The many (and varied) roles of the architect

It is often said that an architect’s role is that of a generalist; that is one who not only has to draw from many fields of knowledge, but also collaboratively orchestrate that expert knowledge through a rigorous design process to eventually create architecture (one would hope).
As Vitruvius states in book one of his ten books on architecture, when talking about the education of an architect:

‘To be educated, he must be an experienced draftsman, well versed in geometry, familiar with history, a diligent student of philosophy, know music, have some acquaintance with medicine, understand the rulings of legal experts and have a clear grasp of astronomy and the ways of Heaven.’

This holistic view for an architectural education may seem like it’s well established and even completely obvious (with possible exception of ‘some acquaintance with medicine’ perhaps), but something that should be given attention to is the very act of Vitruvius writing a treatise (in this case the ten books on architecture) in the first place for this cemented a very important role for the architect, which should not go amiss in this day and age; the architect’s role and responsibility as a social/public intellectual as well as a designer of buildings.

The practice of architectural journalism and the visual culture of architecture

In this sense it can be seen that the definition of an intellectual goes beyond the walls of academic institutions, where all it simply means is for one to use their own intelligence in a critical manner. The act of making can be seen as an intellectual activity for an architect, whether it is done through writing as a form of architectural journalism or the practice of designing buildings.

It is well documented that Le Corbusier dabbled in painting, sculpture as well as writing. Books in particular were of utmost importance to Le Corbusier’s intellectual life, as they were catalogues of images documenting the surrounding visual culture of the time, which in turn influenced his architecture. Architectural writing and journalism can open doors to new forms of inquiry, much like the way the Archigram magazine influenced a whole generation of architects and designers during the sixties, through its intellectual probes into futurist ideals and questioning the wider architectural scene at the time through the paper architecture of urban reinvention.

It can be seen that architecture is essentially a philosophy that goes beyond the ‘making of buildings’, where the words ‘architectural practice’ take on many fluid forms through architectural journalism, critical writing, curatorial work, architectural research and education as well as the design of buildings.

Dale Fincham


Cook, Peter (ed), Archigram, Archigram, 1972

De Smet, Catherine, Le Corbusier Architect of Books, Lars Muller Publishers, 2005

Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe (eds), Cambridge University Press, 1999

7 Replies to “The many (and varied) roles of the architect”

  1. Dale, thanks for your post. I’m hoping this will lead to an interesting discussion.

    Personally I’ve never really bought the arguement you are making. I do definately agree that on two points; the first that architects do have a remarkably broad and liberal education, and secondly that professionals and educated types have an obligation to be public intellectuals.

    I don’t however see how this becomes a convincing case that architects have some role as public intellectuals above or beyond any number of other disciplines or professions; artists, doctors, engineers, dentists, lawyers, etc. Each discipline has its own academic, historical, and pracital take on the world.

    And further more how does architects been intellectual about our disclipline equate to their been a difference between building and architecture? You dont see lawyers or doctors making distinctions between their intellectual work and their mundane work. If the only difference between and architect and a draftsmen is intellectual stuff, I’d rather go for the draftsmen.

    I thinkg we are designers of buildings, and humans. as designers of buildings we carry a few thousand years of precious knowledge about space that is usaully poorly communicated, and as humans of course we have an obligation to be public intellectuals and argue what we believe is right. But I’m not sure if this is becuase we are architects.

  2. Barnaby, thanks for your comments. I think this is a great prelude to the upcoming issue on ‘The Importance of Design’.

    Firstly, when I was illustrating that this definition of what an intellectual is ‘goes beyond the walls of academic institutions’ I was simply broadening the context of its definition for it to apply to the various disciplines you mentioned (doctors, engineers etc.) so by no means was I implying that the architect’s role as a public intellectual is above or beyond the aforementioned disciplines – in this sense all I’m saying is that the role of an intellectual is not limited to academic institutions.

    Secondly, what I was trying to elucidate (or perhaps tease out as the case may be) is the idea that the role of design in architecture is inherently an intellectual activity, i.e. I’m not trying to seperate the two because I don’t think we can.
    This is my way of reconciling theory and education with practice. When we design, we are making value judgements on an intellectual level of how we see the world as well as constantly questioning how we live and why we live that way. It’s true we are designers of buildings, but when we put pen to paper through the act of design it becomes more than just a line, we are essentially marking out a value system built on hundreds of years of intellectual history, which I believe is inseperable to the act of design.

    I think comparing the disciplines of law and medicine to architecture is interesting but a little problematic. Of course, as professional disciplines they all deal with obligations as public intellectuals and issues with ethics, but architecture is sort of the odd one out in some ways as it also has to deal with the philosophical issues associated with creativity, which always has tension in some form with what is considered ethical.

    I hope we can continue this discussion and perhaps lure in some virtual travellers along the way.


  3. Consider me lured.
    I would like to probe a bit closer at this relationship, which i think is very complex, between architecture & building and architect & draftsman. I feel you have problematically linked them in the discussion above with this notion of intellectualism (being a point of difference), and critiqued the former.

    I must believe that architecture is an intellectual pursuit, as a philosophic or cultural project, it has no substance of itself (except dialogue); where building is a (very important) act and an object, from which we (architects, and perhaps ‘public’) derive philosophic subject matter -for example as Dale points out, “how do we dwell?” I would insist on this semi-autonomy (difference), but do not think one is greater or more important than the other.

    I also think the connection between the four (a&b ; a&d) is difficult to declare effectively. I feel the link between architecture and architects is too tenuous, also I feel the ‘practical wisdom’ attained by each (architect and the draftsman) has each its own intellectualism, relating to building and architecture in independent ways.

  4. Dale

    I don’t really follow the argument here. I don’t I can accept that, as you say, ‘the role of design as an architect is an inherently intellectual activity’.

    It depends on the definition of intellectual; if it means engaging the brain while doing something physical, then sure its intellectual, but then so any other representational motor function, and architecture is not special in this way.

    If it is intellectual in that it suggests that there is something more important, or more fundamental, or particularly insightful going on, then I can’t agree with that. The role of the architect as a designer is to help people make things for themselves or other people. Architects are just one of many different areas of knowledge to do with design, and do with buildings. But does the apparent intellectual edge we bring to design make the work create any better than buildings created by a master carver, or master mason, or gardener. I don’t think so. I think there are too many awful buildings that are architects are responsible for and too many amazing buildings that non-architects have done to say that the intellectual component is unique or critically important.

    Further to this is the problem of architecture to building. This is a ridiculous an argument as trying to decide what is art and what isn’t. I think its a pointless exercise because the division between the two is always arbitary, and hence any attempt to make a distinction is endlessly arguable. Its the sort of game academics like because they can keep their jobs endlessly arguing back and forth moving the arbitrary line. My way out of this cycle of pointless argument is to consider anything built architecture, and then putting energy into understanding whether it is good or appropriate or not.

    The problem with architects is that so much energy is put into protecting an area of knowledge and a profession which doesn’t really exist. Its a convenient distinction reinforced endlessly by education systems and institutions. In reality though the built world is a endlessly complex thing created by lots of powerful and weak forces by many different designers and players. Not only are their plenty of different types of knowledges outside of the architects involved in the creation of built formm (graphics, weaving, plumbing, carving, concrete work, etc) but even between the so called architecture professions of different countries their are quite marked differences; in South America architects are all trained urban designers, and in Spain architects are all trained engineers.

    I think architects need to spend more time listening to other voices of wisdom about the built environment around us and less feeling like no one hears our pleas for recognition.

    As not to be a party pooper, I would really be interested in facilitating discussion about what are the skills and design insights that architects as designers have, and how they can be communicated. If we can’t communicate them clearly then we are really just been village shamans attempting to convince people we know best without having to specify what that knowledge is.

  5. Barnaby,

    I don’t think you are pooping on the party at all as I’d like to think your argument has had positive spin on the discussion. However I do feel that you may be missing the point slightly on a couple of things.

    What I’m attempting to do is broaden the scope for defining the term ‘intellectual’/’intellectualism’ within the context of the role of design in architectural practice.
    I have a feeling that you think I’m limiting it to the accepted definition in regards to institutionalized knowledge in academic forums, of which I am not.
    I’m also not elevating the status of architects as intellectuals over other disciplines / types of knowledge, I do ultimately believe that architecture is a collaborative multidisciplinary exercise involving the collaboration of many different forms of knowledge.
    By proposing that architectural design is inherently an intellectual activity is in no way suggesting that it’s privileged or has special status over other disciplines/bodies of knowledge (I feel that this has been slightly misinterpreted).
    All I’m saying is that design not only involves the act of ‘making something’; it also involves questioning/critique/dialogue/post-rationalization i.e. what is that something we are making? and is it worthwhile? These are all intellectual acts, which I believe are inseparable to design where the questioning can be as basic as what is the most meaningful/appropriate orientation for the house on site? Intellectualism doesn’t necessarily mean overly-convoluted ideas/theories endlessly going around in circles as I believe these value judgements can be pretty everyday and rather simple in context as long as there is meaningful dialogue.
    I think Cedric Price is an interesting example of this as I believe one of the very first questions he put to himself involved whether or not a building was even the right answer. I think the act of design as a constant questioning is not limited or specific to architecture at all (I just happen to be writing about design in the context of architecture). If design was only about the making of something and not the questioning of it, then I’d probably consider finding something else to do.
    The main reason as to why I’m writing about this is that I have a constant gripe with architects producing designs privileging style over meaningful content and I think that this is in some ways largely to do with a lack of questioning as well as a lack of listening/meaningful dialogue for that matter.
    The reason for this article is to focus on the issue of attempting to get architects thinking about getting more involved with the critical dialogue surrounding architecture as well as the practice of designing buildings; i.e. architectural journalism / critical writing, architectural research and teaching so forth. I think by doing this architects can engage with issues outside the circles of architectural knowledge and in turn become better designers and produce more meaningful architecture.

    Furthermore, I deliberately made the distinction between ‘architecture’ and ‘buildings’ to make my point, which you clearly identified in that anything built is architecture, so I don’t believe it’s a pointless argument at all. In order to illustrate the idea that architecture presents buildings as an intellectual endeavour (which implies that anything built is architecture – where levels of intellectual involvement vary from case to case) I had to make that distinction of what is traditionally considered the pedigreed/non-pedigreed knowledge bases for built form. It wasn’t an attempt to discuss what is art and what isn’t in regards to built form, as I think that’s problematic and as you say completely arbitrary. I do however believe that architecture does present buildings (all buildings that is) as a point of view, i.e. a way of seeing the world in a multitude of different ways where the intellectual dialogue surrounding them can vary to quite a degree. I think that is generally quite a positive thing and shouldn’t be discarded. I think as humans, we shouldn’t feel afraid to propose such ideas as a way of promoting discussion/dialogue as it can be too easy to dismiss them as ridiculous.
    I also think that you are being a bit dismissive of the role academics have in education systems, where your statement about ‘making those distinctions are really only made for them to keep their jobs’. I think that’s quite a sweeping statement as academic work on architectural thought varies to such a degree, where those distinctions are made for various reasons. I can agree that we should be critical of the role and work of academics to an extent, but I cannot agree unilaterally to such a blanket statement.

    Lastly, I think a big part of being a public intellectual as an architect is listening to people and creating meaningful dialogue. In no way was I voicing the opinion that architects should have elevated status and innately feel under recognized.
    I don’t agree with your statement about ‘protecting an area of knowledge and a profession that doesn’t really exist’, because it has as much right to exist as all the other different types of knowledge, such as graphic design, weaving, plumbing etc. and has existed for quite some time now in its various forms. I’d like to think that the intellectual role of architects and the idea of architecture as a meaningful endeavour has essentially a positive role in the world of built form.
    I completely agree that there is a big problem with the culture of the architectural profession, where it becomes more about architects rather than about progressing architecture, but I’d like to get a bit beyond that, so
    I think instead of seeing architects as ‘a problem’, we should start seeing them as part of the solution.

    Anyway, to steer the discussion in a different direction I think your point about communication is apt.
    Especially design communication when it comes to the public expectations of what built form entails in regards to the value of design.


  6. Hello there,

    I hope you don’t mind me coming in on this thin rope… Hehe, I tend to agree with everybody’s opinions here but is this a debate about the importance of paper architecture and its role in creating a better built architecture? Or is this just about theoretical waffle to justify the impossible? At the end of the day, architecture is about things getting built and fulfilling their intended role as a building. If that role is not fulfilled or satisfactory, can we say that the intellectual discourse preceding it was necessary?

    I’d like to refer you to an article debating this exact point more competently than my poor self.

  7. Hello Thomas,

    Thanks for your comments. I think the Joseph Rykwert article you posted is quite interesting and relevant to this discussion, especially when he talks about how critical theory will always be necessary to help question/reposition architecture in more meaningful ways i.e. when he talks about how Italian architect Vittorio Gregotti reasserts the ‘thinginess’ in architecture where theory should be aimed at the construction of a project.

    I think the article I’ve written is aimed more at the importance of paper architecture and its role in creating a better built architecture (i.e. ‘thinginess’ as Gregotti puts it) as you’ve pointed out. I think paper architecture (in all its various forms such as journalism, critical writing, competition submissions etc.) has its importance in creating meaningful critical dialogue surrounding architecture, because I believe buildings have an important role in peoples lives. I also think paper architecture provides an opportunity for architects to engage in ideas/knowledge that sit outside the traditional circles of architectural knowledge in order to help inform the design of buildings.

    I agree that at the end of the day architecture is about making buildings, which is an important act of responsibility. However, I think because it’s an important act of responsibility, the intellectual discourse surrounding it will always be necessary regardless of whether the role of the building has been fulfilled or not. I think that even if we remove intellectual discourse altogether, we will always have good buildings and not so good buildings (maybe even more not so good buildings). I guess what I’m saying is that by retaining and improving on the critical dialogue we have at the moment, I’d like to think that it will make architects better designers of buildings.

    In some ways, the cynic in me thinks the economic/political realities in an increasingly complex world of built form have made architects forget/ignore the importance of this dialogue, where architecture has been reduced to the fast-food fad of style-meisters only looking to get the next award. Admittedly, these realities in the world of built form are complicated and the point I’m making about the role of critical dialogue in architecture is quite idealistic, however I feel we need to start somewhere.


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