Ladies and gentlemen, we are all affected by the places in which we live - by the buildings that surround us, and the streets through which we walk.
Our lives are shaped by the towns and cities we inhabit and by the beauty or the ugliness of our surroundings. From time to time, this powerful truth so touches a young man, or a young woman, that they decide they must become an architect - to play some part in arresting the tide of uglification which threatens to engulf us, and to reintroduce beauty and harmony. It is because one particular young man, Stephen Lawrence, wanted to be an architect and, indeed, because of the work of my foundation, that I have been asked to speak to you today at this, the first Stephen Lawrence Memorial lecture.
It was, of course, Stephen Lawrence's dream to become an architect, to use his creative talents to design buildings and places of quality, interest and beauty, and I am delighted that the Trust, established in his name, has chosen to work to promote opportunities for others to follow a similar path.
My own foundation, based here in Shoreditch, is providing teaching programmes in the buildings arts, and I am pleased to announce a new scholarship, in the name of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, to enable one or more students to take a place on our very successful one year foundation course in architecture. How wonderful it would be if, through my foundation, we could help to increase the proportion of black and ethnic minority practitioners in the field of architecture. Apart from anything else, we are in desperate need of people who have a real sensitivity to their environment and who understand how to blend the past sympathetically with the present.
The public art
Architecture, of course, occupies a unique place in our sensibilities. Unlike other artistic endeavours, it is totally public in its manifestations. Whether consciously or not, buildings and the places that they form stand as reflections of the values of our society. Yet all too often, the quality of architecture, and what can only be described as the thoughtlessness of the design of so many of our built environments, serves to undermine the quality of life of the communities in which they stand. For there can be no doubt that the human condition requires not just a physical or functional sustenance, but also emotional and spiritual nourishment, and our architecture, which is, after all, nothing more nor less than the physical form that we give to the world, serves at many levels either to enhance, or to undermine, these needs.
The importance of 'place' can hardly be overstated, and it is therefore the responsibility - and privilege - of the architect to help to create locations as places of true quality and appeal.
It is this immense influence that buildings have over the quality of our living experience that has given architecture a status of the utmost importance. As a vocation and a craft, it has historically often been venerated, regarded even as sacred. It was Simon, the great Ottoman architect of the sixteenth century, who said that 'architecture is the most difficult of professions, and he who would practise it must, above all things, be pious'. Much of the very best of architecture has, of course, been inspired by, and in turn, given expression to, the great belief systems of a time and place. Yet much good architecture has far more often been of a domestic and human scale; frequently a marriage of very localised needs and materials, such as the modest architecture and easy urban form of a historic village or small town. For architecture at its best does not, I feel, need to be grand or loud, but neither should it be mindless or soulless. Indeed, it is often the very modesty of well-crafted buildings that helps to create the best and most lasting sense of community well-being, urban order and vitality, as well as establishing and maintaining commercial value.
Good architecture is all about working with the grain of a place, rather than against it, and humility in architecture in no way needs to imply sameness, blandness or poor design. It is depressing that so much architecture has become what I would describe as 'genetically modified' rather than 'organic' - in other words, clinically functional rather than, in Chris Alexander's words, 'growing out directly from the inner nature of the people. . . '
It remains my belief that the large numbers of practising architects who choose to live, or to spend their holidays, in places that are usually of a historic nature, is a testament to the power of tradition, even if, in more than a few cases, they choose to design to quite different principles and standards!
This art of what can be called 'place-making' has been sadly neglected and undermined by a great deal of twentieth-century architecture and urban planning practice. There has, I feel, been a tragic loss of respect, often even of any acknowledgement, of the value of craftsmanship, artistry and tradition in the teaching and practice of architecture. It also seems to me that for far too long architecture has been regarded, along with the other built environment disciplines such as engineering, town planning and surveying, as a separate, self-referential and, all too often, selfcongratulatory school of expertise.
It is now more than 10 years since I set out to make a modest, but I hope useful, effort to offer an altogether different approach to architectural teaching and practice; one that sought to offer an alternative methodology to the established architectural schools and institutes. That project, which found expression in what was my Institute of Architecture and now continues in my foundation, has attempted to provide a mode of learning that is based around a practical, as well as theoretical, appreciation of the great and enduring building traditions whereby those aspiring to building could gain a fuller understanding of what it means to build. This approach, together with a very practical development of artistic and craft skills in the design and construction of buildings, is very different from the technical and functional approaches of most modern teaching. For me, and I suspect many others, the profession of architecture has become too introverted, often at the expense of its truer purpose as an integrated process in the art of the building.
None of this is to seek to sponsor parody or pastiche, and my foundation is certainly not an exercise in defending tradition for its own sake.
Pastiche, I know, is the cardinal sin for an architect - although you only have to look about you to see that pastiche is alive and well in the context of modernist architecture. However, far worse, it seems to me, is the careless and arrogant rejection of the legacy of many centuries and many societies. This vast historical library of architectural style and technique is so huge and so important to our proper understanding of the modern world that it should at least form the foundation for the training of a new generation of practitioners in the building arts. Incidentally, at long last I can see some signs that this fundamental truth is gaining popularity in some other quarters and professions, notably in health care where complementary medicine is becoming better established and in agriculture where the organic approach is being seen as truly 'sustainable'. Both of these new trends are, of course, fundamentally traditional techniques that are now utterly fashionable! They are, one may say without irony, truly 'modern'. And why? Because they are based on well-tried, timeless principles that are a reflection of the inner, miraculous, and mysterious, workings of nature.
A sense of tradition
Sadly, it seems to remain the case that architecture, and especially the process of architectural training, largely and sometimes completely, ignores the value of a grounding in traditional techniques that, until fairly recently, were considered to be the life blood of any designer's learning. Such basic skills as measured drawing, drawing from life and classical geometry now find no place in the courses of most schools of architecture. This, to my mind, is a short-sighted tragedy and, I believe, serves to undermine the very integration of craftsmanship, art and building that is surely the ultimate ambition of architecture itself. Like the examples of medicine or agriculture, I am convinced that the time has come for a rehabilitation of these techniques in the quest for a more complete, organic and ultimately more sustainable architecture of the future.
I repeat that I am not seeking a static and backward-looking architecture; rather a reassertion of the value of a living tradition as a vast reservoir of ideas and techniques to sustain a truly contemporary architecture that reflects the timeless nature of our human experience. But my foundation is unusual, not just in the manner in which we teach, but also because, alongside and integrated into the teaching work, we bring together an immensely rich range of practical project work. Its endeavours, brought together now under one roof in our own refurbished building here in Shoreditch, offer a unique environment where ideas and practice can be brought together. It is this practical holistic and highly creative learning environment, where skills and ideas are developed alongside hands-on project work, that I believe can offer a new model for encouraging better design.
This part of London is a perfect place from which students and practitioners can draw inspiration, and where I believe the ideas that have inspired my foundation are evident around us. It is an area where the buildings and the streetscape help to sustain an area that is mixed, vibrant and busy, yet it doesn't rely on skyscrapers or vast glass blocks to achieve its activity. Its historic buildings are generally modest in their architecture, yet abundant with evidence of craftsmanship and care. There is immense variety too, in the architecture and detailing of the buildings, yet almost all retain a respectful scale, height and orientation for the buildings around them and crucially, they are quite capable of adaptation for new uses. What began life as a factory, a workshop, a warehouse, even a tramshed, has become perhaps an office, apartments, a restaurant or a lecture hall. How different from so many more recent building practices, where rigid zoning of land uses undermines vitality and interest; where buildings are designed as expressions of individual ego rather than collective interest, and where the narrow functionality of modern design creates an inevitable life cycle of single purpose and often inflexible use. I have no doubt that many such buildings will become victims of their own builtin obsolesce long before these altogether more modest ones in Shoreditch (most of which are at least a hundred years old already) finally fall from favour.
I have talked about what I might call 'an architecture of the heart'; one that respects the role of craft and human scale and that acknowledges the need for that crucial dimension of spirit and human feeling in our thinking, designing and practice. I have talked, too, about the need to find a more truly integrated link between ideas and practice, and between all those professions involved in the process of building and the creation of place. I must say, too, that such an approach can be far easier to adopt (although sometimes all the more challenging for those involved! ) when communities are genuinely empowered to influence the course of urban planning, regeneration or local building. I have always been a supporter of what is sometimes called 'community planning' or 'action planning' and I am delighted that this is, at long last, being recognised as a legitimate, even a welcome method of involving people in the planning of a new development. It is high time that the often arcane and alienating processes of town planning and building design became more accessible and accountable to those that are left to enjoy - or endure - the results.
Cultures and craft
The Stephen Lawrence Trust is dedicating itself to encouraging and supporting more young people with talent to take up training for a career in architecture. This is excellent news and I wish them every success and I hope our new scholarship will be able to play some part in helping the quest to fulfil its objectives. It is an often forgotten truth that, until relatively recently, architects were drawn from a very wide range of backgrounds and disciplines, whether artists, carpenters, stonemasons or even, I might add, philosophers. Only with the advent of an increasing and ultimately, I believe, quite damaging specialisation, has architecture lost both the breadth of vision and the link with other practical disciplines that would, in my view, improve the quality of that which is built.
Stephen Lawrence was cruelly robbed of the chance to develop his potential talents in the field of architecture. I am sure that his parents who did so much to support him in his ambition will join with me in hoping that the Trust established in Stephen's memory, and my foundation, can find a mutual interest in working together to find more opportunities for those with talent to find a role in building design, and to help those that do to find inspiration in the many cultural and craft traditions to which I have referred. In that way, perhaps, it may be possible to create a fitting memorial to Stephen Lawrence.