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Looking Forward: Five Beliefs in the Future of Architecture

Dick Thomas

Editor’s Note: Dick Thomas’s 26-year career with SHP comes to a close on December 31, 2021. The personal and professional milestone has caused a great deal of critical self-reflection. What follows are his personal thoughts on where the architecture profession is headed.

As architects, we are, at the core, problem solvers. Many are blessed with the gift of being able to take disparate sets of input and inspiration and combine them into unique and beautiful solutions for the client. Some might even argue that’s the traditional role of an architect. I don’t think anyone would find fault with that; frankly, that is a hard and worthy enough goal to pursue as a career. In fact, I have supported that sentiment for nearly 50 years, and will continue to do so.

As it turns out, however, that goal is no longer enough for me. How I view the future of architecture continues to evolve… which is certainly saying something, given that my career, at least in its current form, is coming to a close.

Writer Robert Brault notes, “We are not kept from our goals by obstacles, but by a clear path to lesser goals!” I’ve chosen to pursue the challenge of taking on greater responsibility and accountability for defining what is better.

I’ve come to view an architect’s role as one that involves more research, more input and a broader view of the issues that shape the response. It forces me as a traditional architect into helping form the needs that our buildings and institutions must address, in addition to improving on the mechanics and process of creating a building (if it turns out a building is indeed the right approach).

I have drawn a few conclusions about what I think will be important to the future of practicing architecture. These are personal belief statements, and certainly subject to discussion and debate. But if I had the chance to do it over again, I would use these as a guide for my career.

 

I believe in the necessity of research.

In a recent keynote address for the Architectural Record Innovation Conference, Stirling Prize winner Sir David Chipperfield—founder of David Chipperfield Architects and the firm’s Research Institute, Fundacion RIA, (based in Galicia, Spain)—noted that our profession is a little confused on how to act when it comes to engaging in the challenges of the moment and the future, specifically environmental and social inequity. Then, as guest editor of Domus 1042 (January 2020 issue), he noted the following:

“But we should see our moment as an opportunity to realign our priorities, to consider how we might reposition the practice of architecture and its role in society. This comes not through sacrificing architecture’s physical and formal potential, or even its representative importance, but by focusing innovation, research and imagination in a more responsible manner, celebrating societal infrastructure rather than commercial leverage, coming together as citizens.”

In other words, an architect’s skills are needed further upstream when it comes to addressing the larger problems we face as a society. We need to find a different chair in which to sit, one where we can apply our skills to defining the issues that need to be solved versus acquiescing to others’ definition of the problem. I am convinced more research is needed to better understand a client’s needs at a deeper level and to understand how we—how I—need to look at the future to enhance the value of the work.

 

I believe that embracing technology and leveraging data will be a key to successful practice in the future.

In Architecture Design Data – Practice Competency in the Era of Computation, Phillip G. Bernstein, associate dean at the Yale School of Architecture notes that we, as a profession, are at a crossroads regarding data: the recognition of its value, its application to our work, and its ability to provide measurable performance metrics:

“Design operates at the headwaters of the entire building enterprise, and design information – no matter who might create it – is still the necessary lifeblood of construction. Understanding, controlling and coordinating how this information assures that a design converts into a built artifact will be our central challenge in a world where digital modeling, machine expertise, high resolution data sets and algorithms become part of a modernized building industry. The tools are certainly available and at our beck and call, we only have to decide to use them.”               

Despite my shortcomings on the computer—no, I never learned to use Revit (and I regret it every day…) – I’m proud to have contributed to SHP’s application and use of data. From test driving BIM in the very early days, to embracing IPD years ahead of its time, to leading efforts to write BIM Standards for Indiana University, to participating in the development of SHAPE Environments, the work of the 9 Billion Schools Institute, and the development of Futurecasting services, it has, for me, always been about looking at things a little differently, taking on or committing to the unexpected, about embracing risk rather than running from it.

 

I believe that risk is inversely proportional to the fear of taking it on.

Delegating as much as possible to others results in a loss of influence and presence in the overall benefit architects bring to the table. Perhaps if we want to increase our value, we need to reassess our position on the risk we’re willing to embrace. That is, the best way to control risk is to meet it head-on.

I was fortunate to be involved in the creation and management of a second business inside SHP, called 2enCompass, that delivered private education projects in a 50-50 partnership. We developed relationships based on mutual respect and trust, leveraged skills germane to each party, and had a deep desire to see one another succeed for the benefit of the client. The work completed by 2enCompass is a personal highlight of my career.

 

I believe in the power of relationships versus transactions.

Architecture is inherently a profession founded on relationships. Our success is as much driven by the relationships we create, foster and support as it is by the money we make.

My primary role at SHP has evolved over the past two decades. At the core of that role, however, has been to produce successful relationships that, through service and design, generate high quality architecture in support of the mission, vision and values of SHP customers. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have built and sustained—with the help and the hard work of many others—a number of successful relationships that span on average over 16 years, one in excess of 24. It has been an honor to serve.

 

And finally, I believe in embracing and ultimately relishing in continuous change.

I am a huge proponent of the message that the pace of change is ever accelerating and, by the statements of some, have exceeded our human ability to keep up. I am further convinced that an architect’s traditional interpretation of his or her role in producing better design—as defined by someone else—is not enough, unless that design incorporates and addresses the vastly more complex interests and issues that underpin the problems we are asked to solve. We need to push ourselves to understand at a deeper level and influence how the problem is formed and not just react to how someone else sees it. I also believe that for SHP to sustain and advance its mission around Life-long learning that getting further upstream in the process is critical to the marketplace and the firm.

It is only in the past 10 years that I have better understood the importance of getting upstream for my own benefit and that of the project. I am encouraged though, by those following me: they are smarter, have a greater sense of awareness of the needs, and have a stronger sense of mission and duty to the value and larger role of architecture in the community.

If I were to go out with a challenge to them it might be this: Formalize a process for always looking ahead at the broad spectrum of issues that shape our markets, our customers and the issues they both face. (By that, I don’t mean next week; I mean the next five years at a minimum, though 10 would be better!) Reference the results of that work no less than quarterly. Make sure your future-focused findings are part of every decision and every recommendation you make. It is only through such efforts, great strategy and foresight that the firm will flourish, rather than be taken by surprise.

Jonathan Salk, in his book, A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, writes:

“Our future is something to be designed and created. The challenge of the current and coming generations is to develop different ways of relating socially, economically, and politically from how we have in the recent past. While this task is daunting, it is also filled with hope. We have the opportunity, in fact the obligation, to react creatively to our changing conditions and, if successful, to survive and live fully for generations to come.”

SHP sees its value as being greater than the traditional perception of what an architect does. I believe with conviction that our future lies in our ability to leverage our voice and our skills in the larger conversation that shapes our culture and our society. I am confident those that follow will accept the reality of the obligation and look forward to helping them succeed in any way I can.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to SHP for allowing me, for 26 years, to pursue a career path full of outrageous ideas and projects that were, at times, well outside the focus of the firm.

That freedom afforded me experiences, relationships, and growth that I doubt I could have ever gained in another organization. It is a true testament to SHP’s willingness to pursue the possibilities of a better way to do work, exploring new processes and opportunities while also supporting long-term relationships and the unique interests of its team! So it is with deep appreciation that I wind down my time with the firm, I thank SHP for its patience and grace, and look forward to the future with open eyes and a full heart.

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