The New Wave: The Community Consultant

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Sarah Frood and Desmond Bernie of Icecream Architecture with their 40 year old For Transit van. © Icecream Architecture

The New Wave: The Community Consultant

Community engagement has now become an essential part of planning law. The stuffy image of the town hall and a cup of tea approach is quickly becoming an inadequate form of communication as the public become more insistent in participating in the development.

Practices that show an enthusiasm to roll up their sleeves and engage people on a more meaningful level, designing playful workshops with adults and children, are viewed more favourably by the community.

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Balconies of Ralf Erskine’s Byker Wall. Image courtesy of ChronicleLive.co.uk

Designing in close participation with the community is no new concept, however. As long ago as the 70’s Ralph Erskine proved how successful it could be when he set up a drop in shop in the process of designing the now grade II* listed Byker Wall project. In Scotland practices such as Collective Architecture in Glasgow have consistently shown its benefits. Chris Stuart founder of the practice explains:

“Community consultation was not new and has previously been an important part of regeneration in Glasgow. For us however, it had not been placed at the heart of the design process.

In the beginning most of our work was in Glasgow’s peripheral estates, which were being demolished or seriously altered. The waste from this process, through the loss of embodied energy and the unhappiness of the communities, led us to an approach which combined community participation and sustainability.

Crucial to that process was that the community took ownership of the project and cared for it. This would lead to a building with longevity, but more importantly a home that would be enjoyed.”

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The Wellhouse Hub, Greater Easterhouse. © Collective ArchitectureThe Wellhouse Hub, Greater Easterhouse. © Collective Architecture

So why has community consultation not been adopted in a far more proactive way, and why has its time now come?

During the Boom times of the Noughties, the pace of development was so great it didn’t allow much time for deliberation with the public. In a developer driven market consultation has been seen as an inconvenience and an added risk. The industry perhaps placed too much emphasis on celebrating buildings that photographed well, rather than on what they engendered.

Those White Rendered Monuments, already decaying, now stand on our riversides and in our city centres as reminders of how we went wrong; it’s no wonder that large sections of the public have once more been turned off by architecture. Many still see it as an elitist pursuit, reinforcing a deeply ingrained miss trust in the profession that occurred during the 60’s and 70’s when so many communities made way for high rise apartments and the creation of motorways.

Architects need to win over the public once more and this starts by making ourselves more approachable. Icecream Architecture is a practice that does just that. After all what could be more approachable to a community than an ice cream van?

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Public consultation on Byers Road Glasgow. © Icecream Architecture

The office was started by Desmond Bernie and Sarah Frood in 2010 during their final year studying architecture at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Desmond Bernie: “Our ice cream van image evokes nostalgia that encourages people to step up and engage in the process. This allows us to act as a broker between the community and architects, planners and developers.”

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Public consultation as part of Future Glasgow engagement. © Icecream Architecture

Sarah Frood ; ”Our method has left us privy to honest ideas and requests, presented by the community.”

Desmond Bernie: “We understand that at the root of all architectural purpose there is a user and we want to ensure that user is at the centre of the consultation.”

Sarah Frood:” It is important for us to make sure the consultation is something that directs the project and is not an afterthought. “

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Workshop at the new Riverside Transport Museum, Glasgow. © Icecream Architecture

This final point by Sarah is precisely the issue. There exists a minefield of terminologies for describing various levels of community involvement in developments: Community Action; Community Led; Community Involvement and Community Information to name a few. And the truth is they don’t all necessarily mean any real participation has taken place, so we still have a long way to go.

However with growing public appetite for inclusion and practices like Icecream Architecture helping to lead a new generation in transforming the public’s opinion of architects, the setting is right for a culture shift and who knows the time of the developer as we know it may be at an end.

Pidgin Perfect is a creative studio who build, produce, make and create as a means of bringing different ideas and different people together, putting the community at the heart of urban projects.

Pidgin Perfect are Dele Adeyemo, Marc Cairns and Becca Thomas.

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