Power to the architects
Sarah Wigglesworth calls on the profession to stop kowtowing to clients and start setting the political agenda
To my mind, there are two ways of thinking about politics: one involves an idea of leadership that provides a vision of our collective future, and the sort of civic life we aspire to. This is what we like to think of as the model of a benign democracy. But there is another, corrupted definition, relating to the mechanisms and maintenance of power. In this scenario the goal is power itself, and here we think of Macbeth or Machiavelli.
Those familiar with the television series Borgen will know that even the most well-meaning leaders have to use the mechanisms of the second definition to achieve the first. Good political leadership requires two skills: engaging the imagination of the people, and finding ways of enacting this in order to bring about change.
So politics is about both the vision and the pragmatics of creating the sort of society we want. This is a society where people have freedoms and behave responsibly, are treated as if they matter, and where key needs are taken care of collectively so that we can live happy, fulfilled lives.
While this idea is habitually applied to legal and human rights, it relates just as importantly to the physical world around us. In a civil society I believe we all have a right to a good-quality environment, just as we take for granted our right to clean water, good health and a public transport system.
The environment is a ubiquitous expression of our values. It says something about who we are and in what we believe. Yet because of its ubiquity, the danger is that we can so easily overlook it.
Lost in space
Only in rare moments – such as the tent cities’ occupation of public space, the Levellers and Diggers’ movements, your ability to buy a house in the catchment of a school you hope to send your children to, the kettling of demonstrators on a bridge or the high walls bristling with cameras around a gated community — are we made aware of the power transactions of space taking place all around us.
As these examples show, the shaping of our personal and public space is something we participate in – unavoidably, all the time – and the extent to which we negotiate actively in this is the measure of our political engagement with space. Moreover, in the sense that space is shaped through use, the environment is a living tableau of relationships – which is to say it is political.
To say this is to state that we are all architects, and all authors of our civic as well as our personal space. From the planting of our back gardens and how we mow the lawn, to how we arrange our furniture or put up net curtains, to fighting for the retention of the corner shop or library, all the way up to our engagement in the formalised planning process, we are involved in the making of our environment. We all yearn to make a place for ourselves and to feel safe and respected.
Source: Jan Kranendonk/ iStock
However, our personal influence is usually quite limited, and we are increasingly estranged from real control as the scale and complexity of development increases. Architects and planners can provide vision and leadership on how to shape interesting, democratic and participatory spaces where people feel able to express themselves. This is my first kind of political leadership. But when we decide, collectively, to hand this over to others, including professionals, we enter a scenario of increased contention which tends easily towards the grabbing and retention of power. Professionals are the politicians of space, and in the politics of space, power is wielded through money. Those who pay call the tune. This is my second political scenario.
In the past, the power over space lay with royalty, aristocracy and the churches; then with guilds and livery companies, then with commercial companies. Later on came local authorities, insurance companies and central government. With the advent of private development backed by borrowed capital, it became possible for individuals to influence small neighbourhoods – think of Bedford Park or the Adelphi.
In fact the laissez-faire nature of private enterprise has always been regarded as a right, and the referee between private desire and public good has been the planning system. Personal interests almost always override the expression of collective values, and the planning system is used to regulate and tame them.
Doing as we’re told?
Design of the built environment is now a highly complex and contested arena. With no financial muscle, architects are small and insignificant players in this game. And despite its self-image of avant-garde creativity, the truth is that the production of architecture remains a game of patronage, one in which architects cultivate those with financial power in return for the favour of a job. This locks them into a cycle of slavish dependency and makes them followers, not leaders. And since the political aspects of our work are fairly long-term and intangible, such leadership as we do provide is typically confined to aesthetic issues, which are regarded as irrelevant or simply unaffordable.
Yet well-designed environments reduce absenteeism and increase productivity at work, help raise learning attainment in schools, attract tourists, cause us to get well quicker when we are ill, help us get around more efficiently, keep businesses functioning and make our lives more pleasant. All these things allow our investment in the built environment to be more resilient — in short, it assists our economy, our wellbeing and our happiness.
Architects are in a cycle of slavish dependency; they are followers, not leaders
Architects are understandably distrusted by ordinary people through our connection with the proprietary powers. Our leadership skills are weak and we have failed to bring the public with us in arguing for investment in the environment that matters. We are compromised, caught between an obligation to align our actions to a client’s ambitions and the professional desire to contribute to the greater good of civic life.
Yet if politics is anything, it is “of the city”, relating to the public. Politics is related to the words polis (the city) and politikos (the people). It implies a connection to civic values – something we must never forget. So while architects usually do act as followers, concerned with our own interests by mirroring those of our clients, we really need to step out as leaders, setting the agenda and arguing for why the quality of the built environment matters.
Reclaim the streets
Space must be reclaimed by all of us, and a good citizen architect should defend the rights of all of us to high-quality places, as we defend freedom of access, movement and activity. We need to lead the resistance against the privatisation of public space, the poorly planned, the cheap and the undersized: all ways in which we are constantly told we need to design.
I argue that architects need to become better politicians: ditching self-interest and seeing a more expansive vision. And why not? This is precisely what our design training allows us to do. Why should we expect anyone else to defend these things if we, the professional guardians of civic space, are unwilling to do so? As both experts and citizens, we need to lead the debate on spatial politics, which means providing a vision of what our environment could be like while offering pragmatic ways to achieve it.
When Martin Luther King made his legendary “I have a dream” speech, he chose Washington Mall as the rallying point for the thousands of freedom marchers, and he delivered his address under the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. As he said himself, the message of the location was powerfully symbolic, for the moment marked 100 years since the abolition of slavery, enacted by that very statesman.
Source: Creative Commons
That occupation signified just how politically charged space can be, and how symbolic space can be critiqued, made new and re-invented by each generation.
And just as Dr King urged the proprietary powers of the US government, I ask all architects to proclaim their freedom, to throw off the mantle of the servant class and to come forward as leaders advocating and illustrating the way to a happier, healthier, more prosperous society through a better built environment.
This is an edited transcript of Sarah Wigglesworth’s speech to the RA on a panel debating architecture and politics last week. The next RA debate, Designing Cities, will be on Monday evening with Peter Saville, Leo Hollis and George Ferguson, chaired by Anne Power. See www.royalacademy.org.uk