In an extract from his RIBA Trust annual lecture on 18 May, Kevin McCloud puts architecture into context
Context is a strange word, redolent of academic studies. It suggests something abstract and woolly.
But setting aside the grandest of public projects, be it St Paul’s Cathedral or Heathrow Terminal 5, our buildings and our public realm have, historically, intimately reflected their setting, the availability of materials, local geology, geography, flora and fauna, availability of resources like fresh water, climate, historical uses and culture. In other words, their context. Context is not a woolly, abstract idea at all.
Context is also an architectural term, often referring to the past, objects that pre-exist in a place and which can enrich it. William Morris, the designer and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, wrote in the society’s manifesto: ‘As good buildings age, the bond with their sites strengthens. A beautiful, interesting or simply ancient building still belongs where it stands however corrupted that place may have become. Use and adaptation of buildings leave their marks and these, in time, we also see as aspects of the building’s integrity.’
Let’s accept that an historic place, or building, has a positive contribution to make to our world. That a beautiful old pub, 18th century town hall or wonky corn exchange cheer us up when we see them. It might be a step too far for us to agree with Morris that a true understanding of history is the key to happiness, but what I want to propose is that it is the layering and the complexity of our built environment that provides depth, interest and relief, like a moist and flavoursome layer cake of reference. We are creatures who demand complexity: our eyes are accustomed to texture and grain.
Our cities, like sedimentary organisms, accrete layers and layers of more stuff: roads, bypasses, flyovers, signage, extensions on buildings, dead spaces, new accidental green spaces. It takes a trained designer to come along and put it all in order again, sweep away the superfluous and polish up the stuff that’s valuable but has been neglected. This is what I mean by visual, architectural context. The stuff that is already there but has become overlooked or hidden, although it has invaluable worth as a sort of cultural map and compass to the place. If context provides the framework for the knitting, then these rich social relations that architecture hopes for are the glue.
We in the West need to curb our enthusiasm for status, acquiring stuff and materialism, while developing a keener, richer, more elaborate set of connections with the people that live around us and the place we inhabit. And we need architecture and design to help us do it, because that is what architecture and design are for.
- Kevin McCloud is the founder of Hab Oakus and presents the Channel 4 series Grand Designs