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‘Architects can be Britain’s greatest ambassadors following Brexit’

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British architects have already conquered the world and the government needs to harness their creative force, says Martyn Evans

Last week John Sorrell’s Creative Industries Federation published its Brexit Report: The impact of leaving the EU on the UK’s creative industries. The report makes a clear case for the importance of our creative industries to the future, newly independent UK economy.

Architecture is in there, but only in a brief extract from (I presume) a longer RIBA submission that focuses on cross-border registration and harmonisation of standards.

Writing a report representing the views of such a wide-ranging collection of industries can, of course, only offer a brief platform for each separate discipline. The point is that a collective voice is powerful – particularly from a sector that often misses out on the credit for its contribution to our nation’s economic success and the ‘soft power’ it adds to our international reputation.

What must happen alongside such an initiative, though, is that each individual industry must take the opportunity to shout about its unique contribution to the UK’s place in the post-Brexit world.

Architecture has a lot to say. The Department for Culture Media & Sport reports that architecture produced £4.33 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) for the UK economy in 2014 (the second largest annual increase in GVA in the creative industries) with exports at £451 million. A May 2016 report by independent researchers IBISWorld described a £7 billion industry employing more than 73,000 people. But there is so much more to it than the numbers.

While the government stubbornly maintains its position that private developers will deliver the solution to our affordable housing crisis (or, at best, look the other way when local authorities come up with a rule-bending solution and become quasi-private speculative developers themselves), it is architects who could deliver solutions that work. When great, affordable design can only be delivered by private sector developers’ viability appraisals, great designers have to show how.

I can’t count the amount of seminars and workshops I’ve been to where architect after architect shows a stream of great, innovative ideas to a room full of other architects and students only to shut their laptops and put those ideas back into their Powerpoint prisons until the next time.

It’s time to change the conversation. To find ways of proving to clients that great design cuts costs and adds value. How architecture’s roles as a cultural and social force for good and a facilitator of profit for its clients are not mutually exclusive. It’s time to demand attention. We don’t have a choice.

In every major city around the world there is a big, beautiful building designed by a British architect – with a virtual Union Jack stamped on it

Architecture also has a powerful voice to support the UK’s international reputation as a crucible for creative services. In every major city around the world there is a big, beautiful building designed by a British architect. With a virtual Union Jack stamped on it. We couldn’t afford such a series of large billboards advertising Britain’s creativity if we wanted to. Our architects have conquered the world. There are none better. They have invaded, taken over strategic positions and built legacies that will stay for hundreds of years.

Government needs to understand that it already has a network of creative ambassadors out in the field speaking up for the quality of our country’s creative industries and support it. The London Festival of Architecture, already supported by the GLA, needs central government support. It’s a really easy, cost-effective way to show off a large part of what our nation’s architects can do – they are the best in the world.

But it’s not just the established industry. It’s the young home-grown architects studying in our world-class schools and the thousands of students who come here from overseas to learn from the best teachers there are. It’s an industry on its own.

Other creative industries often complain that we train the best practitioners in the world, only to lose them when they graduate to companies overseas. Not in architecture. They stay. On a study trip I joined with a large London-based practice the weekend after the Brexit vote, we counted how many of the team were from outside the UK. Half. We need to recognise what this adds to our country’s international competitiveness and argue for support from our government as they formulate their Brexit policy.

So, what should we do? I think it’s time for a grand coalition to raise a collective voice in passionate support of an industry that is central to the success of our country’s economic and social development. Architects, industry bodies, the architecture schools and all those businesses who depend on a successful architecture industry should rise up with one voice and demand to be heard.

Leading the charge, the RIBA should raise a standard, conceding that, whilst it’s a membership organisation in business to serve and support its members it has a moral and economic duty to lead and promote the wider role architecture and its service industries can play in delivering a successful Brexit. 

Martyn Evans is the founding director of Uncommon and deputy chair of the London Festival of Architecture 

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