Master of None

An Opinion Piece by Monica Tușinean


«Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.»

Greene, 1592

«Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.»

Greene, 1592

«Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.»

Greene, 1592

«Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.»

Greene, 1592

«Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.»

Greene, 1592

Master Of None

Architecture has a way of undergoing cyclical paradigm shifts, responsive and reactionary as it is to societal, environmental, and political tumult. Palpable tremors are once again spreading through the profession, and one particular manifestation of practitioners' general insecurity and discontent is the profound questioning of our epistemic base.

Far from being the chief builder, the arki tekton of antiquity made flesh, most discerning architects today are perpetually confronted with their ineptitude in the face of ever-escalating emergencies and the growing complexity of the meta-modern world (pun intended). Young architects increasingly find themselves drawn to become hyper-specialized in particular adjacent fields, be it out of genuine interest or the need to feel in control and legitimately knowledgeable about at least one fraction of the profession. This quest, while laudable, is often met with opposition from employers and derided amongst peers.

The Other Education Issue

Architecture schools should instil a desire for autodidactic knowledge and maintain, at least for a while, a belief in a meritocracy [Rhowbotham, 2012]. This being said, higher education will often leave young practitioners painfully unqualified for the job; the issue is not exclusive to architecture and has been acknowledged by a plethora of institutions that aim to prepare graduates for their professional lives with no satisfactory resolution as of yet [Chamorro-Premuzic &  Frankiewicz, 2019]. It bears interrogating whether academic education toward a fulfilling, useful profession should produce highly skilled, specialised, and efficient workers or well-rounded critical thinkers with the cognitive tools to tackle a world in perpetual flux - this is a conversation for another time.

Of course, architects are expected and encouraged to educate themselves continuously, and in many countries where licensing is required, courses and exams accompany them into professional adulthood. Several architect associations require their members to attend additional training classes ranging from grifts to genuinely beneficial seminars. However, for the purpose of this piece, these courses are not particularly relevant. This essay will instead focus on the education licensed architects pursue beyond the necessary requirements for their profession.

Why take on continued education?

Due to reasons that will become clear in a few paragraphs, it appears that the only way to achieve intellectual autonomy and some control over one’s means of production is still owning a private bureau at significant personal and financial risk.  As of 2021, a staggering number of owners of architecture offices in Germany counted a single employee - themselves [Statista, 2021]; when one considers how difficult, time-consuming, and demanding the profession is, a single-person enterprise carrying the weight of construction projects of any scale seems unreasonable, so it is no wonder that with a new understanding of labour and the architect as worker [Deamer, 2020], alongside a perpetually increasing risk of litigation and an often gloomy economic outlook [Malleson, 2023], some prefer to sacrifice their hopes of being intellectually and creatively independent and opt instead for an iota of professional and financial safety.

Apart from an increasingly demanding professional environment, where small offices find it hard to find work and survive, only a few graduates have the financial and social capital [Claridge, 2015] at their disposal to set up a functioning practice. This struggle is paradoxically a good sign, indicating that architecture is no longer an elitist endeavour [Tirupathi, 2023] pursued almost exclusively by the privileged children of industry barons, academics, or other architects. Moreover, despite the prevailing myth that the only valid way of being an architect is by running one’s private practice, an increasing number of architects are drawn, remain, or return to employment. Roughly 60% of architects in Germany are working in offices they don’t themselves own, and the number is reported to be rising [Angestellte und Beamtete – Bundesarchitektenkammer E.V.].

Nevertheless, the intrinsic need for intellectual autonomy remains. So, the more critical or the more curious employees will eventually strive to continue their education, ideally in a quantifiable and structured manner. While the scope of any further training should be the improvement of one’s professional practice, many architects who embark on the path of gaining additional knowledge also do so with better career and wage options in mind. They might even try to find some sense of empowerment by gaining further expertise in their field. Like that first post-education awakening, many soon find that their new, additional degrees do not bring the expected benefits.
A while back, KNTXTR ran a poll and an open conversation through Instagram Stories at the behest of an architect inquiring about education opportunities. From the roughly 500 participants who answered the question on where they stood regarding the process of pursuing further courses, 19% were either in the process of or had graduated from a course, 70% responded that they are planning on pursuing continued education, and merely 11% claimed not to need any further qualifications.

A singular online poll is far from being methodologically solid. However, it is still conducive to extracting a general sense that a significant percentage of architects today are at least considering their current education lacking or feel the need to enhance their professional skills further. A particular response to the KNXTR inquiry from an employed architect also highlighted that while they are an exam short of graduating from an MBA program, their employer will not validate their expertise with a wage increase, which sheds some light on the issue of why a lot of well-intentioned, motivated and intellectually curious architects ultimately feel discouraged from gaining skills that would arguably improve their job performance.

Moreover, the KNTXTR replies suggested that one great realisation upon completing additional qualification programs was just how unprofessional projects were run in their respective places of employment. One often hears this complaint: that rapidly growing boutique offices stubbornly maintain a troubling degree of negligence and inefficiency, much to the detriment of employees whose suggestions for improvement are being repeatedly dismissed. This leads to frustrated architects regularly performing unpaid overtime due to an accumulation of inefficient or antiquated business and project management practices. The knock-on effect of these inefficiencies is that workers are always too short on time to work on expanding their skills - a vicious cycle emerges.

Despite an increased offer for additional accreditations and education for licensed architects that the KNXTR poll responses also showcased, we are not seeing an increase in practices with a diversified pool of experienced architects, but instead, more splintering of practitioners into groups of hyper-specialized experts who seem to be at odds with each other, having long departed from the unifying cloak of a shared profession. In short, architects do take on continued education but, once they graduate, depart from traditional architecture offices.
Additional qualifications are often pursued in architects’ spare time or as overtime compensation. It should be noted that some courses are little more than scams run by degree mills, but there are numerous offers for quality programs that are well worth the investment. Many,  however, are prohibitively expensive, requiring money and time that young architects rarely have, and very few are financially supported by the companies that employ them. A notable exception is more prominent corporate offices that build up specialised departments or consulting branches within their structures, actively subsidising their employees’ further education courses. Still, those offices comprise a small percentage of companies overall.
Several conversations were held to better understand the views of medium-sized architecture firms on their employees pursuing further education or specialisation. All architects interviewed for this essay have asked not to be named for fear of inviting conflict. The writing, however, is on the wall: The overarching sentiment seems to be that conventional architects, to put it bluntly, do not value workers who seek to upgrade their credentials. Hence, several architects who seek out continued education eventually end up not working in design practices anymore but taking advantage of various opportunities in consulting or the construction industry. These workers are thereby becoming increasingly removed from architectural practice, and this, in turn, dramatically damages the profession: specialised experts are not involved in or at the very least in contact with the interlaced intricate aspects of the design and construction process, but instead are invited to give isolated advice that fails to consider the complexity of the subjects they so briefly interact with. This is hardly sustainable and creates conflict and misunderstanding amongst actors who can only succeed if they collaborate.
The fact that so many bureau founders do not support or encourage their employees to gain complementary skills works to the detriment of the companies: having an experienced person in-house who can be briefed quickly on a matter and who knows and speaks the language of the office or someone who can give insights on proper project management while knowing the informal working systems that operate within a team is invaluable. One would argue that it is precisely the smaller and moderate-sized practices that would profit from such a highly adept, creative and empowered workforce.
This begs the question: Where does many companies’ opposition toward the continued education of architectural workers stem from?
While it would be an easy and very low blow to blame it all on architects’ god complexes [Joyner, 2023] and narcissism (which are both prevalent and endemic in the profession), one should perhaps interrogate what other internalised preconceptions can move an office owner to work against their practice’s best interest.
Architects are still being taught that they are to be lone universal geniuses [Riccardo M., 2015], equally versed in philosophy and the arts as they are in technology and expert craftsmanship - ever so often, we have heard of the master architect who, once on site, managed to school and impress even the most experienced craftspeople with his practical savviness. This translates into arrogance and carelessness toward manual construction labour and on-site workers [Perison, 2023] and finds its roots in a long tradition, as Douglas Spencer argues: “Effectively deskilled, those responsible for construction found their labour remotely directed, through newly invented techniques of ‘thinking, drawing and model-making,’ by a professional class assuming superior status over them” [Spencer, 2023]. Paradoxically, while less egregious, a similar disregard is also aimed at academics, particularly non-building heretics, who can occasionally be found holding doctoral degrees and editing public relations blurbs for renowned architects between attending conferences and sending out grant applications.

The default architect we have thus collectively constructed is a self-employed (and self-important) dilettante, taking delight, as the etymology of the word suggests, in the finer aspects of the profession, “with no real commitment or knowledge” [Oxford Languages, 2024] hovering complacently above other professionals of the same industry.
Of course, we have seen several design enterprises emerge and successfully break this mould, departing from the paternalistic hierarchies [Khadilkar & Jagtap, 2021] of yore, thoughtful and engaged young collectives that explore synergies between disciplines that the profession has neglected. However,  the other side of the fresh young architecture coin holds a more disappointing truth: “Brand ‘Young Architecture’ is perilously close to becoming shorthand for a privileged clique purveying minor and pop-up buildings, instantly and uncritically published in a sycophantic hype-driven by individualism, consumerism and an obsession with youth, in a way that increasingly apes the fashion industry” [Harper, 2015]. Caution and critical perspective are advised even when hailing the so-called “radical alternatives” to the establishment, as Manuel Shvartzberg argues: “Beyond old and worn categories such as the modern master architect and the post-modern pluralist, the neoliberal subject is politically and socially complex and contradictory. They often have a collectivist disposition but are far from being anarchic or anti-capitalist” [Shvartzberg, 2015]. If either of these practitioners fail to acknowledge the intrinsic inequity of the profession and their complicity in it, we can take no solace in the hope that the arrogant master auteur will become a dying breed  - despite the architecture community’s best intentions.
All this being said, the prevailing reality for most employed architects is the continuous confrontation with an anachronistic view of the occupation and a (perceived) inability to imagine another working model from within a dysfunctional system.
Despite the aforementioned rise of collaborative practices [Boldt, 2023] to the forefront of professional discourse, authorship still reigns supreme [Grandorge, 2021]. Many architects still choose their employers by the magnitude of their founding fathers’ myth rather than acknowledging that the buildings they admire are produced through the intense joint efforts of numerous anonymous but equally brilliant actors.  Meanwhile, many mid-range firm directors prefer offering entry-level and poorly remunerated jobs to young and inexperienced architects. While this is not objectionable, it hints at the problematic attitude towards worker skills mentioned previously.
As one office owner who shall remain unnamed said, “The ideal employee has between three and eight years work experience. Enough not to require babysitting, but not so much that they think they know better”. So, it is unsurprising that fully-fledged architecture professionals may find it hard to find lucrative employment outside large corporate practices and industry giants. Another more presentable argument often cited is that highly trained employees demand to be paid better and that the office cannot afford those wages. To this, dear reader, I should only answer that if an office is unable to provide fair pay to their workers according to their level of education and expertise, it is due to poor management - and that it is precisely this fault line where someone with know-how in the matter would provide a solution - provided they were being listened to. “Creativity and design are at the heart of the added value architects bring, but we could certainly be more creative with the way we operate our businesses” [Coffrey, 2018].
Let us now return to the profession’s imaginaries and a gentler view of the ones who have had the good faith, the aptitudes and the grit to venture into professional independence.
Fixation on authorship might have its roots in the struggle mentioned above for autonomy, which drives architects toward significant risk and financial and personal sacrifices - many are choosing self-employment or setting up their own ventures because their former bosses would not grant them any creative or intellectual leeway. In turn, having fought so hard to gain an iota of agency, they will hold on to it for dear life.
Finally, the fallacy also lies in the belief that vertical promotions, in this case from employed architect to business owner, are more valuable than horizontal ones [Craig, 2016]. “Vertical career growth means focusing on getting a promotion so you can attain your next job title.  On the other hand, horizontal career moves centre around creating value for you and your company by increasing your knowledge” [Daisy, 2018] - translating this into architecture takes us to the subsequent realisation: why a lot of extraordinary architects are, in fact, rather mediocre leaders and managers. The system of vertical promotion steers everyone toward continuously climbing the success ladder up to the point where they are functioning at the exact limit of, or even beyond, their capabilities, i.e. on the brink of incompetence and burnout, instead of thriving in a role they can excel at.
As is often the case, the solution lies in profoundly questioning our beliefs about ourselves and the profession. Suppose we accept interdisciplinarity and a collaborative, diverse work environment where every worker is encouraged to find and nurture their expertise while still being part of design-driven practice, and detach our thinking of architecture from singular virtuoso masters, the profession might become ever so slightly more equitable and beneficial for workers and clients alike. So the plea is simple: for architects to allow their employees’ curiosity to evolve into proficiency which is valued and integrated into business structures and design processes and to untether creative and professional emancipation from neoliberal individualism.


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Monica Tușinean studied architecture at the University ‘Ion Mincu’ Bucharest and Universität Stuttgart where she graduated with distinction. The thesis "Wastelands" was shortlisted for the Baunetz Campus Masters awards. Since her graduation she has practiced architecture with Lederer Ragnarsdóttir Oei Architekten and Schleicher Ragaller Architekten. She has worked as a scientific assistant at the Universität Stuttgart and is currently a lecturer and scientific assistant at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie with a focus on adaptive re-use design processes. From 2019 onward she has been conducting her doctorate at the Technische Universität Berlin within the ‘Programm Entwurfsbasierte Promotion’ (programme for design based doctorates). Her research is practice and design based and focuses on non invasive approaches towards the transformation of industrial heritage.
Website: monica-tusinean.com
Instagram: @monica_tusinean
Images: © Monica Tușinean
Essay: kntxtr, kb, 03/2024