Who Is an Architect?

Published 15 May 2017

Architecture has always been one of the most rapidly evolving areas of human performance. Since ancient times, and across different cultures, architecture was inevitably associated with the art of construction. With time, the products of technological development have changed the image of architecture; an architect was no longer a builder; rather, he was turning into a professional technologist and businessman. Despite the growing interest to architecture as an area of professional activity, we still lack a clear definition of who an architect is. Despite the fact that the word “architect” seems to have one semantic meaning, it is filled with numerous hidden connotations, which vary from culture to culture and make the definition of an architect as intangible as architecture itself.

Architecture vs. an Architect: the Force of Evolution

The art of architecture is inevitably associated with the art of building; but do we have the right to limit an architect’s role to that of a builder? In the course of architectural evolution, architects’ functions were never limited to building; on the contrary, architects comprised numerous roles and functions that changed under the impact of the changing social and cultural orders. “Long before the appearance of a self-identified architectural profession, most American cultures recognized some of their members as specialists with superior skills or knowledge of building, yet their roles varied from culture to culture” (Upton 247), and only by the beginning of the 18th century America has gradually approached the modern meaning of architecture as the reasonable combination of construction, management, leadership, and supervision.

The evolution of architecture symbolizes the long journey of architecture as an art of construction to architecture as business. At the beginning of the 18th century, architecture as business and science was deeply disorganized. The roles of architects varied from culture to culture; the architectural functions in urban territories were completely different from those in rural areas. Architects varied in their skills, “from small craft workers who restricted themselves to equally small building and repair jobs to large-scale contractors or ‘undertakers'” (Upton 248). Although craft organizations were called for disciplining architecture as business, professional unions lacked a single and relevant definition of architecture, and as a result, of an architect. While some were designing buildings based on their knowledge of craft, others were deeply fascinated with the art of design. Slowly but steadily, architecture was turning into a continuous line with art and science at one end, and with business and customer service at the other. By the beginning of the 20th century, architecture has finally become a profitable area of business performance.

Who is an Architect?

As we try to define the role and place of an architect in the modern structure of social and economic relations, we face the lack of appropriate criteria that could be used to produce a single and relevant definition of the architect. “Sociologists define a profession as a full-time occupation that has its own training schools, a professional organization, licensing and other forms of community recognition, a code of ethics, and the right of self-governance” (Upton 250). Taking into account the changeability of architecture across civilizations and cultures, and the changeability of the architect’s roles, the sociological definition of a profession does not leave any space for change; moreover, it borders on standardization and significantly limits the scope of the architect’s knowledge, skills, and practical obligations. Architecture is art; and art is intangible. Architecture is business; and business is subject to changes. Certainly, the segmentation of the American economy calls for the separation of handwork from headwork; in this context, the architect is gradually acquiring the features of a widely accepted and recognized profession. Simultaneously, industrialization and reorganization of labor change the traditional image of architecture, and now “like the most successful producers of consumer goods, large, centralized, corporate architectural firms offer a highly polished, high-quality, predictable product” (Upton 254). However, these economic and social winds do not change the essence of our relations with architecture: here, categorizing is equal to stereotyping, and stereotyping is inappropriate in architecture.

Evidently, the time has come when we must recognize that “like art, architecture enjoys a special status arising from its traditional role as a vehicle of social identity and from the metaphorical power of architecture as a symbolic or sign system” (Upton 255). Architecture is more than a simple profession; architecture is the language of art that cannot be defined in strict and limited terms. To be an architect actually means to be “an artistic persona with a self-conscious rhetoric of integrity, embattlement, and singularity” (Upton 265), similar to Frank Lloyd Wright who was the first to epitomize the architect. Architecture is business, and business requires professional knowledge, but architecture is more than profession. We cannot limit our understanding of architecture to the use of jatakas, “which undermine cognitive exclusivity, exposing it as a hollow pretence” (Upton 268), because architecture is both unique and exclusive. Architecture is a lifestyle, combined with academic education and practical experience. Architecture is selling one’s unique and intangible style, which is later reflected in completely tangible works of architectural art. Like “physician” or “lawyer”, the word “architect” may have one semantic vocabulary meaning; but unlike “physician” or “lawyer”, the word “architect” has multiple hidden connotations – the connotations that change under the impact of external social and cultural factors and that deprive us of a chance to produce a single, relevant, and never-changing definition of the architect.


Throughout the centuries, and across cultures, the architects’ roles were constantly changing. From being a builder and supervisor, architects have gradually turned into businessmen with sound academic knowledge and excellent leadership skills. To define an architect as a profession means to limit the scope of the architect’s roles; that is why we will hardly be able to define who the architect is. All we can do is to reconcile with the long-standing vision of architecture as a lifestyle reflected in wonderful and always unique works of architectural art.

Works Cited

  • Upton, D. “Chapter 6. Art.” In D. Upton, Architecture in the United States. Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 247-83.
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