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Weekend roundup: Can the Stirling laureates save the planet?


Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Seventeen Stirling Prize winners unite to declare climate emergency • Elsie Owusu takes RIBA to employment tribunal • Home Office review recognises architecture skills shortage

Seventeen Stirling Prize-winning practices have issued a joint statement declaring a ‘climate and biodiversity emergency’, committing to alter their working practices and urging all architects to do likewise. 

The Architects Declare announcement was, however, met with cynicism in certain quarters, with some noting that the declaration’s aims were very much at odds with the unsustainable qualities of some of the signatories’ projects. 

Others took exception to the practices’ frequent use of air travel – something Zaha Hadid Architects acknowledged – and, in particular, Norman Foster’s own use of a private jet. 

This seems a strange angle of attack if we acknowledge that to adequately address the climate crisis, we need people to change their behaviour – and particularly those in powerful or influential positions. Surely we should be rejoicing over sinners repenting. 

And it is undeniably impressive to see such a display of unity from every UK recipient of the Stirling apart from RMJM (who, to be fair, is doing its bit to reduce emissions by not building a great deal any more). 

Architecture writer Will Jennings, however, posted a series of pertinent tweets directed at some of the original signatories. Would Rogers Stirk Harbour stop designing airports? he asked. Would Zaha Hadid Architects limit its use of concrete? Would Fosters stop work on the Tulip? 

But if these practices are willing to change certain habits of a lifetime, if they are prepared to use their clout to properly dig in their heels when clients come asking for unsustainable buildings, then that could bring about real change. And, as the AJ’s Hattie Hartman points out, many of these practices are designing vast infrastructure projects around the world, which means their influence won’t be limited to the UK.

She also points out that in the past decade she has seen ‘ambitious aspirations diluted time and again’. But such ambitions haven’t been part of a united commitment in this way; a commitment that if stuck to means an architect can be firm with a client without fearing it will simply turn to an alternative high-profile name.

If the 17 – and the 220-plus other practices that have subsequently signed the declaration – are truly willing to stick to their guns then this has the potential to be so much more than empty words.  

Poll: What is your take on Architects Declare? 
• An important move 
• An empty publicity stunt 
• Deeply hypocritical 
Vote here 

Last week’s poll asked: Following Gustafson Porter + Bowman’s appointment to design the spaces around the Eiffel Tower, which European landmark should UK architects tackle next? Top choice was Rome’s Colosseum (33%), followed by the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (29%). The Acropolis was favoured by 23%, while least in need of the British architectural touch was Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate (15%).

Elsie’s back, and this time it’s legal

Elsieowusucreditnanahumphreybarclay crop

Elsieowusucreditnanahumphreybarclay crop

Elsie Owusu has proved a growing thorn in the RIBA’s side with her very public accusations of institutional racism and the mislaying of £1.1 million of members’ funds. But it might have hoped that once she had been soundly defeated in last summer’s presidential election they were rid of this turbulent architect. 

No such luck. Owusu has announced she is taking the institute to an employment tribunal over her dismissal last year as chair of its Architects for Change diversity group. She was removed from the position after an independent review fully exonerated an unnamed RIBA staff member who she had accused of bullying, racial and sexual harassment and discrimination. 

But the RIBA is fighting fire with fire, launching formal disciplinary procedures against Owusu. It is investigating a potential breach of the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct, believed to have taken place during her presidential campaign. If the complaint is upheld, Owusu’s RIBA membership could be suspended, meaning she lost her seat on RIBA Council. 

An initial hearing for Owusu’s employment tribunal is set for in mid-June with the full tribunal expected in October. this year. And she has set up a crowdfund appeal to help pay for an anticipated £53,000 of legal costs – giving her campaign the rather broader title of ‘End all forms of discrimination in architecture!’ 

This may not be having the galvanising effect she hoped for, however. At the time of writing only £345 had been donated.

Why is there a shortage of architects?

Shutterstock migration

Shutterstock migration

A Home Office review has recommended that architects be put on the migratory priority list, recognising that there is an acute skills gap in the profession. 

It comes at a time when many practices are reporting a drastic drop in the number of non-British EU architects applying for jobs in the UK. The phenomenon is attributed both to fears of a hostile post-Brexit environment and improving economies in many eastern European countries. 

The Migrant Advisory Committee says architects should be put on the official Shortage Occupation List because there are not enough British or EU applicants to fill posts. Putting architects on the list would make it easier for employers to hire staff from outside Europe, removing the requirement that they are paid a minimum salary of £35,000. 

Could it be that the repercussions of earlier political decisions are now emerging? In 2012 UCAS was reporting a 17 per cent plummet in the number of students applying to study architecture and related courses. This came – surely not coincidentally – as university course fees soared from £3,000 to £9,000 a year. 

With it normally taking around seven years to become a fully qualified architect, this diminished cohort will just be completing its journey – exacerbating the shortage of architects. Indeed ARB figures show a slight fall in newly UK-qualified architects joining the register after several years of steady increase.

This week prime minister Theresa May’s death rattles included backing a report that proposes cutting fees from £9,250 to £7,500. But it also recommends extending student loan repayments so they continue for 40 years rather than the current 30, while lowering the earnings threshold where repayments kick in from £25,725 to £23,000. 

The result, according to personal finance expert Martin Lewis, will be regressive, costing lower earners more than high earners. 

UWE Bristol Architecture Society president Suleiman Al-Sa’di believes the changes will make architectural education even more expensive in the long run, ‘which again will exclude those the profession needs more to become more inclusive’. 

Paul Finch has argued that it is the profession’s reliance on cheap EU labour that has suppressed salary levels, so it will be interesting to see whether pay does now pick up, or whether the result is the UK loses its reputation as a centre of architectural activity with fewer opportunities for all. 

Also this week

A row has broken out over Nicholas Hare Architects’ plans to expand the City of London School for Girls. The private school is based in the Barbican estate and the practice’s designs include an ‘infill’ canteen underneath one of the residential blocks. Barbican residents say the scheme is ‘a major threat to the architectural heritage’ of the Grade II-listed estate, designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and completed in 1976. 

Temporary rules easing large house extensions are to be made permanent. The permitted development regulations enable the extensions to be built without planning permission. Housing minister Kit Malthouse said the move would mean ‘families can grow without having to move’. Some architects have expressed fears that the exemption leads to a loss of control over design quality. 

The competition to design a new spire for Notre-Dame Cathedral has been thrown into question by the French senate. It added a caveat to the cathedral’s restoration bill, insisting the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was before April’s fire. French prime minister Édouard Philippe had championed the idea of a new spire ‘adapted to techniques and challenges of our times’. The senate’s amendments must, however, be accepted by the National Assembly before becoming law and could be challenged.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages


Readers' comments (2)

  • Erm...I don’t think it costs £53k in legal costs to go to an Employment Tribunal (they were meant to be free!). The crowdfunding target is about £15k, of which £500 is raised. Good luck with that one, but is an ET the right forum for this, as I assume the claimant was not an employee of the RIBA, but a voluntary member on a committee?

    Can I suggest that the parties seek to mediate this dispute? I have no idea of the merits of either parties’ case, but mediation seems an appropriate forum for this. ET’s may be lower tribunals, but they still have the power to award costs of six figures.

    If there is a meritorious claim of corruption against the RIBA (to the tune of £1.1m), this belongs in the criminal courts. Possibly the allegations could be shared with the membership, so that we can decide whether to crowd fun a private criminal case (in the queue behind Boris Johnson), if the swamp needs to be drained.

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  • It is good to see the profession focusing on the greatest problem facing humanity, man-made climate chaos and mass extinctions. Though some might ask where have the designers of fully-glazed, air-conditioned towers been focussing their gaze over the last 30+ years since the green-house gas phenomenon was discovered and proved at the end of the 19th century, by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. Sue Roth has pointed out that such towers, with their high-speed lifts, consume approx. double the energy required for the same accommodation in the form of 6 storey city blocks, which was traditionally the dominant development form before railways & then cars allowed the spread of suburbia.
    It was recognised even at the height of house building in UK, when a peak of over 400,000 a year was reached, that we were only replacing the existing stock at the max rate of 3% per annum. It is further established that housing contributes approx. 30% to our national emissions and that this stock is amongst the most energy inefficient in Europe. This is where the major effort should be expended.
    Of course architects like to build but the dominant economic assumptions and pressures towards ever accelerating site clearance and regeneration are not sustainable, either environmentally or socially. The two biggest obstacles to a rethink are firstly the 20%VATpenalty on refurb, as against zero on new-build housing (a level playing field would allow a genuine cost benefit analysis) and secondly the political strength of the construction lobby and their weighty preference for the cleared site.
    The RIBA should lobby for the removal of these obstacles, as a pre-condition to genuinely tackling responsible development.

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