Architects finding their seat at the table

How might architects create a movement?
Architect's voices are often too quiet to be heard despite having a lot to offer conversations on the common good. How might they rethink what that means and what they can do about it?

“We need a seat at the table!”
It’s oft heard amongst architects.

My first thought in response is usually to question. Where is this “table”? Who’s also at the table? What’s the conversation they’re having? Do architects really want a seat there? Any reasonable answers to these questions might give clues as to why architects are missing, how they might go about finding said seat, or indeed whether it’s a table worth sitting around. It’s also not really the question they’re asking.

I typically translate this question to,
“Why don’t architects have more power?” or the less maniacal “Why don’t architects have more influence?”

I’ve noticed that the concern about a lack of seating is often in self-interest, more than in the interest of a broader agenda and in service of a common good. I’m curious if by changing this posture that more and better seating might become available. How might architects, instead of seeking power, adopt a posture that serves the common good as well as raises the profile of the profession such that they might be asked to the table more often? A better question that follows on from this is, How might architect’s opinions become more valued?

It’s reasonable to look after one’s interest and I don’t want to dwell on that. It’s also reasonable to want to have your opinion valued in considerations of public benefit or otherwise – for architects this might include the provision of social housing, or the retention of valued buildings or spaces and so on. It’s frustrating to lack the power to make significant change happen in what you stand for. None of this power and leadership, however, comes by rights, it needs to be earned.

Architects are a relatively small profession and under-resourced in terms of finance and time, but not in skills or knowledge. So how might the profession better leverage the assets that it has? In doing so show leadership that demands they’re heard and even given a seat at the table?

I contend that architects should build a movement. Taking advantage of new thinking and new perspectives that the pandemic has wrought. This might be a movement in support of public space, public assets, social good and the environment. None of which are the exclusive domain of the profession or specifically about architecture and that is the key. When building a movement architects will need to stand with and lead more than just the profession. There is a power in numbers that the profession simply doesn’t have.

This thinking was informed by Mae McDonnell, who I recently heard discussing building a movement, and I was interested in seeing how I might relate it to the architecture profession. She described the four steps necessary for building a movement. The first alone is worth a longer article.

1. Stand for something, not against something. We only need to take a quick scroll down social media to understand that most people are against something and less often for something. What might architects stand for? The list I wrote above is a pretty good start: public space, public assets, social good and the environment. It’s important here to get more specific and to make a direct and specific request. That way it’s clear that the movement is for and people will join if it’s for them.

2. The request needs to be demanded with a unifying common identity. This is about building values that resonate with a broad audience. It must speak in a plain language that those that might follow understands and connects with on an emotional level.

3. Find allies in positions of power. These might be the elite or those on the inside. It appears we may be back to the table here, but I don’t think we need limit ourselves to this thinking. It could be people in the media or others with influence or public profile. Those that understand the machinations of the world and can move in a way that exploits them.

4. Build a coalition. Signal the support of others. It’s a natural flow on from finding allies. It also suggest that there is strength in numbers. Find other like minded groups to build a coalition with. There’s power in numbers, in sharing resources, in sharing ideas and insights. Here’s where good leadership can become a powerful force. An architect’s skillset includes the coordination of many voices and requirements in a unified outcome. Here’s an opportunity to utilise it for so much more.

Building such a movement, can never guarantee “a seat at the table” and it may make architects an even more unwelcome guest. The question now is what is the seat for? Is this actually a better way to achieve the outcomes we seek? As I’ve often written (paraphrasing Zig Zigler) by being generous, we’re more likely to get what we want by helping others to get what they want.

If architects have a lot to offer then maybe they need to get better at showing it. It’s time they built a movement rather than take a seat.

Image by Engin Akyurt on Pexels [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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