It’s not just the economy, stupid

In my previous post I attempted to make the case that part of what hinders architecture’s ability to affect change, or more precisely to control where it affects change is a function of its poor position in the marketplace. We have little say in where and how money is spent.

A friend’s response to me a was “Well, kind of obvious, isn’t it?” and perhaps it is, but what is fascinating to me, is that the Tariff is framed with this weakness in mind:

[m]uch of the service necessarily provided by an architect is a function of the building industry marketplace.

Indeed, need for a Tariff of Fees at all (or an enforced Tariff, at any rate) is evidence of Architecture’s economic weakness. If Architecture were well-positioned in the economy a Tariff would hardly be necessary.

The irony, of course, is that as it stands the Tariff is only a guideline that is largely ignored in the spirit of marketplace competition. Doing so, however, is a choice. A matter of policy, which brings me to my present post:

It’s not just the economy, stupid

Of course it isn’t just the economy. There are other reasons too, and in keeping with the theme of the exhibition, I’ll present a few that fall within the sphere of policy, and all of which are children of the provincial statute that establishes architecture as Architecture: the Architects Act.

For the uninitiated, the Architect’s Act is the provincial legislation that creates the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and empowers the Institute to govern and regulate professional architects. For the most part it covers things like where the AIBC head office is (Vancouver), how many sit on Council (15), and whether architects can incorporate (yes).

The juicy piece, however, is Section 24 which sets out the structure for the AIBC to pass bylaws “necessary for the regulation of the institute, its members, architectural firms, licensees and associates” and it is this section that is the most impactful on the day-to-day practice of Architecture. Section 24 is the primary reason that Architecture in this province can refer to itself as self-governing: Architecture is ruled by the AIBC, which is run by a council of 15 mostly architects, who pass bylaws that regulate Architecture.

The first point I would like to present is so general as to almost be missed, and that is the mandate the AIBC sets out for itself, specifically:

…to protect the public interest, including public health, safety and welfare, in the practice of architecture by building public awareness and confidence in the roles, responsibilities and capabilities of those registered by, and practicing through, the institute.

The issue is one of direction, in much the same way that affirmative rights (the right to something) are oppositional to negative rights (a right from something). To protect the public interest is the language of administrative maintenance – a cynic might say it implies preservation of the status quo. At the very least, it is neutral of the subject of advocacy: the public interest is not defined and it is protected, not advanced.

And this matters! That the AIBC’s mandate lacks aspiration is important because this is the language that establishes the tenor of any policy position the AIBC might have.

The second point that I would like to present has to do with pro bono services, which as outlined in the Tariff:

…are rendered without fee for the public good, intended for a client who will suffer noticeably if architectural services do not intervene.

Leaving aside a few of my relatives who claim to meet this criteria, there are two issues here. First, the language is again that of prevention and protection; there is nothing here that compels Architecture to act.

The second issue is more structural and relates to my introduction to this post and the fact that the Tariff is not an enforced one. The provision of pro bono services is explicitly voluntary and as such requires any firm offering them to be enjoying a profit significant enough to cover the work.

The effect of a soft Tariff in difficult economic times, Architecture is allowed to undermine its own worth by offering ever more for even less. It is something of a maxim that the lowest fee will win the job. The result, of course, is that Architecture’s capacity for advocacy in the form of pro bono services is eroded to the extent that profits are.

All of which leads to an uncomfortable thought: if the public interest that Architecture is meant to protect includes the welfare of the disenfranchised and dispossessed – those who might actually need pro bono services – then the policies that govern the practice of Architecture in fact prevent us from doing so.

This entry was posted on February 13, 2012 at 4:00 am, filed under 03 Relate, Ian Ross McDonald, Involvement, Project process, Writer. Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.