What happened to my job? By John Griffiths
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One of the advantages of getting older (and there are very few of them, believe me) is that you tend to get away with saying things that others would baulk at.
I would like to think that this is due to a keen-ness on the part of others to absorb some of the wisdom and sagacity that comes with age, but I know deep down it isn't. It's just about listening to a Victor Meldrew figure complaining that things aren 't as they were.
So, it was that I found myself earlier this year giving the final Part 111 lecture to a bunch of tired looking students. The bit of paper in my hand said I should be talking to them about serious stuff - practice management , fees and that sort of thing. Instead, and to the course director's consternation, I said I was going to do nothing of the sort what I was going to tell them was what being an architect was really like, how things had changed over the last forty years and why every plan I had made concerning my future had been forced to change almost before it had formed into words. In other words all the hopes, the fears, the good times and the bad times all mixed up and illustrated by tales of the barmy situations I have found myself in over the years. It went dow n a storm (by which I mean at least four candidates spoke to me afterwards. Usually they just glaze over).
This got me thinking further. What on earth have I actually been doing over the last forty years? What is more, why did I do it? It can't be about the money. There are exceptions that prove the rule, but architecture is one of the most financially uncertain of all professions. Throughout my career, boom/bust cycles used to come round as regular as clockwork every seven or eight years or so. The good times never quite compensated for the bad times, which is why I, like many others of my profession, have undergone at least two major career changes throughout their working lives. Where I have ended up, as a partner at PD+P is certainly not where I set out to be at the beginning, but, as I would be the first to admit, I am certainly none the worse for that.
I started in a small practice in Covent Garden working on a wide range of building types. One person in the office was responsible for a number of factory units in Dartford, Kent. His favourite rep. was the man from The Atlas Asbestos Company. Nowadays, you would string him up. From 1975, I worked on the first truly 'high-end' London apartment developments in Pont Street and Cadogan Square. Up until then, these impressive Dutch style red brick buildings had been divided into bed-sitters following their fall from grace as single occupation town houses for the Victorian gentry and nouveau riche. One had the silhouette of a body chalked on the floor when we went in. This didn't appear in the sales brochure.
We did many other buildings in Kensington and Chelsea over the next 18 years. Every one was to be the best there had ever been, a concept never done before with the most expensive marble, the best fittings, a game changer etc., etc. 1991/2 saw the third and at the time the worst recession of my career , so career change number one beckoned. I had done the partner in an architectural practice thing , so this time struck out on my own and turned into a Client's Agent for eight years. The most interesting project was 45 Park Lane (first time round), erstwhile home of the Playboy Club. No more Blossom Dearie or bunny girls, this was to be a palace for a far eastern potentate. I spent three years in Carrara buying entire sections of mountain made of Statuary marble, setting out mosaics in a warehouse in Ravenna or buying mercury gilded ironmongery in Paris.This dangerous process was illegal in Britain, but the French seemed to have access to an expendable workforce somewhere.
You can only do this for so long, so 2001 saw me as a consultant to PD+P (career change no 2) working with Paul and his other partners on The Duke of York 's development. This was only supposed to be for six months, but here I am 12 years on, now a Partner, still working on high end residential ("this one is going to be the best, a game changer etc., etc.")
Personally, and this is certainly not necessarily been the case for all the other partners at PD+P, my career has not been solely about the glories of brilliant design, although this must be the primary aim of any architectural practice. I realised early on that my skills are more of the making-it-happen sort rather than the brilliant original design variety - but then, that is what partnerships are all about. Architecture isn't just an art form - it is an extremely complex process involving design , construction and legal know ledge, coordination and negotiating skills. Partnerships are about finding people who can individually and collectively add to this process. I don't think that most clients, contractors and other team members necessarily understand how difficult this is.
Forty years ago, when I set out on this adventure, both the world in general and architecture in particular were rather simpler than they are now. In 1972 (almost unbelievably now), fee scales were actually mandatory. Anyone found discounting the fees set out by the RIBA could be drummed out of the profession. Such a situation is almost laughable now and architects are subjected to the laws of supply and demand like everyone else. Objectively, this means that architects generally are doing a lot more for less nowadays than they were doing 40 years ago. Part of the reason is that the demands made upon the profession are much greater than they were. Back in 1972, a planning application was a fairly simple process involving a set of plans and elevations drawn to 1:50 scale, a location plan, a list of materials and not much else.
Provided the proposal was generally in accord with the Town or District Plan, job done. No structural or services engineers, no environmental impact assessments, no worries about energy consumption, bats, newts or badgers, no Section 106s and very little political interference. I am not saying it was better- just that it was easier and quicker.
I recall one taxi driver, after seeing me racing round a site in Spaniards Field non-stop to see if there was a gate in the fence behind a lake (a multi-million pound sale depended upon it), saying to me " B*gg*r me, mate, what sort of job have you got?" To tell you the truth, I am still not sure.