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Let’s spare a thought for architects

by Ruth Slavid

Photo ©: 1 – Agnese Sanvito.

Is it time to feel sorry for architects? It is true that they have the toughest deal of many professionals. Their pay is low, their hours are long, their education expensive and they have little job security. In addition, the status of architects in the construction industry has declined over the past few decades, with the rise of design and build and of project management.

But if the world in general should sympathise, it is harder to expect landscape professionals to do so. After all, architecture is the senior profession, with a longer-established institution than landscape. There are many more architects than landscape professionals. Courses are more numerous than those for landscape and, unlike landscape, they are over-subscribed. The public may only be able to name a handful of living architects, but it would struggle to identify a single representative of the landscape professions – a TV gardener is the best we could hope for.

This may be about to change, however. Noel Farrer’s update on housing on page 11 addresses an area where architects’ influence is often minimal. There is good architect-designed housing, including in one of the case studies that Noel presents. But there is a limit to how much architects can do, given the tightness of budgets and the commonality of needs. There are only so many ways to arrange a few spaces. This was evident for example at the former Athletes’ Village at the Olympic Park where all the blocks were fundamentally the same, just ‘dressed’ in different ways (often very successfully) by different architects. What really mattered was the disposition of the blocks and the spaces that were created between them.

It is this public realm, Noel argues, that is really important for the success of the places where we live. It is where we have all our social interactions, where we travel and exercise and receive our visual and sensory impressions. And it is, of course, the province of the landscape professional. Similarly, Merrick Denton-Thompson in his introduction to our piece on the work of Sunderland council (page 49) argues that ‘We should be repositioning the landscape profession to ensure our democratic system has direct, impartial advice from the landscape profession.’ And in her feature on St Peter’s Seminary (page 34) Carine Brennan shows how a landscape-led approach is helping to find a new function for a much-loved but troublesome building.

Good buildings will always be important and heartlifting. But with environmental and population pressures, the landscape in which they sit will be even more vital. Unlike most buildings, which are at their best at the moment of completion, well-considered landscape should improve over time. While the question ‘who designed this building?’ is an obvious one with a straightforward answer, it will not even occur to many to ask ‘who designed this landscape?’. But the landscape professional’s ability to work with past and present, with what is there and what is wanted, to tackle ecological and hydrological and social issues all within one space is just what we need.

The statement in our last issue, made by Neil Spiller, professor of architecture and digital theory at the university of Greenwich, ‘Architecture is a subset of landscape,’ will become increasingly evidently true. Architects, as the great generalists and coordinators, may be the first violinists in the orchestras of the future – with landscape architects as the conductors.

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