Until the financial crisis,the quantity and quality of new architecture in Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands was recognised internationally. Simon Smithson, Don Murphy and Paul Keogh report on how each country is adapting to changed circumstances.

From left: Simon Smithson, Don Murphy, Paul Keogh

Simon Smithson on Spain

These are tumultuous times for the profession in Spain but it seems too early to divine how the upheavals will change the profession or the individual. What makes ‘el crisis’ different to your run-of-the-mill downturn is the extremity of the change in circumstances; we have gone from a time when every town and city seemed hell-bent on acquiring a new museum or conference centre, a revitalised Plaza Mayor or Calle Mayor, to a period when one senses nothing new might get built for some while.

The oft-mentioned real estate boom was most exaggerated in the housing sector where only a short time ago more houses were being built per annum in Spain than in the rest of the EU put together. I suspect similarly striking comparisons could be made with public buildings. Basically more of everything has been built by local politicians convinced that bricks and mortar would see them re-elected. The wonderful thing is that the historic centres of most Spanish cities are now in better shape than perhaps at any time in history – a visit to Vitoria or Seville leaves the typical English architect green with envy at the breadth of the ambition. One asks oneself, however, ‘Is there anything left for us to do?’, at least in the foreseeable future.

I have no hard data to back up my estimates but most colleagues I talk to arrive at a very similar conclusion – that up to 70 per cent of architects in Spain might be out of work. The recent overbuild together with the global slump and serious levels of national debt are obviously the key determinants of this extraordinary turn of events, but other things have contributed to the cataclysmic employment situation. Until recently most Spanish offices operated with very few architects working on fixed contracts. Most were ‘self employed’, thus saving the offices money, not least by avoiding the very expensive consequences of layoffs (redundancy payments are five times higher than in the UK). There are historic reasons for this anomaly including the fact that most architects (like doctors and lawyers) did not contribute to the national social security system but paid into their own professional insurance schemes. Nevertheless the set-up was probably abusive, both of the social security system and of the individual.

To exacerbate the situation many architects relied heavily on the free or almost free labour of students – typically for competitions. This held down costs but probably also helped hold down fees. After many years of trying gently to prod the profession to tidy up its act, the government finally lost patience (in retrospect its timing could not have been worse coming on the heels of the slump) and gave architects six months to regularise the situation. I attended an extraordinary meeting in Madrid where three lawyers from the Ministry of Employment read the riot act to the assembled profession: give your staff contracts or we will bust you.

Similar upheavals have changed the educational landscape and under the much-discussed Plan Bologna, which regularises higher education across Europe, students now entering the schools of architecture should be through in six years instead of the previous ‘average’ of eleven. This, one suspects, will also affect offices; one wonders whether the old system was just too convenient for many teachers who were also practicing architects and could tap into a pool of free labour.

These are exciting times if you are lucky enough to have work – and overwhelming if you don’t. So what are our colleagues doing faced with such dire employment conditions? Many older ones talk of retiring while others (young and not so young) have enrolled in master’s degrees, presumably funded by families – the traditional Spanish safety net.

Many others are seeking opportunities abroad and this again is a traditional response: huge numbers of Spaniards went abroad in search of better opportunities in past periods of economic downturn, most recently after the Civil War.

And some, concerned that the good times will never return, look to reinvent themselves in other lines of business – restaurants and shops seem to be popular choices. In the past many Spaniards held down more than one job and this pattern seems to returning, the Spanish being particularly adept at improvisation.

One thing is for certain: the generation educated before Plan Bologna has been around the block once or twice and, with mechanisms for surviving hard times not too distant a memory, it may be that our colleagues in Spain are better equipped than most to ride out the storm.

Simon Smithson is a partner in Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, and heads its Madrid office, where his projects have included the city’s new Barajas airport.

The notorious 'ghost town' Cuidad Valdeluz in Guadalajara, a development intended to accommodate 30,000 people, was abandoned incomplete at the end of Spain's construction boom with a population of just 1200 (ph: Pierre Andrieux)

Don Murphy on The Netherlands

Since the early 90s the Netherlands has been seen as a Mecca for architects. Pilgrims have come from all over the world to experience the wonders that have been erected: experiments in social housing, extensions to cities, the transformation of historic docklands and the building of new islands. Countless new schools, libraries, theatres and office complexes have been built over the last two decades.

Many young architecture students came for internships and more arrived to work. A Canadian friend once said to me ‘If you want to be an actor you go to Hollywood; if you want to be an architect you go to the Netherlands’. I would even risk stating that the Netherlands has had the most ‘starchitects’ per head in the world: Rem Koolhaas, Ben van Berkel, MVRDV, Wiel Arets, West 8 – the list could go on.

The interest in architecture goes back a long way in the Netherlands. The state has always played an active role, but since the beginning of the 90s has chosen to take a less active role in the building market. Instead it has provided grants to help young architects set up their own practices, subsidies to cover the costs of their monographs, finance for research projects, debates and documentaries. Many cities boast architecture-cafes, mini-museums where public debates can be held. The Netherlands Architectural Institute (NAi) must be one of the largest museums dedicated solely to architecture anywhere.

In the summer of 2008 there were reports that the unemployment of architects in Ireland was running at 40 per cent. I thought that was unimaginable in the Netherlands, but by October with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers things also changed dramatically here.

It started with the so-called ‘kopersstaking’ (buyers’ strike). Within days of the collapse people stopped buying houses. In the first instance the social housing corporations seemed willing to take over projects from developers but they were relying for their finance from selling older stock, which soon ran into problems. The municipalities, which were the main commissioners of public building, stopped their activities when the government made cutbacks to reduce debts incurred by rescuing the banks.

What made things more complicated was that a lot of municipalities were major landowners and generated large parts of their income by selling land to developers for housing and offices, in which there is now very little interest, with millions of square metres of office space lying empty. Due to this stalemate, instead of creating employment projects, like in earlier crises, the state did not consider architectural and cultural activities a priority.

In a very short time there was little work left. Most offices shrank by half, and the architectural nomads moved on or went home. The stars have been able to find work in the emerging markets and for some of us that are still here there are bits and pieces to do. Previously a typical project would have been 150 dwellings; now a project of 15 houses is seen as substantial. Projects are regularly put on hold before they have even started. The future looks very uncertain. It feels like owning a classic car – you are never sure if it will start in the morning, or get you from A to B.

All hope, though, is not lost for the architectural tourists – there is still plenty to see and we have a lot more time to show you around.

Don Murphy was born in Ireland and set up VMX Architects in Amsterdam in 1995 after a competition win. Recent work includes a new terminal at Schipol airport, schools and housing.

Battery Court, Longford, from the series Ghost Estates by Swiss-Irish photographer Valérie Anex, which documents abandoned construction projects in Ireland.

Paul Keogh on Ireland

In September last the Irish construction industry recorded its fiftieth month of decline. From a peak of 250,000 jobs and € 18bn turnover in 2007, it has fallen to an estimated 100,000 jobs and € 7bn in 2011. Construction has accounted for almost half the total job losses in the economy, with consequential impacts on every area of Irish life.

While the number of registered architects has remained at around 2600, approximately 13 per cent of these are currently claiming unemployment benefit, and a further 13 per cent are on the ‘financial hardship’ membership rate of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland (RIAI). There have been a number of high profile liquidations, and a straw-poll indicates that most firms are operating at about 40 per cent of their 2007 levels, both in terms of staff numbers and turnover.

On the positive side, there are strong prospects of the economy returning to growth next year, and projections that the population will grow to five million by 2021 suggest that we need up to 400,000 new homes, plus schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. Ironically, despite widespread media cries that ‘we built too much’, the largest boom in Ireland’s history has left the nation still facing major deficits in the quality of its built environment and public infrastructure, and this must create opportunities for architects in the medium term.

Another positive indicator is the enactment of the 2009 Government Policy on Architecture, and the 2008 Building Control Act designating the RIAI as the state’s registration body for architects. Both are official recognition of the importance of architecture in Ireland, particularly the GPA’s stated objective to have ‘architectural quality as the cornerstone of national policy on the built environment’.

However, the struggles facing practices simply trying to stay afloat are evident in the suicidal cycle of below-cost fee tendering for the few public commissions that exist. A typical anecdotal report is that the fee tendered to secure a recent school project was based on all members of the practice taking salary cuts of up to 50 per cent, and working over 50 hours a week to get the job done and keep the practice alive.

Not surprisingly, procurement featured prominently in the recent RIAI annual conference, Riding out the Storm – Survival, Renewal and Recovery. The point was made forcibly to the government ministers present that acceptance of a race-to-the-bottom fee tendering culture is unsustainable – economically and socially – and that it is contrary to the Policy on Architecture’s objective for government to be ‘an exemplary client committed to quality in every aspect of building procurement’.

As president of the RIAI, I have received representations regarding dubious employment practices from graduates and younger architects working long hours for little or no salary. I have written to practices to express my disapproval of these breaches of employment legislation and the RIAI Code of Conduct. We are also engaged in discussions with Government and contracting authorities to lobby for key reforms to public procurement: to use quality-based selection (QBS) processes to appoint the most appropriate and best qualified design teams; to adopt quality/ price ratios that prioritise quality; to reduce costs and administrative burdens for tendering firms and clients; to achieve a distribution of commissions among practices of various sizes, experience and capacity; and to expedite the delivery of essential public sector projects.

However, I am increasingly of the view that the solution is equally in the hands of the profession.

Architects must value their creativity and design skills, and realise that to survive, fees must be adequate to cover salaries and overheads, and profit is essential to fund research, training, competitions and suchlike. Successful outcomes depend on the allocation of sufficient time, and the commitment of staff with the training, knowledge and experience to deliver exemplary service and design excellence. If architects do not put a price on the added value which architectural quality brings to a project, how can we expect clients or the public to do so?

Paul Keogh is the founder of Dublin-based Paul Keogh Architects and the current president of the RIAI.

First published in AT223, November 2011

  1. Francois Tresfort Says:

    Excellent comment by Paul Keogh. It’s not the ‘we build to much’ paradigm that has created such a bubble burst.
    The problem is better defined by what, why, where and
    for whom , These simple parameters have become the forgotten cornerstone of so many illusionary projects Littering the landscape with meaningless ‘built to flip’ bungalows solves nothing.
    Doesn’t even make you rich anymore. Sad note is , that even if you bulldoze all the mistaken projects of the last decades you don’t get your money back.