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Ecobuild: the London riots

photo: flickr.com
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‘Sustainability’ and the riots? Owen Hatherley, Irena Bauman, Indy Johar and Finn Williams

I go to Ecobuild every year without fail. But I still have divided opinions on it. I’m always excited to meet old friends and swap tales of what greenwash we have seen, but equally to find new products that I can recommend to clients. I’m always astounded at the pure amount of greenwash under one roof, and I worry about the environmental impact of an exhibition claiming to offer sustainable solutions. Its scale, size and all the energy pumped into it must defeat that objective.

Now, something of an Ecobuild veteran, I have a strategy. I plan, making a list of the lectures and seminars I want to hear, and the stalls I want to see, and quickly passing by much of the rest. I have a few key stalls I visit every year; CAT, AECB, Passivhaus Trust and RESET, and then the rest depends on any projects I am working on at the time.

The lectures are always the highlight for me, by far the most worthwhile part of the conference, and this year’s were no different.

My first, entitled ‘Architects, Planners and the Post Riot City’ was a crowd pull despite being on at the same time as Monty Don speaking upstairs. Though I have to admit I did wonder whether sustainability was tackled enough for lecture at a conference on the subject.

The speakers included the journalist, Owen Hatherley, Irena Bauman of Baumann Lyons Architects, Indy Johar of Architecture 00:/ and Finn Williams of Common Office. Each speaker had very different approaches and this resulted in an interesting debate.

Finn Williams spoke about his experience in working with the community of Croydon, where the mayor has now pledged £23 million of funding in response to the riots. He described the riots as a ‘social response’ to the way we live in today’s society.

Finn was followed by Irena Bauman whose stance came much more from the perspective of an architect. She began by saying ‘riots are part of the mechanism for providing sustainability’. Her focus was on the wealth disparity present in our cities. Attempts at regeneration often focus on the city centres, providing a greater gap between these areas and those living in what are often the poorest areas surrounding them. She believed that it is this ‘unsustainable condition of society’ which led to last year’s rioting.

Indy Johar spoke of our reliance on a macro economy, saying ‘cities work in a micro level, not at the level of architects or buildings’, and that this was part of the problem. He called for regeneration not to be led by physical intervention but by ‘social and civic innovation’.

Owen Hatherley finished the session by talking about the design of our cities, and the ‘smug English approach to urban design’. He used the example, present in so many of our cities, of the new shiny office block, next to the hip and trendy shopping mall, and the unbelievably poor council estate, where there is no palpable divide between the richest and the poorest. People consider this to be both vibrant and tolerant, yet disparity is built into our landscapes. We live within it and are no longer shocked by it.

The conclusion was that, yes, design probably did have a part to play in the riots, and that today’s society and the way we live is not sustainable. But, that architects actually have a very small part to play in this much larger problem. Finn said, ‘it is important we recognise how limited an architect’s power is’.

In order to engage in sustainable regeneration that actually helps the communities in which we are working, we need to look at the economic and social problems of our cities. Maybe it is not always about building a building, but perhaps sustainable architecture in our cities should be about thinking how we work with those who live in the spaces which we create.

by Laura Mark, Pick Everard Architects and past AJ sustainability intern

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