The October 2012 issue of ARCHITECT magazine(1) included an opinion piece by Aaron Betsky(2) entitled “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?” In the article, Betsky contends architects seem more interested in protecting the status of their profession than in promoting the cause of good architecture. He questions the validity of professional licensure and whether restricting usage of the title “architect” makes sense when, in his words, “most buildings in this country are not designed by architects, and it is becoming easier and easier for laypeople to buy computer programs or to hire-in expertise that allows them to design buildings.” Fundamentally, he dismisses the need for title protection at all, suggesting instead that it is too difficult to define with exactitude and measure by examination what architects do. For him, both confining the practice of architecture to those who have secured licensure and the process by which it is achieved are anachronistic.
Predictably, many architects took umbrage with Mr. Betsky’s essay. One online respondent characterized his position as “reprehensible” and “disgusting.” Others, including two of my favorite bloggers—Liz O’Sullivan and Lee Calisti—were more measured in rebuttal.
Liz pointed out that title protection plays a vital, fundamental role in protecting consumers from unqualified practitioners. The use of certain protected titles and phrases informs consumers that the individual is regulated, has undergone a certain level of scrutiny, and is qualified to practice under state law. She averred that the basics must come first and that licensure is a basic requirement for the practice of architecture.
Lee also cares about who is a licensed architect, undoubtedly for the same good reasons Liz and I do; however, he hinted at a bigger issue to be dealt with beyond titles, names and territories. I suspect the elephant in the room is the public’s absence of an appreciation for what architects bring to the table. In Lee’s mind, addressing this issue just might heal some of these other sores.
The current president of the American Institute of Architects also weighed in. Jeff Potter, FAIA acknowledged that dedicated unlicensed individuals make positive contributions to the built environment; additionally though, he pointed out that everyone benefits from individuals who resolve and are willing to be fully accountable through a professional commitment reflected in licensure. Directly challenging Betsky’s stance, he made the case that the community of architects and design professionals would be better served by a focused discussion on how to encourage more people to become architects and to pursue licensure.
I’m guessing (hoping) that Aaron Betsky’s intentions are coming from the right place, which is that the profession should aspire to more than simply achieving minimal levels of competence. Too much bad design has been perpetrated under the banner of licensed architects. Regardless, the title of his piece and his general thesis are unfortunate. Our profession has been attacked from all corners in recent years and as a consequence has lost much of its authority and respect. Betsky’s column doesn’t help matters by suggesting that licensure (and the comprehensive education and training it entails) should be challenged as beside the point when the reality is it is more relevant to the complexities of modern practice than ever before. It’s bad enough the profession is under assault from non-architects who wish to break down its walls. That ARCHITECT chose to uncritically publish Betsky’s essay is even more regrettable. Erosion from within our ranks is hardly the remedy for what ails architecture today.
I sit squarely in the camp of those who believe achieving stature as an architect through a strictly defined and demanding process of education, internship, and examination is essential to the identity of our profession. Professional licensure is necessary to help ensure the life, safety, and welfare of the public. However, I also have my own, somewhat selfish reason for believing the title of architect deserves protection. That reason was and is my need for self-actualization and fulfillment.
I committed to and successfully navigated the gauntlet of architecture school, internship, and licensing examinations so that I could be sanctioned as an architect by the State of Oregon.(3) My entire life up to that point was directed toward that goal. Professional licensure conferred upon me a level of societal respect and a stature largely unavailable to non-architects. That respect and stature, diminished though it may be now, was important to me and my ego. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, I wanted to become everything I was capable of becoming. That meant being a licensed architect. As an architect I would also enjoy room for continued growth and fulfillment that would grant me the desire and motivation to pursue further ambitions.
Today, being able to claim professional status as an architect is central to my sense of self. I’m pretty sure I am not alone among my colleagues in this regard. I do not wish to see the title of architect further cheapened by those who fail to understand how important it is to ensure its good standing in the eyes of the public. Unfortunately, Aaron Betsky’s dismissive attitude toward professional licensure points in the wrong direction and only reinforces the belief of some that controlling entry into the profession is elitist and unnecessary. Worse yet, it brings into question what it means to be an architect. I’d hate to see a day come when a young person fails to even understand what architects are responsible for and why they are necessary, disqualifying by default the possibility of enjoying a rewarding career devoted to architecture.
I knew I wanted to become an architect when I was eleven; the path toward self-actualization that was laid before me then was clear and I never wavered from it. I believe the architectural profession can regain a similar clarity of purpose but only if it preserves its identity. I’m hopeful that its ongoing existential crisis will be resolved by the expression and activation of all our profession’s capacities. When and if that happens, architects will once again realize their vast potential, secure the profession’s relevancy, and underscore the value of licensure.
(1) ARCHITECT is the official publication of the American Institute of Architects.”Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect” appeared both in ARCHITECT's print and online versions.
(2) Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and the author of more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design. He is not a licensed architect (although his Wikipedia page stated he was until someone corrected the entry).
(3) In point of fact, I first became a licensed architect in British Columbia, in 1985. It wasn’t until my move to Eugene in 1988 that I would become registered in Oregon.