Local Architect

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LOCAL ARCHITECTURE
New values in a localised approach to architecture

The feature ‘National Architecture’ (Bigger architecture from smaller places) published on scottisharchitecture.com in August 2011 argued that a new Scottish architecture was emerging from approaches based on the particularities of local or regional characteristics, illustrating this with the work on Skye of the architects Dualchas and Rural Design. Materials, technologies, building techniques and forms for their houses are chosen in response to setting, climate, availability of skills and materials, local cultural types; universal technologies (such as double-glazing or heat-pumps) are used if appropriate, often to deliver the global and local aims of energy-saving.

Based on a different view of the architectural process, there are other ways emerging in which localised approaches to the making of architecture are changing what we mean by architecture and bringing new values into its practice. These new practices, which involve architects working in new ways as part of a broad creative ecology with artists, designers, educators and community groups, are also bringing a fresh approach to the tired formulae of ‘place-making’, ‘community engagement’ and ‘consultation’ and creating a new relationship between architecture and people.

Up till now artists have proved more adept than architects at working creatively with communities on architectural or regeneration schemes. Usually filed under the label ‘public art’, schemes such as the Royston Road Project in Glasgow (started in 2003 and to some extent still on-going) never achieved much attention in the architectural world and were probably always seen as a bit too creative for the regeneration world. The failure of projects such as Glasgow’s Millennium Spaces (completed in 2000) gave a bad name to work supposedly founded on collaboration between artists, architects and communities (1).

While these projects were publicly funded and largely ‘top-down’ initiatives, a number of independent groups have come into being, formed mainly by artists, with the specific aim of working with people in particular sites and places. Public Works (operating since 1999 and currently a core group of four architects and artists from Britain and Germany, based in London) did a three-month residency for the King’s Cross regeneration scheme in 2009, touring the area in a milk float converted into a mobile studio; and with the use of a park line-painting machine they helped stimulate contributions to the masterplan for Mabley Green in East London. They also engage with architecture schools and organise monthly public events in London. myvillages.org (founded in 2003 and currently three artists based in London, Rotterdam, Berlin) takes the local as the focus of their work, with a specific concern for the life of rural villages. In August 2011 they created a local food project as part of the far-reaching ‘Über-Lebenskunst’ sustainable living project in Berlin (2). The Paris-based aaa (atelier d’architecture autogérée, the studio of self-managed architecture) is a multi-disciplinary group including artists, architects, educators and residents who originate their own regeneration projects, again with a focus on working with and empowering people living in particular areas.

All of these groups know that the process of architecture is more important than its product; they all deploy a multi-disciplinary creativity, are expert at engaging people and devising solutions based on the perceptions of individuals rather than the plans of the corporate body; they make expert use of a wide range of media new and old, and network and communicate on an international level. Public Works and aaa are both part of a European network called Rhyzom which provides a forum both for local cultural production and for its ‘trans-local’ distribution.

In a book published in 2007 that documents the work of many of these groups (3), Kathrin Bohm, one of the founder members of Public Works, writes “Perhaps the claim to allow for such cultural projects to become an equal planning partner…has to be fought on a more political level and outside the art context, and more within an urban planning and cultural regeneration debate.” She goes on to say “It’s not commonly assumed that art/culture can generate knowledge and dynamics which are directly applicable to urban planning and design processes.” In 2011, there are signs that these assumptions are changing and that cultural ideas are beginning to engage with the urban planning and design context; moreover this development is now being led by architects.

Desmond Bernie and Sarah Frood set up icecream architecture in 2010 ‘to make architecture more accessible’ and ‘bring architecture to the masses’ because their architectural education had nothing to say about people, or about how architects related to people, whether users or clients. They see people as the neglected part, but as the proper focus, of architecture, and feel that huge barriers have grown between architects and people. Using a converted ice-cream van as a mobile studio, workshop and meeting space and as a symbol of accessibility, their philosophy is based on co-authorship and working in very specific, localised situations. They combine their design and project-management skills as architects with a range of tools to engage people in analysing their place, and an ability to capture the results in a meaningful way; they have found that local authorities value the ability of this combination of skills to give real meaning to engaging communities; individual clients also feel comfortable working with them on projects that might also include the marketing, design and delivery of a new facility.

Dele Adeyemo and Marc Cairns (later joined by Becca Thomas) set up Pidgin Perfect in 2011 as a ‘creative studio…putting the community at the heart of urban projects’. Like icecream these three are architecture graduates frustrated by their architectural education being so little about the social side of architecture. Dele and Marc’s experience of years out in big global architecture practices only confirmed the view of architecture as often being a place-less, largely uncreative practice that existed in a world of its own. With a particular interest in and a sensitivity to how a city serves its inhabitants, Pidgin Perfect have in a very short time developed a thorough and well-planned methodology for how they work based, like icecream, on a combination of creative and cultural skills, together with the knowledge of how architects and developers work. Through their approach they seek to uncover an ‘authentic identity’ for places, rather than the ‘reductive identity’ often designed for places by brand specialists and city marketing departments. They work with a wide range of creative people, including more conventional architecture practices, but are particularly interested in working with community groups and the growing number of Community Interest Companies. Their involvement in the 2011 Glasgow Harvest with NVA (another creative organisation increasingly taking a broader, community-based, approach to regeneration) and with the Kennyhill Community Allotments typifies this highly focussed, highly localised, but also broad and inclusive way of working (4).

A redefinition of ‘architecture’ and a reinvigoration of architecture with new values that speak to a broader range of concerns and people are being forged at a local level. It’s no accident that this is emerging from Glasgow, with its culture of creative networks, self-starting organisations (5) and get up and go. The confidence in these two groups of architecture graduates to ‘have a go and take a chance’ at a different way of practising architecture has been strengthened by the reduction in ‘mainstream’ architecture jobs caused by the recession. The fact that both icecream and Pidgin Perfect are currently in demand to speak to undergraduates in architecture schools, and that the Scottish Government is funding Pidgin Perfect’s 2011 Scottish Architecture Students Assembly, taking place in all five Scottish schools of architecture, indicates that this new architectural stream has a momentum behind it. That the work of these two groups comes across as less radical than the work of similar artists’ groups may mean that clients will be more willing to work with them, as long as project briefs don’t stunt the very creativity and independence that they should be bringing. The ultimate success of this work and its ability to change the role and perception of architecture will depend on a parallel re-localisation of power and resources and the existence of local clients with a willingness to re-imagine different processes, groupings and futures. But if we are brave enough, isn’t that just what we need?
1. For an analysis of the relation between artists and places in Scotland since 2000 see Features – Artists and Places on www.publicartscotland.com
2. The work of both Public Works and myvillages.org (and icecream architecture) is included in the exhibition ‘Mobile Solutions’ curated by the artist Jenny Brownrigg, showing at Glasgow School of Art till 17 December 2011.
3. ‘URBAN/ACT’ was published in 2007 under Creative Commons licence. Copies of a free PDF (370 pp.) are available from www.urbantactics.org, or email aaa@urbantactics.org to find out how to obtain a bound copy.
4. See also five short essays on the ‘New Wave’ in architecture written by Pidgin Perfect for the Features section of scottisharchitecture.com
5. Despite this, both groups acknowledge the support of the Starter for 6 programme offered by the Cultural Enterprise Office in helping them to get to where they are now.

Image: The James Morrison Street Party 2010 courtesy of icecream architecture/alanmatt2234

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