Matthew Taylor of independent think tank the IPPR, currently judging the AJbacked 'Designs on Democracy' competition, wants to seize the moment and engage people in order to rejuvenate local democracy through architecture
The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) describes itself as 'the leading UK independent think tank on the centre left'.
Its director, Matthew Taylor, has steered it into a prominent position in political debate and policy research in just 15 years.
Currently, in conjunction with the AJ and CABE, the IPPR is running the 'Designs on Democracy' competition, which has been organised to examine 'the role that design can play in promoting democratic engagement and civic pride'. Taylor is very excited at the potential that opening up this discussion will have on local identity and as a spark for the much-vaunted urban renaissance.
The IPPR's offices, between Covent Garden and the Strand, are accessed through an unassuming doorway and staircase into a bustle of relatively youthful activity. The IPPR certainly have a thriving business churning out policy reports, manifestos and debates for movers and shakers. Guardian journalist Catherine Bennett, in a scathing but perceptively witty article, mused that 'rubbish disposal experts estimate that getting rid of the IPPR's thought mountain, alone, already accounts for a landfill site the size of Croydon'. And there is certainly a profusion of documentation in evidence.
I am led into Taylor's engagingly dishevelled office, which appears cramped because of the overflow of papers, books and files strewn everywhere. We discover a table under some magazines, so that I can put my coffee down and begin to chat about his latest pet project. Taylor is a very affable host and is laid back in more ways than one - relaxing with his feet up on his desk and talking compellingly about his views about the city.
'There is a real municipal renaissance happening today, ' he says. 'Cities that were unspeakably ugly - like Newcastle - are now beautiful.' However, he warns of the tendency for an overzealous approach to regeneration, where 'the quality of citycentre life can sometimes become homogenised; repressing peoples' localism through the destruction of heritage.'
He refutes suggestions that he has a Romantic architectural notion of the past.As a matter of fact, he says, disarmingly, 'I am an absolute philistine - profoundly inadequate in discussions about art and architecture - but I made a decision that I wouldn't rule out getting involved in these things just because of that.' Therefore, in the Designs on Democracy project, he is trying to link design issues with the more conventional IPPR political discourse with which he is more familiar, although he admits that 'it is a very difficult job to connect the creative role of art and design with concrete, and more prosaic policy formulation.'
One consequence of not getting the balance right, he believes, is that monuments to bureaucracy were built. The idealism of the '60s, he concedes, was good but its execution was misguided. Originating the Designs on Democracy project, in conjunction with the London School of Economics (LSE), he went back to first principles and even considered whether towns needed dedicated town halls or whether a non-specific building, which a local authority could rent out, would be more appropriate.
Technical issues aside, 'there is, ' he says, 'a recognisable cynicism of all politics today - a general lack of interest about government issues that needs to be addressed - while at the same time, there is a cacophony of disputes about buildings and spaces.' That is to say, nobody talks politics anymore, but everyone has an opinion about what they like. The IPPR, perhaps opportunistically, want to seize the moment in which people are seen to be doing (talking about) something collectively. But is this strategy in danger of endowing everyday artistic comment with political meaning? Not at all, says Taylor. The sense that there is a new space opening up, within which to engage people in the political project - rejuvenating local democracy through architecture - is something that he celebrates; and this is one of the key objectives behind the Designs on Democracy competition.
So what is it, I ask, that really disengages people from politics? Is it credible to suggest that the re-establishment of the Town Hall is what is missing in peoples' lives? This might be a regeneration strategy that would go down well in Trumpton, but surely it is content of politics that has failed to engage people, not the form of certain political buildings?
All of these things play a part, he says. 'At the moment, young people have idiosyncratic positions on most things, but our fundamental mission is to bridge their false dichotomies. The municipal renaissance is about meeting people with interesting backgrounds and developing subtle involvement strategies. Reinvigorating the town hall is one of those things that means that councillors can now engage people.'
Taylor is suspicious of the architecturally faddish and literal use of the concept of transparency, exemplified by Berlin's Reichstag and the GLA HQ building. 'Such an obsession with transparency is, in fact, a failure of authority, ' he concedes. On that point, we discuss the fact that engagement with the local state has always been a contradictory exercise in democracy and the assertion of authority. He is circumspect. 'By bringing in citizens' juries, for example, citizens will finally be able to make decisions that otherwise they might be opposed to.'
Agreeing to close down services to balance the books, for example? Conflictual relationships resolved in favour of restraint? Yes, he says, and notes that success in this project is very complex.
He continues: 'Look. If I could define the most exciting thing about town halls, it's that it allows people to respect and honour and feel proud in the notion of government.
Town halls are the theatre of politics and this project enables them to become truly democratic spaces.'
Taylor is an optimist. 'The hubristic in me knows that I would love to cut the ribbon on an actual building that has come out of this exercise.' Whether that happens or not, he will continue with Blue Sky design strategies - 'thought mountains' - in the belief that that projects like this can 'save city centres'.