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Riots updated: Sennett, Rykwert, Till, de Botton, Tavernor and more on why Britain is burning

The AJ asks prominent architectural thinkers to comment on the architecture of our cities. More comments added daily.

Joseph Rykwert
Cities incite riots - and herding people in high rise reservoirs of social aggression doesn’t help: if we didn’t have football and rugby matches to release it, however messily, we’d have many more, though riots are almost always triggered by specific incidents. Current hoody anomie was fostered by the spectacle of the fat-cats bloated bonuses accompanying  the ‘we’re all in it’ talk about cuts - as well as by the knowledge that the police was among the public services to be mutilated (which also goes for parks, youth centres), so was inevitably demoralised. And the spark was a mishandled police shooting. Locking up cowed hoodies in overcrowded prisons won’t solve anything. We need to think about public housing and public space - quickly

Richard Sennett
The riots were all too predictable: a generation of poor, young people with no future becomes a tinderbox for violence.  The British riots have one resemblance to those which afflicted France in the last decade; they occur in the places where no-hopers live, rather than political riots directed at the centres of power; the result is that the principle victims are their local neighbours

Jeremy Till
At least the architects are not blamed this time, as we were with Broadwater. Nor could we be, because (quoting Simmel) the city is not a spatial entity with sociological consequences, but a sociological entity that is formed spatially. Here the riots spatialise years of ramping up of social inequality. So when my Twitter feed calls for the reintroduction of Jane Jacobs, I blanch (because space is not the solution, just the symptom) and when the Tories say it is ‘pure’ criminality, I rage (because of the implicit disavowal of their political responsibility). One way out? Act on the New Economic Foundation’s Great Transition

Alain de Botton
People tend to distinguish between violence against people (very serious) and violence against property (not so bad). But in these riots, what emerges is how offensive it is to see buildings on fire because this symbolises a destruction of the hopes and efforts of so many who struggled to build and maintain them. It isn’t just money that goes up in flames; it’s the spirit of civilisation

Robert Tavernor
The London riots are a sobering reminder that cities are for people, that people make cities. Cities rely on a precarious social balance that can be wrecked by the irresponsible. Leadership and good action are now essential

Irena Bauman
I already talked about this before it happened. I’ve made many comments about the wealth divide within cities and how it is impacting on physical and social geographies and increases fear and violence. We will see much more of this kind of unrest in the future. No amount of regeneration funding will help. We need to change the core values of our society and redistribute wealth, if a long term solution is to be found.

William JR Curtis
London has been up for sale to the highest bidders in the international plutocracy for years and the results are there to see in the Shard and all the other grotesque signs of exaggerated wealth that are in fact impoverishing the public realm for everybody else. Worse than that, British politicians of both Left and Right have sold their souls and their policies to the City of London and therefore to the vagaries of international financial capitalism which has no loyalties and no sense of local responsibility. All the eyewash of Cameron’s so called Big Society cannot disguise the fact that the bottom end of society has been abondoned: Is one surprised that one kind of violence is responding to another kind? No, not really.

Wouter Vanstiphout
The reality of urban riots is that they have always turned out to be the opposite of a learning experience for a city. Riots have nearly always resulted in politicians simplifying the problem even more, and looking away even further. After a riot your average city will become more afraid, more authoritarian, more segregated, more exclusive and less tolerant. That is the real tragedy of the post-war western urban riot, first it shocks and terrifies us, then for a moment it makes us see flashes of the kind of city we should be working towards, which then fades away into the darkness. 

Yasmin Shariff
Regeneration schemes have made a difference where they have offered an opportunity to the under privileged, but these projects should not be confused with developments that displace the urban poor. Riots in new regeneration areas point to the schism where ordinary people cannot afford the new people’s palaces - the £160m regeneration in Dalston by Barratt Homes for instance boasts residents gym, 24hr concierge, buzzing public square, shops a library and a 2 bed apartments will set you back £350K .  It can be little surprise that these regeneration areas are being torched. As long as these kids are trapped in the poverty of their circumstance riots such as the ones we have seen will continue to erupt. What we are experiencing are the consequence of policies which pander to big business and line the pockets of bankers, developers, PFI companies and other private organisations at the expense of the public purse.

Gillian Darley
While wandering about Brittany in recent days, without internet, TV or radio news, and looking at churches laden with headless saints and ‘danses macabres’ someone told us there was rioting in London. Le Figaro that day, leading with the story, was groaning with memories of Paris 2005 and, inevitably, an analysis by a professor of criminology. We shouldn’t forget the storming of the Bastille in 1789 was a vivid reminder to Londoners of the Gordon Riots in 1780. Social discontent can be traded, just like currency, but real solutions are solid gold - and there the French and the British are in the same boat, holed well below the waterline.

Marianne Mueller
Our practice is involved in the design review assessment of regeneration schemes. You can’t deny the strong commercial focus of recent regeneration projects that push out other (in the short term, less profitable) functions. Spaces for young people and public facilities in general (nurseries, libraries, green open spaces…) are definitely not a focus in the schemes we have been reviewing over the last few years. Projects like ‘Youth Space’ by MADE remain a rarity - especially with the recent cuts - where young people can get actively involved in the design of their environment, develop a sense of ownership and simply have a place to be. To quote the opening of the publication of the Youth Space project documentation, ‘Of all those excluded from any given urban territory, youth surely form the greatest subset. They are excluded on the grounds that they are not yet adults, that they cannot pay, that they are trouble makers, that they will break the law, be noisy, or frighten other customers away.’

Alan Atlee
frenzied looting
/frénzid lu:tin/ v. widespread property damage and theft of consumer goods perpetrated by exhilarated groups of young working class men.
synonyms 1. Age of Austerity / v. systematic transfer of wealth from public to private interests, via government policies of welfare reduction; privatisation in education, health and social care; planning policy liberalisation and regressive taxation. (Important context for understanding timing and extent of frenzied looting.) 2.Sovereign Debt Crisis / n.  threat of nation state or states defaulting on their debt obligations and causing significant capital losses for private banks and investors. (Threat of provides political cover for Age of Austerity.) 3. Bank Bailout / n & v. systematic transfer of capital from public taxpayers to private shareholders following revelations of balance sheet insolvency across range of financial institutions. (Contributes to Sovereign Debt Crisis by inflating state borrowing and depressing economic activity.) 4. subprime lending / v & n. esp. relating to housing mortgage market. Financial mechanism used by banking institutions whereby loans are made to individuals normally excluded from credit markets. Made possible the fictitious profits and bonuses in the banking sector and the regeneration boom in our cities – see also buy-to-let mortgage; Private Finance Initiative. (Largely responsible for banking insolvencies and subsequent Bank Bailouts.)

 

AJ readers are welcome to add their comments below

Readers' comments (12)

  • Does growing up playing games like Grand Theft Auto, a culture of violent computer games for entertainment have something to do with this?
    Is it not an incentive to the idle and dim witted to move these games onto the street. Do the games convey the destruction of the hopes and efforts of victims? I doubt it.

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  • David Wilson, you pose an idea that is almost offensively detached from the reality of the situation.

    Deprivation, inequality and social detachment have been the causes of this mindless violence; this rampant greed and arrogance that has driven these opportunistic young people to commit such abhorrent crimes.

    Not Playstations.

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  • We have grown up with this in Norhern Ireland where a new generation of bored youths take to the street each year. Deprived of what? Values I would say.

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  • This being an architecture magazine it seems important to stay focussed on the role of architecture in assisting our damaged society to heal and grow. There have been many initiatives, such as the 'small places' competition, which contribute positively. Perhaps there should be a wider debate about more practical ideas such as this in the AJ and RIBA.

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  • Christine Murray

    It would make an interesting debate. I've added Irena Bauman's comment above: 'No amount of regeneration funding will help.' Have architectural interventions in public realm been used by local authorities to gloss over deeper social problems? Have they been paying lipservice to change and regeneration, using public realm/small projects as public relations campaigns, so that they can show something tangible they are doing, when really they are doing nothing to 'redistribute wealth', as Bauman suggests. Many of these projects did improve neighbourhoods, etc. but they needed to be underpinned by social programmes to really 'regenerate' a place.

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  • Very nice and all - but why ask seven men and only one woman?

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  • Christine Murray

    We asked several women, actually. The first thinkers to reply were posted yesterday, but we will continue to update this page, and post more comments, as they come in.

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  • http://rattviseformedlingen.se/english

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  • Mostly constructive, these comments. Thankyou. Architects etc may be encouraged or discouraged by the battles with Boris over his new London Plan: observations:
    (i) unless we can retain low- and middle-income residence in gentrifying areas none of the potential understanding or interaction, none of the discovery of common class interests, is even POSSIBLE.
    (ii) action groups did fight against the “social mix policy” (never applied in rich areas and often causing displacement) in Boris’s new London Plan, and persuaded the expert panel to recommend deletion of the policy 2.10B. Boris however just softened it a bit to read “A more balanced mix of tenures should be sought in all parts of London, particularly in some neighbourhoods where social renting predominates and there are concentrations of deprivation”.
    (iii) in the same arena we persuaded the panel to recommend that, in ‘regeneration areas’ there should be no loss of social rented housing. Here again Boris resisted, writing in Policy 2.14 “These plans should resist loss of housing, including affordable housing, in individual regeneration areas unless it is replaced by better quality accommodation, providing at least an equivalent floorspace.” So displacement could get rapidly worse.
    (iv) There is research on these issues: universities are not totally complicit in what is happening.
    More on all this at http://justspace2010.wordpress.com

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  • FLOW

    I grew up with kids like these, in one of the most deprived neighborhoods in the North West, which is a lot more insight and 'engagement' than most architects will ever have.

    Naturally many architects are from leafy suburbs, and love to theorise in journals and talk about 'community engagement', imagining they can make a difference. But I know that there will always be kids who want to smash things up - just for a laugh, nothing more. Given the chance, they will take it. They don't care about 'architecture' or 'society', or anything, and never will. There is not much that architects can do about it.

    "People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it." Martin Luther King Jr.

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  • There is an underlying malaise to which W J R Curtis alludes and which Charles Holland talks about in depth on a recent blog (his point about the violence done to society by the financial system rendering the recent violence on the streets as insignificant is particularly pertinent). As distasteful as it is to hear 'yoofs' talk about how 'no -one will give them anything, so they have decided to take it', one has to wonder when Higher Education now seems only for the rich, and when the industrial base of the country has been completely eroded (so that those who don't go to uni can only really look forward to a career in Salisbury's or McDonald's), what do the young really have to look forward to?

    In terms of architecture, buildings have been commandeered by those with no-voice, becoming burning reminders the problems in society that both the Starbucks frequenting left and the Fox hunting right choose to ignore in their own way. The burning of the Reeves Furniture store in Croydon (a building I've known all my life) was disgraceful but the shock it has caused has generated this current wave of soul searching (a wave that the government and opposition tried very hard to smother before it got going). One wonders how much politicians and us as citizens are complicit in the burning of that historic iconic building? In the 7th century, the 2nd Calif of Islam, Umar had a thief brought before him, he was reminded that the punishment for theft in Islam is the severing of a hand. Umar asked the thief why he had stolen, to which he received the reply 'I and my family are starving'. Umar then declared, 'then let the hand of the Calif be cut off for failing to do his duty and provide for his people'.

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  • Robbert Geelen

    Meaningful and inspiring comments!
    The philosopher Toulmin explains that the era of rationalism in which we live since Descartes (17th century), and where it is mainly about scientific truths, we have made some progress but it didn't made us happier. The thinking head has given too much priority over the feeling heart.
    This phenomena has led us to a lot of 'ego' in society... In professions as architecture and urbanism... No passion. No inspiration. No 'heart', a lot of 'head'...
    In my opinion it is all about linking those two. Going back to basics. Going back to 'craftsmanship' and 'let the cobbler stick to his last'.

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