American architectural practice has been the subject of many scholarly and professional studies during the century since the publication of the first Handbook of Professional Practice by the American Institute of Architects in 1920. George Barnett Johnston's Assembling the Architect is the first study dedicated to the origins of the Handbook, as a valuable compendium of contracts, documents, and accumulated expertise that has guided the profession ever since.
Johnston teaches architecture at Georgia Tech and runs his own design firm. As he writes, the goals of this book are “to describe some of the forces that have been in play” in the building industry in the United States and to examine the roles of the dominant parties in that realm, namely, the architect, the owner, and the builder (1). However, given that his critical method is colored more by European social science theories than by conventional historiographical schemata, the book reads much more as a “theory” than as a “history” of its subject.
The book is broken into five chapters, following the sections in Frank Miles Day's 1920 edition of the AIA Handbook, which also figure in the “Uniform Contract” between owner, builder, and architect that the AIA established in 1888 and adopted as its first standard document. Founded in the 1850s, by the 1880s the AIA was struggling to establish its preeminence as a professional society amid numerous urban architectural clubs and builders' organizations. The Uniform Contract was the first successful salvo in its attempts to eliminate the competing organizations. One of the significant issues for the historian is the confusing mix of players, economic forces, and regional cultures present in the United States during the post–Civil War period. Who and where was the professional architect during this time of economic expansion and political turmoil?
Johnston acknowledges the complexity of this question, but he spends little effort in outlining the ways in which architects banded together during the latter part of the century to address problems of licensure, education, professional standards, and artistic ideals. Numerous published sources on architects and their efforts to professionalize practice are not cited in his endnotes or included in the bibliography.1 In his presentation of a text explicating a text, Johnston limits himself mainly to lengthy elaborations of quotes from just two publications introduced in the first chapter. One of these is Frank Miles Day's draft of the Handbook, which Johnston found in the AIA archives in Washington, D.C. The second publication is a rather sophomoric 1914 satire, Architec-tonics: The Tales of Tom Thumtack, Architect, by the sometime architect Frederick Squires.2 Squires's satirical mode of journalism (which first appeared in Architecture and Building magazine) was common during this golden age of periodicals. Although Squires was a relatively minor figure, his collaboration with the artist Rockwell Kent set him apart from the crowd. As a foil for the discussion of key professional topics, the Thumtack book would have served Johnston better if he had cited it less often, despite the temptation to use Kent's illustrations as pithy commentary.
Johnston does not go into the early life of Frank Miles Day, who served as an apprentice in England before moving back to Philadelphia to practice as an architect. Day was an early member of both the T-Square Club and the architecture faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. His experience made him a good choice to chair the committee that produced the document eventually published as the Handbook. Still, Johnston does not explain how or why Day was chosen for such a position.
In the final half of the book, Johnston addresses the precarious position of the modern architect in the early twentieth century. A materialistic, money-driven society took shape in the United States during the era of J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford, and no treatment of the social context of architecture for this period can ignore the turbulent milieu in which owners, builders, and designers wrestled to gain the upper hand. As chapter 3 begins, Johnston sets the stage by invoking three business motives, “profit, performance, and prestige,” that bedeviled the professional architect in attempting to mediate between price-conscious owners and profit-conscious builders. He notes the mid-nineteenth-century AIA campaign to present the architect as both an owner's advocate and an impartial go-between in conflicts between owner and builder. He also analyzes efforts by builders to have “clerks of the works” stand in for the architect in such a role. The effort to substantiate the architect's professional position with respect to the builder continued at national meetings of the AIA from 1906 through 1914. Leaders debated the issue of how to protect the architect from lawsuits when taking the side of the client. Given the codification of the architectural license during this same period, architects assumed the burden of the “standards of care” formerly attached to builders, while paradoxically also losing the capacity to perform these duties through a clerk of the works on the building site. Whereas often during the previous century an architect's clerk of the works rendered construction decisions, the new AIA documents made it impossible for such arrangements to continue. The new architects did not wish to dirty their hands with such menial work, as AIA members sought to identify with “white-collar workers” rather than with artisans.
The most powerful sections of Assembling the Architect are in chapters 4 and 5, where issues of construction practice and technology enter the fray. Here the author is in his element, seeming to grasp through his own experience the battered position of his colleagues a century ago. Johnston particularly shines in the sections discussing Day's correspondence with both architects and builders regarding the changing roles of the subcontracting trades, the necessity for specifications, and the complex rubric for describing how a general contractor ought to run a project. His detailed analysis of the final “General Conditions to the Contract for Construction” (a portion of the Handbook) ought to be required reading in professional practice courses in architecture programs. We learn that during negotiations with the building industry, many in the AIA saw the new system of “general contracting” as a threat to architects' very existence.
Johnston correctly points out that historians have given less attention to the history of modern building construction than to the heroic careers of individual architects. The final chapter of his book takes up a broad menu of topics that first caught the attention of Day and Squires, but that continue today to haunt not only the members of the architectural profession but also practitioners of medicine and law. In our technocratic society, the expansion of digital information continues to erode expertise. The architects who created the first instruments to describe design and building practice in the modern world of construction understood implicitly that they also described the means by which architects could be rendered obsolete.
Perhaps specifications, not necessary in an artisanal society, served as the harbingers of doom. Even technical drawings and shop drawings functioned simply as stand-ins for the knowledge of materials and crafts that architects lacked. Johnston makes the relatively short leap from these tools to the contemporary crutches of CAD, BIM, and 3-D modeling, noting that while these are more powerful than their predecessors, they are nonetheless interlopers between designers and builders. If designers have ceased to understand anything about materials, techniques, and methods (the province of contractors and technical consultants), where is their expertise? Have they been liberated or hamstrung by technology?
Johnston's book thus provides much fodder for thought, especially in the final chapters, but his text fails to address the historical forces and circumstances that pushed the AIA to create the Handbook of Professional Practice when nothing of the sort previously existed. If Johnston had expanded his narrative to incorporate the arguments within the AIA and other architectural societies concerning the relation between the architect and the builder, along with the countervailing discussions among builders, he might have unraveled the reasons why Frank Miles Day and his colleagues ceded ground to both owners and builders in their final drafts of the Handbook. That would have required more archival research and less reliance on a few sources available in good libraries. It might also have required more compelling illustrations of construction sites, photos of architects standing alongside builders, relevant working drawings, and even specifications.
Assembling the Architect is not a history of professional practice, even though it unveils contradictions in that history that contemporary historians and critics must address. Nevertheless, the book is valuable as a foray into a subject complex enough to inspire much further research, given that it spotlights the precarious position of architects in a society intent on stripping them of their power, prestige, and artistic agency. It also hints at issues of race, class, gender, and social status that have eluded historical scrutiny until very recently. The book is written with style and often pointed analysis, although in places it suffers from a lack of organization and thorough research. The author would have benefited greatly from consulting and citing authoritative scholarship on the profession, whether or not it conforms to the recent trends in the discipline. If he continues his investigation into these important areas of the profession's relation to cultural history, one hopes that these criticisms will be constructive, leading him in the future to a more catholic point of view and to more convincing scholarship.
Key sources not cited include Robert Gutman, Architectural Practice: A Critical View (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1988); Dana Cuff, Architecture: The Story of Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991); Mary N. Woods, From Craft to Profession: The Practice of Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Mark Alan Hewitt, The Architect and the American Country House, 1890–1940 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990).
Frederick Squires, Architec-tonics: The Tales of Tom Thumtack, Architect (New York: William T. Comstock, 1914).