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Architecture—a profession of public (dis)trust?

13 of January '23

Piotr Zbierajewski on architectural licenses.


At the end of September 2022, it was reported that the legislature is working on an amendment to the Construction Law, which will allow civil engineers and construction technicians to design structures of up to 1,000 m³
. In practice, this means that in addition to giant villas, architects will be allowed to officially design single-family homes. This would shake up the architectural world in Poland. It would be the biggest liberation of the architectural market in the history of our country.

Soon after, a "Petition against the amendment of the Construction Law aimed at expanding limited architectural authorizations" appeared on the Internet. Many architects automatically rushed to sign it and share it like the famous "They took our jobs!" from the TV series South Park.

While our community's concerns are legitimate, and even arguably valid, we should all pause for a moment and consider why we are in this place in the first place. Perhaps the problem is much deeper and, counter-intuitively, more important than the amendment itself or the aforementioned petition. Interestingly, it is the very document that so many people are now trying to sign, in its very content, that illustrates part of the aforementioned problem.

let's talk about justifications

The petition mentions at the outset that our profession is one of the few professions of public trust, and therefore one that carries special social responsibility. The problem is that, looking realistically at what architecture in Poland and the architectural profession itself looks like today, one could safely conclude that we have probably worked hard over the past decades, however, to have just failed this public trust. Just look at what Poland looks like today, counting only the last 30 years of magnificent nightmares adorning every city and village in the country. We are talking about legitimate architects who have gone through this most sacred, true and righteous path of architectural education. Anyway, you can also let go of the 1990s." Just look at how much abysmal quality architecture is being built in 2022. Miserable housing estates, mishandled functional layouts, mishandled houses, mishandled public facilities. And yes there are exceptions to the rule once in a while. Only that these are precisely the exceptions, not the rule. Probably immediately there will be voices saying that "these ugly objects were just designed by civil engineers", "signers" and others. However, as will soon become clear, this is not really an argument.

The petition goes on to mention how the authorizations should not be extended to people "who do not have the knowledge, experience, have not had adequate practice and have not passed an exam verifying knowledge and competence in the field of architecture." There are two problems here. First, what does knowledge and experience mean, since theoretically nowadays you can already do a construction apprenticeship at the end of your studies, a design apprenticeship about a year after graduation, which means that already a year or two after graduation you can get a license? Is this "experience and knowledge"? Secondly, the architectural licensing exam is overwhelmingly an exam on whether someone can memorize a very long document, which they are able to reproduce from memory at the exam, in order toalready half a year later remember nothing from this document, and assist themselves with the Internet to verify that the legislator has not changed the fire protection parameters for a given function of the building for the fourth time this year. In our industry, anyone who is not a dinosaur knows how much these exams are a pic of water. The question is whether such an exam is needed at all in this case, but that's a topic for another discussion.

Then we can read the argument, repeated like a mantra by most of the country's detached architects, how we have an overproduction of them in Poland. Anyone who has even once looked at the data of The Architects' Council of Europe (ACE) will know that Poland is at the tail end of Europe when it comes to the number of architects per capita. Repeating lies will not change the figures. The counter-argument: "well, yes, but that doesn't take into account how many unauthorized architects there are!"? Well, yes, because there are certainly no such people in other countries and we are as unique as ever. Let's come down to earth colleagues for a moment. Anyway, the president of the Polish Chamber of Civil Engineers, Mariusz Dobrzeniecki himself, in arguing for the changes for Gazeta Prawna, mentions that precisely architects are still in such short supply that the amendment to the law will increase access to design services, which is too small at the moment, precisely because of the insufficient number of said designers. À by the way—it's fascinating that with such a large potential market, architects are still fighting over who will design a building for a buck.

Another excerpt from the petition talks about how this "attempt to broaden the authorizations of those not professionally prepared for architectural design will lead to many investment problems and the loss of many public funds as well," and that "there will be, moreover, an unnecessary complication of the already rather complicated investment law, the far-reaching consequences of which are unpredictable today." For the time being, it is the "simplicity of the current system" that has led to the decline of the reputation of our profession and that architecture has become a profession of negative selection. Have I mentioned how public confidence has been let down by the hard work of these professionally trained architects in architectural design?

These mentioned contents are certainly not used to deliberately mislead the public. However, they are so often repeated in the Chamber that many people simply take them as facts.

About the quality of the architecture of "architects"

It is beginning to get tiresome to apply the same ethos every time there is an opportunity to talk about the condition of our profession: "a profession of public trust", "architecture is an interdisciplinary profession", "architecture combines engineering with art", "the profession of architecture is characterized by a special social responsibility". At the same time, we ourselves are the reason why at one time there was an annual award of the "Macabre of the year" anti-award of the Bryla.pl portal. Behind the path-developer are also those righteous architects, as if not looking. One can leave aside here the very professional ethics of eligible colleagues (dumping prices, pathological level of wages in the studio, unpaid overtime, using students as cheap or free labor, participating in competitions and tenders that the same people in theChamber publicly discourage, lack of netiquette, threatening to revoke or freeze privileges in the event of more legitimate criticism of the Chamber, and other internal problems and behaviors that, if described, would likely garner a lot of media attention).

It is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of architecture designed by authorized architects is of terrible quality, whether aesthetically, functionally or technically. Tastes are not discussed, but let's agree, architecture of really good quality represents a fraction of all investments. Let's assume here an inflated 1% among this elite of "entitled and how educated architects standing up for [...]." Can we then assume that there are chances that also the 1% among technicians and civil engineers could, produce architecture of really good quality? Let's assume that we give architects the 5%, however, but civil engineers, for example, 2-3%. And so be it! Let's give architects and 10%! Still, as we already look at these low numbers in both groups, we can see that, however, we have a substantive problem of the whole starting point in the context of discussions about the quality of projects and whether more people should be allowed to design architecture up to 1000m³.

Yet another way—>90% of the people in the Chambers who put architectural nightmares around the country on a daily basis and defend access to architectural licenses, as well as to the profession, talk about how civil engineers, bakers, doctors and others who would suddenly design houses, etc..., will make the quality of public space and architecture in Poland deteriorate. Absurd and hypocritical.

But don "t take my word for it! One could be downright brazen and say that one only has to go to the atelier pages of all the IARP representatives to see that few of them create objects that meet Vitruvius' three basic principles. Hardly, one can see that here, there, some of these people are putting their hands on projects classified as "pat-development."

Is this, then, caring for a "responsible profession of public trust," or pure defense of interests in accordance with the status quo and the warmth around the words "profession of public trust"?

the market will defend itself

Do studios that have worked hard for their success, are well priced, have cool clients, have anything to fear in the new reality that "threatens" us after the new year? No. Clients who don't have the money for a house, design services or the usual ambitions to have a good quality, durable single-family home with a great functional layout that can be sold for good money in the future will not use the services of said architects anyway. This has never been their target group.

In Denmark, Norway or Sweden, the architectural profession is open. Has the market collapsed for them and architects are retraining for other professions? No. In those countries there are quite a few studios of so-called draftsmen, who mostly don't establish anything with any architect. They put up houses here, there. Does the aforementioned group of architects cry vengeance to heaven because of this? Is the architecture in these countries abysmal?

Many will recognize here that there is nothing to compare Poland to Scandinavia, because there "people are being educated". But is this an excuse from the fact that as architects in Poland, with the aforementioned design topics, we are pricing ourselves for less than the value of 6 dining room chairs? Is the excuse from the fact that the overwhelming majority of IARP's eligible members design mediocre architecture? Is the argument, "because the developer ordered it?" Well, wait a minute, well, who signs off on the architectural design? The architect or the developer?

Few architects really fight every day for a better quality of architecture for the Poland of tomorrow. The rest are warming themselves in the warmth of the former now trying to convince how important it is that they alone should continue to have access to design, threatening that engineers and construction technicians are about to bring Poland to ruin. Again: hypocrisy.

research and the condition of the architectural profession in Poland

It would be appropriate to start as soon as possible a public discussion, as loud as the aforementioned petition, about where our profession, as well as architecture itself in Poland, should be heading. The Chamber should be more open to outside comments and start actually working for changes in the quality of our profession. And why not think about whether it is precisely civil engineers who will suddenly improve the architectural market?

Why?

Maybe they would be able to run their business better, price themselves better and provide better working conditions for others than we architects, who ourselves have led architecture to become a profession of negative selection. Why do we have such large declines in people willing to take up architectural studies? Why do we see the lowest wage growth in architecture compared to other industries, and in many places we even see a negative trend? Why do we seemingly exalt the qualities of our profession so much, while we are leading Poland to architectural ruin? Why aren't we saying in Poland that architects should be specialized like in the West? Why aren't we saying that in many countries that IARP cites as outstanding examples to follow in the field of architecture (including the profession), licenses are either simpler to make, or there are none, or indeed the profession is an open profession?

Why is it that we don't talk about this in advance, instead of reacting chaotically at the last minute?

The Chamber quite often repeats that it's not just people with authorizations, because the Chamber has those counted, but people without authorizations who are supposed to understate the statistics of the number of architects per capita (Poland is not the only country in Europe that has such a situation—you can encounter this everywhere where the architectural profession is closed). The only question is, why aren't mechanisms put in place (and there are many) to track a fairly approximate number of such people? Why isn't extensive market research being done? Why do we still not have a trade union of Polish architects? This last question is interesting because in the West, most local architects' unions are either trade unions or professional self-governments with trade unions.

So we should slow down a bit and consider where the architectural profession and architecture in Poland stand. Do a broad survey. Ask architecture departments, SARP, IARP, authorized architects, unauthorized architects, architecture students, architecture critics, foreign entities like, for example, ACE to mapping our entire industry in Poland. In the end, the question is what we don't yet know about ourselves, which may be crucial in terms of the situation of our profession in 2023. Without annual reports on the condition of the architectural profession in Poland, we are really moving as if through a fog.

Criticism as a tool

Quite often the aforementioned questions about the future of our profession and the direction in which it is going both, are met with the statement that the Chamber should not be criticized. That we should build bridges in our environment, that we all play to one goal, even if we disagree with each other. Except that this means absolutely nothing. This criticism of the condition of our profession is not out of pure hejt, as some in the Chamber claim, but out of concern and a completely serious consideration of the situation. Architects in Poland have themselves worked hard to make architecture a profession of negative selection. That's why recently more and more young people are saying outright: "Enough!". Thestatus quo is not working.

It is likely that the legislature will push through the amendment on the Construction Law anyway, and that it can no longer be stopped. According to theamended law, architects may be responsible for a minority of projects with a volume of up to 1,000m³ starting next year. If this is indeed the case, the question is how IARP intends to fit into this new reality. The question is, how many other legal but also social challenges await architects in Poland until 2030? What is the strategy for 2030-2040?

From the point of view of the ethics of the profession, these are the questions we should be asking now. In the background, on the other hand, there should be a discussion about whether or not part of the profession should be opened up.

How should the public, and even architects themselves, honestly, impartially know if the upcoming law is really that bad?

let's look in the mirror

And here we get to the substance. It would be necessary to specify whether ethically, as Polish architects, we have lived up to the public trust, or whether we have nevertheless failed it. Do we have the moral right to talk about how it is from above that civil engineers will give Poles bad architecture?

When we look outside our windows, look at the aforementioned design feats of many of our eligible colleagues in the Chamber, the picture is unlikely to bring a very optimistic answer.

It's understandable that members of our community have concerns about the pending law, but it's important that we take a step back and consider the root cause of these problems. For it follows that the genesis of where we are today lies precisely in our profession and its condition.

Piotr Zbierajewski

Piotr Zbierajewski- an architect working on a daily basis in Denmark. Specialized in the design of sustainable architecture and architecture based on efficiency optimization. Specialist at COWI, a Danish international consulting group specializing in engineering and sustainability.

He gained experience at Centrala Design Group, Konior Studio, Powerhouse Company, Arkitema Architects (today part of COWI Group) and C.F. Møller Architects, among others. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture and Design at Aalborg University in Denmark and the Faculty of Architecture at Warsaw University of Technology.(Linkedin: Piotr Zbierajewski).

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