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Editorial: The seasons of an architectural life can all bear fruit

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In an architectural environment which favours the established rather than the unknown, emerging architects must have a good balance of creativity, knowledge and experience

‘Si jeunesse savait; si vieillesse pouvait’: the aphorism sounds faintly depressing, since it implies that there is never a right time to get anything done, and by the time you really know what you are about it is all too late. Happily, there may well be a long-lasting and fecund middle period in which knowledge and energy can be deployed to full advantage; that is one of the reasons that the AR’s Emerging Architecture awards have an age limit of 45 rather than, say, 30. It acknowledges that it can be difficult to achieve anything approaching full potential in the early years of designing, at least as an independent practice. With any luck, the two decades after 45 should allow a full flowering of talent and achievement.

That full flowering will depend on a good balance of creativity, knowledge and experience, not least in the ability to deliver a building as well as design it. That is where experience becomes so important, since habitual collaboration with the cast of thousands that go into the making of any building or place is difficult to substitute. While different architectural cultures obsess over or eschew the idea of complete control of construction and materials, there is common cause that designers expect to see what they have designed turned into physical fact – not a diluted or degraded version. Experience tells you how to avoid that unfortunate latter outcome.

Graham's early projects pdf 2 2

Graham’s early projects pdf 2 2

After becoming a director at Richard Rogers Partnership in 1987 aged 31, Graham Stirk led design teams in a series of competitions across the world. Model of the Potsdamer Platz masterplan, Berlin, 1988. Source: RSHP

From that perspective, the work in this issue is not typical of much of the output from the design and construction sector. As ever, it is geographically and typologically disparate, but is distinguished by quality of aspiration, detail, and appearance. Those qualities and the drive to achieve them are not the consequence of longevity or experience, but a hallmark of architects with a passion for their discipline and, it must be said, a certain fearlessness about what can be achieved, a characteristic of those who perhaps lack the experience to become cynical.

In some ways it has become more difficult for younger architects to make their mark in an architectural environment which often seems to favour the established rather than the unknown. The decline of the international (or national) anonymous architectural design competition reflects an anxiety, on the part of both public and private clients, that in choosing a design they will have little control over the team with whom they may have to work for several years. These days, major cultural projects tend to produce familiar-sounding shortlists, devoid of the completely unexpected. The rise and rise of multi-disciplinary practice, often engineering-led, has made it more difficult for architects to win major infrastructure projects unless under the umbrella of such organisations, who are usually risk-averse and so more likely to turn to big names rather than newcomers.

Graham's early projects pdf 2 7

Graham’s early projects pdf 2 7

Model of the Christopher Columbus Center marine research facility in Baltimore, 1988. Source: RSHP

Under these circumstances, younger smaller practices need to apply their creativity to thinking about the sort of projects they may be able to win more easily than their larger (probably slower) competitors, and to working harder to create networks without teams of business development professionals. This is certainly possible, as the history of the AREA awards programme has demonstrated over the years, but it is more difficult than it used to be. The amount of resource required to win a job these days, unless by recommendation or family or social connection, is significantly more than it used to be, eating into profitability. All one can say is that architects are by definition optimists, always concerned with futures, and that, to cite an English saying, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’.

However old the architect may be, that spirit will inform the work, and it is demonstrably the case that age and experience can lead to an economy of thought and design which reaps its own rewards; rather like orchestral conductors, maturity can bring serious benefits. Architecture is too important to be the singular province of any age group – whatever their talents may be. Having said that, it is generally a false argument to suggest that there is a conflict between young and old across the architectural spectrum. For one thing it ignores the fact that in any significant practice, there will be a huge age range of staff. A good example is the evolution of the Richard Rogers practice as Rogers Stirk Harbour, which has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. When formed, there was ill-informed comment about Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour being ‘new kids on the block’, when in reality both had been on the practice board for decades, Stirk having become a director at the ripe old age of 31.

If you’re good enough, you’re ready.