Making practice perfect

Opinion

How does architectural practice need to adapt to benefit the modern city? Members of the London School of Architecture set out their agenda for change

James Soane

Architects should counter the status quo with an agenda that prioritises sustainability and equality over economic growth.

Do you find your heart sinks when you hear the retort ‘when I was a student,’ followed by an anecdote describing better times and better teaching with the implication of glory days? This nostalgic thinking is not only tedious, but dangerous. It frames the present as a degraded version of the past. Right now there is an imperative to engage in the present, and in particular the issues of climate chaos, inequality and challenging normative city making. It could be argued that most of the societal issues we face are as a direct result of the neglect by those with power – architects included – for whom the project of progress and growth has been prioritised over an approach that nurtures and nourishes life on earth. Today we recognise this urge as the dominance of neoliberal thinking, where the impetus to create value has overwhelmed discourse and debate through political frameworks to become received wisdom,
or ‘common sense.’

In order to challenge the status quo, the LSA chooses to engage in conversations and research that cause friction, rubbing against the orthodoxy of expansionism. For a young architect this means engaging at a political level to trace the levers of power and to figure out how decisions are made that affect the built environment. Theories that describe form-making are useless in the face of the scale of change required to rebalance our systems of production, consumption and disposal. It makes sense that we are witnessing such a crisis of public confidence as our power structures crumble, with a loss of accountability and the proliferation of alternative truths.

Grass roots action has never been more critical in offering resistance to predominant ideologies that favour inequality, extraction and destruction of the environment. Writing in Politics of the Everyday, Ezio Manzini pleads for society to engage in projects that are not always framed around profit and to develop wide-ranging emancipatory politics that enable
a collaborative and collective culture.

The architect of the near future will need not only to repair the damage done to the ecosystem, but to pioneer new ways of living within our means. It is clear that the changes required in global governance are not forthcoming from the top down, so the opportunity for transformation has to come through a networked series of micro experiments, support structures and best practice. Coupled with this is a return to the importance of implementing local initiatives that bring people and labour together, rather than outsourcing to the largest global players.

It is here the LSA proposes a class action in both senses: as a proactive group approach to design and as an interrogation of the ethical crisis. In the UK, prior to the Industrial Revolution, communities were well served by this form of collective governance which had the power to alter societal behaviours and work for large numbers of people. Today this mode of practice tends to favour industrial-type disputes, although the majority of legal challenges are taken through the professional channel of on an individual basis. The move to treat justice as a question of a single human right rather than the rights of many, perhaps accounts for the lack of large-scale class action. While there is an increasing call for the legal challenge of toxic corporations and corrupt regimes, compensation will never address the systemic problems wrought on the world’s organic system. There has to be a system change that moves towards an understanding of shared richness and shared responsibility.

Actions by the LSA class are seen in the act of collaboration over design projects and through the research leading to the writing of their personal manifesto. The conversation is seen as a tool to understand the complexity of those parameters that begin to look at a better way of belonging within the world. The process of design implicitly creates ethical choices which need to be made explicit, and the agency of the architect is as an actor within a wider company. We may not know all the outcomes of our design actions, but we have very sound data proving that current strategies cause multiple disruptions. It is troubling that the scientific evidence is not compelling enough to inspire innovation.

David Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story Of The Future, describes the ‘uninhabitable earth’ as a place in the near future that has been almost destroyed, saying it is already much worse that we think. His motivation is to inspire action, anger even, in order to reveal that there are still choices to be made and alternative directions of travel. If education is about gaining knowledge, skills, beliefs, values and behaviours, now is a very good time to reset the agenda and to take action.

Joe Walker & Tom Badger

Architectural practice has to become more collaborative, proactive and outward-looking to retain its relevance and power.

The past two years at the LSA have been an intense interrogation into how London operates, how it is designed and how the life of its citizens can be improved. The ambition of the projects from this year’s graduating cohort has
been to actively pursue social and environmental change within the city, with much of the discourse revolving around the role of the architect and architecture in making meaningful change – how can the skills we have learnt have a significant and positive impact on our city?

The ability to tackle these questions requires an acute understanding of how the discipline operates and the current context in which we work. Historically this has not been a strength of the architect. We have been known to operate with an elevated sense of self-importance, while much of the power once associated with the architect has been siphoned off to project managers, engineers and other consulting bodies. Combined with the built environment’s existence as a method of generating financial return, the architect now acts as fund manager, gently fluffing the developer’s portfolio. The practice of architecture is reduced to decoration and branding, its virtues and traditions rendered irrelevant.

From this perspective, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how the architect can have any impact in a city where decisions regarding our city-making are (almost) always governed by land value, construction cost and policy. Our value systems place emphasis on the monetary, meaning the logical construction of the city is often the cheapest. Combined with our collective Modernist hangover, any notion of changing the world through architecture is met with scepticism rather than excitement. We live in the shadows of our Modernist past,
where the best intentions became tools of control, power and ego.

This might seem to paint a particularly bleak picture of the discipline, but we believe it is this understanding of the limitations of architecture that allows us to confront the status quo, using the ways in which we are taught to think to make the city a more equal and sustainable place. In order to do so requires an awareness of three key assertions:

1. The discipline is dictated by and dependent on external forces. Politics, economy and users all shape space as much as the designer.

2. No change can come about through a single discipline. The complex issues of the 21st century require complex solutions.

3. Architectural discourse is often overly referential to its past or overly speculative towards its future, negating its need to be a contemporary practice.

The following sections examine these observations and speculate on how the practice of architecture can become more contingent, collaborative, and contemporary.

Can a building change the world? Probably not. Can architecture be a part of wider more meaningful change? Certainly. It is the belief of the LSA that propositional thinking and spatial intelligence are vital in bringing about meaningful change in the city, but this does not necessarily have to be practised within the traditional scope of the profession.

We must engage with a new state of self-awareness. The practice of architecture can no longer wallow in its state of irrelevance or pretend that it holds the position it once did within society. We must confront, accept and navigate the complex systems that surround the profession, becoming agents of change in the city. With rising levels of inequality and the impending dangers of global warming, change is now vital. It is our belief that creating a contingent, collaborative and contemporary form of practice can re-establish architectural discourse as a key part of this change.

1. Contingent practice

Architecture is a discipline that opens to the world, yet its practice has often been resistant to change. For it to fulfil its potential, we must be aware of (and accept) the forces that affect our work, becoming propositional as strategists as well as visual designers. Only then can we begin to work with (and against) the systems that govern the built environment. Contingent practice requires a degree of complicity, where the architect mediates, thinking creatively to produce new fragments of city that benefit the citizen while conforming to the powers of the market as well as policy.

We must use the forces that govern our work to enrich a project rather than diminish it. This requires a particularly proactive approach. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring, we should be reassessing the extent of our agency and recognising that our scope of work could extend far beyond its current conventions. In understanding the complexities that surround the work, the architect becomes an agile agent collecting and utilising all the forces at play in order to improve the city, rather than working with a single client towards a controlled design output.

Making practice perfect
Making practice perfect

2. Collaborative practice

Rejecting the image of the architect as lone genius is vital to a more collaborative practice. If we are prepared to get rid of the idea of an architect as a visionary and focus on more normative forms of design and knowledge generation, we can re-establish the weakened relationships to other forms of design practice and the construction industry. The ambition here is to use architecture to combat inequality and instability, using the knowledge of those around us to enhance the ways in which we create.

By using our understanding of space alongside the expertise of others, new opportunities arise. Architects could invent new things, not only architecture, but also objects, environments and the organisation of urban space. It’s a question of communication, the way people and things connect to one another. In doing so, the architect becomes part of a wider network of thinkers all contributing towards the betterment of our city and the wider environment.

Making practice perfect

3. Contemporary practice

We should strive to be contemporary, constantly re-evaluating the modes and meanings of everyday life. This requires treading a fine line between thinking of a future without being overly speculative and looking to the past without being overly referential. We must avoid Ludditism through constant, self-driven education, continually re-evaluating and developing our faculties.

We must be against the fetishisation of technology, utilising its potential but not being governed by it.  This applies to the tools we use to design our work and those used for the built fabric. We cannot be ignorant toward technology’s capability to enhance practice but must also resist the temptation of becoming overly enamoured of it and in doing so forgetting why that tool was picked up in the first place.

Truly contemporary practice requires us to look outward as well as at ourselves. To be of value it requires an intense study of everyday life of the citizen, a study that – by its very nature – should be repeated as often as possible.

It is the understanding of what is truly relevant to a community and asking if the built environment serving that community fulfils its needs and desires.

Making practice perfect