A generalist and a specialist. God and Ted Mosby. Architects come in all shapes and sizes. What they actually have to be able to do has been discussed for thousands of years.
Based on things in our part of the world, that have been shaped by Christian faith – you only need to think of the way we calculate our calendars – the Creator could be called the first architect, having created the entire world in six days plus a day of rest according to the Bible. There is a reason why early depictions of the creation of the world often show Jesus Christ representing the Father and measuring the globe with a compass. God as the architect is an example which combines both the power of the idea as well as the capacity of design and execution in itself, thereby indicating an ideal which has occupied the discussion around architecture for thousands of years.
Ever since people have been able to document buildings there has been a discussion over what the architect’s responsibilities really are. The word architect, which comes from Ancient Greek and which thanks to Latin is still used to designate the profession today, provides merely inadequate or partial information on the meaning of the term as we now use it. For instance it can be translated as “Chief Craftsperson” – and some architects would indeed rightly consider this to be an inadequate description of their activity.
Long before Christ and long before Greek high culture with its love for nomenclature, ancient Egyptian master builders were considered to be cultural heroes and recorded by name, almost like “celebrity architects”. They were endowed with enormous graves and revered long after their deaths. There are even personal testimonials still available from these master builders in which they boast of their deeds. These master builders were certainly also worthy of the name architect in its more extensive meaning.
There has not been a linear development of the profession. The tasks ascribed to the architect and the requirements that had to be met in order to be able to call yourself one have changed repeatedly over the course of history. For example, the image created by Vitruvius of the architect as a polymath, almost a genius, who had such a strong impact in the Renaissance was not relevant in the Middle Ages. During that time the role of the architect was divided between the master builders, the construction manager and the craftsman who monitored the construction site but who also had to collaborate in the construction. The image of the architect changed again when interest in the ancient world was revived with the Renaissance and Vitruvius’s writings resurfaced. An attempt was made to create a clear distinction between craftsmen and thinkers who no longer got their hands dirty themselves, to align the architects more with the well-to-do and revamp their social status. We can see that the attempt to separate the two only existed in theory because the construction agreements often refer to the same person as both the craftsman and the architect. The famous architects of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance were indeed already far more specialised than the ancient writer Vitruvius demanded of architects (though his requirements were probably also idealistic for the time), but they covered a breadth of knowledge and ability which is unimaginable today. For instance Leon Battista Alberti was among other things a writer, theoretician and mathematician as well as being an architect. Michelangelo was known as Il Divino not least because he had a lasting influence on sculpture, painting and architecture.
The issue of specialisation has accompanied the architect’s profession from the outset. The terms generalist and specialist are stated, considered and renegotiated in parallel time and again. On the one hand the profession is exposed to incredible change, having had to respond to increasingly rapid technical developments at least since the industrial revolution, with a further incision certainly being seen today in the omnipresent computer-based work. Yet on the other hand, architects love their traditions, and especially the competition. The first evidence of a completely open competition was around 1300. When work started on building Florence Cathedral there was nobody capable of mastering the span of the arching for the domes. In desperation, they called for tenders and Filippo Brunelleschi won with a totally new procedure. It must be assumed that competitions were even held much earlier than this. They became common practice from the 18th century and are still in place today.
The great fascination with the profession has survived until the present day. Countless young people are still inspired by the planning, construction and creation, by the combination of creative and technical components. This is confirmed in a discussion with representatives from fachschaft:: architektur, a student group at Vienna University of Technology. The number of new students peaked a few years ago, when more than 1000 students enrolled in the winter semester alone, which even merited an article in Austrian daily die Presse in 2012 on the so-called Mosby effect. The popular American sitcom “How I Met Your Mother”, in which Ted Mosby played the lead as a young architect is said to have played a part in architecture becoming a fashionable degree. The reality of the studies is of course different to the one portrayed in the series: “The course has a very broad and general structure: specialisation is expected but you have to take care of this yourself”, say students at fachschaft::architektur at Vienna University of Technology. “The reality of work is very different from that of study. While there is a fairly balanced ratio between the sexes when studying for example, you’re the only woman when you're actually on the construction site”, adds one of the female students. The student group also points out that getting some initial experience in offices is also helpful, since these are the most traditional operating areas for architects. They also note that this can often represent a financial burden at the same time.
“Major international offices often pay less than small local offices, but quite apart from the great experience that you can get there, having their name on your CV is also very valuable. At the start you can’t expect to earn more than 300 euros there for a 60-hour month. If you prefer calculating insulation values and concrete consumption you can get an awful lot more”, states Clemens Conditt, who also studies at Vienna University of Technology.
Christoph Monschein, Managing Partner at Hans Hollein & Partner, makes similar remarks on the state of the job market for architects and the influence specialisation has on it: “If you check the job advertisements at the Chamber you can see that a BIM modeller with the same practical experience can expect a starting salary which is significantly higher than an architect. It’s sad but true.”
Yet training to be an architect here in Austria is not easy and the courses are not among the shortest. Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the University of Technology for example involve a total of five years minimum studying time, although this is by no means the average. Then three years of practical experience are required, and one of them must be in building supervision. Only then is it possible to take the exam as a civil engineer, with most people also attending a course for this. You cannot call yourself an architect until you have passed the exam and been sworn in.
“Techniques are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, liability requirements more and more complex, the general legal framework harder to manage – and the building contractors and investors are also becoming increasingly clever and wily at the same time. Add to this what feels like a daily barrage of amended building regulations, new funding guidelines and various revised EN standards. What role does the architect play in all of this? Not an easy and certainly not an enviable one. At a time of more and more new professions in the construction industry (project development, project execution, representation of building contractors, cost management, mediation, etc.) the architect is becoming an increasingly minor factor in the system with more and more duties and less and less rights. In other words: The architect today must be a specialist and a generalist at the same time. There is no other way of coping with this job. Exploitation is inevitable. Over the long term there is a fear that this development which is driven primarily by economic and legal factors will result in a levelling in building culture”, is the unflattering picture regarding the current situation painted by Wojciech Czaja, who among other things writes about architecture and real estate for Austrian daily Der Standard.
There is serious competition in the job market according to the representatives from fachschaft::architektur as well as Christoph Falkner from SWAP, a medium-sized office in Vienna which has focused its activities on competitive work in the area of social services. “For competitions in particular the important thing for young architects and offices is to collaborate with partner offices, often so as to be able to participate in the first place and gather references. Specialisation can also occur by chance. The first competition that you win can provide a direction which you then follow”, says Falkner. One of the students from the student group discovered 3D-printing while studying for her degree and would now like to go down the route of designing jewellery - just one of many examples of how specialisation can often lead somebody completely away from their original career plans. “In this regard, maybe it is no longer even possible to say that too many architects are being trained, since studying architecture offers so many options for becoming immersed in an area that there is something for almost everyone”, say the representatives from the student group.
Monscheiner views increasing specialisation with a more critical eye: “In our office we try to prevent this situation which is creeping in. We see the job of an architect as something which provides a link and crosses over all of the disciplines.“
Whether specialisation is perceived to be more of an opportunity or as a problem, one phrase is repeated time and time again in multiple interviews conducted independently of each other: “You are always an architect, 24/7”. This idea almost reminds us of Vitruvius with a twinkle in the eye, and will probably be part of the job of the architect for centuries to come, whether as a generalist or a specialist.