How Accountable are Architects?

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Let’s go back to olden days, when architects were closer to the centre of the construction industry. They were accountable for almost all aspects of delivering a building. Antoni Gaudi was so accountable that slept on the construction site of the Sagrada Família. An exceptional example, and these days architects orbit much further out in the construction universe.

Where are architects and accountability these days? Some recent events have me pondering this.

I don’t know the answer, it would at best be a generalisation, but my suspicion is that architects are too willing to hide from accountability when the going gets tough.

Over the weekend, an article appeared on “Render versus reality: The Melbourne Buildings that don’t match their designs”. The article has mysteriously been taken down by Domain, but luckily you can find a cached version HERE.

The general tenet of the article was that, as consequence of the architects being “sidelined”, the buildings are being “dumbed down” following approval The interesting thing here is that architects were not being blamed yet were still notable by their silence: “with several architectural firms contacted by Domain to discuss the issue not returning calls and emails or declining to comment”

So what’s happening here (or not, as the case may be)?

Other than the potential for libel, I suspect one of two things. The first is that the architects were over-ambitious in their representation of the building and it was never going to be possible to realise the building to match the renders — for this they would be reluctant to confess. The second is that architects are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them. They’re not standing up to criticise the process and outcomes thereof, lest they lose future projects. Either way the architects have seemingly absolved themselves of any accountability for the built outcomes for which they are at least in part responsible.

Architects Declare. Signatures are easy, accountability less so.

It’s hard to resist being a signatory to any “crisis” call out, it looks bad if you don’t. Yet as the Australian Government is so ably demonstrating, being a signatory to an agreement does not guarantee meeting your obligations (to climate, or numerous other human issues). As Elizabeth Farrelly pointed out in her demonstrable take-down of Architects Declare on ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living, Wilkinson Eyre (British Architects Declare signatories) are currently building a massive glassy energy hungry building on Barangaroo. It somewhat reduces credibility if signatories fail to deliver on the declaration.

What if instead Architects Declare had accountability baked in? What if all signatories were subject to annual audits to their commitments, as a Certified B Corporation would be? How many would sign up and be accountable? I would like to think just as many, but I fear not. That would be real climate leadership and have the potential to make a real impact.

The point in all of this is that accountability builds trust. No accountability, no trust.

At present there’s a trust deficit in the building industry in Australia. To some it may even be a void. It is a void architects could fill if they chose to be more accountable. Accountable to speaking out when their work is being compromised to its detriment. Accountable for the projects they work on and the outcomes they are responsible for. Accountable for not taking on dubious projects or working for dubious clients. Accountable for the welfare of their staff and for an inclusive workplace. Accountable for the built environment they are contributing to. Accountable to the future of the planet. Accountable even at the cost of losing clients or attractive projects.

That would show real leadership in the construction industry.

That would be help rebuild the trust the industry so desperately needs right now.

It’s time for architects to be more accountable.

Want to know more about the author? I’m Michael, co-founder of Redshift Architecture & Art, and founder & coach at Ed Shift.

Photo by Igor Starkov on Pexels

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