The UK may be full of talented architects and designers, says Finn Williams, but not enough of them are working on the mundane buildings of our everyday environment.
The UK is home to the world’s leading architects and designers. It has one of the largest design sectors in the world and boasts an architecture sector worth over £4 billion a year, plus London is “the world’s global capital for creative design and construction skills”.
A quick scroll through Dezeen offers visual confirmation of all this. But look out the window – our everyday environment appears very different. What we visualise, design and consume on our screens is increasingly distant from the reality of what’s outside the front door. London may have the greatest concentration of architectural practices of any city in the world, but does it have the greatest concentration of good buildings?
Step outside the highest value areas in the capital, or across the country, and the answer is usually written several storeys tall in pastel-coloured render, rainscreen cladding panels, and hit-and-miss window patterns. It is evident in the lack of care for ordinary places; the playgrounds picked from catalogues, schools patched together with Portakabins, and stations surrounded by “value-engineered” palisade fencing.
Our public realm, public buildings and public infrastructure are more real and more important indicators of the health of the country’s design industry than the latest shop interiors
Our public realm, public buildings and public infrastructure are more real and more important indicators of the health of the country’s design industry than the latest shop interiors. Nowhere is this more critical than our attitude to the design of public housing. The Grenfell Tower fire is tragic proof that we have got the balance wrong – and an urgent challenge to architects and designers to question who we’re really designing for.
To paraphrase Bruce Mau, how has the world of design become so disconnected from the design of the world?
Firstly, for the vast majority of the built environment, architects simply aren’t involved. According to the RIBA, only six per cent of new homes in the UK are designed by architects. That means, last year, over 200,000 homes were built in England without the input of an architect. Meanwhile hundreds of practices compete to design a single museum.
Of course, just because a building has been designed by an architect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. But even where architects are involved, their role is increasingly subservient to other consultants, project managers, planning consultants, quantity surveyors and marketing advisors.
The marginalisation of the profession is epitomised by what Terry Farrell calls the paradox of the Maggie’s Centre. Each Maggie’s Centre is beautifully designed by a celebrated architect, to a generous budget. But they “invariably sit next to sometimes woeful mega-hospitals”, claims Farrell. “These mega-hospitals, like many other everyday places including high streets and social housing estates, are often devoid of good design thinking, as well as ongoing investment in maintenance and stewardship,” he says.
Architecture is a profession that is fuelled by inequality, or that even exacerbates it
The design media propagates this problem by turning its back on mainstream projects like mega-hospitals, and instead training its cameras on the one-off exceptions. For every exquisitely detailed residential project that was showcased on Dezeen in 2016, there were 262 new homes that were never published. Architects may only design six per cent of all homes, but Dezeen only shows the top 0.4 per cent.
Getting in that top fraction of coverage has become more of a preoccupation for some than getting things built. As Dezeen founder Marcus Fairs himself recognises, many designers and architects today are little more than content providers for the media.
Where architects do build, they find themselves serving an increasingly narrow public. Developers understand that employing high-quality architects is essential to be able to justify charging high prices for Grade A workspace or super-prime property. So the more celebrated the practice, the more likely it is they will be producing architecture that is a luxury not everyone can afford. Today architecture is a profession that is fuelled by inequality, or that even exacerbates it.
It wasn’t always the case. Kooperativa Förbundets Arkitektkontor (The Co-Operative Architecture Office) was founded in 1925 to design “new norms for the whole of Swedish society”. By the 1930s it was the largest architectural office in Sweden, attracting brilliant young architects to work anonymously on the most mundane types of buildings; supermarkets, factories, and social housing. Their focus on making good design affordable for ordinary people was taken up and exported by organisations like IKEA.
In the UK, the Design Research Unit was founded in the 1940s on a similar set of principles: that design should be co-operative, and it should be for everyone. The Design Research Unit brought together architecture, graphics, and industrial design to “recondition and redesign public utility services”. Associates including Frederick Gibberd, Jock Kinneir, and Richard and Su Rogers designed everything from pub signage, to ferry liner interiors, to the British Rail identity.
Meanwhile, a bold and powerful welfare state was attracting architects into local government. Council architects’ departments were hothouses for new talent and new ideas. The LCC Architects’ Department alone incubated the practices of Alison and Peter Smithson, Archigram, Colin St John Wilson, Farrell & Grimshaw, James Stirling and RMJM.
By 1976, 49 per cent of all UK architects worked for the public sector. But from 1979, Margaret Thatcher effectively stifled local government’s ability to build, and that expertise began to drain away. Today, the proportion of architects working for the public sector is 0.7 per cent in England, and just 0.2 per cent in London.
The extraordinary wealth of design talent we have is invested in too few projects, and too few places
The poor quality of our everyday environment in the UK isn’t due to a lack of good architects and designers (at least until Brexit). But it is perhaps due to a lack of opportunities for them to work on ordinary briefs, for ordinary people. The extraordinary wealth of design talent we have is invested in too few projects, and too few places. How could this expertise be redistributed to the areas where it really matters, where design can have the most effect? How could we tilt the balance of the industry from creating private value for people who are already rich, towards creating public value for the people who need it most?
It was these questions that drove me to launch Public Practice, a new social enterprise that aims to open up an alternative way of working with ordinary places for the public good. We are recruiting a new generation of built environment practitioners – planners, architects, urbanists, and others – for year-long placements within the public sector. These associates will spend 90 per cent of their time on the frontline of local government, working in strategic, place-based roles with cross-cutting agency. The remaining 10 per cent will be dedicated to collective research and development as a cohort, which will be shared across authorities.
The idea of public service reached its lowest ebb under the previous government, who labelled planners “enemies of enterprise”. But the tide is starting to turn. Having been presented as part of the problem, local authorities are beginning to be seen as part of the solution to the housing crisis. Even the current prime minister accepts that it is time for “government to get back in the business of building houses”.
A growing number of authorities have been battling against the odds to start delivering homes for the first time in decades. Pioneering councils, including Barking and Dagenham, Birmingham, Croydon, Hackney and Harrow, are showing up private developers by building higher quality schemes with higher levels of affordable housing. And now that the caps on council borrowing have finally been lifted, as stated in the Autumn Budget, a new and very different generation of council housing is on the horizon.
I want Public Practice to help increase the public sector’s capacity to build. Enterprising authorities can find the funding for new posts – especially after a long overdue uplift in planning fees kicks in within the next few months. But the biggest barrier they face is finding the right people. A shortage of applicants means nine out of 10 councils now plug gaps using agency staff. With its not-for-profit model, Public Practice can offer authorities talented and committed associates at half the cost of private agencies.
The work won’t necessarily be glamorous, but it will be influential
For architects, Public Practice offers an opportunity to move earlier upstream, and shape the decisions that shape the city. The work won’t necessarily be glamorous, but it will be influential. Instead of designing the right answers to the wrong briefs, they will be defining the briefs themselves. And rather than concentrating on creating exceptions to the norm, they will be working to raise the standards of normality itself.
I think Public Practice can follow in the footsteps of KF Arkitektkontor, DRU and the LCC Architects’ Department. But rather than resurrect old models, it can be an experiment in a new form of public planning. One measure of our success might be scrolling through Dezeen in a few years’ time, and seeing whether we have had any impact in closing the gap between the design on our screens and the design on our streets. Hopefully, we can show that even everyday places can be extraordinary.
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