The architect’s role in society
Architecture and Society: Role and Relevance
The critical question of the architects’ role and relevance in society was put under the spotlight at the Association of Ethiopian Architects’ 18th Annual Convention and Exhibition held at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa on the 19th and 20th of August.
Chaired by Brook Tefera, architect and managing partner at BIGAR Architecture + Engineering + Urban Design, the ‘Architecture and Society’ panel comprised Dr Zegeye Cherenet, chair of Architecture and Design at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development at Addis Ababa University (EiABC-AAU); Amanuel Teshome, architect at ATK Building Investments and Chair of Project Management at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development; and visiting speaker Mphethi Morojele, founding partner and director at MMA Architects in Johannesburg.
Tefera contextualised the discussion with reference to a rapidly urbanising population and the related demands for housing, infrastructure and social amenities; the reality of climate change; and the pressures that African architects are currently experiencing in meeting market demands from both the public and private sectors.
The discussion was opened by Morojele, who reminded the audience that architects are trained in a very particular manner that is unlike any other discipline as it embraces the artistic and creative fields, the human sciences and behaviour, and the field of science and technology. So, as designers, cultural workers and technologists, we possess the unique ability to synthesize different situations and problems and be solution driven in our outlook.
Referring to the extraordinary change that has taken place in South African society in the last twenty two years, Morojele observed that the role of the architect has been expanded and reinvented to include the design of spatial practices and processes, where practitioners are now actively involved in putting project briefs together, finding funding, and getting different players to work together as an integral part of a project’s design.
He said, “As cultural workers and spatial practitioners involved in the creation of the designed environment, we need to go backwards to understand our heritage in order to project where we are going in the future. As our societies transform politically, socially and culturally, we are almost at the forefront of trying to imagine what our future could be, based on an understanding of our past. When we talk about society, our clients – including government, business, communities and now also the environment – pull us in different directions. So we have a critical role in terms of understanding our identity and who we are as a people.”
Cherenet then posed the notion of intention, offering his definition of architecture as the structuring of the physical environment and space in order for life to flourish. In this context, ‘structuring’ is not an abstract way of thinking but an act of work and production; ‘space’ is both the resource that all living things share on our planet and the substance that architects are trained to structure; and ‘life’ comprises individual and collective formations, where society evolves from the expansion of individual existence into the collective dimension.
“Where architects are responsible for managing and structuring the basic resource for life to flourish, this considerable responsibility makes us the most burdened of all the disciplines,” he said. “Ultimately, it is my responsibility to define why I do what I do. So, if my definition is to structure the physical environment for life to flourish, then I put myself in a particular context that demands my response. I believe that the architect must position himself to respond to a particular context through continuous repositioning.”
Believing that the question of the role of the architect needs to be contextualised, Teshome then proposed that architects today cannot have a universal role, and that the practice of architecture is dependent on region. Accordingly, in contemplating the role of an Ethiopian architect, he voiced the opinion that an architect should be the servant of society. “We are graced with the opportunity to think three-dimensionally with the end in mind, and with the ability to shape our contexts – that is the service we owe society.”
Citing the example of Columbian architect, Oscar Mendez, Teshome challenged the audience to think of society as more than just the client who signs the cheque, but rather to find payment in serving society by being innovative, by addressing the real needs of those not able to pay for services, and by considering the environment. He said, “Our cities are our works. So, when one reads Addis, we have to ask: what does our city say about our practice?
“The way that we practice today seems to tell us that we are looking down the road to irrelevance – our practice is at a at dangerous crossroads where society may begin to look elsewhere for solutions. We need to work our way around just the clients who pay. We need to look for new skills to continue to make us relevant. It is critical to increase our competence to reposition ourselves in order to influence decision makers and not just be used as the tools of clients. Maybe we should even venture out into developing our own properties – by becoming our own clients, we can create examples of better products for society.”
Acknowledging a rapidly commercialising world where even politics has become easily subjected to the forces of the market, Cherenet proposed three avenues through which architects can remain relevant – by constantly updating ourselves through debates and conversations; by regrouping to form multidisciplinary groups of professionals who complement each other; and by actively using our associations to create systems to promote ideas around space – in other words, reorganising ourselves in order to reposition ourselves.
Morojele’s final remarks picked up on the positive energy of the event. “In this situation of rapid development in Africa where we have a fluid situation, architects can find ways of operating beyond the limits of the client’s brief. We can begin to define and initiate projects. I would encourage young architects to look beyond waiting for a prospective client’s phone call to actually expanding their knowledge to identify people’s needs and problems, and proactively develop solutions.
“Every time I take part in a conversation like this, I come away feeling positive about the passion that we have as a committed profession that cares about society beyond ourselves. Our work is visual so it’s easy for us to demonstrate the realities we talk about. Through discussions like this, we begin to create a culture through dialogue, disseminating information and sharing ideas – and that is how we become a relevant voice within society.”
The two-day Annual Convention and Exhibition was well attended by Ethiopian architects and students, and included the Association’s Annual General Meeting and formal proceedings, additional panel discussions on ‘Architecture Process and Practice in Ethiopia’ and ‘Architecture and Education in Ethiopia’; and a parallel Bureau meeting of the Africa Union of Architects (AUA).
If you would like to listen to the full podcast of the Panel discussion, please click here.

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