Architecture: Rejection to Redemption
The below is a copy of the notes supporting our talk given on the theme of Rejection as part of PechaKucha Manchester Volume 26 on 28 February 2019 in the Grand Hall at the Whitworth Art Gallery. PechaKucha is a presentation style popular across the world but conceived in Japan where speakers have 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide. Enjoy, please message us if you have any feedback, thoughts or openings for speaking slots at your future events.
The starchitect Daniel Libeskind once said “Many people don’t see architecture as important. They leave it to somebody else.” Why is this? Why is the relationship between the public and architecture so often a very distant one. When architecture has such an influence on all our urban lives, why has it been rejected?
Much of our relationship to architecture today is grounded in the response to Modernism. This movement defined the second half of the 20th century. In the post-war boom architects such as Le Corbusier and Peter and Alison Smithson were busy redefining life as we knew it, ready for a future of mechanised, hi-tech living.
The most famous concepts associated with Modernism were dedicated to improving the conditions of the working class. Manchester’s Hulme Crescents exemplify the ideal of the building set within parkland demanded by Corbusier’s urban design for Paris, “La Ville Radieuse”. Itself a response to overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of daylight and connection to nature common to 19th century slums.
Similarly, the “streets in the sky” concept made famous in the UK by Alison and Peter Smithson elevated people away from cars but preserved the cliché routines of life in the 19th century terraces such as the milkman delivering door to door or open air bicycle repairs.
These ideas were rooted in a positive appreciation for the lives of the post-war working class and were seized upon by the many publicly employed architects and rolled out across the country to rehouse those displaced by war. But, as with many things, mass production led to a loss of quality.
As the buildings quickly rotted, and the ideas that underpinned them fell foul of reality, the role of architects was brought into question and became one strand in the multifaceted web of criticism aimed at the welfare state. In the early 1970s about half of all RIBA members were government employees but as Thatcher rose to power, architecture became a privatised.
Stung by this rejection of both state and people and no longer so tied to concepts of public benefit, architects sought a new mode of practice to reflect the times and, inspired by the everyman aesthetics of Pop Art, began exploring possibilities of post-modernism.
Inspired by seminal works such as Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, architects experimented with pure form and decoration borrowing widely from publicly recognizable motifs and classical architectural cannon. However, underneath this bravado, post-modernism could be seen as fundamentally insecure, a reaction to yesterday but not a proposition for the tomorrow.
No longer a hegemonic thrust towards the future, this period is characterised by questioning what architecture is really for. Far removed from the “god-architects” of decades past, the profession was relegated to aesthetics, the window dressers of buildings to make them publicly palatable.
Without the state leading the charge to promote the public in construction, a slow race to the bottom began. Corporate funding became the primary source of architectural investment. Today, though styles continue to move with the times, the underlying constraints within which architects work are set by private developers with all the associated compromises and trade-offs.
Architecture for this type of construction continues to provide the veneer of aesthetic credibility to grease the gears of the developers’ great game - To profit from the right to decent housing and public space.
Also known as land speculation, this has led to inflated profits for developers because, as is well documented, land becomes far more valuable when it has a house or two… hundred on it.
As the developers’ drive for profit raises prices, and space is sold at an increasing premium, the public are left to face the negative consequences that range from the housing crises and rising homelessness to land banking, gentrification and the hollowing out of coastal towns. From Global Warming to Grenfell Tower.
Though the future is unwritten, we feel that without a serious reassessment of the current narrative we will inevitably repeat the mistakes of the past as architecture and everything else approaches another crisis point, here dubbed the Crisis of Profit.
We see this rejection of the current ethos beginning across sectors and in every walk of life. In architecture, the backlash against proposals can be visceral but the real question is, if this is a crisis where are we going next? What are we going to do to drive change, not just reinvent the same problems? Can architecture be redeemed?
As with many difficult questions we’ve got to go backwards to go forward. Whilst for many the Hulme Crescents represented the worst of architecture, during their period in the urban wilderness, in the decade prior to their demolition, a diverse, creative and alternative community was built there that many were sad to see go.
Imagine for a second if creating this type of community wasn’t just an accidental by product of isolation but became the primary benefit to be accessed through architecture? What if instead of building, well buildings, we constructed communities and, with the assistance of architects, made manifest the collective urban future we wanted to see.
For us diagram tells us one thing, that for decades the construction industry has been getting it wrong. Whilst the consideration of the public good in architecture has declined over the years, the design of space has always been a top down imposition on the public by those more entitled, educated or monied.
Our response to these issues is to reject this norm, and propose a radical change towards architecture as public discourse. Putting people at the heart of cities by taking the time to actually ask “What sort of world do you want your children to grow up in?”
The public should be encouraged to weigh in on the merits of civic space to create cities that prioritise citizenship. Because if architecture is important then why shouldn’t we all have a say in it? I’ll finish with one thought, what would you do if you were an architect? Thank you.