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Closing the gap

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As this year’s London Festival of Architecture draws to a close, founder and organiser Peter Murray explains the role the event plays in bringing the profession and the public together

While architects might wish for instant and visceral approval of all their works, I can think of few projects where acceptance is not greatly enhanced by explanation, by providing some understanding of why a building is like it is or indeed why it is there at all. In general the profession is not good at explaining what it does, or the reasons for doing it. In a period of increasing democratisation of the planning process and decision-making in the built environment, this is a bit of a problem.

Ideas about ‘good design’ cannot be imposed. They must form part of our day-to-day culture. I have always believed that design quality emerges from cultures with a real understanding of the issues. In my paid work I have aimed to raise the profile of design. Deyan Sudjic and I launched Blueprint magazine in the 1980s in order to reach a broader audience than the traditional professional media; Wordsearch promotes architects and their projects around the world; New London Architecture explains what is going on in planning and the built environment in the capital. The splendid work of Victoria Thornton and Open-City, not just through Open House but also in training teachers, councillors and local communities, has done much to spread a real understanding of architectural quality.

The London Festival of Architecture draws public attention to the architecture and the architects of the city in many ways. It celebrates architecture with walks, talks and bike rides – from the mammoth Velonotte led by Moscow professor Sergei Nikitin around east London and commentaries by Peter Ackroyd, Richard Rogers and Ricky Burdett, to a ride around central London studying the use of pineapple finials, particularly by Wren on his city churches. Look up! is the message; enjoy and understand the rich architecture of the capital.

The London Festival of Architecture provides an opportunity for architects to get involved in their local area, like the west London practices, including those of Hugh Broughton and Tom Ryland, who got together to propose that the A4 should be tunnellised as a replacement for the crumbling Hammersmith flyover. This is the second time they have taken part in the festival in this way, with numerous benefits: the architects are seen to have a key role in their local area; they create links with the community, with businesses and with politicians; they get to know each other and even a joint CPD programme has emerged from their working together.

When such proposals take off, it means the festival also leaves a legacy. Closing off Exhibition Road for the weekend during the Festival in 2008 played a key role in showing the public, in particular the local residents, the impact and the benefits of the project. The Carmody Groarke installation in Montague Place highlighted plans, now complete, to improve this important space >> behind the British Museum. The installation this year of Roz Barr and Ramboll’s Oculus project in Store Street crescent forms part of the public consultation for what we hope will be the permanent pedestrianisation of this car park space. The work of the Architecture Foundation in Southwark has left a legacy of young architects who deliver installations in London and focused attention on greening and urban food production. The transformation of Gibbons Rents in Southwark this year by Andrew Burns and Sarah Eberle is a brilliant gift to the area.

The British Council’s International Architecture Showcase celebrates London as a diplomatic centre and design hub. Next year we plan to expand this to promote the work of London architects working overseas.

Ten years ago I came up with the idea of a festival in London as a reaction to the Venice Biennale – a splendid event in itself but one that reflects the separation of the profession from its public audience. Leading architects fly in and fly out; there is little relevance to the location except that it’s a great place for a party. I wanted a festival that was rooted in the architectural and local communities and that had a long-term impact on its location. This year, as I watched the west London architects describe their ideas to local people in Lyric Square, as I enjoyed tea and sandwiches in Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ front room as part of the Fitzrovia Hub, sat out on architect-designed benches in the Royal Docks, or scrolled through the hundreds of events from Croydon to Canary Wharf, from Hackney to South Ken on the festival website, I felt we had succeeded.

Peter Murray is an architect and prolific writer on the subject of architecture

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