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Where do people go to cry?

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Architects need to show more compassion in their approach if they are be truly socially engaged, says RCKA’s Dieter Kleiner

On Monday evening I took part with author Joanna Biggs in a discussion at the Southbank Centre on the topic ‘How we work’. My focus was explaining RCKa Architects’ approach to producing socially responsive architecture. The discussion then widened into the role of the architect and I was asked by an audience member: where in the buildings we design do people go to cry? My first thought was quite simply, what an excellent question, then my mind went racing off to interrogate this new perspective.

Architects work at such levels of detail and across so many disciplines that we can perhaps be forgiven for not considering every psychological and social impact of our work. But as we move into a new construction cycle that has already seen public protest at architects’ apparent complicit role in ‘social cleansing’, it is more important than ever that architects are not passive bystanders, but socially engaged bastions of quality for the built environment.

After all, who else would take on this role? Not developers, that’s for sure. Despite positive signs across the industry that the more enlightened clients truly value good design by, for example employing architects as design directors, many are understandably shareholder and profit-driven. Similarly, no other construction professional is as well-rounded or has the depth of understanding and interest of the wider social implications of construction, development and economics than the architect – our scope is simply much wider when compared with other designers.

There are, of course good and bad architects too. Loosely they fall into three camps when it comes to social engagement: the profit-obsessed developer’s puppet who has little interest in their social role or even making attractive buildings; those who are more interested in imposing their formal beliefs on society than engaging with it (be they parametric or pastiche); and those who actively engage and work with place and every thing and person in it.

Architects can realise positive change far more effectively from within

I, for one, do not support the idea that architects should step away from projects such as the Aylesbury Estate as we can realise positive change far more effectively from within. In any case, were we all to boycott such projects, other less qualified and less caring parties would quickly step in.

And caring must surely be a part of what makes a socially engaged architect, or to put it another way, the profession –and particularly smaller practices – would make a lot more money if we cared less.

There are encouraging trends emerging, such as an increase in collaboration, particularly among younger practices. This may be a result of sober, post-recession optimism combined with the natural positive outlook of most architects; or the bonding that comes as a result of shared experience of economic hardship and swingeing public cuts; or perhaps the more complex nuances of the Generation X or Y state of mind. Nevertheless, it has made for exciting times for fearless emerging practices, who have sought to grasp whatever opportunities remained, and created others where they would never previously have existed.

This active and engaged mindset is enquiring and critical in nature, which is rarely seen in any other discipline. It lends itself well to adjusting one’s role within shifting professional, economic and societal contexts to best ensure our relevance is retained.

The unparalleled level of current development, particularly in housing, feels not unfairly to many to represent greedy developers’ rush to claw back profit not available during recent years, rather than a genuine attempt to solve the housing crisis. This haste is seen to be so profit-driven as to ignore all other metrics. Comments from poorly briefed unsympathetic politicians do not help, such as Boris Johnson’s swipe at protesters as ‘bourgeois nimbys’. But then I guess you get what you vote for, which is all the more reason to celebrate architects who stand up for quality and local involvement.

Public unease is unlikely to abate at what is seen as rampant development. And trust of cash-strapped local authorities is being questioned as approvals for large schemes are felt to be ushered through by councils keen to secure significant S106 contributions. This, alongside the government’s pro-development agenda makes critical reflection and a debate on our role as a profession particularly important at this time.

I am reminded by a question that left myself and colleagues surprised during an interview a few years back as part of our submission for the Young Architect of the Year Award, when we were asked why we hadn’t talked much about the design of the project and instead focused on what we referred to as making it ‘socially relevant’. Our response was that surely the point of architecture was to support human activity and use; and making it look great, while important, was not that difficult and should surely be the baseline of any architect’s service, not the pinnacle … we were runners-up, twice.

The current dumbing-down and objectification of architecture is unhealthy

While I am as seduced as the next architect at the sight of a beautiful image, I am equally concerned that the current dumbing-down and objectification of architecture is unhealthy, and feel we should celebrate more often the less-easy-to-communicate qualities, such as meaning and design innovation, that improve how buildings are used and experienced.

It does not feel that there is a lack of opportunity for architects to get involved in the wider social context. From empowerment and co-design with local people on individual development sites or at a neighbourhood plan level, to national issues such as challenging the barriers to publicly funded projects through procurement reform, such as my fellow director is involved in.

Then again there is the impact of national design standards and, at a higher level still, grappling with social policy to better understand and then be able to communicate political imperatives such as reducing welfare state and social housing, and then engaging at policy level, as Richard Rogers and Terry Farrell have.

So, while the protesters’ vitriol was perhaps misguided at the recent AJ120 event, it is right that such concerns are publicly aired and that a debate can take place. As many will no doubt attest, feedback and demonstrating understanding and impact cannot be underestimated when working with people directly impacted by development.

It is clear that, only by asking ourselves difficult questions about our role in society, will we come up with new ways of working, ways that increase our relevance to, and resonance with, the people that use our buildings.

I have no doubt that every building I design from now on will consider where people would go should they need to cry, something far more valuable to me than being put on the spot in a public forum and a lesson that perhaps the industry as a whole should be more willing to learn.

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