The architectural profession and its journals, publications and prizes tend to focus on architecture’s value as built artifact. The corollary to this is that the unbuilt has less or no value, or at best that it comes in a poor second place. This binary is a consequence of a professional body of knowledge that focuses on buildings alone and that arguably misrepresents the fuller dimensions of our practice. Rather than exposing the broader knowledges that go into architectural production, it commodifies the notion of “building” as object. Consequently, what architects actually “do” at work is often undervalued by the public and there is a mismatch between the public’s perceptions of an architect’s work and what it is that architects actually believe they are doing. And if architecture is diminished to a narrow bandwidth in which the labour and expertise of the architect is collapsed into three-dimensional form alone, then the two-dimensional expression of that form, as epitomized by CGI renders, is allowed to dominate. The spectacle of the architectural render becomes a lens through which our discipline is framed, arguably stripping it of all except taste and aesthetics. Worryingly, the profession often actually promotes its services using these same principles – for example, through the architectural competition and its presentation boards. Not surprisingly, the real value of architecture is therefore poorly understood and we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be represented through global architectural competitions and on redevelopment hoardings as a pure commodity.

Rather than seeing architecture from the outside as object, we need to understand it as a form of production, from within

Returning to architecture’s value and the binary of built and unbuilt, establishing our value(s) across a richer matrix of knowledge exchange and production is critical to restoring the ethical relevance of the profession. Practically speaking, it’s also timely because current existential challenges present in the climate emergency have brought forward the need for systemic change – for paradigm shifts, even – in how we use cities. Bizarrely, the current pandemic has prototyped some of these changes, including reduced mobility, the reconsideration of the workplace, the repurposing of the home, and localized and distributed production.

Ironically, reassembling a more robust architectural engagement in material production, and reasserting the role of the practitioner as a protagonist, would provide the connective ties back to the material, technical and tectonic dimensions of our environment – but this time with a clear ethical mission that allows agency and leadership in the face of challenge.