How the architect lost their value


Architecture strives to be associated with other prestigious professions, namely doctors, lawyers and engineers. Yet architects battle for recognition and relevance, trying to understand their measurable role and value. If architects hope to some day be paid for their labor and society hopes to benefit from the work of architects, architects must first define and understand their role in society. How have historical movements defined its value of the architect?

Buildings didn’t always require an architect. Cities were once an eclectic mix of buildings developed by craftsman and builders of various trades. The renaissance brought about a divide in the role of the builder. No longer a practice of graduated level of craftsman, the roles were split into the liberal (thinking) of a building and the mechanical (execution) of the building. The pooling of money within a city to a few wealthy families produced a desire to strategically conceive a city or a building under a single output (the prince and his architect). The Enlightenment further defined the role of those who make buildings into specialized categories. An emphasis on scientific rational propelled the specialization of roles within the thinking sector of building development. This produced a split in the planning portion of building development into the architect and the engineer. The Industrial Revolution found utility in the further division of labor. As each aspect of a buildings development has been fragmented through historical movements, the separation has created unequal weight to these various roles, leaving the architect unpaid and oftentimes irrelevant.

The architect has been pigeonholed into a creative role, distanced from the tactile, struggling to reconcile with the practical facets that would allow its creative tactics to produce relevance in the economy.


Before the architect, there was the Master Builder. In the Renaissance in Europe a collective of workers developed the city. Their work was founded in tradition, in learning and understanding specific methods of construction. It was a skilled trade tied to the risk of the building’s conception and thus easy to measure and assign value to it. These builders developed fortressed buildings for various entities and families throughout the city that had individual needs to protect one’s own property. The city was formed around the concerns of civic community as a whole. Thus the city was comprised of factions of various guilds. Streets were jagged and organic as one building or project was added haphazardly to the existing urban fabric. Families gaining wealth attempted to hold their wealth in their own property.

Towards the end of the 16th Century families warring for more power had amassed greater wealth and now desired the reformation of cities around their own agendas. Although the city was contrived of a greater civic body, its manifestation was now through a singular pipeline of one family (prince and his architect). “It became possible to conceive of a project an entire city as a unit without taking account any difficulties: the financial means, the technical possibilities, the availability of skilled labor.”1 The development of prefabrication saved an enormous amount of time, changing the construction of a building from requiring many generations to requiring only a single generation of one architect or engineer.

When Brunelleski constructed the dome on the Duomo of Florence Cathedral it was one of the first to convey and celebrate the arts, culture and intellectual power of the city rather than celebrate the collective craft and capabilities of its guilds. The dome was a new and grand form that required modern invention. It could not be built with the traditional trades, but studied, pre-planned and conceived from a position of education. He destroyed the traditional hierarchical order of the mason’s lodge where groups would answer to the next in command. Now there was a singular inventor and an army of laborers.

A range of masons and master builders were replaced with one planner or inventor who dictating the tasks of many manual laborers. “They belonged to a growing class of experts who had moved beyond handicraft into more conceptual and managerial activity.” 2

Team masons whom were once in charge of portions of the job were now solely laborers. A field that was once softly graded (a craftsman would gain skill over his lifetime always leveling up through experience) was now required to scale a major hurtle of education. As the profession was divided into thinkers and doers, value was assigned in the skilled/educated faction of the profession and pulled from the side of laborers. The crafts suffered a decline in prestige and became stigmatized as simple execution, while planning (which now required greater education) became culturally valued. 3

The Duomo of Florence Cathedral was the first to take a conscientious view of the city as the heart of an organized society. It gave way to see the organization of the city and a building as an absolute, ideological, and utopian model. A city and a building could now take on greater aims. “The myth of the ideal city, born out of the humanistic thought of the early Renaissance, had two opposite results: On the one hand it led to the utopian theory of the perfect government, which created a flourishing literature right down to the eighteenth century; and on the other hand, it led to the military town, both fortress and barracks, of which we have numerous examples, especially in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Germany.” 4 This is easy to understand as the plan of a city came from a singular power, who had aims to control the politics of the city. The city was formed through its military tactics as it was now part of larger political make up and had to defend itself from other villages and powers. Large walls now had to protect a city. Further more the urban definition of the city was also one with an aim to better the human condition and celebrate the liberal aspects of a culture.

As more education became required in the liberal (thinking) portions of the building profession, a separation between those who were educated and those who weren’t became more defined. The historic movements that followed would further define the roles within the building trade to push for its relevance in a changing economic and political landscape.


The Renaissance pushed for a science of the building profession. The desire to develop an objective architectural methodology pushed engineering and architecture into separate categories.

“The one emphasizing the engineering aspect, i.e. structural analysis and calculation, and the other stressing the architectural aspect, i.e. the aesthetic appearance.” 3 Their academic isolation was meant to focus on each owns’ strategic methodology but not to keep these professions forever isolated.

For instance, the career of Perronet, founding father of the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees, can well be interpreted as a campaign to hold architecture and engineering together within a socially rationalistic framework. Like Ove Arup in later times, Perronet regarded breadth of skills and outlook as the key to a holistic, civilized approach to construction. He trained his engineers to be competent architects: so they were in all but name. The fashion for structural rationalism during the Enlightenment, therefore, did not promote a sharper separation between architects and engineers than already obtained as a result of their differing tasks and career-paths. If anything, the ideological thrust after Perronet was towards integration.” 5

The desire to find develop an objective methodology of architecture was however never fully realized. Engineering can inherently be rooted in the measurability of an equation. There was a false hope that some universal rules or a universal methodology of architecture could be defined. Modernism emphasized a universal methodology. During his time at the GSD, Walter Gropius insisted that a method could be developed for solving problems by using basic principles. However this never accounted for the subjectivity across cultures that made a universal logic inapplicable. For example: the aesthetic tastes of various cultures, or the manner of how a culture would behave in a particular space are innately subjective. A modern building may have a lobby with a separated space intended for a line. While this may work in the United States, if used in India, the cultural doesn’t naturally read that space division as a place to form a line, and a line never forms at all.

A scientific methodology was even further difficult to pin down because the aspects of which architecture aimed to tackle were chaotic and incalculable. Architecture found its utility in the programmatic spatial relationships, in social/political relationships, and in its form.6 During the Enlightenment the focus was to turn this into a science while during the Modern development of architecture, there was a desire to solidify a universal formalism in architecture. Although these aesthetic and theoretical aspects have utility and deserve to be a recognized portion of the production of a building, to try and quantify them is impossible and reductive. The architecture of a building (its aesthetic, spatial, and programmatic qualities) cannot simply produce a measurable solution to what a building can be, but rather it can only produce potential possible future fantasies. It is as intangible as trying to predict the weather in a year. We can begin to imagine what certain aspects of a building may produce, but we cannot measure what implications that building may have socially, politically, or measure how beautiful a building is. An engineer may be paid for their ability to successfully make a building stand and be paid on how well they accomplish this task. A contractor might be paid for successfully constructing a building within a set time and budget. However, can an architect be paid for how successfully aesthetic, programmatic, political, or spatially appropriate a building is? These aspects have come to define architecture are far more intangible.

There has been a long human fight for a material improvement of the world in which we live, but no easy way to define this. Architecture is not scientific, yet creative methods have an inherent utility in solving practical problems. Arup used the defined practical and creative roles of architects and engineers to develop a productive dialogue between their separate roles. By training engineers as architects they were able to frame define problems in ways that weren’t pre-defined. Simply dividing the role of the creative and technical aspects of a building and then trying to merge them back together without any common language is inherently prone to a piecemeal solution.

“People have always struggled between the claims of the ideal and of the real, and always will.” 7

The separation of the disciplines at the Beaux-Arts was aimed not at complete segregation but rather a yin yang approach where each profession had its field of focus and then dabbled in the methods of the other. In “A Sibling Rivalry”, Andrew saint explains of the Beaux Arts, “The rhetoric of both Reynaud, eager to draw art back into engineering, and Viollet-le-Duc, intent on grounding the art of architecture in construction.” 8


The Industrial Revolution brought about huge changes to the construction industry. No longer rooted in tradition, glass and steel building methods were studied by engineers. In 1747 Ecole des Ponts et Chausses became the first school for Engineering. The school was quick to absorb the modes of the Industrial Revolution. “Saint-Simon’s positive view of the Industrial Revolution and his almost propagandistic activity had a great impact on those circles who were engaged in forming France’s scientific, technological, and industrial future.” 9 The school made references to philosophy from the Enlightenment and to the “methodological combination of theory and praxis.” 9 The school was meant to answer to the King’s council by educating the next range of engineers to develop roads, canals and bridges. During the first French Empire the school sets up a laboratory to clear a space for their best engineers to tackle new problems of construction. “Solution of the structural problems of statics and strength permitted a more rational design of the structures, and thus made it possible to cope with extensive and difficult structural tasks in an economic way, without prejudice to safety requirements.” 10 The Ponts et Chausses became a place new methods of construction could be conceived and tested in an isolated environment. “A sense of remoteness from the site and from craft was now perceptible. The shift corresponded to the waning in military construction after France’s setbacks in the Seven Years War.” 11

The development of the Ecole des Ponts et Chausses and the further need to divide and specialize the training and the labor of both the Engineer and the architect, split the professions more definitively into segregated roles. Engineers became highly trained professionals in mathematics and statics. Meanwhile the architect strived to find its own concrete role in the changing industry. Andrew Saint describes the role of the architect at this time as ambiguous, “architect as professional, artist, businessman, gentleman amateur.“ 12 With the development of Industrial Sciences the profession was divided into subcategories: industrial physics, industrial chemistry, architectural engineering, etc. The range of roles within the building trade was now divided into specialized roles at each aspect of the building’s development and linked to the skills necessary for daily tasks. The division of labor allowed for immense strides in engineering and innovation. “They built bridges and railways, cover markets and greenhouses, heated homes and hospitals, ventilated and well-lighted factories; they improved factory security and built leisure time facilities, organized international exhibitions and later equipped the cities with electricity. ” 13 A gap grew larger between the professions through their training, “shielding its alumni from the messy empiricism of building construction and the confusions and squabbles of art.” 14

The dividing labor that arose from the Industrial Revolution can most simply be ascribed to two moves: to provide greater specialization necessary in the new industrial materials and to meet the demands of the economy. More complex materials and structures that were developing through the Industrial Revolution had a need for specialized calculations and required a level of academic specificity. Specialisms rose to meet the economic demands of the time. In the past there was no room for this level of specialization, rather one might specialize in a particular type of building. Now with a need for various types of buildings and construction, there was a desire for professionals that could hone in on specific portions of construction. “He {Perronet} also studied manufacturing at first hand (his report on the stages of pin-making in Normandy has been hailed as ‘one of the landmarks in the study of the division of labor.” 15

Of course one of the great thinkers in the division of labor and the control of efficiency in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution was Adam Smith.

” The supreme exponent of the division of labour has been Adam Smith. It is regrettable that Smith never turned his great intellect concertedly to construction. His main instances of the process came from fixed manufacturers. It was famously through analyzing the productivity that accrues when they are organized in separate, specialized stages that he illustrated the benefits of dividing labour. In every kind of economy, construction is a critical and sensitive species of manufacture. But it is also an exception among industries: hard to classify, even harder to reform. Being site-specific, it tackles the full advantages of fixed machinery and a constant labour force. The principles of divided labour in construction are time-honoured and have changed little over the centuries. Carpenters do not lay bricks. Yet how to make construction efficient, let alone civilized, has taxed the brains from Smith’s day to present. Perhaps Smith’s ideas can illuminate the design side of construction. As demand, grows, specialisms arise to meet particular needs, finding their place in the chain of production. How they interrelate will be governed by the nature of the end-product. 16

But how much expertise was really necessary for a building? The longer the profession remained separated from the real world, the harder time it had integrating back with it. Picon says of the engineers at Ponts et Chaussees,“’disdainfully ignorant’ of the whole method. A contrary disdain for dirty hands, and a preference for the mollycoddlying fellowship of the academy, recur in French engineering education.” 17 Furthermore, the more training is required for one to become educated in the conception of a building, the more difficult it becomes to scale the hurdle of education and the gaps between the educated and uneducated in society grow larger. Unlike the graduated field of the craftsman, the architect and engineer find themselves in a distinctly different class than those of the laborers who execute a building. At some point the re-integration with the Real world was necessary and it was difficult to apply the concepts of school. “that is meant for ‘masons and workers.’ And we have to propagandize them for months in order to make them understand that they cannot make a living on algebra.” 18 So inherent in academia is a desire to elevate oneself to rise above class. As long as there is a need for unskilled labor it will be engrained that education exists as a mode to surpass the ordinary worker.

Academia through these movements elevated the liberal/artistic practice of architecture. Andrew Saint notes that through the development of schools during the Industrial Revolution and modern times, students were, “seduced by glamour of design competitions,” 19 and that “design is the glamorous side of architecture. It always hogs the limelight.” 20 However even with the stardom inherent in the architecture profession engineers tended to have more opportunities to carry out large project than architects because calculations were necessary to hold infrastructure up and each building, bridge or other large project didn’t “require” the humanistic calculations of space planning and aesthetics.


The movements of through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the modern movement have all led to greater education and specialization of the architect as the liberal thinker to fulfill the needs and desires of humans in projects. As the profession has become more expert and distinct from other aspects of building development the distance between these professions becomes a new barricade. Architects must find ways to speak a common language and address common end goals from our varied approaches. The definition of architect’s isolated specialty threatens its relevance in the professional world when architects don’t know how to speak their value to a client, or an engineer fails to understand the value of of the architects’ work.

Without a level of integration throughout the development of the various building professions, these future team members greet one another as strangers for the first time the day they graduate from academia.

Society must be aware of the imbalance that is inbred in separation. Naturally differentiation will cause higher imbalances of wealth throughout a society. By continually raising the bar of education and professionalization dissimilarity between social groups will grow. As education and further specialization becomes a baseline for more professions, the access to free and fair education becomes more crucial to maintaining semblance of equality within a society. Furthermore more time spent in training will also require a more comprehensive understanding of how and who will complete unskilled tasks related with project execution.

The architectural profession has been singled out of the risk, profits and the measureable gains of a project, defining itself solely on its creative outputs. If architecture’s utility lies in solving practical problems that apply in the real world, architects need to find a way to measure and value this. If architecture’s problem solving lies in the more uncertain and chaotic aspects of a building than an architect’s should be tied to the building’s future possible successes and/or failures. The drive to obtain recognition and glamour is a large aspect of architecture that must be confronted as not a tangible livelihood. As Picon was grappling with long ago at Ponts et Chaussees, at the end of the education you could not make a career off of recognition alone, it was necessary to embrace the practical challenges of the world in which the academy was gearing up for. “Schools of architecture that hitch their wagons to the star of design and composition easily grow remote from the world beyond the studio.” 21

1. Argan, Giulio Carlo. The Renaissance City. New York: G. Braziller, 1970. 486.

2. Argan, Giulio Carlo. The Renaissance City. New York: G. Braziller, 1970.

3. Argan, Giulio Carlo. The Renaissance City. New York: G. Braziller, 1970. 485

4. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 487.

5. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 487.

6. Picon, Antoine. French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

7. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 493.

9. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 445.

10. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 445.

11. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 439.

12. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 489.

13. Picon, Antoine. French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 106.

14. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 445.

15. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 440.

16. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 489.

17. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 444.

18. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 444.

19. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 440.

20. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 437

21. Saint, Andrew. Architect and Engineer: A Study in Sibling Rivalry. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. 456.

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