The news (see page 6) that the UK will not be putting forward any sites for the Europan 10 competition next year is clearly frustrating for all concerned, and another big setback for the UK’s involvement in the biennial competition. But while this marks a great missed opportunity, it is not necessarily Britain’s young architects who will lose out. Rather, it’s the towns and cities of Britain that will miss out on the opportunity to learn lessons from Europe’s most enlightened cities and benefit from Europe’s young design talent.
Two years ago, our practice, Tom Russell Architects took part in Europan 9, submitting designs for a site in Milton Keynes. We approached it as we would any other contest: we were hoping to expand our portfolio and possibly win a commission for a large project. So, from the 73 sites on offer across Europe, it seemed to make sense to choose the site closest to home with the most realistic chance of being implemented. But in retrospect, this seems like a rather myopic approach.
Europan has always been as much about a cross-cultural exchange of ideas as it has about the delivery of specific projects. And that applies not just to architects, but also to those working in agencies responsible for this. As an organisation, Europan brings together a vast array of people involved in shaping European towns and cities to discuss and exchange ideas and practical lessons.
The real value of Europan only really emerged for us at the final conference. It was there we realised that the lessons gained from Europan are for municipal clients as much as they are for design teams. Sponsors from Milton Keynes and Stoke-on-Trent meet their counterparts from Graz or Groningen to see the benefits of enlightened investment.
One seminar at the conference featured the Mayor of Hamar, a Norwegian town 150km north of Oslo, talking about his town’s experience of the Europan process. The Mayor enthused about the fresh ideas that a pair of young Spanish architects had brought to the problem of unlocking the town’s waterfront. A client and a design team from opposite ends of Europe had found a genuine synergy.
For Europan 10, British architects will still have the opportunity of working on sites across Europe and continuing that dialogue. So while it’s obviously sad that Britain cannot muster the enthusiasm for Europan 10, the lack of British sites should not hamper the ambitions of young architects working in Britain. On the contrary, our young practices will have the opportunity to branch out beyond our borders. At a time of domestic economic stagnation, that may be no bad thing.
Tom Russell is director of Tom Russell Architects