In a recent piece in ARCHITECT magazine, Aaron Betsky asks “Who Cares Who’s A Licensed Architect?” Disclaimer: Aaron and I were graduate school classmates, and while we have traveled wildly different routes in the profession, I have followed and greatly admired his work. But on this one, I think he’s asking a valid question but looking for the answer in the wrong place.
I am a licensed architect, and as someone who teaches professional practice at that same institution where we both graduated, I strongly urge my students to sit for the exam and go get a license. Most report they plan to do just that. One of the primary reasons the course I teach is required in the curriculum is precisely to prepare these folks to actually “practice architecture” with competency beyond, or perhaps in support of, Aaron’s valid plea for architectural capabilities. How you get a building built is just as important as the idea that generated it, otherwise it’s just an unbuilt concept. Who, exactly, gets the right to design that building and help a client get it built?
His brief brush with the authorities over the use of the title “Architect” was rightly characterized as silly. Under those rules, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s “Chief Software Architect” is violating the California licensure regs when he visits San Francisco and hands out his business cards. But that stuff is designed for a specific political purpose—to create a barrier of entry for competitors “doing architecture” in a jurisdiction where only the licensed may purvey. It’s an economic maneuver to protect the locals, but really obscures in a more important consideration.
Professional licensure regulations have a very specific purpose: to protect the public’s health and safety. It’s the reason that related “learned” disciplines like medicine and engineering are purveyed by individuals with special education and professional certification. That there is little overlap between this requirement and Aaron’s “architectural competency standard” can only be laid at the feet of architects themselves, who create the very exam that misses his mark. If he believes that architects need to be more competent to create relevant design, those criteria are best be instantiated into curricula, accreditation and testing, all of which we control anyway.
And while he’s statistically correct about the de minimus number of buildings designed by architects in this country, state laws generally require any building of size or height (3,000 GSF or taller than three stories) be designed (and signed and sealed) by a licensed architect. That hundreds of thousand of spec tract houses don’t fall under that aegis is mathematically correct but much less important than it sounds. No piece of software, or amateur designer working from a kitchen table on a laptop, is allowed to create those “larger” designs and get them permitted and built. Almost anything built in a city today, by extension, must be designed by an architect. And the supporting cast of systems designers needs a leader to make sure that their ideas are deployed in the service of the architecture idea and don’t take on a life of their own. If anything, the regs should be extended to include those tract houses. But Aaron seems to want to go another way.
But here’s my real point: as architects we should celebrate and reinforce the logic behind licensure regulations because that’s the single spot where public policy acknowledges the importance of the involvement of architects in building, and requires it. We weaken those demands at our great peril, especially at this particular historic moment for the profession. Decimated by the recession, and under siege by the usual collection of builders, program managers, and others who are just as desperate for work and control (and much more willing to be cut-throat about it) architects who abandon or condemn licensure concede our most important leverage over the building process. Licensure may not be elegant, but it has the necessary effect. So fix it, don’t toss it.
The ALB’s stunt in the UK occurs at a delicate juncture. The government has declared that the construction industry is critical to the future of the economy itself. Various players in the process are jockeying for position accordingly. New building regulations, carbon and energy requirements, technology and government building policy are re-forming the market in which architects work. Do we really want to erase the very certification that gets us to the table in this conversation?
I completely agree with Aaron’s belief that the real importance of architecture is it power to affect our lives, but suggest that giving up the idea of licensure will have exactly the opposite effect he’s seeking. Does he want fewer buildings designed by certified architects, or those same buildings designed by better architects? Rather than invest all our energy trying to demonstrate the value of architects and architecture—something the AIA spends an inordinate amount of time doing while ignoring more pressing issues—why not make sure we maintain our relevance by shoring up licensure and connecting the power of architects with the power of architecture? We will certainly regret doing otherwise, lest we end up building without either.