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If you think that architecture isn’t about politics, think again

Paul Finch
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From memorials to the housing crisis, the profession is intrinsically tied up in political machinations, writes Paul Finch

Significant architectural projects are invariably political at some level. Announcements in the last month prove the point, the biggest being the decision by the Saudi royal family to come to terms with the country’s demography and the damage that extreme Islamism is inflicting on its society.

The decision to allow women to drive is a massive symbolic change which was apparently unthinkable until quite recently. An equally big symbol will be Neom, the new city now being planned, where young Saudis will be able to live in a more relaxed way. The city and its architecture will become context, reflection and enabler of radical social and political change.

Religion is equally important in relation to the Holocaust memorial which David Adjaye is to design next to the House of Lords. This is a controversial project and it is political in a way that makes it difficult to write about without causing offence to one group or another. 

Carmodygroarke77hydepark

Carmodygroarke77hydepark

The site is an odd one – I would have preferred Regent’s Park, which was on the agenda at one stage – and the programme is political inasmuch as it is driven by one particular unspeakably evil historical event, rather than the many holocausts that have taken place across history, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. This does not, of course, mean that the architecture cannot be successful, but it does mean that big responsibility rests upon it, given the practical difficulties of the chosen site. Let’s hope it achieves the quiet dignity of the Carmody Groarke London 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park (pictured), a model of how simplicity can evoke memory and emotion.

The failure to build public-sector housing was the result of Tories hating the working class, and New Labour being embarrassed by it

The biggest wide-ranging political story in connection with architecture is the newly discovered interest on the part of government in delivering a mass housing programme in the reasonably immediate future – as opposed to delivering speeches about it, that is. Being of an optimistic disposition (tempered by experience), I do not dismiss Theresa May’s party conference speech as merely political. The fact that it was discussed at all was certainly more important than her cough or logistical blips. Pledging £2 billion is not to be taken lightly. I am told that Sadiq Khan has negotiated £3 billion for his kitty to help achieve his new target for social housing and ‘affordable’ homes, whatever that tainted phrase may now mean.

Financial promises only matter insofar as they indicate the level of political importance being given to the subject in hand. If you do the maths, you will find that the sums being spoken of will not deliver the numbers over the period of years being discussed, even assuming the housing industry had sufficient capacity (which it currently hasn’t).

This is not exactly a case of ‘market failure’, because the private sector has never claimed that it can produce homes for everyone that everyone will be able to afford. The present shortage is in fact the result of long-term political failure to deal with what has been going on since London started to repopulate in the late 1980s. My cynical observation is that the failure to build public-sector housing was the result of Tories hating what used to be called the working class, and New Labour being embarrassed by it. Action is now being considered because housing shortage has become a middle-class problem.

The failure to take into account mass inward migration, increased longevity and household formation cannot be blamed on architecture, but it will be the profession that needs to take moral responsibility for helping to resolve this mess. The current RIBA president is well qualified to speak on these matters, as he has been doing. He needs all the support he can get.

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