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We end the year in better shape than we started it

Paul Finch

It is worth bearing in mind just how strong the UK architectural profession is, and how much more it could contribute, writes Paul Finch

Far from EU architects being thrown out of the UK following the Brexit referendum vote, they will have an absolute right to remain here after the leave date. Despite the sometimes hysterical drivel put about by moaning Remnants, who imagine that nonsense is transformed into wisdom if it is compressed into 280 characters, there never was any prospect of architects or anyone else being required to leave.

The last time any group was expelled from this country was in the 13th century – we are a mongrel nation which has taken in people for centuries, and in the case of London, two million citizens since the early 1980s.

The same Brexit bleaters are the first to squeak about the shortage of housing, without ever mentioning the demands placed upon existing stock by unrestricted inward migration. I note that social housing completions fell again in the past 12 months, despite the myriad speeches made by politicians and others saying everything is improving. Grenfell shows otherwise. 

I read with amusement the Federation of Master Builders’ ‘discovery’ this week, that if you converted the unused space above shops into housing you could help to reduce the housing shortage. Indeed you could, and you could also do it by building above surface car parks. There are plenty of ideas around, some of them ancient.

Unfortunately, despite Treasury funding pouring out in an endless stream (which has to be borrowed), there is scant evidence that the housebuilding sector has either the capacity or any huge incentive to ‘solve’ the housing crisis. Despite all the talk about targets and social/affordable housing percentages, there is still little detail on who the clients will be for all this extra housing.

This is not the fault of architects, but it is a sign of a long-term problem for the profession when social architecture, most obviously housing, appears to be given so little attention in schools. The award of the Gold Medal to Neave Brown was almost an apology for the way in which design has become marginalised, with some honourable exceptions, in the world of local authority housing, which itself has suffered terrible decline in recent years. 

There is scant evidence that the housebuilding sector has either the capacity or any huge incentive to ‘solve’ the housing crisis

However, it is worth bearing in mind just how strong the UK architectural profession is, and how much more it could contribute, which is what Mayor Sadiq Khan seems to accept, given the priority given to design in his draft London Plan. The talent rewarded at the AJ’s inaugural Architecture Awards last week was a tribute not just to design, but the willingness of the profession to contribute (in the form of multiple judging) to a good cause.

In noting how many of the winners were buildings with a social or public purpose, I saw parallels with the World Architecture Festival Awards, presented in Berlin last month. To take two examples: the WAF Future Project category was won by Allen Jack + Cottier Architects for its benchmark Sydney fish market masterplan (pictured). Although a reference work, the jury admired it enough to make it the winner; the competition it informed has now been won by 3XN, Kim Nielsen’s Copenhagen practice. The client is delighted by both the reference and the winner.

WAF’s Completed Buildings category winner was an acknowledgement of the power and importance of process: the Chinese University of Hong Kong has been working for years on a post-earthquake reconstruction/demonstration project in Zhaotong. The project has involved three universities, knowledge transfer, and explorations of construction and materials which will be relevant in poor areas in seismic zones in many parts of the world. This stuff matters as much as fine design. Happily, they are not mutually exclusive in the world of architecture.


Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    "We end the year in better shape than we started it", really? Many UK architects who left the profession a decade ago have not returned to a profession that pays 20-25% less than then, they are earning far more doing something else. As a consequence the 'profession' relies on cheap labour from outside the UK prepared to work for derisory salaries. Fee levels need to reflect the work required to achieve the quality required. 'BIM' software such as Vectorworks and ArchiCad improves productivity but architects are required to 'produce' more and more 'outcomes' within the fee. The race to the bottom has finished but architects are still being forced to run it. Why?

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  • Fair points, but the year still ended better than when it started!

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