Architecture inevitably suffers casualties in battles over race and class, says Paul Finch
The surreal experience of absorbing messages from the news media in the past couple of weeks has provided a reminder that, as they say, you couldn’t make it up. My favourite story, given a brush-down after a couple of quiet years, is the idea that you ‘solve’ the housing ‘crisis’ by knocking down a few council estates, and in particular any tall building that may be present, tall buildings being the spawn of the devil. (Tell it to the Singaporeans.)
If David Cameron wants to avoid splattering the green belt he will need more towers too
David Cameron seems currently to be working on the EDAFI principle of political announcements: Every Day a Fresh Initiative. It is like a boat riddled with bullet holes having to move faster and faster, otherwise water would start sinking the whole enterprise. Since the prime minister’s prognostications on reducing immigration have proved hopelessly wrong, he will be needing more social housing not less. And if he wants to avoid splattering the green belt he will need more towers too.
Meanwhile clauses in the current Housing and Planning Bill seem designed to offer social housing tenants insecurity of tenure; a novel way of making the poor feel even more involved in the Big Society than they do at present.
And that is before class and race emerge to confuse the situation further. It was an irony that, as Hollywood woke up to the sound of the black community complaining bitterly about its share of Oscar nominations, here in the UK we are more concerned about public-school alumni grabbing the best starring roles, rather than horny-handed working-class types such as … well who, exactly? If Cumberbatch and Redmayne were poor actors, the moaners might have a point, but obviously they are not. Live with it.
The problem about class facing architecture, and other professions, is a rather different one, since it is not about who is being allocated a starring role, but who can afford to enter the profession in the first place. The inevitable consequence of a seven-year qualification period, plus substantial fees for up to five years of full-time education, is hugely off-putting to students of limited means.
In the British context that means a large proportion of ethnic minorities, who are also working-class, will cease to take their place in the gene pool from which the professions fish. This is a huge problem for both groups, especially as we go down the path of the new apartheid system where 50 per cent of people will be graduates and 50 per cent will not. Ethnic imbalances may become even more pronounced, though it will not be evident in the schools themselves, busy recruiting the scions of rich overseas families anxious for British educational culture to rub off on junior.
Our new version of equality of opportunity doesn’t look too good for a large section of the young population, no more than their prospects of becoming Big Society householders anxious to do their bit for community and the world at large. Instead they will continue to be treated as a problem, not to be trusted as a tenant except where the aforesaid insecurity of tenure is operating, and a drain on the state if incapable of paying 80 per cent of ‘market rent’ dwellings, themselves funded by financial institutions that have provided such dubious ethical role models in recent years.
In short it is a rough old world, and the best the architecture schools can do is keep a flag flying for imagination, decency, moral obligation and competence; attributes that historically have characterised the idea of a profession. And what is more, professions open to all, irrespective of whatever pigeon-hole you happened to be born into.