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We cannot allow Brexit to extinguish architecture’s spirit of solidarity

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The EU enables architects from diverse cultures to work together to tackle issues such as climate change that affect the whole world, says architect Andrew Mcmullan

Brexit isn’t done. For architects, it’s only just beginning – and the signs are looking grim. This week, the government’s chief Brexit negotiator revealed that the UK wants to escape the cosh of EU rules and regulations in pursuit of sovereign liberty. I believe this negative view of Europe is dishonest and dangerous. 

Far from limiting innovation and enterprise, the EU’s pan-European approach to architecture means architects from diverse cultures can work together to tackle challenges faced by cities and communities across the world. 

Consider climate change. Today, the construction sector accounts for nearly 40 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions. Over the next 40 years, an estimated 230 billion square metres will be built. That’s the equivalent of adding an area the size of Paris to the planet every week. 

Creating innovative, sustainable ways to build and inhabit our cities is a global issue that requires international collaboration – especially with those who share our climate, coastal waters and architectural heritage. (Even the façade of Buckingham Palace is designed in the French Neoclassical style.) 

Maybe the new breed of weirdos and misfits advising Boris Johnson will advocate a 100 per cent British solution to climate change. For example, cloning King Canute from ancestral DNA to turn back rising tidal waters. 

I think international problems demand an international response. 

Solving worldwide issues like climate change means learning from the experiences of other cities to create urban design specific to a place

Robert Schuman, one of the architects of the EU, warned against the état d’esprit contraire (‘contrary state of mind’) – the fixation with national sovereignty that leads to cultural isolation and superiority. Instead, he advocated solidarity, which he defined as the meeting of fraternity and enlightened conservation. 

A good example of European solidarity in action was last year’s Europan design competition. Based on the theme ‘Productive Cities’, over 1,240 global entries competed for major projects in 50 European cities. My own studio’s masterplan for the Austrian city of Innsbruck was a joint winner

Our scheme was designed to make modern Innsbruck happier, healthier and more productive, taking inspiration from both the universal challenges faced by cities worldwide and the unique characteristics of Innsbruck and its people. Bringing a global perspective to local obstacles, traditions and ambitions gave us more scope to reimagine and reuse the city’s heritage to transform its future. 

Happyvalley crop

Happyvalley crop

McMullan Studio’s Europan-winning masterplan for Innsbruck, Austria

Solving worldwide issues like climate change means learning from the experiences of other cities to create urban design specific to a place. Putting up barriers to talent, know-how and ideas from outside the UK will make it harder to develop the architectural solutions our regions need to become more resilient, productive and sustainable. 

Parochial urban planning that appeases those who can’t face change isn’t the answer. Like it or not, our world is evolving in ways that threaten us all. Ambitious, innovative solutions are needed. Their place of origin is irrelevant. 

We need to strengthen our ties with organisations such as Europan and ACE (the Architects’ Council of Europe) to launch a new era of pan-European collaboration. One that celebrates the power of great architecture to transform society for the better. 

Anti-European rhetoric might win political goodwill in Brexit-voting communities. But what happens when they realise the government’s solutions for their towns and cities have left them even further behind the rest of Europe? I suspect the backlash will wash away those who advocate a Little England approach to tackling global issues. 

For me, optimism is at the heart of the European project. The simple belief that when the nations and citizens of Europe work together we can overcome the challenges we all face. We cannot allow Brexit to extinguish the spirit of solidarity and power of hope. 

Andrew Mcmullan is the founder of Mcmullan Studio

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Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    All that Andrew says makes sense. The problem is that some UK architect's practices have used the EU as a reason to keep salaries low in relation to any other job or profession since the recession (and before).

    Architects from Countries in the EU that pay less than the UK are therefore quite correctly prepared to accept lower salaries than the architects already here. Brexit was a symptom of that: lack of investment in technology and productivity as a cheaper labour resource was the short term cost effective solution.

    In does tend to be a London centric problem, as salaries in London used to be substantially higher than elsewhere on these islands, but London salaries can even be lower than elsewhere in the UK now. That doesn't make sense.

    We are starting to see the longer term drawbacks of those short term decisions.

    My comment might not be popular but an opinion of the job market as viewed from outside London. It is the same in the field of conservation architecture, the level of qualification needed is higher yet the salaries offered are often lower. If all architects changed their job title to 'design manager', for that is what we are, they could see an increase in their salaries if they went to work directly for construction companies.

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