The Pecha Kucha That Never Was

I got some way through preparing to speak at Coventry’s most recent Pecha Kucha night, organised by the lovely Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, before I realised it was in danger of turning into a rant about the future of the profession.

But I’m not one to waste something when I’ve put some work into it. These are the notes I made as I was preparing. They are unfinished, and very much written in the style that they would have been spoken to a room full of people. It’s a bit opinionated but I’m in the mood for taking a chance so I want to share it.

I’m what’s known as a practice manager – it’s like an office manager with added marketing and business development duties but I work with architectural practices. I’m interested in web-based technology and communication, new media and how this is creating a new social agenda in the work of an architect, and also across society.
I’m doing this talk because I’ve met some inspirational people, particularly over the last 3 or so years, and because I feel that architects and urban designers are often a little bit misunderstood. I hope to dispel some of the myths about what an architect actually does.

In 2009, the government called for local authorities to involve local people in decisions that affect them. This “Duty to Involve” which incorporated “Community-led design” was scrapped in 2011, and replaced with a new guidance document which formed part of the government’s Big Society agenda. The resulting neighbourhood planning element of the Localism Act gives planning powers to local communities and parishes allowing them to have a direct involvement with developments that affect where they live and work.

Well, this is all very nice and encouraging and positive and lovely and if it all works, David Cameron will have a nice warm feeling in his belly… but in actual fact, community-led design has been going on for a long time already. A really long time.

Where once architects were the master builder at the top construction family tree, now they find themselves at the grassroots of development. They don’t just sit down in front of the people with the money for development and tell them what it’s going to look like, they have a hands-on role from the very beginning. They consider how a place functions and what sort of a societal role that building or place will have.

Good architects are good listeners. They have to be because the role of architect has evolved into urban designer, community planner, communications expert, translator of ideas, social curator, sociologist and in some cases, councillor and therapist.

Architects and urban designers must listen first, then put ideas together, then they share those ideas and talk about them, and then they make changes, then they might think about what it looks like, then they come back again and talk to the local community about their ideas, and they might make some more changes, and listen a bit more, and tweak something and show their new ideas……. and eventually they get to the point where something might actually get built.

Out of that process comes a development, a public square, a community centre, some new houses, a new village, a new city…… it has evolved from the local people who use them, play in them, live in them, asking for what they want. Telling the architects and urban designers how they use their homes, what they like doing at the local community centre, what they don’t do enough of and what they’d like to do more of, what works and what doesn’t work where they live at the moment. They are constantly teaching architects about habits and lifestyles. Lifestyles are changing at such a rapid pace, this isn’t possibly something that can be taught at university.

This process hands the power to communities. They are involved in the process of design and planning, and they take pride in it.

This sense of ownership is of enormous value. If local people have been part of the process, they will care for that place, that community hall, their new house because they are proud of it. And from that spirit of involvement, new communities form, new activities start taking place. It’s exciting and wonderful and uplifting and bellywarming……

And it’s been going on for years.

I want to reference some examples of where architects have been working directly with communities. Some of them are architects I know, some are architects I have worked for and with, other schemes are ones that I’ve seen and admire. Some are recent and show how architecture has evolved (particularly in response to the current economic climate), some show architecture that has been led by a team of social entrepreneurs with assistance from architects – which illustrates how architects have to adapt their role.

Bromley by Bow in London is a fascinating scheme highligted to me in 00:/ architects’ Compendium for the Civic Economy.

Brandwood End in Kings Heath by Axis Design Architects. A scheme design that was very much led by the residents. Have a listen to this audioboo from Podnosh and you’ll get what its all about.

Electric Wharf in Coventry by Bryant Priest Newman Architects. Community consultations during very early design stages, and the role of artists in the process are key to its success. There’s a fascinating case study on the project at Public Art Online.

Other examples that were pointed out to me with the help of colleagues at Axis Design include the work by Walter Segal (a “community architect” who developed a simple timber-framed housing system allowing self-builders to create a home quickly and cheaply) and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall scheme in Newcastle (a scheme which was redeveloped with participatory support from residents – most of whom were able to remain on site whilst the work was carried out in several phases).

There are also a couple of young practices of note – recent graduates who are doing things a bit differently to traditional practice. Make:Good in London, and Icecream Architecture – the latter travel the country delivering an architectural service from an old ice cream van. Both are innovative, fun practices who are very much community-led in their approach.

Well… that wasn’t a rant. And now I’ve written it all down, it’s actually quite interesting. Funny how things work out.

I guess it’s just not as packed full of laughs as finding tenuous links to architecture in Starship’s 1985 hit single We Built This City.


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