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.