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Change and conflict are historical realities

Contemplating radical change is a good thing but resolution can often be a long time coming, writes Paul Finch

It seems only yesterday that the RIBA was going to court, fighting proposals to end the five-year minimum education requirement for becoming an architect. Now the institute is suggesting that all sorts of new approaches could bring this historic system to an end. Actually that court case was three decades ago, before modern methods of working, EU directives and so on. The institute is right to contemplate radical change.

Similarly, we can only hope that the good work Portland Place undertook in its review of housing, including the idea of exploiting public pension funds as sources of finance for much required rental stock, will be taken up by at least one of the political parties.

In both these institute initiatives, it is perhaps surprising that the issues in question await resolution, despite being with us for generations. At a fundamental level, the problems identified stem from a reluctance to abandon particular or general ideas, despite evidence that they are not generating answers to the problems we face.

As far as housing is concerned, we have been trying to resolve the apparent conflict between quantity and quality, ownership and renting, town and country, for more than a century. This is an architectural problem in the sense that all architecture is political, but it is now ingrained in the political system so that almost any idea to stimulate construction and investment in home-building will be dismissed as a matter of politics, rather than a simple problem of increasing demand and decreasing supply.

These problems are not matters of life and death, however. Some of the biggest problems facing the world today have been intractable for millennia, as a brilliant short book by Alan Balfour, well illustrates. Former AA chairman and now dean of architecture at Georgia Tech, Balfour’s latest book Solomon’s Temple: Myth, Conflict and Faith (Wiley-Blackwell) is a scholarly exploration into the history of one tiny piece of Jerusalem. He describes the extraordinary history of the temple, and of Islam’s Dome of the Rock, which make ownership and control a matter of profound importance for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

In an epilogue, Balfour takes us on a cinematic rewind of how successive waves of building, neglect, demolition and reconstruction reflected political and religious change. This 4,000-year history is remarkable, he notes, for how few events really changed history across the millennia, the three most obvious involving Abraham, Jesus and Mahommed. Otherwise little happened that had truly lasting consequences.

His observation that ‘a deep understanding of the past history of a place is vital to guiding its future’, is a reminder of the origins of today’s wars of religion, but also that for much of history, peaceful co-existence has been perfectly possible. Let’s hope that what we are now going through in Syria and elsewhere will soon seem a passing phase from the long perspective of history, and of course in the short term that next year will be better than this.

I hope that’s true for you, too.

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