The challenges of change in the architecture profession

Status quo consistently comes between the architecture profession and change. Here’s another way to think about it.

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Buckminster Fuller

I’ve recently been giving some thought to this quote with regard to the architecture profession. In part light of the just completed Australian Architecture Conference, “Lost Opportunities”. Full disclosure, I did not attend, so… limited knowledge. From the outside it gave the impression of a profession looking backwards, not forwards. An impression further heightened by a gender imbalance in the speakers. Change is seemingly challenging for the cultural gatekeepers of the profession.

On considering Buckminster Fuller, the concept of creating a new model is compelling. One that however makes people uneasy. That’s born out in his career, but I’m not here to discuss that. I’m interested in his observation in combination with the drivers motivating people to change or maintain their opinions. I’ve raised these drivers (status, affiliation and convenience) in a previous post The challenge of building smaller housing. I’m most interested here in the role of status and affiliation in driving change (h/t Seth Godin).

status [architectural]: the awards won by the practice, the publications they appear in, the type of projects they win, the institutions they’re involved with either in a position of title or the talks they’re invited to give. The status architects seek is usually in comparison with their peers, it’s one of the (unnamed) reasons for awards. The status sought is seldom acknowledged much beyond the realm of the built environment. It motivates architects to win work, win awards and to ostensibly maintain the status quo. Noting here that any change to the elements defining professional status contributes to dismantling the existing system.

affiliation [architectural]: in the architecture profession this is strongly tied to status. It’s about how architects are seen within the profession. To begin with, what university they studied with and whom, and later who they’ve worked for and with. Later, being seen to be published, winning awards and invitations to speak or even attending talks. The need for affiliation maintains the status quo – affiliation is not attained by being different or driving change.

The challenge of creating a new model is that it has no status until enough people embrace it. If the new model has good leaders, represents excellence and improvement to the existing model, it will attract change-makers. This change might be manifested through a way of doing things, in the thinking/philosophy, and/or attitudinal differentiation – it’s potentially an entire cultural shift. It’s change driven by affiliation with a model that (re)aligns with people’s values, identity or aspirations. Parlour is an excellent example of creating a new model, of affiliation and building status. (Especially through its new Collective supporter program.)

I recognise I’ve simplified the challenges of change-making here. There are other considerations such as world view – which is nevertheless a close cousin of status and affiliation. People seldom respond well to a challenge to their world view. Another big factor in all of this is enrolment. People seldom change until they’re enrolled in the change. Enrolment often requires them to have already started that journey towards change. This again ties into affiliation and status. They’re all parts of the whole.

As we can see with Parlour, or more specifically gender equity and inclusion in the profession, change is slow, albeit with some success achieved. Those served by the status quo resist change, it challenges their status. Yet as more people become affiliated with the new model, the status of affiliation goes up. The potential for change and a new model becomes possible, motivated by the desires for new affiliation and redefined status.

Once we see this, it’s impossible to unsee it. It starkly demonstrates the challenge of changing the old model. We shouldn’t therefore concern ourselves with the old models (beyond what we can learn from them) and, in the words of Buckminster Fuller, build a new model.

Rather than questioning old models, we should focus our questions on,

What are the new models we want to build for the architectural profession? How might we then build their status and affiliation?

Picture by My Photos on Pexels

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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