Thursday24 August 2017

Power to the architects

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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.

sarah wigglesworth

Sarah Wigglesworth

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.

Occupy London at St Paul's

Source: Jan Kranendonk/ iStock

The “tent city” at St Paul’s, where protesters turned public space into a political arena.

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.

Washington Mall

Source: Creative Commons

Politically charged space: the National Mall, Washington DC.

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.


Readers' comments (9)

  • Hear hear.

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  • This Transcript and Sarah Wigglesworth's words are superbly articulated. I completely agree with the sentiments, especially with the expression that Architects should take control with a 'Political/ Socio-environmental' agenda rather than the 'Self-Interested' one, which is pandemic & with no doubt.
    However, it is a fallacy to suggest that Architects are trained with an expansive vision, given how easy it is for almost anyone who can read and write to qualify at Parts I, II & III level!
    I believe this 'Political' ethos engaging a social conscience should begin at an academic level, whereby Qualifying in Architecture is highly difficult without a clear emphasis/ understanding that only a positive impact on civic space etc, is to be practiced.

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  • i sense an unrequested written response from "scepticalaboutthewholething" coming.... typically it will convey a strong sense of knowing better, patronising overtones finishing with a snide comment about the authors previous body of work........

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  • Until Architects realize and are trained to be property developers and financiers and take over that profession, all protestations will fail, for they have no power, no money,no influence,no hope, no future and are damned too poor to be noticed. It is fair to speak and articulate good logic with appropriate grammar, but that does not mean squat in the corridors of financial and political power. Architects need to be in the money, or all arguments are pointless. No money - no power - no one gives a damn about architects future. Period.

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  • Although I would love to agree with Sarah, my problem with her argument is that her modern examples of spatial occupation are all very transcient. Open House weekend demonstrates nicely how very little space in cities is actually open to the public. And the eviction of the Occupy movement from all of their sites demonstrates the power of land ownership rights above all else.
    I actually designed a building for occupy at Finsbury Square, but due to the high turnover of people on the site, the project never got built. Conversely, two things that are solid and permanant are land and money, therefore Architects (who all presumably want to work- not just for the money, but because it is what we trained to do) must doggedly follow these commodies. The fact that we are merely window dressing a pre-determined massing model is the inevitable consequence of land law in this country. Even the recently launched government self-build funding relied on applicants to already own the land that they wanted to develop, therefore ruling out 99.9% of the people who would actually want to pursue it. The only solutions that will make a difference to the role of the Architect will happen outside of the profession, and perhaps that is the best place for people who care (Sarah included) to aim.

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  • If architects want to be politically active, then there's nothing to stop hem. To expect clients to finance them in that is a step too far. Some may most wont. Look at the legal professions. They do political activism pro-bono, as do architects, but they also have higher charge out rates. The argument put forward by Sarah also sounds like a personal crusade, not party politics. Inevitably changing things will depend on some involvement with the messy world of party politics.

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  • Richard Truscott

    This is a great rousing call to architects to get involved on civic life (aka politics, in a non specific-party sense but with a liberal/left bent) if they want to really use the skills we've acquired & passions we've imbibed!

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    Wishful thinking. Architecture follows the money. Who has the money? Clients.

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    @andrew morris - do you lie awake at night, thinking about me?

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