Can architects ever retire?

The current successful celebratory exhibition in honour of Richard Rogers’ 80th birthday, coupled with the incredible vigour of his former colleague Norman Foster, could make one think that architects never get old. 

They are not the only examples of architects being vigorous and professionally engaged well into what many would consider the twilight years. While few are likely to match the late Oscar Niemeyer, who continued working into his eleventh decade, eventually becoming as famous for his age as for his buildings, it is an admirable and cheering prospect. Retirement after all is meant to be about doing what you like, and what many architects like best, particularly at the peak of the profession, is doing architecture.

But there is a downside as well, as the current story about the possible prosecution of two nearly nonagenarian architects shows.

Sir Andrew Derbyshire and Vernon Lee, both former directors of RMJM and definitely retired, are being pursued in respect of an asbestos claim. The story is tangled, with much debate about who actually holds the responsibility. And the contraction of a fatal disease is of course much worse than living under a leaking roof. But the fact that architects can never entirely slough off responsibility is the obverse of the joy of working as long as you wish.

It is interesting that Derbyshire and Lee’s cases are being handled by their sons, both successful architects as well. Architecture, as we know, runs in families. And despite the gloom about the current state of the profession, many architects when asked in the interview on the back of BD what they would say to a child contemplating the profession say that they would encourage them to go for it.

Maybe this will make them think again. Especially with current earnings and the cost of living, many younger architects could still be working at 89 – not because they want to but because they have to.



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