Education

Educating Architecture Practitioners Resilient to Vagaries of Economic and Political Changes and Challenges

By Birabi Allan Kenneth

March 16, 2017

Currently, professionals not only in architecture but as well as other disciplines are finding occupational propagation and preservation of their work ethics, professional discretion and jurisdictions increasingly difficult to maintain and sustain.

In part, this is due to complex, indeterminate, capricious and at times conflictual vagaries of economic and political challenges and changes. In so being, the practitioners find the pursuit of exercising and maintaining professional and moral uprightness, integrity, standards, ethical codes, aspirations and goals of their occupational jurisdiction considerably compromised. This cuts across both public and private work and employment contexts. Consequently, the protection of public interests and practitioners’ own occupational self-interests in terms of the profession’s governmentality, imageability, credibility, status and power has become problematical. Therein, the profession has at times fallen into disrepute with a negative spin-off of de-professionalized ‘service ethic’.

            Nature of the Changes and Challenges

 

            Awarding of Architectural Contracts/Jobs

 

Apparently, the changes and challenges faced by the profession today are characterized by wide-ranging political and socio-economic pressures, unethical temptations, and manipulations by governance powers of the day that place enormous pressure on any architect’s creative process. Such pressure compels them to adopt a variety of sometimes antagonistic, sometimes perverse, contestable, contradictory, or inconsistent and inescapable dilemmas while competing for design awards, commissions and for sheer survival.

Such dealings include offering gifts such as cars, plots of land, houses, kickbacks, commissions, dubious ‘facilitation’, and cunny entertainment sprees to influence the corruptly ‘shrewd’ decision makers, or crafty manipulations marred with complex conflicts of interest. Thus, firms do not trust their winning chances on legal basis alone.

 

On a sad note, the above-noted vices severely impact architects in that their creative dimensions in the building processes are sidelined and their reputation is eroded since staying solvent becomes a key substitute with stakes of sacrificing the creation of firmer, more durable, well-functioning, creative, poetic and stylish built forms.

 

On a further note, firms that bribe public officials hardly realize the negative externality they impose on themselves and other firms, as well as undermining fare competition worthy of propagation in the very economic environment they operate. Connectedly, it is a fundamental fact that any tender won by any firm through corruption represents an inefficient investment of public funds, (Lien, 1990). Moreover, bribery transforms into some racketeering often a kind of relationship difficult to end because of the risk of ritualistic menace, violence and other criminal mafia tendencies it brings on board. In this connection, once a company has been hooked by some mafia bureaucrats, it may further be confronted by unexpected demands for additional payments. Failure to meet such demands can sack in criminal mafia gangs into their dealings to dangerous levels. The iniquities are to such an extent that the public has begun to have doubts about professional ethics and expertise on both sides in as far as the awarders and awardees regarding contracts in the construction industry. Desperate strategies go as far as offering to marry off daughters in influential family circles. In Uganda it is tactfully termed ‘good will’. In some instances, these can be legitimate initiatives, but it is now increasingly difficult to distinguish genuine cases and to also determine appropriate limits, and for that matter who should determine those limits.

 

In another related scenario, some problematics of corruption and/or bribery arise from unforeseen prolongation of project lifetimes. In such instances, there can arise the need for additional specifications and cost overruns in order for the contract to gain profitability on the part of ‘design-and-build’ contractual works. In this connection, it is no secret that such negotiations furnish opportunities for the architects, consultants or clients to attempt to leverage payments or other benefits so as to ‘remain’ in business. These tendencies tend to undermine fair competition not only among architecture practitioners and but as well as other key players in the construction industry. At times, requisite tender procedures and processes are bypassed by some firms among which the awarding powers may have hidden or even glaring interests. Thus, they obtain contracts without effective due diligence. This distorts would-be genuine sectoral resource allocation. For instance, among some sub-Saharan countries dominant national expenditure is often in favour of capital-intensive sectors because of their bribery-centric intensity but at the expense of the largely people-centred health and education sectors. Furthermore, this erodes the confidence of the public in the key players, and it tends to disturb the market mechanisms and impedes meaningful economic development, (Søreide, 2002).

 


Socio-Economic Pressures

According to Caverley (2005) socio-economic pressures impacting not only architecture practitioners but as well as other workers in other professions are born by global economic ramifications of ever increasing cost of living, inflation, and increasing competition within the occupation. Included also is the trajectory of local economic downturns, scarcity of resources, stagnant or shrinking salaries, nature of occupational/workplace stress, and closely related situations, which impose considerable survival demands on the younger architecture practitioners.

 

Taking the case of increasing competition within the occupation, universities in the East African region now put out close to six hundred architecture graduates per year. In some most recent tracer surveys on the status of architecture graduates in Uganda, it became apparent that fresh graduates are increasingly becoming unable to secure employment either in the public or private sector, (Birabi, 2012). Yet instant commencement of private firms soon after graduating is not a quick option since architectural practice is to some considerably a resource-intensive profession. This is also in the wake of the fact that the state of any given economy is the main factor that drives architectural employment. If a given economy performs well, the buoyancy of its construction industry is quite often one among the visible indicators of its livelihood. Also, the production of architects has now tended to run ahead of the rate of growth of the construction industry. By some unspoken silent rule, young architecture graduates find themselves now having to competitively juggle between the development of their career pathways and other vocations. In this respect, part-time positions have increasingly become default options to mainstream unemployment by combining multiple locum positions (assuming another young architect’s duties temporarily) or various part-time positions. Young professionals caught in these circumstances are sincere to disclose that they are not satisfied with locum placements of this kind and this places considerable stress on them given the associated low esteem. So to speak, they are physically at the official work placement but mentally part-timers, spread across a number of other informal stations across the city and/or via mobile phones. This is the phenomenon known as “presenteeism”, where employees are physically at work but working less productively due to such an aggregate of pyscho-economic stressors. The stressors are manifested via indicators such as discomfort, tension, negative response, and consequential anger, frustration, irritation, and demoralization. Additional indicators include higher rates of absenteeism, increased job turnover, tardiness, job dissatisfaction and poor job performance and at times total withdraw from the job. Collectively in a matter of no time, the occupational lifestyle associated with locum placements translates into stressful personal life situations which also impact on the health and productivity of the concerned individuals disruptive of their performance expectations

 

Further to the above-noted instances of new comers to the profession, the inciental challenges are that new players increase competition for contracts. Apparently, this tends to weave a belief among practitioners already established in the field that newcomers come with aggressiveness, which at times pressurizes practitioners already in the field to push boundaries and take risks that might not be accordant with long established credibility, corporate culture and ethics of the profession. Either sides of this scenario are stressful, to engage or not to engage in those discordant acts.

 

Also, the reality on the ground is that these professionals compete with quack architects and as well as contractors for control and influence. Quack architects often under-cut fees for their services and in a way take away the jobs from legitimately recognized architects. Thus, with the quack architects’ phenomenon, while the architects were traditionally the persons who ran the contracts and, therefore, the persons who predominated in giving instructions on building sites and were very much in charge of coordinating activities and liaising with other consultants, the changing modes and unpoliced ways in which buildings are being designed and procured have tended to render the architect’s role to become more blurred. At the end of the day, the architect has tended to be less often the person to solely be in control, (Cohen et al, 2005).

 

            Gender Barriers

 

At the micro level, examples of discrimination against female practitioners by male superiors prevail with undercurrents of socio-political perpetuation of traditional paternalisticgender roles in the studio. Accordingly, the perception behind this mode of discrimination is with undertones of a frame of mind and impositions of the male ego that in architectural practice women complain less, are less argumentative, lessambitious, and work harder and are more faithful. Thus, by some unspoken but pragmatic norm, women are more often assigned with tasks of drawing plans and projects while the men take charge of influential site management and control of social relationships with clients. As such, much as the number of women in the practice has improved, it is not surprising that among most architectural firms of East Africa, women architects tend to remain more in the background and are less visible to the client. As well, they tend to take on more of the work inside the practice and are far less emblematic of the identity and growing gender parity of the occupation.

 

Also at the meso level, female architects face more-or-less equal challenges of a mixed socio-cultural and socio-political nature similar to those of the above-explained micro level. Quite often, they are received with sensual attention, at times coupled with rude, arrogant, sexist, derogatory, egotistical or acolyte gestures from male counterparts such as gazing, whistling or directing slang exclamations at them, (de Graft-Johnson et al, 2003). Tantamount to some kind of sexual harassment and undertones of misogyny, (i.e. hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against women), these actions create unease among the women and makes them to shun jurisdictional site directorship. Also among some cultural and religious mindsets, the status of women at the helm of architectural site directorship is grudgingly tolerated by some male counterparts, often with displeasure of the males instead of them applauding the women. Incidentally, in some instances a male client with a parallel frame of mind cannot imagine the hands of a woman with competence to satisfactorily configure architectural designs.

 

Whereas it is now common knowledge that women are equally competent designers as their male counterparts, the macho or mannish occupational character and manner in which architectural work is structured typifies working hours with inflexibility, family-unfriendliness and/or non-empathy towards motherliness in as far as female architects are concerned. For instance, while most male architects enjoy executing some of the occupation’s obligations in the evenings, on week-ends, and at times ‘all-night’ beyond official office hours, mixed maternal well-being and motherhood/childcare responsibilities make such endevours incompatible with the gender of female architects. Also, because of the long hours’ cultural ethic of the profession, it is apparent that most architectural firms tend to prefer employing male workaholics, (de Graft-Johnson et al, 2003). Apparently, female architects assert that despite being in love with the profession, the varied lots of regulations and legislation, high stress, long hours and not enough flexibility to allow time for family life constitute formidable constant annoyance for them, (Mark, 2016).

 

In some instances, female architects are assigned a ‘decorative’ role either to demonstrate diversity of a firm or to entice clients only to be left out of the actual work once the project takes off under the so-called ‘be pretty factor’, hence the undercurrents of a gendered profession, (Walker, 2012).

 

 

From the account foregone it is now convincingly clear that architecture professionals need to be resilient (persistent, committed, and adaptable) in order to keep improving systems and to ensure they can take a principled position with a sense of “… deeply-held ethical commitments and to act on them consistently”, (Chartered Insurance Institute, Undated, p.9).

 

 

At the level of architecture schools, therefore, this underpins the importance of embedding core professional values during the training years so that architects can find meanings and reference points during difficult experiences, and learn to confront and redress conflictual, indeterminate and perverse situations. In this connection, from the viewpoint of educational approaches that might effectively aid to develop resilience, this points to useful implications for possible educational methods that underpin theoretical constructs for resilience. For instance, graded exposure to uncertainty and difficulty through well-structured approaches to field-based learning e.g. learning in workplace settings (practicums), with recurrent experience of overcoming difficulties and achieving goals, gradually leads to internalized confidence and belief in one’s own abilities.

 

After School: Aware that other professions such as the medial field, pilots, etc., have already devised ways of coping effectively, even wisely, with comparable challenges, it is not too late for architects already in the field. Hence, it is the conviction of this paper that architecture practitioners can be made to build resilience against the kind of challenges they too face. In other words, if the element of resilience is not invariant, and it is knowable and/or teachable, it is plausibly learnable. As such, it is a further conviction of this paper that with learnability of resilience, beyond student-hood, practitioners can be empowered under some underlying model to thoughtfully make wise choices from among the multiple views of how to become a resilient practitioner.

 

 

At somewhat an individual practitioner level, teaming with but not limiting themselves to the following characteristics, though seemingly simplistic, can lead to success:

 

  • strategic use of coping strategies such as humour, relaxation techniques and optimistic thinking to deal with any given situation at hand;
  • Resolute acceptance of reality, along with enculturation deep principles and value tenets of making your practitioner life as meaningful as possible, along with cultivating fascinating artistry of improvisation. Resilient design professionals turn out to be sophisticated improvisationalists. They master how to act correctly in the moment, and how to deal with the unexpected. Also, they often intuitively and spontaneously develop and master the ‘know-how competencies’ and make the best out of them without any step-by-step formulae in response to complex situations. This is termed improvisation-led resilience, often the combination of intuition, creativity, and bricolage.
  • Developing impressive capacity for stamina, endurance and robustness under conditions of enormous stress, temptation and anomalous change, by ably, realistically, insightfully and fully grasping the problem at hand, quickly seeing what can and cannot be changed, and what can and cannot work in adapting to the circumstances without resorting to drinking, taking drugs, or becoming violent in the wake of those challenges. Rather, one should craft the art of self-control particularly his or her nerve centre and be positivist that better things are poised come ahead despite current difficulties.
  • To be resilient entails becoming a ‘hardened’ towards the stance of resisting stress.

 

As individuals and/or firms resolutely respond to troubling workplace situations, rigours, and challenges, the juxtaposition and adaption of the above set of ‘coping response dynamics’ gradually, incrementally and progressively work in a synergistic fashion.

 

Resilience from Perspectives of the stressors.

 

Whereas initially not fully within the scope of this papers, resilience cannot be built up singularly from the viewpoint of the stressed parties alone, i.e. the architects. The stressor(s) namely the bribery-centric bureaucrats in question also need to be told their part if our economies have to macroscopically benefit from synergies of resilient architectural fraternities. Accordingly, state parties are expected to play their part by building procurement systems that are politically committed to the cause of resilience, fair, non-discriminative, with all-inclusive competitiveness, transparent, cost-efficient, impartial, just, and ethical. In her own word worthy of quoting, Søreide (2002, p.20) asserts as follows:

 

Resilience must start with an explicit commitment by the prime leadership of the country. Ending the pettier forms of corruption in the bureaucracy is difficult if the grand political corruption persists. An honest intention has to be followed up by good behaviour, expressing opposition against all forms of corruption, whether it involves family members and friends, political associates, or other members of government”.

 

The political will would be demonstrated through actions such as projects’ bidding being fully transparent, with maximum non-secretive exposure of public acquisition and the call for bids and keeping the rules of procurement in full view. In this connection, it is important that the underlying rules are clear and simple, so that people know what an honest system is supposed to produce. Uncertain and variable rules, in contrast, create opportunities for corruption. Information about areas of responsibility and degrees of discretionary authority among public officials should be accessible to ordinary people. Changes of the rules should also be published immediately.

 

Also, it pays for any government to propagate a culture of awards for incorruptibility. Such awards can be in recognition of firms, and individuals in the construction industry who exhibit zero tolerance to corruption and/or excellence in resilience. Also, building strong teamwork, mutual professional respect among players in the construction industry is another facet for resilience in ensuring that the public gets a better and quality service and public’s value for money. Furthermore, other synergies can include awareness campaigns about the legal rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees. In aspects of gender equity, publicizing the work of women architects wherever possible can also make a difference. Also, it is here recommended that all architectural practices, both small and large, should engage the following ‘equal opportunities’ paradigms:

 

  • Zero tolerance measures against gender discrimination
  • Goals for equal opportunities need to be established in the firm
  • A long-term plan to achieving equal opportunities needs to be in place
  • An equal opportunities policy initiative needs to be published, understood and operated
  • There should be a shrewd board member to be responsible for the policy
  • Women should be well represented at all levels and in all areas of the firm’s activity
  • Barriers to women should be identified and be removed
  • Women’s non-linear career paths within the profession should be accommodated
  • Mentoring systems for women in the profession should be incorporated in the profession.

 

Lastly but not least, it was noted that sexist gestures and attitudes are sometimes directed at female architectural fraternity. Such skirmishes demean the women, undermine their credibility, and image. Architectural associations or societies need to engage driving home the essence of developing mutually comfortable and supportive work environments for all, which would embrace diversity and promotion of gendered mutual respect and esteem.

Image Credits

Getty Images