[A reflection from an architect to the architects, on questioning our being (role) or building a platform in the construction industry.]
This post is for the architects.
I attended the Belgian Architects 51N4E lecture at the Barbican (Architecture Foundation’s On Stage Series) and was enthusiastic about their design, their structure, and message.
Their design is clearly founded on a deep knowledge of architectural culture, and in the Flemish tradition focused on design innovation, humble materials and pragmatism. What struck me and resonated with me the most was their openness and their attention to the process. Their culture is founded on complexity and the knowledge that the architect's real skill is the ability to control, manage and eventually synthesise complexity through design. It is a very rare skill, and - in times of artificial intelligence, and social and environmental crises, it's a fundamental skill for the future of society.
Secondly, the structure. They started off as mostly architecture-driven practice and evolved they evolved into what they call a platform for collaboration, activism and for design at every scale. (An idea I am very fond of and is at the foundation of Unagru; so listening to these words was like dreaming of a successful future). 51N4E is constantly seeking collaborations and interactions with artists, citizens, and other actors, as part of the innovative design approach.
Thirdly their attitude towards reality. 51N4E are curious about almost everything; they will investigate almost anything as part of the design process and do not shy away from any type of project. They work with developers, the public sector, and organised citizens and are successful financially. This allows them to bring real change into the built environment, both into the material world and the theoretical and procedural. So a practice that acknowledges the importance of several actors and the importance of working in knowing different sectors of society and different interest groups will inevitably redefine the role and methods of design works. In fact, according to 51N4E, design is not an agenda in itself but the space where environmental, social and financial agendas find common ground. Design is that common ground: a result rather than a goal. It was refreshing to hear that architects should meet all sectors of society and be comfortable in every environment because that's how our agency will grow. At the same time, it was thrilling to see how they took over for more than a year an abandoned building, moved their office into it, invited people to take over other parts of the building and built extensive knowledge on the possibility of its reuse. I invite everyone to see the lecture as soon as it's available and also buy their book, How to Not Demolish a Building. (The lecture was about this building, previously known as World Trade Center, and how they managed to recycle it and preserve a big portion of it instead of demolishing it as everybody else wanted, and the result is phenomenal).
A second we took part that ties into this topic was the finals of the AJ Small Projects Awards. We were shortlisted for a residential project. We didn't win, and I was very happy that we didn’t because the variety, design diversity and attitudes towards work in society among the shortlisted practices were truly exciting. It was great to see small practices working for two years to deliver a temporary urban landscape project or three years to build a pavilion in the park. In other words, this diversity of approaches to our work and ultimately different forms of agency was refreshing and inspiring.
Finally, to the point: hundreds of small practices with particular talents and views are an amazing resource that is grossly underused and incredibly needed today. This resource needs to either become or find a platform to collaborate and increase its agency. And I wonder whether the RIBA and ARB should do a lot more to provide this platform and incentivise collaboration. So that smaller practices can have a wider impact, take part in it long-term, large-scale and prominent projects; to have stronger financial support when they are investing in public projects with very low returns.
What shape does this platform take? I do not know, but I would, I would probably start with template contracts and legal forms for agile, flexible collaborations. Then we need a space for networking and for the selection of topics and projects to collaborate on. These two simple steps could accelerate the growth of more resilient and diverse groups of professionals who could do much more and better for society, and infiltrate many more sectors.