Horizontal organization in British architecture

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From Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action:

The Royal Institute of British Architects sponsored a report on the methods of organisation in archi­tects' offices.[1] The survey team felt able to distinguish two opposite approaches to the process of design, which gave rise to very different ways of working and methods of organisation.' One was characterised by a procedure which began by the invention of a building shape and was followed by a moulding of the client's needs to fit inside this three­ dimensional preconception. The other began with an attempt to under­ stand fully the needs of the people who were to use the building around which, when they were clarified, the building would be fitted.'

For the first type, once the basic act of invention and imagination is over, the rest is easy and the architect makes decisions quickly, produces work to time and quickly enough to make a reasonable profit. 'The evidence suggests that this attitude is the predominant one in the group of offices which we found to be using a centralised type of work organi­sation, and it clearly goes with rather autocratic forms of control.' But 'the other philosophy - from user's needs to building form - makes decision making more difficult . . . The work takes longer and is often unprofitable to the architect, although the client may end up with a much cheaper building put up more quickly than he had expected. Many offices working in this way had found themselves better suited by a dispersed type of work organisation which can promote an informal atmosphere of free-flowing ideas . . .' The team found that (apart from a small 'hybrid' group of large public offices with a very rigid and hierar­chical structure, a poor quality of design, poor technical and managerial efficiency) the offices surveyed could be classed as either centralised or dispersed types. Staff turnover, which bore no relation at all to earnings, was high in the centralised offices and low or very low in the dispersed ones, where there was considerable delegation of responsibility to assis­tants, and where we found a lively working atmosphere'.

This is a very live issue among architects and it was not a young revo­lutionary architect but Sir William Pile, when he was head of the Architects and Buildings Branch of the Ministry of Education, who specified among the things he looked for in a member of the building team that 'He must have a belief in what I call the non-hierarchical organisation of the work. The work has got to be organised not on the star system but on the repertory system. The team leader may often be junior to a team member. That will only be accepted if it is commonly accepted that primacy lies with the best idea and not with the senior man.' Again from the architectural world, Walter Gropius proclaimed what he called the technique of 'collaboration among men, which would release the creative instincts of the individual instead of smothering them. The essense of such technique should be to emphasise indi­vidual freedom of initiative, instead of authoritarian direction by a boss . . . synchronising individual effort by a continuous give and take of its members...[2]

  1. RIBA, The Architect and His Office (London, 1962).
  2. Walter Gropius, an address given at the RIBA, April 1956.