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De Rijke and Duffy on the 'social agenda of cities'

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

This week's talk in Daniel Libeskind's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion suggested architecture might at last be emerging from the grip of the so-called 'star system' of big-name architects to embrace, instead, the concept of the 'social agenda of cities'.

But Frank Duffy made it clear that he remained cynical about a system of architectural education that ensures 19 year olds 'never listen to anyone again' after their first week at architecture school.

And Ricky Burdett, in his role as chairman, dismissed from the outset any notion that the RIBA had 'done much to break out of those boundaries'.

If there had been any kind of sea change in the attitude of the profession, suggested Duffy, then it would create a situation in which high-profile architects would no longer be able to get away with 'beautiful' designs that did not have to be justified in any other terms. It must be noted, however, that so-called supporters of good architecture, such as Ken Livingstone, are still promoting that view, without any mention of a social programme or environmental sustainability as the fundamental criteria in any project. Disturbingly, environmental issues did not get a mention in this talk either, even in relation to Alex de Rijke's unbuilt, competition-winning Eco-Station in Docklands.

If de Rijke is to be believed, it was a critic's assessment of his early '90s redesign of a trendy London music venue as 'modernity without a social programme' that 'made an indelible mark' on him - and presumably helped push him into the socially responsible and aesthetically distinctive practices for which he has since made a name.

But apart from drawing attention to the value of the oft-maligned critic's role, de Rijke also made a powerful case for the value of a reinvented process of 'public consultation' in the emergence of 'new', socially aware architecture. His 'Beacon' project involved the transformation of phone boxes into video booths where local people could make suggestions about their environment - immediately relayed onto an enormous screen.

Duffy, who has long championed the need to borrow social engagement techniques from the social sciences, also indicated the enormous potential of the internet to communicate with people and fundamentally alter the way architecture is generated.

Duffy was also at pains to emphasise that this process is not only inherently pleasurable, but that without it, a project will go badly wrong.However, strong leadership, a client open to change and a thorough overhaul of the 'delivery system' are also vital components of success.And the end result - a building - is 'a more powerful medium than any other I can imagine' for representing social values and identities. For de Rijke, this represents a tremendous aesthetic opportunity, 'the possibility of an outcome beyond expectation'.

Frank Duffy and Alex de Rijke were speaking in the third of the Architecture Foundation's summer talks at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2001. Next week, Mark Cousins and Antony Gormley take the platform (Monday 6.30pm)

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