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“How many architects does it take to…”

The answer to that question is twenty-one.

The evolution of architecture as a profession during the last 250 years is both complex and simple. Complex because it happens at the local level and varies widely through space, time, and circumstance. Yet also simple because it is the slow but inevitable process of a trade becoming a profession. The more readily documentable portions of the process occurred during the 150 years between 1850 and 2000, roughly.

A survey of 2015 counted nearly 110,000 architects in the United States, a tabulation from the several state registration boards which regulate the practice of architecture “in the interest of public health and safety.” Licensure of anything, from brain surgery to cosmetology, is a state function within our federal system. The definition of a “profession” was set by Abraham Flexner, an early 20th century social scientist, more focused on social workers than architects, but his criteria apply equally well,

Flexner identified six characteristics of a profession and its professionals: (1) “professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility”; (2) “they derive their raw material from science and learning”; (3) “this material they work up to a practical and definite end”; (4) “they possess an educationally communicable technique” (their own language); (5) “they tend to self-organization”; and (6) “they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation.” [Thoughts on Flexner and Professionalism, 1915-2015]

Insofar as architecture is concerned, that process can be compartmented in three periods of approximately fifty years each: 1850-1900—organization of the profession for the passage of legislation regulating practice, effectively licensing the use of the term “architect”; 1900-1950—the half century required for enabling legislation in all fifty states; this actually required fifty-two years, from 1899 (Illinois) to 1951 (Wyoming); and 1950-2000—fifty years, more or less, of regulated inter-state practice, coming to the next logical consideration: questioning the societal value of such regulation, and consideration of its elimination in favor of other marketplace controls. I have been interested in the middle years of these three phases, particularly as evidenced in the presence of architects in the Great Plains.

A map of the U.S. overlain with the dates of each state’s passage of architectural registration is curiously chaotic and seems unrelated to “the interests of public health and safety”, the nearly knee-jerk phrase linked with each state-by-state effort. Were that the case, that public interests prevail as motivation, then we should logically see the issuance of licenses in state with high population, large urban areas, and densities where poor design and/or construction put large numbers of our citizens in jeopardy. Yet New York State did not regulate architectural practice until 1915, while Arkansas did in 1901. Indeed the pattern of professional registration follows no obvious pattern, if we limit our understanding to the mosaic of state boundaries. Overlay the geography of jurisdiction, however, with the network of passenger rails which would enable an architect to extend his/her practice beyond the immediate market area and another motivation suggests itself. New Jersey’s law preceded New York’s by thirteen years; North Dakota’s was enacted four years prior to Minnesota. If “public health and safety” were the motivation, it ought to be the opposite.

The pattern of registration laws in Canada offer a simpler geographic pattern and another possible rationale. Consider the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, insulated, if not actually isolated, from incursions from other provinces by mountains and huge areas of unsettled land. Their pattern of settlement had been from east to west, excepting British Columbia. So we would expect architecture to be regulated in accordance with the arrival of urban concentrations. Yet the pattern is opposite: Alberta (1905), Saskatchewan (1911), and Manitoba (1940). It is difficult to avoid the possibility that architects in each province were protecting themselves from “poaching” by architects in provinces that had been established earlier. Why should professionals in Alberta, for example, find themselves competing for work with their brethren from Saskatchewan? Then, prevented from seeking work to their west, Saskatchewan architects sought to protect their clientele from poaching by Manitobans. It has seemed to me that “turf” may have been as significant a motivating factor as more altruistic public concerns.

What has this to do with Agincourt, Iowa? you may well ask. Very little, as concerns the simple question of professional registration; Iowa did not enact professional registration for architects until 1927, so the period of my particular interest (the years around WWI) were unregulated. But Agincourt was subject to exploitation from other larger communities. Its early architectural services would have come from Des Moines, Sioux city, Omaha, and well beyond that; perhaps even Chicago.


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