(s) has been, as our friend and colleague Architect Ahmed Sarwat Aguib so eloquently puts it, diversified into many various roles with many different hierarchy structures. Junior Architects coming out of school and into the industry will soon find themselves compartmentalized and type cast into one of the many roles that make up our industry: designers, project managers, construction managers, client relations (a role often undertaken by the higher ups), office managers, quality controllers, procurement specialists, visualization / graphics specialists, project & consultant coordinators, draftsmen … etc.

This diversified conveyor belt approach to the industry is best suited for the mass production of architectural products, and the organization evolves into a well oiled machine. This removes power from the one Master Builder role and transforms it into a collective entity that seeks to create more business opportunities in order to generate income to pay their employees. While removing power from one singular voice and distributing it to a collective is often a more just political system, in the creative industry one could argue that it artistically dilutes the vision and is more inclined to become business and financially goal oriented as opposed to socially inclined. The Master Builders often had their vision of Utopia that they were striving to attain (whether or not they worked or responded well to the community they attempted to serve is a different story), whereas the more corporate structure of architectural practices often seek to provide services to the highest bidder. Architecture has evolved from a practice that seeks to build societies to an industry that provides services … and this is what I believe many young architects tend to become disillusioned by and some attempt to rebel against.

In this vain, I believe that architecture in the next 50 years or so will strive to evolve to engage with society once again. Some are already trying to grab the seat of power from the real estate developer in becoming design/finance/build firms – ShoP Architects – come to mind, where they essentially are becoming their own client and find a creative way to mitigate the artistic vision and financial feasibility under one roof – but this would still create a strategy that is financially based; which is fair – people need to make money – but in an ideal society, I believe that finances should come second to social responsibility, and the ShoP model is inherently a financial one. One the other hand, there are many architectural practices that have gone towards the other end of the spectrum and working to be engaged in more social activities by creating more community outreach programs that allow people of low economic prospect to build their own dwellings; hitting two birds with one stone by establishing their own housing as well as arming them with a craft/tool that would help them boost their own economic well being … but then how are these firms to survive in the financial market today and be able to compensate their employees?

This is a tough question that I personally do not have the answer to, but I predict that within the next few decades (given the economic , climatic and resource realities) we will be forced to reconcile with these two ends of the spectrum.


Until next week 🙂

Mahmoud M M Riad

Director of RiadArchitecture

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