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.
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."
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.