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Finding my vocation

Finding my vocation

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Mark Twain said “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why”. I can’t remember the first but I remember the second as though it was yesterday.

I was 17 and I picked up a book by Derek Senior in the school library called ‘Your Architect’. I was attracted to it initially by the cover and the fantastic illustrations throughout by David Rock.

The image of a man whose shape was formed by all the words which encapsulate the role of an architect.Up until then I hadn’t really considered architecture as a career. There were no family, friend or neighbour precedents but the book was a revelation and I knew what I wanted to do. It was without doubt the best decision I have ever made. Architecture has given me not just a career but a passion.

At 17 I had a place to study graphic design at Leicester Polytechnic, but within a few months I had convinced them - subject to A level grades - to let me study architecture instead. Graphic design is still an interest and its importance and immediacy is still attractive, but architecture has not only provided a living but a reason to live. It I feel, along with most architects, has consumed most of my waking hours whether at work, on the bus or on holiday.

‘Your Architect’s final chapter was entitled ‘Architect and Citizen’ which detailed the profession’s role in society. It resonated with an idealistic 17 year old in a way that graphic design didn’t. Interestingly 25 years later David Rock became president of the RIBA and he asked me to get involved with the RIBA. I was elected to council and appointed Chairman of the architecture centre and the RIBA has since become a passion too. It has its critics - I am one - and like any organisation you won’t agree with everything it does, but on balance it does what it was established to do in 1834 and does it well. “For the advancement of architecture and the arts and science connected therewith”. To help the RIBA achieve this aim has become a cause in my role as RIBA International Vice President serving under Ben Derbyshire.

I’m not sure I agree with Alan Jones’ t-shirt slogan ‘Architects before Architecture’. I know it is well meant and understand the sentiment but to me it will only alienate the public, politicians and decision makers if they think we are a self-serving membership body. I don’t think people are overly interested in the well-being of the architecture profession or even if the people designing our environment are architects as long as the environment is good. We risk coming across like the Magic Circle, pretending that good design is something only architects can do.

I am convinced that the RIBA needs to be seen as more of a gold standard qualification of high quality rather than an updated Victorian membership body. In my proposal to the RIBA, lifelong learning modules would be completed online anywhere in the world on a prescribed range of topics.

This would ensure that RIBA members are the best qualified in a prescribed range of subjects and able to demonstrate this to clients, to the industry and to politicians. Architects in Shanghai to Seattle would want to join the RIBA in order to demonstrate that they are better qualified, highly motivated and more informed than their competitors. Each one would take one hour, so 50 hours need to be completed in a year - one hour a week.

My position at the RIBA ends in a few months’ time and I will be able to concentrate again on Weston Williamson + Partners. I have written a 20 year vision of where we want to be, what kind of organisation, what kind of work we want to do and how we would like to work. In short our mission is to build on our experience to date and help create civilised cities by designing fantastic, efficient, safe, affordable public transport; getting people out of their cars and freeing up the roads for walking and cycling. We are undertaking an annual customer satisfaction survey in 10 world cities: Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Singapore, Hong Kong, London, Manchester, Melbourne and Sydney. This will help inform design and policy for public transport and help shape our response.

Research is an area which architects ignore at their peril. We need innovation to develop a convincing case for design if we are going to influence the world and play a part in the big issues of climate change and global urbanisation.

It is obvious in talking to architects and institutes around the world that these are international concerns and architects can play a huge part in helping to tackle them. Architects need to involve themselves in the infrastructure of cities. “Those who at any point over the past thirty or so years followed the discourse on the design of the contemporary city cannot help but be led to the conclusion that the architect’s last hope by which to shape and discipline an increasingly unruly and uncontrollable metropolitan condition is through its networks of infrastructure.” Roger Sherman, associate professor and co-director of cityLAB UCLA, 2014.

Transport has an overriding effect on the look and feel of our cities and this will change as technology improves how we move between and within our cities.

Architects used to publish manifestos on their view of the world. Recently that has become less popular, with fashion and style rather than substance being seen as more important. It is a fantastic time to be an architect and particularly to be involved in the design of infrastructure. Our influence on the world is growing and our capacity to shape our cities has never been greater.

The architecture profession has changed radically since the publication of ‘Your Architect’. The appendix contained the architect’s mandatory fee scale, which was abolished by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. I must have been impressed by the fact that a qualified architect could earn £3,000 pa. “It is true that young assistant architects are, in general, paid somewhat higher salaries in public than private

offices, but a newly qualified architect has a ten times better chance of eventually earning £3,000 a year if he stays in private practice than if he chooses a municipal career; and that, one would have thought, is not an unreasonable ambition for an able man who has undergone seven years’ full-time professional training.” Derek Senior. (Note the complete lack of reference to female architects).

By the time I started my first job at Michael Hopkins in 1980 I actually earned £6,500 pa and still have the job offer letter. Technology and process in the profession and in the construction industry has also changed radically by the variety of work but my passion for architecture and its influence on the world is as strong as ever.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

Related Thoughts

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.