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Patricia Brown: ‘Architects should think in terms of software, not hardware’

Patrica brown  index

Architects ought to spend more time ‘thinking in terms of software, not hardware’ and represent communities which they are designing for, according to Patricia Brown, director of consultancy Central

Speaking at the second virtual AJ100 Club breakfast event, the former chief executive of Central London Partnership gave a wide-ranging account of London’s development since the late 1990s, speaking of phases ‘London 1.0’ and London 2.0’.

Brown went on to argue that architects need to listen to and engage with communities to ensure the best possible ‘London 3.0’, in the context of cuts to public organisations and a powerful private sector which she said was creating unintended consequences in the city or ’negatives of positives’ such as the rapid rise of vehicle traffic because of services such as Uber.

During the 2000s there were people thinking about civic life and regeneration ‘at the micro level’ but they have since been ‘stripped away’, leaving gap between top-down policy goals and communities’ desires, Brown argued.

‘In the absence of that […] architects have got a fundamental role in asking the question “What does good look like?” and thinking about this in terms of software, not hardware,’ Brown said.

‘When working on schemes, [architects] should be asking the questions “Who should be involved? Who should be consulted?” – and challenging clients who do not want to go deep in the communities they are serving,’ she added.

‘Architects should feel some form of responsibility to have the conversations and seek the relationships with the people they are serving.’

Brown told viewers: ‘If we are only building places where you pay £5.50 for a loaf of posh sourdough – and we think that’s what success looks like – then we are not taking a lot of people with us.

‘Urban renaissance has disenfranchised an awful lot of people, because it’s a renaissance for a few, not lots.’

Brown also defended the private ownership of new public space which is being created in London, instead emphasising the benefits of new space being brought forward by developers.

‘As a consequence of the last twenty years and the prioritisation of creating public realm, the development community – who have done a huge amount of that – has given us a rod to beat them with, which is complaining that they are then owning or managing that space,’ she said. 

‘We have to be, not grateful for [privately-owned] public space, but see it as something which is there and good.’

The AJ100 Club event was hosted by AJ managing editor Will Hurst.


Readers' comments (8)

  • An interesting one. For years I have been telling our clients that were cash strapped, to view their projects as ‘hardware and software’. Hardware has to last for long time and so proper money has to be spent on it at the outset. Software can be low budget to begin with ( like finishes etc) as it can be updated and upgraded with time, as new money comes in….

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  • Clare Richards

    I absolutely support Patricia Brown’s comments as they’ve been reported here, so won’t repeat them. We vastly undervalue what communities can add to regeneration, development and planning processes. But that conversation has to start early, before lines are put on paper and around sites, and must lead to a shared vision.

    I don’t see any of this as ‘soft’, though. It makes hard common sense and has a firm evidence base for generating social sustainability.

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  • None of London’s greatest spaces and buildings have come about as a result of consultations with ‘communities’ or their usually self-appointed representatives. This fantasy has attracted a large number of deluded supporters who don’t know their history.

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  • er, who's talking about great places and buildings, Paul?

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  • That’s the problem.

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  • Patricia and Paul: 'Negatives of positives'? some people think that the historic Victoria Tower Gardens count as a 'great place', and, at the risk of upsetting people of power, influence and political patronage, worth talking about conserving - statues, monuments and all.
    What, indeed, does good look like? Under the nation's nose, not just the community's.

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  • John Kellett

    Weird. The whole point of architects is too design architecture that lifts the human health and spirit by meeting the ‘needs’ of building users, not the ‘wants’ of their owners. Yet in order to keep the mortgage and bread on the table we are forced into the commercial world to meet the ‘wants’ of building owners and prevented from speaking to the end users. I don’t work in London yet have had to design schools for my client, the contractor, who in turn is working through an out-sourced ‘contractor’ who was working for the County Council that operated the school whose staff we were not allowed to meet or talk too in order to design the school they needed! How corrupt a system is that. The problem is not ‘software’ or ‘hardware’ but more ‘existentialist’.

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  • Agree with you, John Kellett;

    As to Paul - agreed - we need both

    please bear in mind this piece is a tiny slice of a much bigger story and set of problems and i was responding to some specific questions from AJ to me.

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