Politicisation and social divison have made the architectural arena a place of combat, says Will Hurst
This year the Architects’ Journal celebrated its 120th year and what a tempestuous year it’s been. While demand for architects’ services continues to grow, we have not returned to the high-rolling bullishness that prevailed during the pre-2007 boom. Instead, concerns ranging from the state of the RIBA to the country’s increasingly divisive housing provision have made 2015 a year of politicisation and protest. Just take a look at this week’s Buildings section where AJ staff and writers have chosen their three buildings of the year (p30). Editor Rory Olcayto and columnists Ian Martin and Cathy Slessor all pick up on the uneasy relationship between architects and their turbo capitalist-fuelled work, especially when it comes to the issue of gentrification. Reflecting on Assemble’s highly political Turner Prize victory, Slessor caustically describes it a ‘rebuke to a profession slowly selling its soul to the most obnoxious bidder’.
But is this really anything new? Architects have long inhabited the rather awkward space between their (typically wealthy) clients and their sense of themselves as heroic agents for social good. In 2015 though, that awkwardness moved centre stage - partly due to the efforts of architects themselves. Think of Architects for Social Housing’s high profile AJ120 protest, the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and – despite the continued rise of Thomas Heatherwick - the growing perception of his Garden Bridge as a preposterously expensive bauble of the rich and well-connected.
Elsewhere, this year saw noisy heritage protests about the redevelopment of Norton Folgate in Spitalfields and Calton Hill in Edinburgh and an almighty row over financially-motivated plans to relocate the Cass School of Architecture culminating in students occupying London Met’s Bank Space Gallery (pictured). In recent weeks, RIBA councillor Elsie Owusu charged Portland Place with being a hotbed of ‘institutionalised discrimination and conflict’ and none other than Zaha Hadid issued a rallying call to architects to combat climate change in the AJ. Phew. We will continue to explore these challenging themes next year but for now everyone’s due a well-deserved rest. Have a very happy Christmas and New Year and we’ll return to the discussion in January.