Years ago, I was a part of a small group of Los Angeles– and Las Vegas–based architects and designers who were part of a design charrette to create a homeless shelter in North Las Vegas. As part of the event, I also gave a lecture. I was not then, nor am I today, licensed to practice architecture, and have never pretended to be (I do have an M.Arch. and have worked as an architectural designer). When I returned home, I received a note from the state of Nevada telling me to cease and desist from calling myself—or acting as—an architect. I had to hire a lawyer to point out that I had never represented myself as such, and had not acted as one—whatever that means.

I was reminded of this episode by the tempest in a teacup that took place in the United Kingdom last week, when the magazine Building Design (BD) received a letter from the ARB (that country’s architecture registration authority) telling it to stop calling Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, and Daniel Libeskind, AIA, architects.

It is tempting, I have to admit, to make snarky comments about whether or not the appellation watchdogs might actually be onto something in a deeper sense, but there is a more profound issue here: The architecture profession around the world often seems more interested in protecting its status than in promoting the cause of good architecture.

Self-protection is, historically speaking, what the AIA and similar organizations do. Like the AMA and other comparable professional organizations, it was founded in the late 19th century during a period when a lack of definitions could have unpleasant and sometimes disastrous consequences, though it should be pointed out that, as Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have observed, “bad doctors bury their mistakes, architects just plant ivy.”

The ARB responded to BD’s outrage about its letter by pointing out that it had not called for any sanctions, and that its intent was to “help awareness.” The ARB also apologized, admitting that it had not gone about promoting awareness in the most effective or productive manner, and stating that it was acting in a pro forma manner on the complaint of an (unnamed) licensed architect.

What an architect is seems to be up for debate these days, and that intrigues me. Most buildings in this country are not designed by architects, and it is becoming easier and easier for laypeople to buy computer programs or to hire-in expertise that allows them to design buildings. More and more of what goes into buildings is also becoming specialized and bolstered by technology, so that what defines a building is as much systems; codes; interior decoration; lighting and acoustical design; and cost estimating as it is whatever we might still call architecture.

Whatever we call architecture, however, is more than all that expertise. It is also more than what licensed architects do. It is something that transforms buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living, anchors in a world of change, and many other things that I think are difficult to define and, more importantly, even less likely to show up in the process by which architects in this country and the U.K. are licensed. What we need is a debate about what those qualities are, how we can recognize them, how we can teach them, how we can judge competency in them, and how we can explain to the public what they are.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose opinion stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

You can read a response to Mr. Betsky from the American Institute of Architects and AIA President Jeff Potter, FAIA, here.