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Surveillance invades all walks of life

A central theme of Winterschool 98, held last week at Sheffield school of architecture, was surveillance. While of course entirely coincidental, it is deeply ironic that the students should have adopted a subject very dear to the hearts of those at the Architects' Registration Board who have been so anxious to promote a duty of surveillance within the new arb Code of Conduct. In my previous columns I have warned of the dangers of a professional code that requires architects to report colleagues for subsequent investigation and possible disciplinary action in relation to alleged mistakes and misconduct; such obligations undermine the essential conditions of co-operation and trust that prevail within all successful offices.

The students, happily alert to the potentially damaging implications of spying and insensitive supervision, decided under a programme entitled EyeSpy to 'investigate surveillance, observation and perception within our environment'.

Video cameras now monitor human behaviour in a wide variety of public places from retailing to railway stations and subways - even on buses. There to deter vandalism, theft and assault, and to aid criminal prosecutions, such equipment is potentially both disturbing and comforting. How powerful, asked EyeSpy, is the camera in conditioning the way people behave?

Is our perception of private and public space influenced by such surveillance? Does the rapid increase of information technology and the influence of sophisticated multimedia blur reality? Is that reality challenged by the newly emerging virtual world?

Most disturbingly, especially in the context of the arb's ill-conceived intention to instigate a surveillance operation within every office by bullying architects into informing on colleagues, EyeSpy asked, 'How easy is it to betray trust?'.

Some 28 workshops led by people as diverse as a police inspector, performing dance experts, architectural students, practising architects, artists, historians, space syntax researchers, psychologists, engineers, urban designers, leisure consultants, geographers, a criminologist and lawyers, explored these issues and many more that emerged. Their work has been extensively recorded (on video!), and it is hoped that a valuable synopsis of the week's activities will be available soon.

Most important, of course, is the valuable experience and lessons that some 400 students, drawn from throughout the uk and overseas, together with the 150 other contributors, will take away and disseminate back home.

Winterschool, which began in Sheffield in 1979, is clearly alive and healthy. A rich list of contributors included Greg Penoyre, Brian Lawson, Michael Wilford, David Bernstein, Chris Colbourne, and Peter Blundell- Jones. How fitting that Cedric Price was also there: that lifetime friend of Sheffield, who appropriately made his inimitable contribution at the midweek Open Forum.

Much work and enormous risk are involved when organising a Winterschool but, by careful planning, unrelenting industry, and the selection of a poignant theme, the EyeSpy team achieved great success. Like the Lost in Space topic adopted last year by John Moore's School of Architecture, this subject has focused a worthy and timely investigation into our changing cultural condition. Stepping outside the taught curriculum, such events are of immeasurable value and organiser Jason Balls and his very able committee should be well pleased with their efforts.

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