“What do you do at your new job?”
I recently got a new job as a ‘Content Creator’ at a reputable architectural firm that has studios in most Australian capital cities and even studios abroad. When I tell friends, family and acquaintances about this next step in my career, the question that usually follows a congratulatory word is, ‘What do you do at your new job?’ Halfway through attempting to explain what my role involves, I often get a glazed look.
Forget content creators for the moment: the apparent ambiguity of the role of architects to the general public — and one could include into the mix: architectural assistants, planners, landscape designers, interior designers etc. — has been an issue that some are trying to address. Earlier this year, the American Institute of Architects advertised in the hope that the public would gain a greater understanding and appreciation of what it is that architects do and contribute to society. Even the Australian Institute of Architects launched a “promotional program to engage the public in better understanding the value of design and architectural services”.
That a foundational profession in society having existed for thousands of years should become unfamiliar or undervalued is certainly a cause for concern. It may be that the general public’s appreciation of architecture is declining, technological advancements are accelerating the evolution of the profession which hinders the public’s ability to recognise it, the architectural lexicon is alienating or that learning about architecture is usually within the walls of higher education providers (HEP). Despite the steady increase in student enrollment and completion numbers in higher education ‘architecture and building’ courses, when compared to figures in ‘management and commerce’ and ‘society and culture’ courses, HEPs are only preparing and producing a small number of ‘architecture and building’ graduates and therefore advocates.
It is tempting as a content creator to let those not in the know label me an ‘architect’ but such oversimplified categorisation is unhelpful both to the industry and the general public. For starters, the Accreditation body would frown upon this as architects need to meet specific requirements, but more importantly, it reduces the unique contribution that experts bring — from a diverse range of specialisation areas — to what is a collaborative and multi-disciplinary industry. Perhaps the diversity of roles in the sector, coupled with vague position titles, is what the general public finds difficult to grasp and if the user interface of software used in architectural offices is any indicator of how complex the design process is, who could blame them?
Maybe all the confusion is our fault to begin with. In attempting to describe to others what a ‘content creator’ does, a friend of mine uses The Sims video game as an illustration; players create their own home by dragging and dropping modifiable furniture, decorative components and architectural elements (i.e. ‘content’) from a catalogue. Inevitably, there are some individuals in the Baby Boomer generation who are unacquainted with The Sims or software packages from furniture/kitchen manufacturers that let you plan-before-you-buy —which probably ends up alienating them further. So it might be the case that we aren’t interesting storytellers or don’t have relatable and relevant ways of explaining technical tasks to non-technical folk.
So how can we as content creators, architects, landscape and interior designers — and any other professional in the built environment — bring clarity to what is becoming an increasingly intricate industry and grow the public’s appreciation of architecture? I think the answer is advocacy and generating discussion. Bring friends along to @sydlivmus, tell others what you learned at @sydarchfest, go to a ‘Architecture on Show’ talk, engage with podcasts, support students of the built environment by checking out their work at exhibitions (there’s always free food!). One of the qualities that my current workplace seeks to cultivate in its employees is for them to be ambassadors for the practice, but I would go further and propose that we be ambassadors for the built environment. When we talk about the built environment, we need to resist using acronyms and take the time to explain architectural terminology. In doing so, let us do it with earnest enthusiasm so that others would really see the beautiful craft that is involved in creating spaces and place making and as a result might decide to study a course or engage in public debate. The truth is, if one has engaged with public spaces or simply walked through the door to their own home, one has an interest in the built environment, which Janne Ryan rightly suggests “changes the way we are — spiritually, aesthetically and culturally”.