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Open City chief: ‘Extinction isn’t the endgame for architects – irrelevance is’

Rory olcayto headshot open city
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Director of Open City, Rory Olcayto, on why the profession needs to become less self-absorbed

How would you currently sum up the state of the profession? Will it become extinct if it doesn’t embrace new ways of working?
I think it’s an exciting time – if you know how to take advantage of the opportunities, whether it be through co-design, fiction and Instagram as design tools, crowdfunding, climate change, or the resurgence of the hand-made – then the world looks rosy. But the number of qualified architects is actually pretty small – buttons compared with solicitors or accountants, say. Extinction isn’t the endgame – irrelevance is. In comparison to other design disciplines, architecture is still pretty self-absorbed – ie, not customer-focused.

User feedback is crucial in product design but it barely features in architecture. Still, it will change, falling into line with technology and politics. One problem that looks worse every year, however, is the profession’s inability to attract a significant working-class student cohort to feed into the workforce.

This feels like a fatal own goal. Mackintosh, Stirling and Foster? All working-class.

What is the new Citymaking Sessions event about?
It is a platform for professionals and the public to sound out pressing architectural, planning and urban design issues voiced by forward-thinking citymaking experts. This is the first one and includes this year’s Thornton Lecture and it’s been developed alongside our partner, Arup. The curator is Sven Muendner of Beispiel (and formerly Bold Tendencies).

It has five aims: To promote an equitable approach to citymaking at every scale; to promote true collaboration between professional disciplines, public organisations and citizen-led initiatives; to engage with raw, new, powerful ideas that reconceive what cities can be; to build a dedicated audience and network of citymakers from all walks of life; and to hold Citymaking Sessions in relevant locations, from which delegates can learn.

The profession has an inability to attract a significant working-class student cohort

We ’ve a wide range of speakers, including Argent’s Nick Searl, architects Julia Barfield, Roz Barr and Katerina Dionysopoulou, novelist Will Wiles, Un Studio’s futurist Alice Haugh, diversity publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, Crowdfunding London boss James Parkinson, the Mayor’s chief digital officer Theo Blackwell and Arup’s associate director of planning Sowmya Parthasarathy and Zung Nguyen Vu, Arup’s advanced digital engineering expert.

Is this a replacement for Green Sky Thinking and, if so, why the switch?
It’s a development. CItymaking Sessions will continue to fly the green building flag but we’re focusing on social sustainability now, too, and we’ve opened it to the public in line with Open City’s civic-minded remit.

We’ve repositioned Open City as a provocative voice

Furthermore, we’ve repositioned Open City as a provocative voice with Citymaking Sessions. Instead of providing an umbrella format for others to use, we’ve worked with each of our speakers to develop quite specific messages offering genuinely new perspectives on citymaking. There’s no filler material here.

Why is it different to other events out there?
Well first of all it’s in Peckham Car Park, and forms part of Bold Tendencies summer programme, so all delegates get to see the best art show in London as well as all the great stuff in our programme, from Searl on how they commissioned short stories from seasoned novelists to shape their Brent Cross South masterplan to the impact of Instagram on a city’s investment potential.

It matters that the venue and content have something in common

It matters to us however, that the venue and content have something in common – and that you learn from what’s around you Bold Tendencies’ transformation of the multi-storey car park is one of the most significant, complex and influential chapters in the London’s recent ‘regen’ history. It’s all under cover. Some events are in the strawditorium, others on the ‘main stage’ alongside on the car park deck.

Peckham car park

Peckham car park

Secondly, we’ve developed a ‘live magazine’ format, with lots of attention-grabbing ‘stories’ and people that define and shape current trends in citymaking. And, like a magazine, there are different formats in play throughout the day, that mimic the range of experiences you get in a great mag. So we have spotlight Q&As, kitchen table discussions, walking tours, a reading by a novelist, making workshops, interactive architectural installations – and the Thornton Lecture, which this year is being given by Julia Barfield.

Who are you hoping will attend and why?
As with everything we do at Open City, and perhaps uniquely, our events draw both members of the public and a professional audience. Which is exactly what we want and encourage.

And because we’re presenting a new way of looking at and thinking about the city that broadens the definition of citymakers we’re looking for open-minded citizens and professionals to join us and our genuinely diverse programme. We have students, community group leaders, BAME writers, developers, architects, the Mayor’s office, journalists, publishers and politicians among the speakers.

Pretty much everyone is welcome. An exclusive industry-only panel discussion in a non-distinct conference venue would kill the conversations we want to spark.

Citymaking Sessions take place from 9.30am to 6pm at Bold Tendencies, Peckham Multi-storey Car Park, on 27 June

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