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Big problems are rarely solved by thinking small

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Architects need to stand up, be counted, and once again lead the charge for, to coin the AJ phrase, More and Better homes, writes Paul Finch

When did architects stop thinking big as a matter of course? Two people have asked that question in conversation this week, noting that these days ideas about cities and regeneration tend to come from clients or engineers, new creatives on the urban stage.

There are still practices engaging with the broad issues facing us today, for example the Foster ports/rail/airport initiative, or Terry Farrell’s work on south-east England prompted by the idea of Gatwick expansion. But they are exceptions that prove the rule, even though we face arguably the biggest urban challenge since the industrial revolution. With London’s population set to jump by a couple of million in the next 20 years, it is surely time for the profession to start addressing the social and environmental implications in a broad-brush and forward-looking way, rather than waiting for site-specific commissions aloof from the big picture.

Perhaps it is modesty which explains what might be regarded as a lack of ambition. After the failure of the Corbusian dream, we seem to have lost the appetite to ‘make no small plans’, as Daniel Burnham put it. On the other hand, if architects do not engage, the vacuum in thinking will be filled by the thoughts and ideas of others, not necessarily to huge effect.

A continuing example is the lack of affordable housing across large parts of the country, the shortfall in housing starts and completions by private builders, and the roller-coaster condition of the mortgage market. The surreal nature of the problem was laid bare this week as pressure mounted for tougher mortgage conditions just as we stopped congratulating ourselves on the increase in house-building - prompted by the underwriting by the taxpayer of mortgages for the relatively well-off. We stopped because the economists pointed out that we were making a bubble bigger.

Even more surreal was the announcement by planning minister Nick Boles that his brave new policy to create affordable housing is to insist the councils find sites for any self-builders who want to have a crack at creating their own nest. The council will also have to connect up the new home to the water system. Whether it is garden cities, cheap mortgages or ‘custom-build’, the politicians jump on each and every passing bandwagon as though it is, to mix a metaphor, a get-out-of-jail-free solution to 30 years of policy failure.

As it happens, custom-building most certainly has its place in the pantheon of policies to increase supply. Self-builders produce better dwellings with higher space standards than many volume suppliers and in the past have been a significant part of the housing supply chain.

But self-build is only one element in the drive towards greater numbers. It will not replace the requirement for homes directly commissioned by the public sector. As the financial commentator Anthony Hilton stated in the London Evening Standard last week, we need to bring back council housing, or some version of it. Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is working on a project for Newham Council, which will not be a ghetto for the poor, but mixed tenure. Perhaps this is the way forward. Alison Brooks spoke at a recent conference on low-cost housing about how local authorities are finding the confidence to become clients again - not before time, given the need for estate renewal and intensification.

Building sufficient homes will never just be a technical matter. It is about politics, design, land, construction and, above all, a burning desire to house all our people decently. It is what once inspired a profession confident about its role in society. Architects need to stand up, be counted, and once again lead the charge for, to coin the AJ phrase, More and Better Homes.

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