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The European question: a referendum on the imagination?

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If we leave the EU, a more domestic and inward-looking future promises to quash any optimism of the value of architecture, argues Steven McCloy

I’ve been asking myself ‘What kind of architect do I want to be?’ for the three years following my diploma. With the political affiliations of so many British people becoming ever clearer, s sense of possibility seems to be falling away altogether

The reason I strongly support remaining in the European Union has to do with the fundamental needs of our people. Safety, sustenance and social interaction have always been the primal concerns of our civilisation. As the world gets smaller and denser, with resources evermore scarce and our ability to destroy one-another ever more advanced, we have to make very responsible use of our politics and of our both ideological and physical infrastructure.

The EU strives for our safety: member states abide by a common set of laws and have access to effective cross-border intelligence. The very gesture of a coherent leadership of Europe, all in one room, means that our problems are dealt with in discussion, together. A breakup of the EU could lead to radical or uncertain political situations across the continent. With the creation of stronger borders and alienation we risk relapsing into the geo-political turmoil of the early 20th century.

The great pioneers of the past, made daring leaps into the unknown; but the Brexit campaign isn’t one of them

Environmental issues have been championed by the EU, not just in terms of renewable energy, but also pollution, endangered species and controls on water quality. Schemes have delivered well on a number of key aims, including allowing fish stocks to recover from dangerously low levels despite a number of controversial rules. There is a terrible ignorance and unsubstantiated scepticism about climate change; we need to make resilient policies that allow for some drastic uncertainty in our environment, in that sense collaborating on a European wide basis would be stronger.

The great pioneers of the past, those who shaped the centuries made daring leaps into the unknown; but the Brexit campaign isn’t one of them. At best it is an uncertain regression, and at worst some kind of bitter nationalism. However, neither side of the argument has presented anything imaginative. It’s that notorious ‘i’ word that great engineers and scientists have credited with their greatest leaps in technology and understanding.

As architects we have been trained to conceive future buildings, cities and their contexts; we have developed, after many years, an intuition as to whether things are good or not, and I think architects do genuinely want to do good in the world. But whether ‘the architect’ in general practice or any institutions of the profession actually has the energy left to be imaginative or provocative, isn’t apparent. The cases where we know someone is genuinely creative, playful and dreaming about profound possibilities are only obvious once pointed out, and with the exit from the EU a more domestic and inward looking future promises to quash any optimism of the value of architecture beyond the property market.

I am convinced of the importance of collaboration and standing together in the face of adversity

Collaboration, togetherness, democracy, friendship, energy, food, compassion – these are among the words that are printed in giant letters on the side of every piece of energy, food or water infrastructure in my project for an urban catalyst / EU headquarters campus. What if the raison d’être of the European Union was more widely understood and embraced? The scheme re-imagines the European Union as a nomadic institution, with each presidency comes a new host city revitalised by sustainable investment and spreading a positive cultural legacy.

European Union: Referendum to Re-imagine is an allegorical masterplan that makes use of ‘surreal’ motifs to highlight great possibilities where criticisms concentrate most. In the parliamentary headquarters, bureaucrats float precariously above a reservoir so that they are reminded to remain honest and non-egotistical.

I am convinced of the importance of collaboration and standing together in the face of adversity. The impetus to remain is shared by the vast majority of my colleagues in practice and students in architecture school. We believe in the social good at the core of the European Union, and condemn arrogant nationalism. You don’t need to have studied at the Bartlett to recognise a few indications of a dystopia in the last few weeks from sick poster campaigns to shocking violence. At this year’s Bartlett summer show there is a shift in the trend towards optimistic political projects or at least satirical takes, drawn and dreamt with incredible passion.

Essentially the disappointment for these young architects who are now asking questions of the future or ‘purpose’ for the pursuit of architecture, the most social of art forms, is that doors are being closed. It would be a terrible waste of an opportunity to initiate the possible breakup of Europe, where a creative generation of British people could lead and contribute.

Steven McCloy is a senior architectural assistant at AHMM. McCloy completed European Union : Referendum to Re-imagine as part of Unit 10 at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London.

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