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Architecture Misfits #34: The Sole Practitioner

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Apart from everyone working in architectural media, architectural academia and architectural practice – and those that read Sunday newspaper arts & culture supplements – the sole practitioner is everyone’s image of the architect. It’s a person, usually male, working alone and freed from the commercial pressures and creative straightjackets of big business. We suspect this image isn’t accurate but it’s a fact that sole practitioners outnumber all other types of architectural practice.

Not that it matters. The sole practitioner is always a member of some national professional body offering its members services such as advice and legal protection in return for an annual registration fee. Sole practitioners are often said to form “the lifeblood” of those organisations and in terms of numbers they do. This is nice, but it’s the big corporations that provide the bulk of registration fee income and skew policy accordingly.

The RIBA benchmarking survey is conducted only for RIBA chartered practices so its survey is already biased towards the more affluent practices.

The RIBA had more than 44,000 chartered architects [2016]. The membership fee was £393 in 2013 which was also the year the threshold for reduced-fee members for architects was raised from £15,0000 to £20,000. RIBA membership isn’t compulsory but registration with the ARB [Architect’s Registration Board] is, at approx. £107 [2014] per year. The ARB register had approximately 35,000 architects in 2014 but, since RIBA chartered is a subset of ARB registered, I can’t reconcile that number with the 44,000 RIBA chartered architects in 2016. 33% growth in the number of architects 2014-2016 is as unlikely as all ARB registered architects opting for RIBA membership.

A similar situation exists with the AIA as a small number of large firms make up the marjority of its members. Little wonder then that professional organizations report the status of and champion the needs of large firms* while little is done for sole practitioners apart from being made searchable on indexes such as FindAnArchitect that, while tossing crumbs to small practices, are inconsequential in the bigger picture.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s the big media players who skew media perception of architects and what it is they do. The general public is unaware a sole practitioner may not work alone though many do, and are their own boss and their own creative director. Many are also their own drafting team, research department, secretary, receptionist, press agent, project manager, office manager, financial manager and business development manager. Many practitioners are quite happy doing all this and wouldn’t have it any other way. The basis for the sole practitioner being the image of the architect comes from them being the sole creative force.

This image is embedded in architectural lore, thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier who continue to be presented as maverick creative individuals rather than managing reasonably sized offices with the modern marketing + cashflow innovation of incessant selfpromotion and paying employees as little as possible. Marion Mahony Griffin was the second woman to graduate from MIT with an architecture degree and the first woman in Illinois to obtain a license to practice architecture. She was also Frank Lloyd Wright’s first employee and many people believe it was Wright who did drawings such as this next.

I’ve talked enough about Le Corbusier and his office management practices.

The persistence of the sole practitioner as the image of the architect is the reason large practices that don’t operate as sole practitioners like to create the impression they do. Historically, the naming of companies followed the pattern of the legal profession by stringing together the names of the founding partners, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merril for examplebut doing this meant it was no longer possible to talk of a sole creative force.

When only two names are involved – such as Herzog de Meuron – it’s easier to believe there’s a creative duo at work as with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Dolce & Gabanna or Simon & Garfunkel. Many of today’s architectural behemoths take care to retain the impression of there being a single dominant creative force – Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid ArchitectsBjarke Ingels Group even though we know this isn’t the case. The notion of a dominant creative force (architect) didn’t mesh well with the commercial requirements of marketing (star) until the notion of the starchitect was invented to fuse notions of creativity and personality into a single branding vehicle. This has proven to be an extremely successful invention but has had dire consequences for the remainder of the profession.

  1. The starchitect became synoymous with architectural creativity. This happens even though the lion’s share of creativity is poured into the creation of the brand. Architectural work is done not for the sake of the client or for the project but for its contribution to the brand and maintaining a media presence and relevance. This is not dissimilar to the artist’s treadmill of artistic production. [I’m told that creatives at OMA are not allowed to build on any idea the office has “done” more than two years ago.]
  2. The rest of the profession became invisible. By comparison, it has negligible media reach. Sole practitioners still exist as they always did and though their status in the eyes of the general (local) public remains unchanged and business continues, the sole practitioner does not feature in academia or media as a career option, or even as an alternative way of doing architecture. Anyone wishing to become an architect these days isn’t presented with much choice of ways of doing it. It’s starchitect or nothing. This mindset is now endemic at universities, and not just among students.
  3. Media presence becomes a metric of worth. All this is played out in the international architectural media. Even though most anyone can post most anything to the internet, it is far from being an equal-opportunities media format. As was the case with architectural magazines and journals, large buildings by famous names are used to expose viewers to paid advertising as they always did. The architectural internet does not exist to educate any more than it does inform.
  4. Unless a starchitect does it, it is not architecture. If starchitects are the only role model to choose from, then almost by definition, whatever a starchitect produces becomes the definition of what architecture is. Housing is no longer a subject of architecture unless it is starchitect-branded luxury Manhattan apartments.
  5. Creativity is redefined as curating. The need to constantly innovate is too great for a single creative force to cope, especially when there’s also marketing and promotion to be done. This gave rise to in-office competitions as a means of crowdsourcing multiple creative ideas for the creative force to select. The act of curating now becomes the ultimate creative act and the former creative act of generating ideas is relegated to hack work performed by a steady stream of expendable interns.

If there are so many sole practitioners and the public image of the architect remains that of the sole practitioner, then how is it the image of the architect in architectural media, architectural education, and a good deal of architectural practice doesn’t correspond to that held by the general public?

Despite their belated forays into Instagram and Facebook, the sole practitioner remains outside the feedback loop of content, views and advertising revenue. One reason for this is that the sole practitioner is rarely sensational. The sole practitioner may be innovative but never obsessively so. Successive buildings may show a progression or an exploration of certain themes but again, not for the sake of their display. Sole practitioners hope the next project will be better than the previous one so that they can continue to build a reputation rather than a brand. They won’t choose their next project according to the direction they would like to see their brand move and they won’t regard the design first and foremost as a vehicle for brand development. This is their strength and their failing. Even this post began by talking about the sole practitioner but was quickly hijacked by practices that are definitely not sole practitioners. This is the problem.

The simplistic view is that the general public is not up-to-date with how architecture is produced these days yet these are the people who, if they have the land, money and inclination [those three prerequisites for any building activity], would seek out a local architect to design them a house because that’s what they think architects do. And the architect designs them a house. Job done.

A more interesting view is that the sole practitioner has had it right all along, and it’s the starchitects and the attendant media circus that’s the abberation.

Until perhaps about 1970 an architecture graduate might still have aspired to one day having their own practice and being a sole practitioner.  If the work they produced was deemed good enough, they could look forward to it being published in a local newspaper and, over time, a national magazine. This progression is now impossible to imagine. There’s an entire functioning ecosystem of architects out there doing what they always did but it’s of no interest to the professional bodies that supposedly represent them, it is irrelevant to architectural academia and of no interest to architectural media. The sole practitioner has little or no presence in the three main “theatres” of architecture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The sole practitioner is the last bastion of architecture as an ethical and social endeavour. When the rest of architecture is morphing beyond recognition into datascapes, visualisations and digital interventions, the sole practitioner is a reminder of what architecture once was.

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  • Amen, Graham. Nothing I read in any aspect of the architectural media bears any relation to the micro-scale gruntwork of solo practice. This caused me a great deal of stress and self-doubt until I decided that architecture media is, like any ‘aspirational’ advertising (fancy watches, cars, euro cruises, perfume), a slightly bizarr-o fantasy created by and for perpetual adolescents. (As an aside, one of the fantasies that attracted me to study architecture as a first-time-round adolescent was the profession’s supposed historical distaste for overt advertising and self promotion. Whoops!)

  • It was intriguing to read your take on starchitects and their work vs the rest of the architecture field.

    I had never considered the idea of starchitect OR the “sole practitioner” as a career goal, and I guess there is room for so many diverse environments to immerse ourselves into as a future architects that there can be something for everyone.

    Maybe it’s a naive and idealistic view, but the reason I decided to study architecture was to [do my part and]change the direction the built environment seems to be running towards (specifically sprawl). Simply because it doesn’t feel like “home”.

    I want architecture to go back to “places for people” and less development/money focused insanity.

    • I do too Stephanie. I guess my post was a reminder that there’s a whole universe of architects out there who haven’t lost sight of that. This might just be a fortunate side effect of the necessarily small scale of their operations. There’s a risk of sole practitioners obsessing about client “individuality”, architect “creativity” or “the cult of craft” in order to add the wrong kind of value but I guess that’s the same for any practice. It probably is naive and idealistic to want to change the direction the built environment is going but we must try anyway. Graham.