Between March of 2013 and December of 2014, Simon Henley of London-based practice Henley Halebrown wrote a regular column for ArchDaily titled “London Calling,” covering architectural topics of note in the UK’s capital. Now, Henley is returning to his column – but in the wake of 2016’s shock political developments, his column is re-branding. Thus, here he presents the first of his column “Beyond London” – a look at architectural topics around the UK. Here, Henley presents his opinion on those political developments, and the role architects should play as the UK embarks on a new period in its history.
Post-Brexit, British architects need to think hard about the profession’s London-centric position. There has been a policy of inclusion of non-London architects on panels, their work in magazines and on awards shortlists, but this is not enough. It was quite clear on June 24th when the London design community awoke to the realization that Britain will leave the European Union, that a “Remain”-minded bubble had formed within the capital. The same may be true of the other large cities around the country which voted largely in favour of “Remain.”
What was perhaps saddest was witnessing just how hostile or elitist individuals were prepared to be within this urbanist bubble. Mantras about inclusion and tolerance were out the window, particularly as Londoners declared their desire for an independent city state while undermining the intelligence and motives of “Leavers.” In design terms, too, those in favor of Brexit were written off by some acerbic critics as nostalgia merchants mad on theme parks.
Yet “Leavers” are a significant part of the population that anyone designing public buildings will encounter–whether as clients, through public consultation or as occupants of schools, hospitals and shopping centers (perhaps there are even a few quiet “Leavers” in avant-garde practices). So, there should be real social and cultural awareness of the concerns, values and perspectives of “Leavers” as expressed through their vote in the referendum.
If part of the reason for voting to leave Europe was a sense of loss of national identity and disenfranchisement, then instead of belittling people for this, we should think how to address such issues. Identity has a lot to do with social cohesion and not just nationalism per se. Are architects in a position, for example, to think creatively and constructively to improve a sense of cohesion or solidarity in schools? Can we find building solutions that assist with regenerating areas desperately in need of investment? Can we work with local authorities and businesses towards masterplans and feasibility studies helping to unlock existing potential and enhancing ways in which existing buildings are used, updated and extended? And how, we may ask, can design and architecture help to strengthen local identity and distinctiveness of place?
Transport infrastructure is key to many of today’s challenges including the housing crisis. There is a myth about high density in cities being the best way to live. However, many urban dwellers are too cramped and out-priced to really enjoy their homes and neighborhoods. Now of course London’s creative industries too are under threat as a result of the spiraling cost of real estate. The near–closure of nightclub Fabric, and closures of Curzon Mayfair Cinema and a number of street markets, together with artists recently being pushed out of Hackney Wick are indicative of this. As a result, new creative centers and ideas will emerge elsewhere. Architects should embrace this energy and help direct it in an intelligent way.
For example, if commuting were improved, more families would enjoy more spacious and more affordable accommodation, alongside the fruits of cultural migration from big cities. A home could be just a home and not an asset to sweat for at every opportunity. Decentralization enables more families to cast the net wider in terms of where they choose to live, and new enterprise and activity would no doubt follow. However, currently there is a lot of posturing about how modernity can only exist in urban centers. We need to overcome this with a fresh, credible vision for contemporary life outside the metropolises.
Despite the number of regeneration policies that exist to try and address such issues, many aspects of what makes a good place are poorly understood. The potential of intelligent retrofitting is often overlooked, perhaps because contractually there is less money in re-purposing. Councils are also not necessarily best placed to understand what makes their communities genuinely attractive or gives them the potential to be bolstered. Ideas seen to have worked elsewhere are unthinkingly replicated and generally there is too little original site-specific planning. It’s time architecture once again became more a part of how we conceive the future of our cities rather than how we might style our future.
Architects are well placed to do this. They are by nature generalists. They like complex issues and divergent thinking and yet their influence is on the wane. They need to play a more proactive role in fomenting new ideas, and challenging clients’ briefs and preconceptions. We need more architects in positions of influence, involved in politics, local councils and as clients. We need more architects to think profoundly beyond their own location. And we need to work hard to think how physical spaces can be catalysts for a better way of life and contentment for everyone be they in Blackpool, Birmingham, Boxford, Bute or Balamory.