Lead Urban Designer

by Alan Mee

The consolidation of the Urban Forum in Ireland reflects the basic need for multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches to management and change in the designed environment here, and joinedup thinking in policy and vision. Initiated by the RIAI, and made up of five key organisations representing construction professionals in Ireland, it has as one of its aims the stimulation of public and political debate on the built environment. However, now that this core concept of the multidisciplinary nature of operating in the broad designed environment is accepted, should we move to discussing leadership roles for appropriately trained architects in this area?

The ongoing professional development of the architect in Ireland has helped to equip the typical member to deal with increasingly complex designed environment situations. From conservation and sustainability specialisations (and others), Irish architects have gained knowledge and experience that has led, in some cases, to international demand for this expertise and an increasing association of the Irish training with innovation and specialist knowledge.

As well as the obvious benefits of acting as architectural designer on real, big projects, which were constructed and occupied in the recent past, many Irish architects working on large projects also gained very valuable leadership experience in the Design Team Leader role. This role includes of contract management, administration and client relations, as well as site experience and general leadership of large complex developments containing collections of buildings, and often infrastructure, landscapes or even whole new built environments.

This broadening of the role of the Irish architect has implications for the Institute, for education and for the client. In the recent past, the debate on the role of the architectural technologist offered the opportunity to give clearer focus to the core requirements for the education of the Irish architect, if only in comparative terms for clarity within the RIAI. Another issue is the consideration of the many architects in Ireland who have only known urban design work experience, (ie. non-detail building design and construction), currently excluded from applying for membership of the Institute. The Swedish Association of Architects (SAR) for example has a broad definition, including interiors, landscape and planning.

The formative undergraduate education of the architect in Ireland has many strengths, including the emphasis on a baseline competence in preparation for architectural practice, and a commitment to architectural design excellence. However, one current challenge is to meet a need for specialization in both undergraduate and post graduate education of the architect related to the broader designed environment. In Holland for example, architects and spatial planners have a common foundation course, leading to separate final qualifications, and are then represented by one institute, the Royal Institute of Dutch Architects (BNA).

It is arguable that a training in spatial thinking at the architectural level or scale is a significant benefit in taking on many key issues related to the designed environment at the scales above, around or beyond architecture, and particularly for urban design commissions. While in fact some urban design scale projects do not result in a ‘projective design’ or what we would conventionally call a design proposal in the architectural sense, most urban design work is concerned with the spatial aspects of an environment, and most are best led by a professional from a background in a spatial discipline. It should also be said that there are some urban design commissions where the leadership role could more usefully be occupied by a professional with training in public consultation, or other relevant areas.

Are there opportunities for the particularities of the definition of the Irish Architect to evolve into, in some cases, the role of Lead Urban Designer ? In an international web of professional definitions, the term ‘urban designer’ could arguably be expanded in this country by architects to encompass the term Lead Urban Designer, with a focus by architects on the dual competencies of Design Team Leader and a design or spatial training, combining to offer a unique role in the leadership of the urban design scale commission.

In the UK, the Urban Design Group (UDG), a respected interdisciplinary British professional forum for scholars and practitioners, introduced a new category of membership of ‘Recognised Practitioner in Urban Design’ in 2007, which could include architects and others. While the UDG has hugely advanced the networks of communication and information in the field of urban design, it is arguably a task for the professional institutes on a national basis to address the role and self-definition of the architect formally in relation to the urban design disciplinary area. There are potentially significant advantages for Irish architects, in employment for example, and professional growth, if the national or cultural definition of the role can be expanded and clarified in this area.

In Ireland, the need for accountability, but also leadership among the professions in relation to “the state we are in”, and particularly in the design and management of the built environment, has never been more evident.

This Article appeared in Architecture Ireland Issue 256

01. March 2011 by admin
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