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VIEW FROM THE CREW

A small charity has succeeded in its mission to get the youth of Newham involved in the regeneration of their borough and get their design opinions heard - but funding problems could see those same voices silenced, as Rob Sharp reports

The trek to the top of St Paul's can leave you wheezing. But a 15-year-old kid called Barry manages it easily. He even has the energy on conquering the summit to lean over a stone wall, ruminate, then point madly at the skyline. 'That's really awful, ' he says, flailing his arms at Norman Foster's Swiss Re building.

'It looks like an Easter egg.' This is unlikely to make Foster, who earlier this month was training in the Alps for a ski marathon, quake in his salopettes. But Barry hails from Newham, at the heart of the Thames Gateway in east London. One of Britain's largest regeneration projects is being pile-drived into his doorstep.

This renders the teenager's opinion on architecture - from instantly recognisable landmarks like the Gherkin to the pervasive regeneration planned for the Lea Valley - all the more relevant.

His trip to the cathedral was organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion (FAI), a charity with two permanent staff that recently moved to Newham. It is trying to forge long-term links with a local school in Canning Town, to encourage pupils like Barry to discuss and explore their instincts on design.

FAI's zenith was its opportunity at the end of last year to design an Olympic Aquatics Centre, using the ideas of the pupils it works with, the self-branded 'Architecture Crew'. The impact on the kids of presenting the project - to Olympic 2012 and London Development Agency dignitaries no less - must have been profound. It seems, at least, to have got Barry thinking critically.

Unfortunately, only a matter of months later, FAI is already facing funding problems.

It can't get the cash it needs from the council, or elsewhere. The effect, if not the value, of its work is unclear. But it does need to operate over a number of years to have any chance of making a sustainable imprint.

FAI was born after Nick Edwards - inspired by student years spent on environmental architecture, self-builders and community art projects - met installation artist Jane Leighton and started work on community design in Newham.

Edwards wasn't impressed by previous attempts to get the borough - one of the most economically and educationally deprived in London - talking about its environmental 'look'. 'There would be a lot of short-term projects where we'd get heads together to talk about their new playground for a week, ' he explains. 'There was lots of parachuting in of people, and then off they'd go and the next person in would have to pick up the pieces.' Leighton, who had previously been heavily involved in education project management concurs. 'I'd been closely following what Nick was doing and it had got to the point where it was becoming formulaic. We started to think we could move this on, ' she says.

The chance came for them to apply for Neighbourhood Renewal Funding from the council - money from the government aimed at levelling the disparity between poorer and richer London boroughs. They were successful, and the organisation was officially formed in February 2003.

The pair then threw themselves into nurturing their baby with freshly funded zeal.

Injections of cash enabled them to foster projects such as an architecture summer school, a youth architecture forum and various playground design projects. One of these was 'Open Your Eyes', which brought together different age groups in a multimedia project exploring local public space.

'Open Your Eyes' used VJing - the live mixing of images - as a social lubricant. If the activity itself might come across as cloyingly trendy, its use is less about attitudinal front and more about engaging with those who had come to view council discussions as little more than a rant about a leaking roof.

Out of projects such as these, the Architecture Crew - consisting of twenty 14year-olds and 15-year-olds drawn from the local Eastlea School - was spawned. Then a fantastic opportunity arose.

The group approached the LDA, which was working with KSS Design Group on fashioning a brief for architects wanting to design the Olympic Aquatics Centre, as part of London's Olympic bid. The centre lies on a site close to Stratford station, in the middle of many of the children's stamping ground. 'We discussed with the LDA how our group could be involved, and the level of support offered was fantastic. Our kids felt they were taken seriously from the outset, ' says Leighton.

After working on the swimming pool for only four three-hour sessions, the pupils produced a winning design, with some professional help, which they then presented to councillors, Olympics representatives and LDA staff on the 50th floor of Canary Wharf.

'They were terrified, ' says Edwards. 'The fact they were being taken seriously by professionals was really rewarding. It was a leap of faith.' Spurred on by positive feedback gleaned from the aquatic competition, FAI has various ambitions for the future. These include expanding the Architecture Crew to become a Newham-wide Youth Architecture Forum.

Ultimately, it wishes to create a permanent architecture centre in Newham, planned, designed and built with the involvement of young people.

Perhaps all too predictably, concerns have been raised recently about the charity's longterm financial viability. 'We're not getting the support we need, ' says Leighton. 'What we're doing is expensive - bringing two or three practitioners together for one project.

Any other organisation would have walked away, but we're finding that difficult to do, ' she continues.

So, although the pair still have funding for their next project - a trip to east Manchester to see how lessons learned from regeneration there can be applied to London - anything beyond that is still uncertain. There is also doubt over the security of any long-term help from Newham council.

At loggerheads with New Labour's attempts to quantify local authority performance, the effects of FAI's work cannot be measured. Certainly the results of what it is trying to achieve now will not be seen for many years down the line, if at all. But in the absence of any comprehensive attempt to engage with the community, the idea seems noble enough, if insubstantial in its execution. It's clear that such initiatives need more than cursory annual handouts to be a success.

'There's massive potential here, ' says Edwards. 'People are missing out on an opportunity to really get ideas from the community on how to shape the borough.

It'll be tragic if the huge swathes of building planned don't generate jobs within the building process.' In the meantime, Barry continues studying the skyline. A school friend of his, Charisse, licks her lips and talks to the organisers of their trip to St Paul's. 'Getting involved in an experience such as this is great, 'she says. 'It's a way of saying that building the future isn't just for professionals.'

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