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SEDA Green Drinks: Scottish Green Party’s Robin Harper

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The legacy of Howard Liddell and John Hopkins

Chris Stewart of Collective Architecture reports

Hosted by Matt Bridgestock of John Gilbert Architects, SEDA’s April Green Drinks (26 April) was delivered by former Green MSP Robin Harper. When he took office in 1999, Harper was the first elected Green parliamentarian in the UK, serving until 2011.

Robin Harper

Robin Harper, Scottish Green Party

Billed as a debate about independence and its effect on ecological design, those of us familiar with Robin’s interactive style were unsurprised when that question never arose. Powerpoint-less Robin sat amongst us and we gathered tables, drinks and chairs around him. It is difficult to describe the next hour, as the informality spawned a discussion on the motivations for ecological thought, honing in on the question ‘what now?’. As SEDA’s patron, it was impossible to deny Robin the freedom to espouse.

As a relatively recent member of SEDA, my own reasons for joining were deep dissatisfaction with the wash of SAP calcs, low U-values, recycled Waitrose food wrappings and the despair of ‘is that it?’ I was delighted to observe others, who had been nursing their raison d’être as long as their pints, visibly brighten and share this feeling.

Robin had originally been scheduled to speak in February but his talk was postponed as a mark of respect for the passing of Howard Liddell. With gusto Robin waved above his head a much-thumbed copy of Eco-Minimalism, the best known of Liddell’s writings, subtitled ‘the antidote to eco-bling’. The simple messages of Eco-Minimalism were a starting point to the chat: the pitfalls of a Christmas Tree approach to ecological design; the aim to put living beings at its core; and the use of an appropriate level of building science.

Unable to restrain nostalgia for a time when the green message was fresh and clear, Robin spoke about the original preface to Eco-Minimalism, which referenced Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring written in 1962. [ed. note: if you haven’t read it, you should. HH] Silent Spring had little to do with design but a lot to do with the creation of the green movement.

It was this need to be active which was Robin’s message for today. On discovering that at least half the audience had not heard of the Sinking of Rainbow Warrior in 1985, he took the opportunity to remember the lengths taken to prevent the testing of nuclear warheads, the death of Fernando Pereira and the subsequent French cover-up.

Our job is to spread the word, change the minds of developers, affect legislation and infiltrate universities

Fired up with history, we pointed out that although we had no desire to be silent, we are primarily designers and that is our passion. We were subsequently told our job is to spread the word, to change the minds of developers, affect written legislation and in particular to follow Robin’s lead as the Green Party spokesman on young people and infiltrate schools, colleges and universities. It turned out Robin was preaching to the converted as much of the congregation had already taken that path.

Our own practice Collective Architecture places a huge emphasis on collaboration and working with schools, with a focus not just on green but on a simple understanding of design. This approach was supported by Anna Poston from SUST through their BAFTA-winning ‘My Sust House’ computer game. The aim of ‘My Sust House’ is to engage school children in learning about sustainable building design, and it has now been extended to include sustainable town planning.

Now that we were all determined to be changemakers, we had to acknowledge our base need to be designers. This prompted Robin to speak about John Hopkins, another friend who recently passed away. John Hopkins was the ecological and pioneering landscape architect behind London’s Olympic Park. John was unafraid of mixing design and politics, constantly championing landscape architecture as an essential part of ecological infrastructure. A notable supporter of One Planet Living, his views on our current economy and the need to consider health and wellbeing ahead of growth are well known.

SEDA drinks 3

The Archi-trailor which toured Scotland speaking to communities on behalf of the Scottish Government, hosting Collective Architecture workshops in schools.

We were still not completely satisfied, noting that we are designers not politicians. As we dispersed into smaller groups based around discussions on the economy of overpriced drinks, the remainder of the hour passed quickly. The nag of dissatisfaction had not been rubbed out but at least had been shared. Even though politics rather than design flavoured Robin’s discourse, the lasting message was to be inspired by the determination shown by Howard and John, and that careful design is the answer. Anyway it is more about the ride, we all know what is at the end.

There will be no Green Drinks in May. On 31 May-1 June, SEDA will hold its annual conference and AGM in Aberdeen.

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