It’s a scary time to think about becoming an architect. The cost of qualification is sky-high, with no guarantee that you’ll even spend much physical time in a studio with your tutors and cohort – and when you graduate, will a robot already have taken your job?
Surely there are easier and more secure routes to employment than this?
While predicting the future is impossible, the fate of the architect may not be as bleak as it first appears.
In this article, we’ll consider some of the changes that the industry has already weathered; some emerging trends in the field, such as BuildTech and modularization, that are worth keeping a close eye on; some ways that architecture is likely to look different in a few decades’ time; and some alternative uses for that hard-won degree if you decide, as time goes on, that architecture has become a less attractive career.
Is there a future in architecture?
Architecture will exist for as long as humans need shelter from elements; what’s likely to change is the nature of architecture and number of architects, and that’s the real topic of this article.
While we may one day become virtual entities inhabiting virtual worlds, this scenario is improbable within the lifetime of anyone reading these words – and even when the time comes, some kind of virtual architects may still be required!
So in short, if you’re considering architecture as a career, yes, it has a future. You’ll likely have work as long as you want it, as long as you’re prepared to be flexible about what an architect is and does.
Where is architecture likely to be in 50 years’ time?
Of course, nobody knows for certain, but climate change is likely to be the most significant influential factor.
In 2015, the University of Westminster carried out a piece of research with its own lecturers, architects and planners. They agreed that in the next half-century, the five most likely developments were responses to our overpopulated and warming planet, namely: super-deep basements; floating sea cities; high-rise or rooftop farms; 3D printed homes; and buildings with their own micro-climates.
You can see the rest of their list, and more information about the study, here.
Following on from that study and the present situation, here are our own top predictions about the architectural advancements we’re likely to see in the next few decades.
1. Virtual reality
The difference between a ‘virtual’ walkthrough on a laptop screen and in a VR headset is immense, as anyone who’s played with the latter will know. VR technology has already allowed architects to present their designs to clients on a 1:1 scale, allowing them to move through buildings that haven’t been built.
In future, it may become the industry standard for designs to be presented in this way, and with even more advanced interactivity than we see today.
2. Smart cities
A smart city is one in which buildings, infrastructure, services and citizens are connected to maximize efficiency. For example: experts in the Indian city of Chennai, which is plagued by traffic congestion, have created what may be the largest parking management system in the world.
Sensors identify empty parking spaces and upload this data to an app, which drivers then use to reserve spaces in advance. As the Internet of Things grows, and more objects and systems learn to communicate with each other, cities are likely to get smarter and smarter in ways like this.
3. Vertical building
Urban space is at a premium, but nobody wants the remaining countryside to be eaten up by development. The solution? Build upwards.
Since the early twentieth century, cities have stretched further and further towards the sky, with varying degrees of success; while many of the 1960s tower blocks in the UK and US fell into disrepair and were demolished, the high-rise landscape of Singapore’s social housing has become one of the country’s greatest sources of pride.
Done right, vertical buildings offer a solution to the mass rural-urban migration being observed on every continent.
4. Universal architecture
Robert Mace coined the term ‘universal design’ to refer to the design of products that are equally accessible to all users, regardless of their age and abilities.
The same principle – ‘universal architecture’ – is slowly being applied to buildings and public spaces, and is likely to become an essential requirement as equality legislation becomes the norm across the globe.
Cities such as Berlin and Denver have already made great strides in this area with their accessible transport networks and facilities.
Gone are the days when architects could get away with designing iconic, power-guzzling megastructures; today, two of their main goals are energy efficiency and the reduction of physical waste.
Materials are no longer selected purely for their visual impact but on the basis of their durability and carbon footprint (concrete, for example, has lately been recognised as an environmental nightmare).
As well as this, architects have begun to consider more seriously the location of their buildings. There is a growing understanding that natural areas such as forests and wetlands must be protected, with ‘infill’ – the development of former industrial areas that retain some existing infrastructure – considered preferable to building on virgin sites.
If concrete is so bad for the planet, what should we be using instead? Scientists are today developing all manner of sustainable building materials, including cross-laminated timber, chipboard made of potatoes, and insulation made of mushrooms.
Memory steel is another relatively new material that can be used to reinforce existing concrete structures, eliminating the need for demolition and rebuilding. And while most 3D printed houses are currently made of concrete, in 2021 the Italian studio MCA printed a home using clay.
Modular architecture combines multiple, independent elements to make a complete building. The elements are relocatable to allow increased flexibility and have numerous other advantages including their low cost, low energy consumption, and reduction in noise pollution.
Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower and Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 are classic examples of the genre, while ‘pop-up’ dining and entertainment spaces made of stacked shipping containers are a more recent manifestation.
Robotics and assisted robotics (in which humans and robots work together) are already changing the way we build. Architectural robots can make structural calculations and carry out physical tasks such as painting and bricklaying, saving both time and money.
So does this mean human architects will be out of a job by the 2070s? Probably not. While construction workers may be vulnerable to the changes brought about by robotics, the creative work of architecture is something AI may never be fully capable of replicating.
The future for architects: will they be needed?
Architects will almost certainly still be needed in the future, but perhaps in fewer numbers than they are today.
In the same way that BIM and other software has eliminated the need for dedicated draftspeople, the technology of the future is likely to chip away at the traditional duties of the architect.
Students of the discipline may soon be spending less time at the drawing board and more time learning about maximizing user experience and efficiency.
How else might the profession change over the next few decades? Some commentators have predicted that medium-sized practices could die out completely. Others have suggested that architects will start to be employed as aesthetic experts in multidisciplinary, in-house teams at companies who manage the entire building process.
Young architects will need to pay close attention to these kinds of changes, and ensure that their approach and skill set are updated accordingly.
Factors that are changing the architectural profession
What else will young architects need to take into account as they enter the field? All of the following factors are likely to impact the architectural profession over the next few years.
So-called ‘BuildTech’ – technology that aims to make design and building more efficient, such as 3D printing, drones, VR or AR – is no doubt simplifying architecture and shortening timelines in ways that benefit clients.
The flipside of this, however, is that some job losses are inevitable, and architects will always be scrambling to keep up to date.
Nobody is yet sure what the long-term economic effects of Covid-19 will be. Previous recessions have reduced the need for commercial and retail building, and the current downturn is unlikely to be any different.
Add to this a previously unseen, widespread acceptance of homeworking, and it seems probable that the type and number of new buildings will become more limited for a time.
There is no getting away from the fact that recession also leads to unemployment. Struggling firms will be forced to streamline and, as discussed above, technological advances have already reduced the number of positions available in the profession.
The high cost of architecture degrees may also put off Gen Z students who have fewer economic advantages than the generations that came before them.
If young people can’t afford to qualify, and rapidly advancing technology is pushing out older architects trained in more traditional methods, who exactly will be populating the field? Your colleagues of the future may be a more homogenous bunch than they used to be!
Many cities in the global North have been hollowed out by internet shopping and services, by the broader move to a service economy, and by homeworking.
These former hotbeds of architectural innovation can now be rather strange places. In future, rather than coming up with striking new buildings, one of the main challenges for architects may be thinking what to do with a raft of abandoned urban structures.
The pandemic showed how remote, digital working was not only possible but frequently beneficial for architects – so the chances of a return to long commutes seem pretty slim.
In future, our co-workers may be avatars for at least half the time; we may never meet clients face-to-face at all; and recruitment may not be limited by geographical location.
A look back: how has architecture changed already?
Comparing, say, the Pyramid of Djoser and the Burj Khalifa, it is obvious how buildings have changed over time. But what about the architectural profession? What new directions has it taken in this millennium?
Some of the most obvious changes in living memory include a move away from drafting to CAD and later BIM; a new focus on the adaptive reuse of historic, especially industrial buildings (think of Tate Modern or Battersea Power Station in London); and a foregrounding of environmental and sustainability issues.
The latter, in particular, has impacted the profession in all kinds of ways, from the curricula of architecture degrees – which today are far more interdisciplinary – to the cost, appearance and feel of buildings themselves.
What are the career opportunities in architecture?
If you’re worried that architecture has a shaky future, remember that there are lots of other careers you can enter with an architecture degree.
Graduates might opt to practice in another design field (graphic, industrial, landscape and many more); to go into surveying, planning or conservation; to write about architecture; to teach; or to engage in activism related to the built environment.
The wide variety of skills you learn as an architecture student will never be wasted.
Will architects be needed in the future?
Architects will almost certainly be needed in the future, but in fewer numbers. The kind of work we do may also be different, thanks to technological advancements such as BIM, 3D printing and augmented reality.
Is architecture a dying profession?
It’s better to think of it as a changing profession than a dying one! Architecture is no different from other fields such as medicine and education which are changing dramatically as the world moves online.
In 50 years’ time there will still be buildings, and jobs connected to them – they just won’t be the same as those of our parents or grandparents’ generation.
Despite what the naysayers may tell you, architecture is not on the brink of obsolescence.
There may perhaps be fewer opportunities, and the role of an architect may change significantly in line with technological developments, but for the foreseeable future people will need places to work, rest and play that are protected from the elements.
Nobody would deny that change is unsettling, but it can also keep professionals on their toes in a positive way. If you’re a true creative – one who can adapt and even thrive while circumstances change – architecture is likely to be as rewarding a career as it ever was.