What future for architects?

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Everyone speaks English these days. At least, all actors of foreign markets do. It is a well known fact that English is the current Lingua Franca of our globalised world. So what’s the big deal with speaking other languages? A survey carried out in 2010 by the RIBA research group Building Futures proposed an interesting answer.

Released in February 2011, The future for architects? asked who will design our buildings in 2025, what roles those trained in architecture will be playing and how architectural practice will have changed as a result. Drawing on a variety of perspectives – clients, consultants, builders and architects – the study analyses what would be expected from the profession in the future.

Clients and consultants think the role of the architect will still be to manage projects but they question whether architects will want to continue doing so. In their view, this responsibility is increasingly taken by engineers, a trend that is by no means new. To take on such roles, architects need to learn management skills earlier on in their training and gain access to foreign markets.

With this goal in mind, speaking a language might not be a totally useless skill. Active recruitment is a survival key-factor for major international practices. They keep up to date by constantly recruiting architectural nomads with linguistic and technological skills. The ability to work effectively abroad is therefore a significant factor. Being able to speak a range of languages and to learn different customs might be considered by practices as a key to accessing new markets.

But the gloomy economic situation of the last few years means a reduction in the number of architectural students and will probably lead to the loss of a generation of architects. Indeed, 2010 saw a drop in the year-on-year growth in all areas of architectural studies.

Last May, former RIBA President, Ruth Reed, said in a press release that “poor employment conditions, rising living costs and imminent trebling of tuition fees are creating very difficult financial conditions in which architecture students are struggling to complete their qualifications”.

The current economic situation affects the viability of practices. Teams that are stripped down to a simple core of directors will become technologically and linguistically unskilled.  Larger practices overcome the issue by recruiting foreign office staff from local schools of architecture – establishing a talent pool for each office and relying on English as the language of communication between HQ and local offices.

But more competition will come from Asian nations because of their superior ability to stay ahead of the field. As a result, a strategy that may be adopted by future practices could be to work with a small core of staff with strong established links to a range of cutting edge consultants – a work structure that would reflect the new era of cloud computing, in which communication, and therefore language skills become a prime necessity.

The language problem is not specific to the business of architecture. The Blair government made learning foreign languages optional from the age of 14 in 2002. Since then, there has been a sharp decline in the proportion of students taking on a language up to GCSE level.

This proportion has fallen from 61% back in 2005 to 44% in 2010. The pattern applies to both French and German – the two other working languages of the EU. It doesn’t come as a surprise that, although the UK represents 12% of the EU’s population, only 5% of the jobs in the European Parliament and Commission are taken by British workers.

What future for architects then? It is not too difficult to imagine given what will be the language skills of future UK generations.

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