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The ethics of regeneration: architects react to protest claims

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Architects respond to claims by housing campaigners that the profession was complicit in ‘social cleansing’

Housing campaigners have accused architects of colluding in ‘social cleansing’ in the regeneration of London’s Aylesbury estate. Our report last week sparked a debate on the ethics of regeneration. This is what you said. Join the conversation on Twitter #architectureontrial

Indy Johar

Indy Johar of Architecture 00

There is a new conversation emerging about the public good – we need to reconsider what this means. It is the key issue.

It is more than something local or something financial. It is a discursive act. The first challenge is to start talking about this wider public good.

That is part of the role of the architect – but it is increasingly that of the developer too. They need a social licence to operate which means they need local support.’

Without the focus on the public good, we risk continuing to erode the public legitimacy of us as professional in the true sense, and as architects.

Piers Taylor

Piers Taylor of Invisible Studio

I’ve enormous sympathy with the lack of provision of affordable housing and the concerns of [protesters]Fight4Aylesbury. Rather than dodge the accusation, it is important for us all to question the morality of our actions as architects and not attempt to pass the buck to developers or clients. We make our choices as to who we work for and why. We are not merely developers’ flunkeys.

The question is a wider one as to whether or not the protest was justified and [if the campaigners were also complaining about] the unfortunate consequences of the demolition of existing housing and proposed rent increases.

The real question is how we, as architects, should go beyond any short-term demands of our clients. They are, let us remember, our supposed primary responsibility as stated by the RIBA in its utterly outdated code of conduct.

Is it time to act differently and wise up to our actions? Hell yeah.

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson, former director at Urban Splash

Architects are complicit in a deceit widespread in the built environment, in the industry formerly known as regeneration – it’s why I stepped out. 

There are typically too many people, who know too little, packed in the same ‘regeneration’ room, wrestling with rules that have no meaning and matters that have no consequence. We need to remind ourselves that decisions in the built environment affect people’s lives. 

We have to rip up the rule book and start to behave like human beings, driven by issues that matter and not by diktats from policy perverts and a fantasy cash stash of merry-go-round money creamed off the latest Ponzi heist.

Irena Bauman at the RSAW conference November 2014

Irena Bauman of Bauman Lyons

Many architects are looking at themselves and making a conscious decision to understand what kind of society we’re helping to construct. Once we grasp the symbiotic relationship between property and the flow of wealth, we can make ethical decisions about how best to use our skills: to stitch the wealth discrepancies by working for the poor sectors of our society or to deepen the divide by servicing the well off.

The profession is significantly divided on this issue but the establishment part has not noticed till now. The world is brimming with ethical, purposeful architects but they do not attend vanity events. Currently many of them are in Berlin at the MakeCity Festival discussing, among other things, how London has sold out to the rich.

Chris Roche

Chris Roche, founder of 11.04 Architects

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 is vocal in communicating its misgivings.

Why is it then that the architectural profession, and the RIBA in particular, remains largely silent in the face of a structural societal problem of affordable homes and an intergenerational crisis in housing provision?

Alex Ely

Alex Ely

Alex Ely of mae

The question as I understand it is: are we acting ethically by designing housing that people need and regenerating an estate where, following extensive consultation, the democratic vote is in favour; and are we acting morally designing private housing to pay for social housing. The answer to the first is yes, the answer to the second is that, with all the vision in the world, architects don’t run the economy, so taking the Robin Hood moral standpoint using private income to pay for social benefit seems reasonable.

We are as committed to refurbishment – as our Hillington Square project in next week’s issue hopes to demonstrate – as we are to creating new successful, balanced, socially and economically integrated neighbourhoods. The choice of which route to take is for society as a whole . We have always campaigned for better housing for all, and will continue to do so.

Gem Barton

Gem Barton, senior lecturer, University of Brighton

It does not surprise me that architects are being questioned. I actually find it quite heartening that communities and organisations are standing up and being counted and that conversation is being made public. It seems to me, however, that the construction industry as a whole should be taken to task over its lack of involvement in the fight for social housing rather than targeting specific individuals.

David Lomax of Waugh Thistleton

David Lomax, associate at Waugh Thistleton

The main thing for architects is not to be deterred from engaging with clients of all sorts by the potential to be seen as complicit with the ‘1 per cent’.  We could turn our noses up at commercially minded work.  However, instead, we prefer to consistently and relentlessly put ourselves in the same room as as many different clients as we can in order to give ourselves every possible opportunity to divert the course of the conversation to ‘one step better’, no matter how little.

Those who stand at the sidelines waiting for ‘better’ work have little or no influence on the architecture that the 99 per cent live and work in every day.  Only by engaging can we have an influence - someone will do the work, so it might as well be people who care.


The ethics of regeneration: architects react to protest claims

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Readers' comments (1)

  • In response to Alex Ely’s reaction to the AJ120 Awards protest by Fight4Aylesbury and ASH (19.06.15 below), allow me to correct the factual inaccuracies in the answers he gave to his own question about whether his practice, Mae Architects, is acting ethically in participating in the £1.5 billion regeneration of the Aylesbury estate.

    1) First, the Aylesbury estate is not being ‘regenerated’, it is being demolished for new developments.

    2) The estate did not ‘vote in favour’ of demolition; on the contrary, at a 2001 ballot responded to by 76% of residents, 73% voted in favour of refurbishment and against demolition (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2001/dec/27/1).

    3) And far from the council’s decision to demolish being made ‘following extensive consultation’, in 2009 Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First made a submission to the Government Inspector on the ‘systematic failings of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan consultation process’ (https://aylesburytenantsfirst.wordpress.com/resources/).

    4) Finally, rather than ‘designing private housing to pay for social housing’, there will be 680 fewer homes in the projected development for social rent, and these will be for up to 80% of market value, far beyond the financial means of the current council tenants (https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/aylesbury-estate/).

    The exact opposite of the ‘Robin Hood’ moral standpoint Ely rather grandly characterises himself as taking, Mae Architects are stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Behind this facade of misinformation, assumed neutrality, and responsibility passed to no less a Notting Hill sheriff than ‘society as a whole’, it is with such collusion in the social cleansing of council estates and the communities they house that architects warrant their description as ‘the funeral directors of the working classes.’

    Simon Elmer
    ASH (Architects for Social Housing)

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