Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Grenfell refurb architect breaks its silence • Mackintosh tutor sacked for not staying silent • Beauty commission’s final report • Bjarke Ingels leaves WeWork
More than two and a half years since the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people, Studio E, the architect behind the housing block’s refurbishment, has broken its silence – largely, it transpired, to assert its right to remain silent.
Along with several other parties giving evidence to the Grenfell Inquiry, Studio E has said it intends to use its right of privilege to refuse to answer questions that it feels could incriminate it in any criminal prosecution – the Metropolitan Police is carrying out a separate inquiry into the fire. The practice is only prepared to loosen its vocal cords if the attorney general gives it immunity from any prosecution relating to the answers it gives.
This presents a quandary. On the one hand, the inquiry needs to learn the exact reasons for the tragedy occurring, not least to prevent anything like it happening again. This seems more likely to be achieved if witnesses feel they can speak freely without the threat of a jail sentence hanging over them.
On the other hand, many will wonder how it can be in the interests of justice for those deemed culpable to avoid punishment.
At the risk of flying in the face of years of human rights legislation, some may feel it would be more appropriate if those witnesses faced prosecution if they refused to answer the inquiry’s questions.
The opening statements by the various parties involved in Grenfell’s fatal refurbishment presented the rather unedifying spectacle of each one – with the exception of Kensington & Chelsea Council – absolving themselves of responsibility and pointing the finger at one another.
In Studio E’s case, the architect claimed that Rydon, the main contractor, bore responsibility for approving the designs of subcontractor Harley Facades. It also blamed the regulatory system which, it argued, has permitted the routine use of unsafe materials.
But what is interesting is what Studio E didn’t say. It didn’t say it was simply hired to design the refurbishment, then elbowed out of the process as others took over and value-engineered away its careful work.
Not only was it aware of the change in cladding material – from zinc to the more flammable aluminium composite material – it suggested the change itself as a cost-cutting measure, according to lawyers representing survivors and the bereaved. The downgrading of the cladding spec is believed to have saved the council £293,000.
The lawyers added that from August 2014, before a decision had been made on which cladding to use, Studio E had left the project in the hands of an employee who was not a qualified architect and who, the lawyers argued, ‘lacked the necessary experience but was left to sink on his own’.
The lawyers also claimed that Studio E was unduly focused on the aesthetic outcome of the refurbishment, ‘agonising between the brushed aluminium and the battleship grey’ at the expense of the performance criteria.
Poll: In the interests of best understanding the fire, should witnesses at the Grenfell inquiry be given immunity from prosecution for any evidence they give?
Last week’s poll followed research showing most new housing developments are poorly designed and asked: who is primarily to blame? Housebuilders! cried 47% of respondents, while the government and local authorities were both seen as the culprit by 19%. Only 14% blamed the poor hapless architects.
Gibb and mac
Meanwhile in Scotland, Glasgow School of Art academic Gordon Gibb (pictured) has claimed he was sacked for speaking out over the Mackintosh fire.
The revelation comes five months after emails revealed that the school’s former director, Tom Inns, was put on sick leave despite being completely well before he resigned in November 2018.
Gibb, who was the architecture department’s director of professional studies, had told the Holyrood committee investigating the fire that more lessons should have been learned from the previous fire and that the school’s board bore ‘a measure of responsibility’ for failing to prevent the second fire. And he suggested that the board should no longer be responsible for the Mackintosh building.
Gibb says he was sacked for ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’ and ‘damaging its reputation’.
Once again, the Glasgow School of Art seems more concerned with protecting its reputation than allowing staff to speak candidly about the devastating fire. Last August, Scotland’s Sunday Post reported that six of the school’s staff had signed confidentiality agreements.
The government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission has published its final report, Living With Beauty. Perhaps to keep things interesting following its interim report last July, this has come up with the novel suggestion that we should plant a fruit tree for every new home built, creating new community orchards.
When it comes to your actual architecture, it’s perhaps a symptom of how difficult the government has made it to produce good-quality housing that the profession has been broadly positive in its reaction to the report’s conclusions.
RIBA president Alan Jones said the report ‘exposes just how many public-sector policies actively discriminate against the delivery of good, safe and sustainable buildings’.
Particularly welcome is its criticism of the permitted development rights system, which allows office-to-resi conversions to bypass the planning process. The report calls for the government to ensure minimum standards for such schemes; while also proposing a ‘fast-track’ planning system for well-designed developments.
The report also reiterates the commission’s criticism of the VAT system, which gives a tax incentive for new-build over renovating existing properties. It even cites the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign, which backs VAT reform.
Elsewhere, it takes time to have a dig at Corbusier and Modernism in general and argues in favour of ‘humane densification’ comprised of mid-rise blocks, streets and squares, rather than high-rise housing.
While some will argue that there are people who want to live in high-rises and shouldn’t be denied the option, generally the profession doesn’t seem to have a problem with its proposals. Who would want to advocate against beauty?
The question is who will be the arbiter of beauty? The report suggests this duty falls on local planning authorities, but they have been cut to the bone and often have neither the resources nor expertise. The report acknowledges this and suggests it be rectified. But with the government looking to make further spending cuts, that seems unlikely.
Adam and bjarke
Is the shine coming away from Bjarke Ingels’ image? The Danish architect has designed high-profile projects for, among others, Google, The World Trade Center and WeWork, multibillion-dollar provider of shared office spaces.
The World Trade Center project, however, is believed to have reverted to its original architect, Foster + Partners, while WeWork has told the AJ that Ingels is no longer employed as its chief architect.
Ingels has somewhat blotted his copybook, however, by being photographed with far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, while visiting the country to research a tourism masterplan he is drawing up. The Brazilian’s president has been depicted – with ample evidence – as homophobic, misogynistic, racist and pro-torture. And there’s the little matter of him overseeing the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Ingels may be wondering what all the fuss is about, given the long history of architects working with fascists and autocrats. Responding to criticism of the association, he said that ‘creating a list of countries or companies that BIG should shy away from working with seems to be an oversimplification of a complex world’.
But on the same day as this statement, WeWork announced that Ingels had left the company – though it declined to say when this had happened.
In any case, WeWork has other troubles to concern itself with. It posted a $1.9 billion loss for 2018, prompting its co-founder Adam Neumann (pictured above with Ingels) to leave the company.