During a recent trip to Portugal, while sitting in a small café located in the heart of the Principe Real Garden in Lisbon, I came across a flyer placed alongside other typical flyers entitled, “Working with an Architect”. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued to find a guide explaining the basics of my profession, in such an unlikely place.
As I later discovered, this was a recent campaign sponsored by a regional Association of Architects in Portugal (OASRS) promoting the practice of the architect. First available in electronic format in 2007, this guide gained new impetus in 2012 when 20,000 paper copies were distributed in the largest urban centres in the southern part of the country. With a little research, I learned that a communication campaign had also been launched earlier in 2011 in a magazine which specializes in new technologies. The slogan: “Knowing the benefits of working with an architect”, invited readers to the guide’s website.
In Portugal, not only is the scope of the profession fairly well regulated, but the architect is considered an inherent component of Portuguese culture. Even with this favorable context, the OASRS did not hesitate to invest in an advertising campaign. The economic crisis that has seriously affected the country and the entire world since 2008 might have something to do with it. But is this the only reason?
Apparently not. A recent article maintained that “the pressure exerted on architects is unprecedented”. One critic in a well-respected newspaper asserted that “architects are the last people who should shape our cities”, and a politician even went as far as publicly declaring that “architects should be killed”. This negative perception of the profession is undoubtedly alarming and the association of architects of Portugal seems to recognize that there is a need to support the profession in order to avoid such judgments. This brings to bear another question: What have other professional associations in Europe and elsewhere done to promote the role of the architect to the general public?
The French Association of Architects (CNOA) has a long history of raising awareness with the public, including politicians, builders and the construction sector in general. In 2002, the CNOA raised a national debate aimed at reforming the Architecture Act. Posters with disconcerting slogans were put up everywhere in the country in an attempt to strike an emotional chord with people.
In 2007, an awareness campaign entitled “Architecture 2007” went as far as working its way into the presidential race. It was featured on national news websites and 10,000 posters were displayed in over 130 cities. “With this campaign, the Association has chosen to challenge citizens and political candidates, by taking the latter to their word following statements they have made on subjects that affect architects. Our conviction is that the architect’s experience can usefully spur and inspire programs of future politicians, whoever they are”.
In December 2012, the same Association updated its 48-page guide entitled “Working with an Architect” intended for clients, in particular individuals wishing to build their homes. “This publication will be widely circulated to describe the role of the architect, answer practical questions from clients and simplify the process of hiring an architect.” The guide is currently available in French and English for download but also in print, free of charge.
In Belgium, the architect’s association (Cfg-OA) also launched its own campaign in 2011 to promote the architectural practice. Promotional images and slogans, such as “Only an architect can do the same for you”, were widely disseminated in newspapers and broadcast on three radio stations. This campaign included a pamphlet of twenty pages entitled “The Architect“. The objective, once again, was to showcase the necessary role of the architect to a wider audience.
In North America, professional associations provide invaluable information about the practice through their websites, organize events dedicated to rewarding quality in architecture and support some publications. However, they seem more reluctant when it comes to engaging in promotional endeavors for the architect. A few images of posters created in 2010 by The American Institute of Architects (AIA) appear to be the only clue to such actions.
These few examples demonstrate that professional associations have done some remarkable promotional work. Over the past decade, they have tried to bring the architectural practice to the forefront in an attempt to create a social debate. That said, these actions have been inconsistent and sporadic to say the least and consequently, were just a drop in the ocean.
Indeed, the profession faces major challenges. More than 60% of buildings and 90% of urban planning are still conceived without an architect, yet architects are accused of being the main culprits for the ills in our cities. Furthermore, renowned Quebec architect Pierre Thibeault’s affirmation that “today, we are not looking for architects, we are looking for builders” illustrates the fact that architectural decisions are increasingly dictated by profit margins, low costs and mass appeal.
In light of these important concerns, and if we believe that the architect is still useful to society it is imperative, indeed urgent for professional associations to make a concerted and sustained effort to educate the general public. As things appear now, they do not seem to have a real long-term strategy that would instigate needed changes in mentalities. For these to occur, I believe that it is vital to look beyond the object and the image of architecture, and put emphasis on the architect’s ideas, knowledge and social commitment. It is necessary to make the architect a real cultural component and ensure that everyone has access to an architect.
As far as I’m concerned, not enough is being done to promote the profession. I remain convinced that the architect will always be an active and responsible professional in the society in which he lives. His role is to continue to shape the future of our built environment, and we must fight for it.