Daniel Libeskind Is No Architect

A global debate is raging inside the architecture community over who earns the title "architect."

In August, an intriguing post went live on the American Institute of Architects’ LinkedIn group. The discussion thread, titled "Misrepresenting Oneself as an Architect on LinkedIn," raised a concern that’s been voiced by a cadre of architects with increasing alarm. Who gets the right to use the title "architect"?

The thread has since racked up more than 280 comments and counting. (The last 10 discussions on the AIA’s group page averaged 5.7 comments per discussion, or 41 times fewer posts.) All but a handful of those comments suggest prosecution or slander charges for those who illegally call themselves "architects."

At the center of this issue is the matter of architectural licensure and registration. To become a licensed architect—and to earn the legal right to use the nomenclature—an individual must follow strict protocols of education, internship, and testing. It can take years to earn the professional title, and those without official licensure, legally do not fall into the category of an architect and therefore cannot do things like stamp official drawings for a project (which makes the architect liable for a design).

Many top designers whom the general public may believe to be architects are, in technical terms, not allowed to use the terminology. And this isn’t raising ire just in America. A British architecture publication was instructed last year to stop calling Renzo Piano and Daniel Libeskind architects since they aren't officially registered as such in that country.

Image via Shutterstock

Add to this the prevalence of the word popping up in other professions—where everyone is the "architect" of a plan, a software program, a new urban design—and some inside the profession believe the word is being misused.

We (architects) clearly care about this issue of semantics, but why? Does anyone else think it is important?

The real issue has nothing to do with legality and everything to do with relevance. Increasingly, younger designers are not choosing to become licensed because they believe that their work can happen without licensure (they can, for instance, have an engineer officially stamp a building’s drawings). The strict definition of architect has become irrelevant for the work many designers are interested in pursuing. Some fear this means a "lost generation" of talent not entering the profession; others believe it diminishes the role of the architect by handing off responsibility to developers or contractors. The result has been a closing of the ranks: You’re either licensed, or you’re not an architect.

In contrast, the 2013 Industrial Designer Society of America’s (IDSA) national conference in Chicago showcased a different approach to professional community. Board Chairman Charles Austen Angell started his speech on the state of the profession by stating, "Everyone is a member of IDSA. The only difference is that some members pay."

Image via Shutterstock

This response struck home because of its overt inclusivity. We all engage with design on a daily basis, whether or not we are designers. At a minimum, design influences our lives and at best, it changes how we live and think about our world.

The effort to criminalize alternate uses of the word, and to chastise those designers who use it, is a desperate grasp to retain relevance. And it utterly fails, conveying instead a false sense of superiority that only matters to other architects. And the world is not listening. In fact, the negative tone of the conversation likely alienates any supporters who might ordinarily agree with the overall point that legal licensure is necessary for public safety when it comes to designing buildings.

The presumed erosion of the stature of the word "architect" is, at its root, pure paranoia. Architects (of buildings) are now struggling to hold onto their identity as the words "designer" and "architect" become more expansive and more accepted in new uses. If this doomed fight continues, architects (of buildings) will likely sentence themselves to a reduced role in the development of the built environment and the future of design. An insular, closed community that fails to adapt to outside influences can find itself in dangerous territory.

Architects are at a significant juncture and accepting our changing role in society is critical. Designers are no longer harnessed by subject matter, nor defined by title or limited to the studio where they happen to work. Applying design thinking to all aspects of life is natural, no matter your training or expertise.

So what should we, as architects, do? First, we need to recognize the potential dangers of a homogeneous community and create an atmosphere that encourages dissent and cross-pollination with other communities.

Second, we need to teach people how to think and not what to think. Discuss ideals, passionately, but not with so much intransigence that people can't use a well-known word in a different manner.

Third, we need to emphasize broad education. Whether students or principals of firms, architects should deliberately seek knowledge outside of the industry. Leaders shouldn’t just study one school of thought; should also study any of a thousand other fields and deliberately seek experiences outside of architecture, drawing on the expertise of other disciplines.

Design today requires inclusive, expansive, creative solutions. But without other frameworks, perspectives, or experiences, how can this happen? Hidebound thinking is threatening our meaning and even our existence in the market.

"What's in a name?" Shakespeare famously wrote. Fact is, it doesn’t matter much what we are called. What matters is the truth of what we are doing, building, and creating for our world.

[Clarification: It should be noted that Daniel Libeskind, the founder of Studio Daniel Libeskind, is an architect registered in three countries: the United States, Germany, and Italy.]

This story was written by Stephen Hopkins and Brandon Kent. Stephen Hopkins, AIA, is a recovering architect who now runs the Innovation Lab, the global R&D arm of Dimensional Innovations. More frequent, shorter musings can be found on Twitter. Brandon Kent, an associate at Cannon Design, is an architectural designer who lives in San Francisco with his wife and chocolate lab. He writes about design, design process, and architecture.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • Randy Jacobson

    If you have been granted a licence in any jurisdiction then you should have the right to call yourself an Architect no matter where you are. That does not mean you can sign plans just that you have done the work and paid your dues so you have earned the right.

  • Homer

    A common mistake is for people, both within and apart from the profession, to make is to assume the AIA has some authority or function with respect to licensing and the use of the title "architect" . In fact it has none, rather, that power is bestowed upon each state and those are joined within the NCARB. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards prepares and administers the exam in all US jurisdictions and keeps the records of almost who all who are licensed or are in the process. Frank Lloyd Wright was not officially licensed for many years but few would contest his right to the title. (it is a very interesting story about how he became licensed) With respect to the entire world, each country has its own licensing laws. Many, however, do not so then - who is an architect?.

  • Gerd Bolt

    For all sorts of psychological rationales usurping a title provides a glimmer of sophistication, an air of perceived glamor and a "way-in" (or UP) to the podium where accolades are dished out. The latter, of course, is a fallacy which only lives in the imagination of those that need to be more than they are. As these things are, reality is quit different form the dream. Architects do not need titles to provide the space-[opportunity]-and-freedom' for a host of designers to add to the whole, to inject the juice, to polish the silverware. A great designer will recognize this environment [space] and appreciate the freedom that exists due to the enormous chunk of liability resting on the shoulders of the architect. This fact surfaces irrevocably when in a claim for damages [dispute] the mice scurry after having contributed to point the finger at he or she left standing (to "shoulder the burden"), most often called "the architect". That's the one with the title! ... Still want it?

  • David Cardew

    To me architecture is a bit like doing a course to become a
    ships Capitan but because ships Capitan’s only employ ships Captains the ship it is sinking under its own weight of ships Captains. Its been throwing over board all the people who just want to do all the other jobs on a ship, like Navigation, helming and general sailing duties under the pretext that people that have not done a ships Captains course and don't know how to sail a ship, now it has come to a full stop and is slowly sinking up to its gunwales as the ship is getting more complicated. Everyone is panicking due to lack of sailors which are jumping ship and finding the water much warmer and becoming pirate ships Captains and having a good giggle at the Captains Ship. But the Pirates are dependant on there being ships captains for there being something to steel in the first place before the ship builders go out of business.

    The main thing to do is to not Panic in big Pink Letters and
    to assess the situation.

  • Mr Basabose

    Whether licensed or not, Daniel Libeskind is practicing Architecture. Funny thing is people who are always mad others are called Architects and the ones who are actually called Architects but havent built anything for the world to actually see...

    The title is turning the trade into an exclusive & elitist group of people not willing to give up what they deem gives them some form of meaning...

    Many licensed Architects are not even thinking of running a practice or building a house, not even for their "mamas and papas"...

    What's in a title other than the work that justifies it?

    I've recently met a licenses Architect who is in the import/export business, clearly he doesnt care who's called Architect and who is not... He's making a living as Architecture couldnt even offer him a job.

  • David Cardew

    What value is there in saying I am an architect and you are
    not? Apart from creating long threads

  • Michael Tolleson, Architect

    I was recently asked a question I am often asked:

    “What can an Architect do that a Designer cannot?”

    I gave my recently prepared answer:

    “An Architect is qualified to provide a solution for a Building. A Designer is qualified to provide a solution for the ribbon that might be cut to christen the Building.”

    So, extrapolating, a Designer working with an Engineer would be qualified to provide a solution for the span of the ribbon that might be cut to christen the Building.

    : - )

  • Christopher Pizzi

    Note to co-author Brandon Kent: You are not allowed to call yourself an architectural designer in CA unless you are licensed there. Sorry, mate.

  • Aaron

    I am pretty annoyed that this article is prefaced on big name architects, like Libeskind, not being licensed, but the end of the article clarifies that he IS in fact licensed in 3 countries. And I bet Renzo Piano IS licensed in Italy. So why throw around such hyperbole? I think this is a non-issue. If people are stamping drawings who are not licensed, then we have a problem.

  • Nippur

    My take: If you are in fact licensed in a respectable country, I would say it is appropriate to call yourself an architect. If you are not licensed anywhere, you cannot, in fact, claim that you are one.

  • pandaca pygmea

    For my opinion... For us people didnt have any license, we.call ourselves bogus?
    For my 10 years work of expirience, i have been working from urban planning draftsman, to horizontal construction, to industrial.
    By these fields of work, i applied this experiences to my designs which i can
    Say not totally perfect but flawless.
    I tried getting a license 3x already but unfortunately didnt passed... Now, "some" of the "architects" i reach for help didnt mind my design yet they stole my design. So i went to an engineer guy, sign and sealed my design and there, my drawned design comes a reality. I design for him for the agreement that that it will not be acknowledge that he designs the building but i do, which he got plenty of projects.
    Now may i ask, did i made any mistake on my decission? Or there is something wrong with the system?

  • Nippur

    No mistake, you seem to be a good designer. You are just not an architect. This shouldn't bother you, right? Like you are not an attorney, either.

  • R. John Anderson

    Arguing about who gets to use a word just makes the professional associations look like a petty smallminded interest group. The argument would be stronger if properly licensed professional architects would stop trying so hard to create buildings that are just weird for the sake of being weird. Buildings are consequential. Buildings are not fingerpainting.

  • Russ Watson AIA

    Call it what you may but 'Professional Branding' or licensing of Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants, Engineers, Architects, Airline Pilots, Ship Captains and the like serves as a necessary and important function in civilized societies. Without it we'd live in a side-show of pseudo-professional chaos. When I go in for heart surgery it's with the confidence that my surgeon is in fact a licensed and therefore a qualified.heart surgeon. Not someone who fancy's the 'title'....

  • design8gr33n

    I have wanted to be an "Architect" since age 5 (seems to be a common age for architect-wanna-bes) but I didn't know that until I learned the word at age 10, at 5 I just wanted to draw buildings. The more I learned about architecture, the more I realized drawings buildings was only part of it. I didn't want to be a designer who can design "anything" I wanted to design BUILDINGS, which means heating and cooling people, giving daylight to inside workers, fresh air to visitors and a beautiful place to come to work or live for the people who occupied the space. I still do not have my license so I constantly correct my mom who tells others I'm an architect. I tell her to say my degree instead (M. Arch.) which I am very proud of. I shudder when I see designers trying to use the word architect surreptitiously, it does more than just lower the status of architects, it reduces building design to the lowest common denominator of wind loads, soil testing and facade lifts instead of the holistic approach to occupied space for humanity.
    Calling oneself an "Architect" before licensure is simply a lie. It is fraud. We don't question the illegality of impersonating a police officer or a doctor? If one has a license from one country or state, than to my mind, they are an Architect, not a "French" or New York" or "British" Architect. unless they are trying for work where specificity is required. Conversation? news articles? once licensed, you're it.

  • Jared Banks, AIA

    Stephen and Brandon, great post. I'm the one who started the thread on LinkedIn and this topic has been on my mind constantly over the past three months. I've written a lot about it as well on my blog, and I'm curious to get your thoughts on the latest piece which focuses on the fear at the core of this existential crisis plaguing architects.


    By the way, I just LOVE the IDSA quote. Kind of impossible to imagine a similar quote coming from us architects.

  • wuzaz

    It may not matter. Architects listed as #7 of the 12 most over-rated jobs in the US.

  • Nathan

    Years ago, in 1995 or 1996, I got a cease and desist letter from the AIA for saying that I practiced "information architecture." While they did, in the letter, assume that I wasn't building buildings or practicing "Architecture" they did still feel the need to send the letter.

    It was, and still is, hilarious and I have it to this day.