A few years ago, a self-proclaimed speculative architect called Liam Young advocated that we should forget the nametag “architect”, because an architect’s skills are wasted on buildings.

In an interview with Tank Magazine (The City Limits Issue, Autumn 2014) he claimed that was a good thing: “It means that the profession can find traction in other fields: the architect as a strategist, as politician … as activist or storyteller. Finding ways to operate in other disciplines just gives us more agency.”

Tank is one of the sharpest cultural magazines around, and it publishes some challenging journalism.  So I read the article carefully. It's an opinion piece by an intelligent man, yet ultimately he's just a guy with an opinion which matches his worldview. What he wrote didn't resonate with me, and I disagree with him. In fact, as I re-read it, I realised that Liam Young couldn't be more wrong.

Young’s article came back to me recently as I read through one of the London-based journals and heard a faint echo of his position in a story about young activists. Architecture certainly teaches multi-faceted skills such as creative problem-solving – yet the same applies in most fields of study.

If Young’s idea of “activism” advocates giving up architectural practice, it ignores the fact that most of us studied architecture in order to build. It’s also an abdication of the implied contract we sign up to when we go to architecture school.  Society invests in our education and enables us to chase our aspirations; in return we give back to society through design.

Rather than squander seven years' training by encouraging the brightest graduates to leave the profession, we need skilled architects because there’s still so much to do.  Perhaps even more than during the 1960’s, or after World War Two. Is there any greater social purpose than helping to provide safe schools, humane hospitals and care facilities, and above all decent housing for people who live in unsuitable, too small, too damp, energy-inefficient, houses and flats?

We won’t always be able to improve things, though. After all:
Most start-up businesses fail.
Over 40% of marriages end in divorce.
Many athletes don't become professionals.
Things might not work out – but that doesn't mean no-one should try.

Lots of us naturally leave the profession, becoming tutors or photographers, project managers or academics in architecture-related fields. On principle, I don’t speak in detail about what I’ve designed because the chance to write for architecture magazines shouldn’t be treated as a platform for self-promotion, but I'm proud to have helped to create buildings which hopefully improved the lives of other people. I’m sure many folk reading this will feel the same.

On the other hand, further through the interview in Tank is a telling quote from Young: "I worked for Zaha Hadid, designing science-museum-opera-art gallery-China-Dubai projects. All of which, in the context of making and shaping cities right now, is utterly fucking irrelevant." (sic). This neatly sums up what's wrong with Liam Young's world view, and why.

The Riverside Museum in Glasgow is the clearest Scottish example of a building designed with contempt for its brief. Its crazy roof betrays an ignorance of the rational engineering which Clydeside was famous for. Its cramped floorplates mask the exhibits. It makes visitors uncomfortable trying and failing to see what they came here for. It betrays a disregard for its context, and says nothing about the Clyde, Glasgow, or Scotland – but everything about its designers.

Young still thinks and writes from the perspective of ten years ago, when graduates were desperate to join the star system, building these capricious "icons" with no social value.  Arguably Hadid, Gehry and their ilk didn't create architecture: instead they produced elaborate, resource-intensive building-sized sculptures.

They also poisoned the expectations of a generation of people like Liam Young, graduates who have gone on to become tutors and lecturers at architecture schools and developed a deep cynicism about architecture’s inherent purpose. Yet that sour disappointment about their own experience working for what Rem Koolhaas sniffily called “author architects” shouldn’t put graduates off from becoming architects.

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