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Are architects social engineers? Should they be?

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Rory Olcayto joins the fray in the Battle of Ideas

The AJ and sister magazine The Architectural Review sponsored a couple of debates last weekend at the annual Battle of Ideas, which this year was held in London’s Barbican.

With more than 80 discussion points ranging from ‘Should we legalise assisted dying?’ to ‘3D Printing: a new revolution?’ by way of ‘Graphic Novels: literature for the 21st century?’ and ‘Facebook generation: growing up in public’, the point of the Battle of Ideas can be hard to pin down, although its programme introduction states that ‘the festival’s slogan is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, and we mean it’, and it aims, through debate to ‘untangle the ideas that shape policy and culture in today’s climate of intellectual disorientation’.

So the AR, one of 31 sponsors (including Jaguar, Land Rover and Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil), backed ‘Masterplanning the future’, which saw Farshid Moussavi and AJ regular Penny Lewis of the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture ask whether contemporary town planning is ‘too audacious, technocratic and authoritarian’, while the AJ supported ‘Designing citizens, architects as nudgers?’ which questioned the role of architects as social engineers.

I joined the panel for this debate, which included Elly Ward, a London Met tutor and practitioner with Featherstone Young; Alastair Donald, the British Council’s project manager for the British Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale, and Henry Ashworth, a former member of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team and now chief executive of the Portman Group, promoting responsible practice in the drinks industry.

If you think both the AR and AJ-backed debates suggest the Battle of Ideas is opposed to state intervention, you’d be right. Former AJ technical editor Austin Williams is one of the festival’s organisers and one of the few voices in architectural circles who challenges the climate change agenda (hence the petrol-headed sponsors, no doubt, and also Williams’ bizarre interjection during the AJ debate bemoaning the lack of road bridge coverage in the architectural press. Try New Civil Engineer, Austin). Yet, in fairness to the organisers, the session was balanced, evenly chaired, and baggy enough to allow each speaker to reasonably wander off-topic.


Nevertheless we were gently steered - nudged - to talk about obesity and government initiatives to counter it, such as CABE’s promotion of more visible and spacious staircases in public buildings, and other state-backed policies promoting bicycle lanes, and alternative energy solutions. CABE’s ‘visible staircase’ programme in particular was seen as a classic example of nudging. Depending on your point of view, it is either a meddlesome social engineering technique, or an inclusive strategy that helps citizens to make better quality-of-life choices.

One point that all the panel agreed upon was that architects today have abandoned ideology and backfilled the void with the unquestioned support of government policies, such as the promotion of public transport in place of the car, the re-use of brownfield sites in place of green belt expansion and a belief that cities provide a better quality of life than other forms of habitation.

One argument I put forward was that architects today rarely engage with government policies because so much of the profession’s work is for the private sector. So any social engineering that architects do partake in, or nudge forward, is on behalf of their private clients, rather than the state - like fitting out offices as play schools, with slides and beanbags, which seems fun and positive until you realise it’s at the expense of the square metre allocation for each worker.

The most instructive moment for me, however, came just after the session closed, when Alastair Donald criticised my approval of Battersea Power station as a picturesque ruin. ‘We should be building a nuclear power station there,’ he said, suggesting EDF may well be next year’s headline sponsor.

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