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Building on a decade of design debate

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The Architecture Foundation is 10 years old. Jay Merrick takes a look back - and forward - at the often controversial enthusiasts for design The Architecture Foundation, the British profession's 'useful irritant' according to new chairman Will Alsop, is used to thinking outside the box. Two Mondays ago, the foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary in the barrel-vaulted Haddock Gallery of Billingsgate market in the knowledge that it does not yet have a box to go to when it quits its St James' exhibition space in March.

This potential homelessness seems apt. Why should anything be too easy for an organisation whose ethos is based on promoting self-help in architectural and planning matters among the public, and in fertilising debate among those architects whose idealism may have more to do with professional exclusivity and aesthetic cleansing than issues that, if exposed, would make projects difficult to control?

'What I think the Architecture Foundation can do is explore public participation, ' said Alsop. 'It is an evolving museum for experiment and testing, project-based, and it raises funds for particular projects to explore things such as housing - a big issue.

We could then build on our new site, experiment. So there's a way to use our headquarters as both a museum and an architectural exhibition, the contents of which are part of exploration of the open process of architecture.'

The tap-root of that open process was evident from the start in 1991 when, among rather more standard kit stuff about museums and modernism, the foundation mounted an exhibition called 'Lost Opportunities for London', which proposed, among other things, an elevated railway running down the middle of the Thames and an airport on top of King's Cross. That event set an extraRIBA marker for alternative agendas. The following year London was the big subject, and in 1993 it got grittier: Foyer, a transitional centre for young homeless people designed by Ian Simpson, was in the spotlight; so too was Croydon, which was seeking bright ideas for a makeover.

The foundation's recipe grew steadily more catholic. Dance, structure and landscape, floating social housing, 'sensual' installations and then, in 1996, 'London in the 21st century', a series of debates which drew more than 15,000 members of the public and a keynote speech from Tony Blair, then leader of the opposition. It was a turning point: the Architecture Foundation discovered it could pull. 'It also changed, for a while, some views of the [London] Evening Standard, ' Alsop noted with relish, 'which had to be good.'

The subject matter grew more experimental, moving into blurred zones. Neon artist Clare Brew contributed to an 'urban thinking' exhibition; there was film theory, high-rise allotments and Jam's rather clunky interactive four-poster bed. But the purest expression of the foundation's agenda surfaced in 1998 with the AF Roadshow, a participatory design initiative that involved the London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith and Fulham. It targeted 19 neglected spaces in the three boroughs, sucked local people into the improvement process and delivered designs that received local authority commitments. This direct-action public service aspect became the project propellant of choice after Lucy Musgrave became director of the foundation in 1997.

'We don't have the answers, but we're in a brilliant position to ask questions, ' she insisted at the time. 'We can bring fresh thinking into the public domain, action research, typically in areas of urban deprivation.We all share the public realm. Small interventions can affect public life. The young generation of architects sees ways of engaging in our work on these questions - some of which have fallen off the agenda in architectural education. There's sometimes a suspicion about architects' desire to get engaged.'

The Architecture Foundation's vibe, with Alsop as chair, may radiate a little more hazard. 'To work and not know what you're going to do, ' he mused, 'allowing the process to determine decisions.

In that way, it's not difficult.' This implies a redefinition of the role of architects - their very behaviour, perhaps, so that projects 'are allowed to come into being.

They're not always best left to architects.'

London's virtual architecture centre faces one rather less philosophical challenge: dosh is a hottish potato. CABE's funding will soon be withdrawn, though it is helping the foundation to find other backers. Ultimately, the Greater London Authority is expected to become a core funder. Ken Livingstone's close links with Lord Rogers, who founded the foundation, may be significant.

The menu of AF events in the next two years broaches fresh ground, which began last week with the first installment of 'Calling London', a public participation and publicity campaign; and tied to that will be London Film Shorts, delivering the AF's agenda via TV and cinema screenings. Particularly potent are plans to develop a Virtual London photo-realistic digital city resource, with Camden and Hackney in the initial mix.

The 3D map will, among other things, equalise an important part of planning debates by giving the public chapter and verse on the physical impacts of key projects. A series of exhibitions and workshops, Futuropa, will promote public rights in planning processes.

Among the other major developments planned subject to funding, already past the £1 million mark thanks to substantial contributions from the Glass-House Trust and the EU Culture 2000 Fund, is the appointment of an education officer; a magazine called Access to attract more ethnic minorities and women to architecture; an investigation into 'therapeutic environments'; and Quality Streets, creating 'a place of safety and delight' in a London neighbourhood.

'Architecture, 'Musgrave insists, 'is the glue of public life. And you don't have to accommodate 2,000 people on a Friday night to be a pacey institution. Look at our event at the Serpentine - 400 people on a summer night. People attract people.' The usefully irritating glue-spreaders of the Architecture Foundation are ready to rumble.

Jay Merrick is The Independent's architecture correspondent

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