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Ken Livingstone: AJ100 Greatest Contribution to the Profession

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Hundreds of architects cast their votes in a survey that elected the former Mayor of London as the living figure who has had the most significant impact on UK architecture

It takes a while for Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, to remember why the AJ is interviewing him in his garden, over a more than passably cold beer. ‘The AJ award? Of course, now I remember,’ says this year’s winner of the AJ100 Contribution to the Profession award, suddenly delighted. ‘It’s a real pleasure to win this award, as it’s the decision of architects themselves.’

More than 600 employees from the AJ100 practices cast their votes in a survey that elected Livingstone as the living figure who has had the most significant impact on UK architecture in their lifetime. As Mayor of London, Livingstone was often seen as a champion of architecture. His vision of London as a world city led to the construction of skyscrapers such as Foster + Partners’ 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin), and few elected individuals have had such a dramatic impact on the capital’s skyline.

During his tenure, Livingstone also positioned architects as the foremost authorities on how cities should grow and evolve, appointing Richard Rogers as his chief advisor on architecture and urbanism, which in turn led to the creation of Design for London.

But why does Livingstone think the AJ100 voted for him? ‘I think it was the fact that we encouraged architects to take risks,’ he says. ‘I have no architecture skill whatsoever. Leadership is about giving other people who have the skills the chance to use them. What I tried to do was give architects the opportunity to excel.’

Livingstone felt architects needed more opportunities in London, rather than using their talent abroad. ‘Most of the great work that Foster and Rogers had done was in other cities in the world, rather than their home city, which is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘And not just them, but you have a plethora of really imaginative architects based in London, building wonderful buildings around the world, but not here.’

‘London is home to one of the greatest collections of architectural talent on earth, and this helps define London as a centre of creative excellence,’ adds Livingstone. ‘I felt you needed to give architects the chance to produce something great.’

According to Livingstone, in order to make this happen, a paradigm shift needed to take place in the London boroughs. ‘The attitude of the average borough council was conservative with a small C,’ says Livingstone. ‘Cautious, unimaginative and tedious to work with.’

With the help of the Urban Task Force and the London Planning Advisory Committee, he envisaged a different city. ‘I took the view to look at where we are now, factored in climate change, and decided you must contain as much of the growth of the South East inside the GLA [Greater London Authority] boundary and build on as much brownfield as you can.’

Livingstone pulls no punches when describing the policies of current Mayor, Boris Johnson. ‘He would never claim to have a progressive attitude,’ says Livingstone. ‘He is a 19th-century little Englander at best. Or even 18th-century.’

Livingstone, who makes no secret of his plans to run for mayor again, says he expects the city to be ‘backward looking’ for the next three years. Planning will, however, be a big issue at the next mayoral election. As will climate change, which he says will have a pivotal impact on the profession. ‘The great architects of 2040 will be those that can design a building that can stand intolerable heat without air conditioning,’ he says.

Asked what he loves most about the capital, Livingstone says: ‘I think what makes London such an amazing city to live in is that it is always changing… I love going to Paris, but I find the uniformity of the architecture oppressive.

‘I don’t want uniformity,’ adds Livingstone. ‘I want a city that is diverse and changing.’

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