By April 2009, James Whitaker had almost nine years' experience of studying and practising architecture. He had a job at one of the world's most prestigious practices, Heatherwick Studio, was about to take his final exams, and was enjoying London life. But it was a career built on shaky foundations. British building had been stagnating for a year, and his practice had been contracting. When two more clients put projects on hold, his firm made 10 architects redundant. Whitaker was one. The 28-year-old handed in his hard hat and joined the swelling numbers of ex-architects.
Instead of sinking into despondency, Whitaker, then an amateur photographer, decided to take pictures of fellow architects who had also been made redundant and who had turned their hand to something else. The subjects he found through word of mouth or by posting ads on design websites, paid tribute to the diverse interests and talents of his profession. Some former architects were teaching, others had gone into filmmaking. The portraits formed an exhibition, After Redundancy, which opens at RIBA in London today.
"After you've completed your degree and are beginning to accrue experience that goes towards your professional qualifications, you think that's it," says Whitaker. "You think you're going to be in the same job for the rest of your life. But I was the subject of circumstance and had to make the best of what I had."
Arguably, the recession hit architects hardest. "It's difficult to get the full picture, because there's a lot of self-employment in the sector," says Ruth Reed, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). "But we were the first and worst affected, and that has now filtered throughout the construction industry. It's because we head up the construction process. Any downturn immediately affects us. It's getting better, but there has by no means been a full recovery." According to the Office for National Statistics, November 2009 saw the third monthly decrease in the number of architects signing on. That month, there were 1,600 architects signing on. In November 2008, the number was just 480.
In February 2009, RIBA announced that 30 per cent of architects were unemployed or underemployed. "It was becoming obvious that architecture wasn't a safe profession," explains Whitaker. "Being out of work was on the cards. You'd be mad not to wonder what you would do if you were made redundant. I wouldn't have made the leap to photography if I'd had a secure job."
The architect had no trouble finding 24 subjects working in radically different fields. "It's possibly the best profession for branching out," he says. "To be an architect you have to be a jack of all trades. Photography is an easy adaptation. Architecture is about taking pictures inside your head. The skills you need to present a design to a client are the ones you need to look at a situation and work out how you are going to represent it photographically. Architecture teaches you to be creative."
The portraits are brilliantly varied, sometimes emotional, sometimes banal moments in the subjects' working lives. Each is set up in the same way – the (former) architect is photographed in a setting of their choosing. One shows 31-year-old Sophie Teh standing outside a convenience store holding a cake stand ("I came to the cake business idea because I have so much passion for it," she says). There's 27-year-old Andrew Mobbs in a bicycle shop. The 36-year-old Sarah Akigbogun is pictured by London Bridge, staring into the distance: she is re-editing a film on the use of the Thames which she made as part of the 2006 London Architecture Biennale.
Many of Whitaker's subjects came from Edinburgh, the site of some of the recession's most asset-rich sufferers – the Royal Bank of Scotland, Halifax Bank of Scotland and Standard Life. "It seems like every practice there had to make redundancies," he explains. "It such a small city, and is so closely tied to the banks' fortunes."
Whitaker says the response to his photographs, published in the January issue of the design magazine Blueprint, has been "mostly warm". Would Whitaker return to architecture? "I would," he concludes. "I don't want to quit architecture completely, but I am really enjoying what I am doing. I would like to split my time between the fields. I'm hoping I'll come out the other side of this a much richer person – admittedly not in a financial sense."
How they went back to the drawing board: What the architects did next
Andrew Mobbs BA (Hons)
"After racing mountain bikes in my teens I decided to study engineering at college to try and get into the bike industry. At college I started riding BMX bike. I was looking out for interesting obstacles in the streets and I started noticing architecture. I studied architectural Technology in Southampton, then worked in Salisbury for two years before moving to London. I found a job at a conservation architects for three years but last June I was made redundant. After looking for architectural work, I had an offer to work in a bike shop in north London. It is not a career step I expected but it was nice to share some of my knowledge of bikes."
Andrew now works for Amanda Levete Architects.
Leisa Tough BA Arch UNSW
"I discovered I was to be made redundant on the darkest day of the year, there was ice on the canal and I walked and walked until my hands ached with cold. Within a week I was a waitress around the corner from my former studio and being yelled at by young chefs. It wasn't where I'd imagined I'd be.Needless to say there was no architecture work to be had. I came to Wapping Project, it is a favourite place in London, and flippantly over a meal asked for a waitressing position which, incredibly, led to architecture work. It was as though I'd been washed ashore. I'm inspired by this place and these people to pursue broader ambitions; to curate architectural events, return to sculpting and teaching. Architecture alone no longer seems a wise and safe path."
Leisa's visa expired and she returned to Sydney.
Adrian Welch BA (Hons) DipArch ARB
"In 2000 a former colleague from London came to see us in Edinburgh – with two kids we'd left London behind. I sketched a map of new buildings. A website was obvious – always up-to-date. I set up www.edinburgharchitecture.co.uk, and soon after glasgowarchitecture.co.uk, and more recently e-architect.co.uk. I was designing houses as the recession hit. Being made redundant I put all my energy into the site – now one of the largest architecture resources in the world."
Adrian is running his websites full time.
Josephine Leeder BA (Hons) MArch
"Losing my job the day after practical completion of my first building was harsh, though not unexpected in this climate. Since then I have been trying new recipes with the grand plan of doing vegetarian dinner parties for folk in their own home. It's probably not an ideal time for such a venture but it has been something worthwhile to keep me busy whilst I look in vain for another architecture job. My flatmates aren't complaining – they are fed pretty well out of my redundancy."
Josephine is doing a Masters in ecological design.
Liam Ross MA (Hons) MArch ARB
"Universities teach 'transferable skills'. Teaching is one. I've taught since graduating, and managed this transfer just as I was being pushed. University is quiet, especially over summer. Compared to an office, teaching work is solitary. Preparation, research and admin happen on your own. Colleagues meet every month or so to catch-up. Its nice to not have a manager. I've written a lot, and read more, but forget what constitutes a Relevant Event. I miss tea, BD and deadlines."
Liam is teaching at the University of Edinburgh.
Sophie Teh BScArch (Hons) BArch (Hons) ARB RIBA
"When I came to a crossroads about what I could do next with my career, this was my instinctive idea [a shop selling decadent cakes], but I continued exploring other options. I came back to the cake business idea because I feel so much passion for it. I'm applying my architectural experience to regenerate and regain public interest in a derelict corner of Archway for my business – mixing architecture and good food is my ultimate idea of creative and sensory indulgence."
Sophie is working part-time as an architect while developing her business plan for the cake shop.
Sam Potts BA (Hons) MA
"Architects shouldn't see redundancy as such a destructive event, but one of opportunity! We are blessed with the time to reconsider our roles and direction. Now is the perfect alibi to do something else. The Redundant Architects Recreation Association (RARA), provides an affordable studio, workshop and exhibition space to attract the redundant architect to enjoy something rarely found in a nine-to-five: a haven of total creative freedom."
Sam has returned to university for his part two.
Sarah Akigbogun BSc (Hons) Arch Eng AAdpl
"I had enjoyed my job at Alsop, so following redundancy there was a sense of loss, but beyond this, a sense of liberation. This was a marvellous opportunity to re-evaluate my practice of architecture. Since then my work has included writing, curating a film screening, doing architecture competitions and re-editing a film I had made for the 2006 Architecture Biennale. I hope this 'time out' will transform the way I practice in future."
Sarah is now working for Foster and Partners.
After Redundancy: Living in and out of Architecture, Gallery 2, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B, (12A)D, until 22 February