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Architects shouldn't be blamed for society's woes

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Architects and planners can’t and shouldn’t be blamed for society’s woes, writes Paul Finch

No matter what social issue you care to mention, there will be someone blaming architects and town planners for causing a problem, adding to it, or ignoring it. Recent examples have included crime, punishment, physical fitness, well-being and ageing.

I am very happy to be on the side of those arguing that design in its many aspects - spatial, environmental, interiors and so on - can make a profound difference to many aspects of our lives, one way or the other. Of course we should argue for high standards and should never forget the price we may pay as a result of poor design.

Where we have to be careful is in respect of the claims made as to just how much responsibility can be laid at the door of architects and other designers in respect of, say, obesity. Let’s think about some of the considerations that need to be taken into account to get this subject into context: changes in the world of employment from physical to office-based activity; the increasing use of cars and public transport for travel purposes, as opposed to walking or cycling; increasing wealth, which has allowed more and more people to buy more and more food and alcohol; talking of which the rise and rise of drinking culture, particularly among the young; leisure activities based on watching screens rather than taking part in activities which are not about sitting on couches.

The reason that fewer children walk to school than they used to has little to do with design, but quite a lot to do with parental worries about weirdos, hence the Chelsea tractors dropping off junior outside the school gates. Television advertising intended to encourage the young to guzzle huge amounts of sugar in sweets, drinks or ‘healthy’ breakfast cereals is completely out of control. In fact, the worst offenders are often feted because they make so much money from their trashy products that they can afford to sponsor healthy events like the Olympic Games.

As far as crime is concerned, can someone remind me whether cul-de-sacs are in or out this year? And can we also be reminded, if it is Modernist housing that ‘causes’ crime, why Ronnie and Reggie were so bad, given that they came from impeccably traditional terraced house environments? And is it prison design that fails to rehabilitate, or prison regimes which result in the incarcerated being kept in cells for 23 hours a day?

When it comes to ageing, no one is suggesting that physical environments make people age more quickly (other than in prison), but there is a mood that suggests that if we could only get the design right, everyone in a house too large for them would downsize, thereby releasing much-needed roomspace for the up-and-coming.
There are several problems with such an analysis. First, it is only a relatively small proportion of the population that could do this with ease, and there is no way of knowing whether or not they would sell out to absentee overseas investors. Second, the costs and taxes imposed (mainly by government) in respect of any sale and purchase of homes is a brake on a more flexible market.

Finally, there are the many obstacles placed in the way of anyone building anything at all, rarely having anything to do with design quality.

So let’s hear it for high design standards, but let’s not pretend that architects are responsible for everything. Clients, economics and social forces beyond the designer’s control are not to be underestimated. When designers blame themselves for all society’s woes, they are actually paying themselves a determinist compliment. When non-designers do so, they are just looking for soft targets.

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