Norman Foster was (and remains) a master of leading client groups through a description of his early design process that made the outcome – his design – seem absolutely inevitable. He presented his early ideas with a series of sketches that displayed the sequence of his thoughts, and the way he came to a solution. He always covers design issues, urban issues, structural issues, thermal issues, ESD issues.

– by Genevieve Lilley

Brian Moore’s recent article in Spinifex about architects being sidelined in commercial buildings is a considered and observant piece, and raises significant issues about the architectural profession in Australia.

His argument is that architects are showing little initiative in leading projects, and that as the issue of sustainability becomes more important, their role seems to diminish more.

This is for the most part true. It is a situation that is not unique to Australia, but is certainly worse here than in the UK and, to a lesser extent, the US.

There are a number of reasons for this, and a number of solutions. The problems are generated by teaching trends, practice trends, architects themselves being misguided about their roles, and also by trends in project procurement that are eliminating the opportunity where big ideas are discussed and resolved.

Firstly, lets focus on architects themselves. As lead consultant in projects, architects traditionally recommended and lead the consultant team, and made it their business to understand every aspect of the building, including all specialised components and disciplines.

When I worked on a range of civic projects in the UK during the 1990s, the consultant team was discussed and appointed as the architect was appointed (after discussion with the architect, who had generally selected/recommended the team). All disciplines are then present from the very first design meeting and all client meetings. A series of round table discussions thrashed through the issues of streetscape, light, egress, structure, ventilation, waste, landscape at the same time the detail of the client’s brief was being discussed.

This meant that all the supporting consultants understand the design priorities, and the architect understands the thermal and structural possibilities, and all other disciplines that would influence the eventual building. There is a palpable sense of enquiry, about finding design opportunities in the sustainable/environmental guidelines.

In the same way that there are “starchitects” in the UK, there are star-engineers, star-structural engineers, star quantity surveyors, well known historic consultants – firms with proactive directors who have developed a preference for working with architects in the earliest stage of projects to ensure a “wholistic” building.

But in the same way the collaborative nature of the consultant team is recognised, so too is the early design “idea” process, and the deficiencies in Austraian procurement have diminished this stage.

In Australia architects for large projects are selected by a number of criteria. These include previous experience, ability to work at such a large scale, fee bids etc. These submissions do not generally include design ideas. If a “design approach” is requested, it is restricted to “an approach” rather than an idea, as the former excuses the bid from being an architectural competition (and a competition suggests the entrants might be paid fees for their design, heaven forbid).

So usually the architects who win big commercial projects do so on experience, not on their idea or approach to this site and this problem. Often these projects are then defined by site boundaries, FSR, net lettable space, etc, into a certain envelope. Before too long, the project has progressed to DA stage without any real opportunity to develop the germ or the main idea.

The whole stage where everyone spends time thinking about all the possibilities, and all the solutions, is completely eliminated. The procurement process has denied the generation of the big idea

Computer simulation of a section through a building atrium, showing air movement. The project was an office building for Olivetti (unbuilt) by David Chipperfield, designed 1993. The ambition of the project was to co-ordinate issues of energy, heat gain, insulation and dayight/light issues.

The Australian DET BER process is a perfect case in point – building are being rolled out with the barest consideration being given to individual schools’ requirements, their idiosyncracies, or the complexities of their sites. This is particularly the case for any school which is not on an open site but which is part of a dense urban or historic area.

There are now, with enormous pressure from schools, some good exceptions in this process, but for such a procurement process to be condoned, indeed encouraged at a state and federal level, is telling about the understanding about what makes a building special, indeed.

But the process itself is not entirely to blame. Part of the problem Brian identifies is with the way architects are now being taught, or the way they present things. In terms of presentation, Norman Foster was (and remains) a master of leading client groups through a description of his early design process that made the outcome – his design – seem absolutely inevitable.

He presented his early ideas with a series of sketches (by himself) that displayed the sequence of his thoughts, and the way he came to a solution. He always covers design issues, urban issues, structural issues, thermal issues, ESD issues.

By the end of his presentation, the client is swooning, and asking where they sign up for the next stage.

Architects now seem to have lost the discipline of this approach, this general straightforwardness, this wish to lead the process with a strong idea explained through all disciplines. Is this because they want their work seem more ‘fun’, more glamorous?

As one who has taught 4/5th year design at the University of Sydney for many years, we used to teach design by including each of the other disciplines – students would need to consider their ideas in light of urban issues, environmental issues, structural issues, buildibility.

Supporting tutors, generally full-time practitioners, were brought in to guide the students through these extra areas, which supported and enriched the architectural design. Now, to comply with Masters requirements (M Arch), students must take an urban stream, or a digital stream, or a sustainable stream.

Architecture becomes a sort of subsidiary issue. The concept of the strong idea has also been diminished in architectural teaching. There is less drawing, no sculpture classes, less understanding of precedent, and of why genuinely original buildings are original – how the response by the architect proved such a clear concise clever solution that almost no other solution could have been as ‘right’

As an example, as visiting critic to the summer school Masters programme at a good (unnamed) university recently, I was presented with a number of schemes for an urban teaching/theatre precinct, a whole block project with supporting accommodation, galleries, cafes, etc.

The tutors were both highly experienced and extremely well-respected. The students had spent 8-10 weeks working very hard on their complex projects. Yet no more than 10-15 per cent of the schemes faced north. This simple move would have improved all of them immensely, and with appropriate shading would have profoundly reduced their energy loads in winter and summer.

The students, mostly foreign, had not been given even a clue about this, and instead were concentrating on fashion, aesthetics, complexity, without taking time to observe how much better an outdoor space works in winter when it gets sunlight…

The issues Brian Moore identifies are very real, and need to be discussed, as the problem is rapidly worsening.

Genevieve Lilley

Architects do need to take control of the development of the idea. The idea that generates a building and guides it through the stages of its development must be a good idea, a strong idea, and it must be an idea that is informed by all the issues of the site.

Such a holistic approach can only come about by a good proactive consultant team, and by the client body recognising the need for a fertile early stage of a project to allow the “big idea” to be agreed.

Genevieve Lilley is director of Genevieve Lilley Architects, which was founded in London in 1999 and reopened in Sydney in 2005 after Genevieve returned to Australia from the UK/US.