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Asserting humanist principles to meet the needs of the many

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The Union of International Architects (UIA) has selected the themes of humanity, quality and ability as the three core concepts that will inform its policies and strategies as it seeks to project the essential contribution of the architect in creating the modern world.

Most architects are 'humanist' in their principles and values. They want to work for the common good of society and help create a better world in which all people live and work in attractive buildings in a visually pleasing, safe environment - so says the UIA.

But in the hard world of reality, the 'humanism' of the architect is frequently suppressed due to the competitive, materialistic context within which we operate: design work is required within ever shorter time-frames and must satisfy ever tighter yardsticks on costs within ever more demanding commercial conditions. Goods and resources are unevenly distributed, the emphasis being on private consumption rather than public service. Consequently, most architects work in the private sector satisfying the desires and needs of the few, often at the expense of the many. Their knowledge and skills are all too frequently channelled towards prestigious projects at the expense of social value and relevance to the needs of ordinary people. Low regard is given to unglamorous work, however worthy, be it in the provincial towns and cities of the developed world or the shanty towns and settlements of the developing world.

Despite this, many architects continue to pursue humanist ideals - some with great success. Not surprisingly, others surrender their idealism and swallow their principles in order to benefit, or just survive, financially.

That summarises the background paper that informed the 50 or so delegates who represented countries from around the world at the UIA's special conference held earlier this month near Oxford.

Rod Hackney, past president of the UIA, chaired the event and the debates (which began with a review of the essential meaning of 'values' and their importance to our lives) were rich and varied, with major contributions from speakers such as the Moscow Architectural Institute's president, Alexander Kordryavtsev.

The keynote address was given by the UIA's current president, Vassilis Sgoutas, a man who combines extraordinary humility with the utmost commitment and integrity. One particularly interesting point that he made is that the difference between buildings that meet appropriate goals in terms of humanity, quality and ability and those that do not is sometimes 'tantalisingly small' and, for this reason, it is within our reach to do much better.

This is particularly relevant to the issues of procurement around which so much debate currently exists within the UK: considering just how much effort goes into developing and making a building, it seems absurd that, for the sake of expediency, the outcome is so often compromised through under-resourcing or meddling with the processes of delivery.

Sgoutas also pointed to the importance of continuous experimentation in architecture in pursuit of progress, but was quick to remind us of the dangerous consequences that emerge from the 'social segregation of space'.

Emphasising the importance of knowledge, and the essential role that international organisations such as the UIA have in informing objectives and shaping policies, he emphasised the importance of establishing appropriate and worthwhile values as a basis for architecture's mission.

Sgoutas quoted from a recent editorial in The Times , published to mark National Poetry Day: 'In a world in which science and technology advance in 10 league paces, occupying new territories at a sometimes alarming pace, poets can join other thinkers as part of an advance party, scouting routes into the future, peering towards danger zones, laying down moral and ethical markers. Their art is always to be testing, questioning, challenging.'

Substitute the word architects for poets and you have, claims Sgoutas, the supreme challenge for architecture in a world where mankind's rampant progress now threatens his very existence.

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