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More debate, less performance please

Turncoats
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Flora Neville finds the flippant tone of the second Turncoats debate jars with its serious subject of community consultation

If sex was the predominant theme of last week’s Turncoats debate, ‘Quit Architecture Now’ (the first in a new series of debates designed to challenge all conventions ever), then aquatic birds, mainly ducks, are central to the second.

The warm-up act is again the satirical and dead-pan guitarist Luke Courtier, though this time, he tells the story of David the goose, (not a duck, but near enough) who is turned into pate. The pathos of his pate tale, he hopes, will convince his West London friends that their penchant for pate is unethical.

Following the warm-up act, curators Maria Smith, founder of Studio Weave and new practice Interrobang, and Phineas Harper, deputy director of the Architecture Foundation, dictate that the audience knock back a shot of vodka ‘in the dark’. Shot in the dark, in case the subtlety eludes you.  

The motion is ‘The profession, the public, and the built environment would be better off without community consultation.’ The two panellists in favour of the motion are Mark Hanson, head of development in London and the south east for housing association the Guinness Partnership and Holly Lewis, co-founder of We Made That - an architectural practice specialising in urban interventions with a strong public focus. Those against were Daisy Froud, co-founder of AOC and currently teaching at the Bartlett, and John Paul Maytum, chair of Southwark’s largest resident-managed housing organisation Leathermarket JMB, with an MBE for his services to the community.

Lights back on, and Mark Hanson, with a delivery style reminiscent of Alan Rickman playing Professor Snape, wearily argues that community consultation is ‘a sham’ and ‘just something else that gets in the way.’ Consultation is one matter in London communities, he says, but out in the shires, it’s a ‘wrist slitting experience.’ ‘I hate the word NIMBY,’ he says, ‘the correct word is selfish.’ The pantomime villain returns to his seat.

With juxtaposing energy, Daisy Froud bounces up. ‘Community consultation is not a con,’ she says, ‘unless you want it to be… architects.’ She urges architects to take more control, not to blithely accept a role of ‘PR stooge to your clients’, and instead ‘to structure, frank, intelligent and useful conversation.’ She exhorts architects to turn down work that compromises ethics and to open their minds to aesthetic possibilities they might not share. ‘Go forth and consultify,’ she says, ‘all you have to lose is a minimalist, modernist, clean looking brick vernacular.’

Holly Lewis sits uncomfortably next to Professor Snape. In the name of turning coats, I assume, she has been told to argue for a motion that goes against her practice and architectural ethos. She can but relate an anecdote, a true story of how she was ‘consultation conned.’ Her conclusion, after months of being ignored, pacified and patronised, is ‘fine then, fuck it.’ Whether or not that is her actual position, it is a natural reaction to her own experience; a spurious consultation that essentially airbrushed the community.   

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It is John Paul Maytum who starts the duck talk in earnest. Something about elephants and ducks, and how the two are not linked, we are not talking about elephants, we are talking about ducks. I’m aware this sounds vague; it’s because I don’t get it. But something takes hold.

Aesthetic ducks: glossy white ones, with bright orange bills, (London communities) are compared to the mangy kind you find bobbing on the Serpentine (communities from the Shires I suppose). Some ducks bite, though that doesn’t necessarily make them bad pets, which I think, is related to pacifying angry residents. There is talk of ‘milking the duck’, which as Froud points out, is impossible. ‘Watch me try,’ says Maytum. And for his final boo, hiss, Hanson concedes that he is interested in ducks… with hoisin sauce.

When it comes to the deciding vote, Maria Smith asks ‘do you think that community consultation is valid, worthwhile and working or is it one sided, a sham, not important.’ Efficacy and ethicality are lumped into one question, when all along, they have been treated separately. I don’t know what to shout, so I feebly quack at both motions. Hanson and Lewis win. Kind of. They are not awarded the bottle of Prosecco.

As ducks flap around the debate, anything meaty is flirted with, but not really explored and the audience feels a little short-changed. Perhaps this is to do with the format of the debates which, though well suited to an evening of entertainment wondering whether or not to Quit Architecture Now, cannot handle a potato as hot as community consultation. We are told at the beginning, to join in the conversation, and forget what we believe; to play the devil’s advocate and neck another shot. There is no point - that’s the point! I don’t really see the point.

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