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Let's use our influence wisely

Rory Olcayto

Take strength from the protests at last week’s AJ120 awards – they recognise that architects matter in the world, says Rory Olcayto

Something surprising happened last week at the AJ120 Awards. Not architects voting Thomas Heatherwick the greatest contributor to the profession in 2014 (‘Turkeys voting for Christmas,’ said one cynic within earshot of my table), but rowdy protests targeting architects involved in the redevelopment of the Aylesbury Estate in south London. As guests arrived at the Tower of London for our annual gala evening, the mob bombarded us with paper aeroplane flyers that outlined their anger with the profession – and with the AJ.  We, according to Fight4Aylesbury and Class War, fetishise ‘form, materials and individual architects over the social context of what they build’. Architects, on the other hand, are ‘the funeral directors of the working class’. Ouch.

They have a point, about the AJ at least. We do, on occasion, overspend on descriptions of form and materials on certain buildings we publish, but then that’s because architecture is a craft as well as a social practice. In contrast to this, however, we take a strong position on the wider impact that designing buildings has on the world – that’s why we’ve highlighted and condemned the appalling conditions endured by workers toiling to build stadiums in Qatar; and that’s why I used my influence on the Royal Academy summer show jury to see that a housing project for low-income workers was given first prize. Furthermore, unbeknown to the demonstrators, that same evening we distributed our AJ120 printed edition to our audience, complete with a column by Owen Hatherley, asking: ‘Where is the counter-proposal for the Aylesbury Estate?’

But do the protesters have a point about architects and their apparent complicity in ‘social cleansing’ – which is how the protesters describe the Aylesbury project? Their terminology is over the top, but it’s hard to deny that architects are as involved as any other player in the regeneration game.

Still, there has been much debate already over whether Fight4Aylesbury’s members were right to pick on architects. Of course they were right. And not just because architects sign up to a code of conduct and are obliged to consider the wider implications of their work. They were right because the role of architect still means something in society. Despite years spent sidelined by contractors and developers, architects are still perceived as the go-to professionals when development disputes arise.

Furthermore, many guests at the AJ120 awards were sympathetic to the protesters’ demands, despite the attack-dog nature of some of those involved. Indeed Ben Derbyshire, whose HTA was targeted (as were Hawkins\Brown and Mae), has urged the AJ to thoroughly examine the role of the architect as a means to understand how the profession can re-engage with the public, as has Tony Fretton, who called upon our editorial team to debate the profession’s standing.

And as one protester told our newsdesk, Stirling Prize-winner Steve Tompkins, en route to the awards, thanked them for asking the profession tough but necessary questions.

Consequently, the AJ will press ahead with two key projects in the weeks and months to come: a thorough examination of the housing crisis under our ‘more homes better homes’ banner; and another #greatdebate – this time on the nature of the profession itself.  We’re never going to win over extremists such as the protester who told us: ‘There is no negotiation. Architects appear human, but they are not.’ Instead, take strength from the fact that architects and the AJ were targeted so vociferously last week: it means we actually matter in the world at large. Let’s use our influence wisely.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto


Readers' comments (4)

  • Paul McGrath

    Let's hope that great debate is extended to people beyond the small coterie of practices who have a stranglehold on housing policy within the architectural profession.

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  • I feel sorry for the protesters misguided use of the AJ junket as lightning rod for their anger and frustration. It is hubris to think that architects have any influence over housing policy.
    The overheated property market in London is being used as a haymaking exercise for architects as far as I can tell - and why not - this hyper-inflated market is an asset bubble will collapse at some point not too far away ( we should have learned this primary lesson in 2008) - best pump up the pension pot while they can.
    Maybe the architects should have joined the protesters and helped them design more effective and beautiful paper planes?

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  • Sorry Rory - I think the line should have read 'They think architects still have some influence in the world'
    The question is how to develop some influence.
    That has to be achieved obliquely through a new approach. Trotting out the same old tropes is exactly what it looks like - wishful thinking at best - confirmation bias at worst.
    I don't think architects are as susceptible as Daily Mail readers in looking for justification of what they would like the truth to be.
    You may wish to consider a more alarming trend brought to my attention by a director of a prominent architect practice - that he was seeing a major decline in young architects from working class backgrounds like his (and mine - and for that matter many of contemporary late baby-boomers).
    Going back to a pre-WW2 model of public school privilege will damage the profession even further with a largely disengaged public.

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  • Paul - The protesters are well aware that it is the developers who hold most of the power - the reason they protest architects is because they think they will listen to them. Its easy to say architects have no influence over housing policy, but if they actually acted together as a profession instead of undercutting each other on fees constantly, you would be surprised. Refusing unethical work, unpaid competitions and not working for minuscule fees would be a start, but it needs to be led by RIB, ARB and the AJ120

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