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Architects under attack: why the profession stands accused of 'social cleansing'


Campaigners at the AJ120 Awards last week accused architects of colluding in ‘social cleansing’, sparking a debate about the profession’s moral responsibilities, reports Colin Marrs

Architects and clients were mingling and sipping champagne in the Tower of London moat as they awaited the start of the AJ120 Awards.

Then, just before 6.30pm, the air began to thicken with an aerial assault. Guests put down their glasses and unfolded the paper aeroplane manifestos that landed at their feet.

Around 20 noisy protesters from Fight4Aylesbury, a residents’ campaign group from south London’s Aylesbury Estate, along with nascent activist group Architects for Social Housing (ASH) had taken up positions on higher ground. The aim was to shame HTA Design, Hawkins\Brown and Mae for their design work on the ongoing Aylesbury regeneration, which protesters claim is an exercise in ‘social cleansing’.

The decision to target the scheme’s architects marks a new tactic in protests of this kind. ASH – which describes itself as a collective of architects and other built environment professionals, artists and housing activists – promises to repeat it, presenting the profession with some difficult questions. What role do practices have in making society a better place? Should they take a stand by refusing to work on certain schemes? Or are morals best left to the client to worry about?

Last year, social landlord Notting Hill Housing was chosen by Southwark Council as development partner on the Aylesbury Estate project. Both are committed to demolishing the 2,700 homes and replacing them with 3,500 new ones. Half will be ‘affordable’, with 25 per cent for shared ownership or equity, and the remainder at ‘target rent’ – which protesters fear will be higher than current social rents.

The groups are angry about the prospect of increased rents and compensation levels offered to leaseholders evicted to make way for the bulldozers. Simon Elmer, co-founder of ASH, says the firms working on the scheme are in breach of the RIBA code of conduct, which states members should ‘have a proper concern and due regard for the effect that their work may have on its users and the local community’.

Architects appear human, but they are not

Fight4Aylesbury’s Aysen Dennis takes a hard line: ‘We are telling the architects to withdraw from this scheme. Wherever they go, we are going to name and shame them, and hassle them. There is no negotiation. Architects appear human, but they are not,’ she says.

Ben Derbyshire of HTA Design, whose London office was also the victim of an invasion by the group in May, says the tactics are intimidating. He says he was ‘rather frightened by them when they occupied our office and encircled me’. But he was ‘heartened by the understanding, solidarity and support of colleagues at the AJ120 event’.

The irony, says Derbyshire, is that he is also campaigning for affordable and better housing. Architects have little say in the tenure of homes in schemes, he claims – this is for developers and councils to thrash out. So he is ‘perplexed that [campaigners’] action is directed at the design team – a soft target that is in no position to give them what they want.’

We see architects as people who we can talk to

Elmer explains the tactic: ‘I came up for the idea of targeting the architects during discussions with the Aylesbury protesters. We are already going after the developers, councillors and bailiffs, but they are hard to speak to. We see architects as people who we can talk to and, because they are generally liberal, will be prepared to listen.’

Architectural commentator Jonathan Meades is unsure this approach will be effective: ‘I don’t think ethics and architecture go together. Architects have a long history of being sycophantic to people who can give them jobs.’

Others believe architects do have a moral duty.

‘The idea that you can wash your hands and claim it is someone else’s problem is a cop-out,’ says Anthony Engi-Meacock, founder member of architecture collective Assemble.

Peter Barber adds: ‘We haven’t turned down a lot of work but we would do so if we felt there was a moral issue at stake.’

But even Engi-Meacock admits that such moral judgements are far from straightforward.

In the Aylesbury case, he says: ‘Gentrification is a difficult one, because not developing some of these places can be problematic.’

Indeed, the financial imperative is not necessarily at odds with ethical. And it is easier for sole traders to be picky, Engi-Meacock believes, because those running larger practices have a different moral imperative – being able to pay their employees. A decision to boycott work is not only tough, but is only effective if the whole profession stands together.

‘The justification for taking dubious jobs can be: “If we don’t do the work, someone else will, so we will try to do it better than them”,’ says Barber. His point is illustrated by the failure in 2012 of a mooted boycott of the competition to design a replacement for Robin Hood Gardens, another post-war council estate in Tower Hamlets.

Simon Webley, research director at the Institute for Business Ethics, adds that in other sectors, trade bodies play a key role in defending firms involved in similar scrapes. So far, the RIBA’s response has been low key. When approached for comment by the AJ, it issued a general comment about the government’s policy on the provision of affordable housing. This response came less than a month after it proffered no opinion on the government’s Right to Buy extension proposals.

For the architecture profession, the Aylesbury protests signal an increasing risk from activists who previously only targeted ‘greedy’ developers and councils.

Webley says practices must be sensitive to the growing danger: ‘You need to ask the right questions early in the process to assess the degree of reputational risk in supporting such projects.

‘If you feel you are justified in proceeding, then you need to make your position absolutely clear. Rational people will understand.’

AJ120 protests

Fight4Aylesbury’s manifesto

We protest against the AJ120 nomination of hta Design, Hawkins/Brown and Mae Architects for the award of collaboration of the year for their part in the eviction, demolition and gentrification of the Aylesbury Estate.

We protest against the collaboration of architects in the transformation of London’s housing into commodities for property investors.

We protest against the demolition of housing estates built by architects who had a vision of the social duties of architecture so lacking in today’s architects.

We protest against the poverty of vision shown by contemporary architects in thrall to property developers, financiers and architectural awards.

We protest against the Architects’ Journal’s fetishising of form, materials and individual architects over the social context of what they build.

We protest against the assumption of neutrality by architects who are instrumental in the social cleansing of working-class communities in London.

We protest against the lameness of the excuses offered by architects for giving up their social, ethical and artistic agency to economic constraints.

We protest against architects designing housing with segregated entrances and communal spaces, as well as so-called defensive architecture in the form of anti-homeless spikes and benches.

We protest against the AJ120 holding an awards ceremony for architects who continue to offer no answer to London’s housing crisis.

We accuse the 120 architectural practices invited here this evening of breaking paragraph 5 of the arb architects’ code for standards of conduct and practice to ‘consider the wider impact of your work’.

We demand that paragraph 12 of the architects’ code against ‘discrimination because of disability, age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or any other inappropriate consideration’ be amended to include ‘economic class.’

We call on architects to begin working with London’s communities to meet their housing needs, rather than siding with the economic and political forces arrayed against them.     

Will Hurst on the aerial attack on architects at the Tower of London

Will Hurst

When an invading army arrives at your fortress, the last place you want to be is in the moat.

But that’s exactly where architects attending the AJ120 dinner at the Tower of London last Wednesday night were when a noisy band of (thankfully non-violent) aggressors arrived to disrupt the proceedings.

One minute, the AJ’s guests were knocking back champagne, listening to live jazz and enjoying the sunshine. The next they were looking up as a volley of paper aeroplane leaflets rained down on them from the battlements, and being shouted at through a blaring megaphone and harangued for their moral failures. The protesters were certainly difficult to ignore and eventually I decided to go and speak to them, although I paused to put down my champagne flute before climbing up to face them.

What greeted me was the surreal sight of a loan Beefeater arguing with a scrum of protesters as police and security guards looked on. The protest group is called Fight4Aylesbury and one man told me he’d been made homeless from the south London estate. Another – one of the megaphone wielders – was Simon Elmer from the affiliated group Architects for Social Housing.

I asked him why they were targeting architects, pointing out that this was not the 1960s, when this profession enjoyed real power. Elmer told me the choice had been very deliberate because architects, he said, retained an interest in society.

‘We’re trying to debate with architects – we wouldn’t bother if they were developers or bailiffs,’ a colleague added. As their 12-point manifesto showed, this protest group is possibly the first in history to quote from the Architects Registration Board code of conduct. This lot have certainly done some homework. And, whatever you make of their stance, they now have architects firmly in their sights.


Architects under attack: why the profession stands accused of 'social cleansing'


Readers' comments (3)

  • Chris Roche

    If there is a threat to Human Rights in society the Law Society and Legal Profession take a principled stance. Similarly if there is a Health Threat to society or the National Health Service the Medical Profession are vocal in communicating their misgivings.
    Why is it then the Architectural Profession and RIBA in particular remain largely silent in the face of a structural societal problem of affordable homes and an inter-generational crisis in housing provision?
    Chris Roche / Founder 11.04 Architects

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  • Paul McGrath

    The symbolism of architects sipping champagne (also not uncommon for AJ staffers) in a moat while people with a democratic right to protest have to shout to make themselves heard says it all about the current state of architects and their "cllients".

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  • As I've intimated before. The moral dilemma starts way before you think about taking on that dubious project. When you set up in practice you know then what you will be prepared to do to 'succeed'. The justifications to yourself will have been prepared way in advance.

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