The New Wave: Thoughts on the Future

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Image: SASA 2011, Aberdeen workshop © Pidgin Perfect

The New Wave: Thoughts on the Future

At a time of economic difficulty, it is encouraging to see new innovative young practices springing up such as those featured in The New Wave series.

Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect, Scottish Government

The year 2012 is already in full swing but the downturn that saw the emergence of The New Wave shows no sign of abating. As the inexorable march of time rumbles on, forecasts for the economy and construction industry remain bleak, with institutions like the Construction Products Association predicting a 5% drop in output over 2012. By summer there will be a new tide of students graduating into this perpetually uncertain, jobless market. Yet, many of the young practices featured in The New Wave wouldn’t even have imagined getting to this point when starting out.

Despite this gloomy backdrop the practices highlighted continue to progress and thrive at the forefront of an emerging ‘can do’ mentality that is seeing the creation of new innovative practices in greater numbers than ever before. In December 2011 Pidgin Perfect saw firsthand the changing attitudes of architecture students when we travelled across the country delivering social enterprise training to students of architecture as part of SASA Week 2011.

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Image: SASA Week 2011 time table. © Pidgin Perfect

What we witnessed were growing pockets of students beginning to consider how they might turn student projects into creative enterprises, or develop their studio project into a live project, grouping together to make things happen. These activities are freeing the fortunes of students and graduates from what the uncompromising and unpredictable economic charts say and starting to generate value in other ways.

It was exciting to see this enterprising spirit gradually spreading, however, if it is to take hold beyond graduation they will require far more support than is currently being given. In fact the impression that we got from students in all schools of architecture; from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow; was that they were receiving little preparation for the specific climate that they would graduate into.

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Image: SASA 2011 Glasgow workshop. © Pidgin Perfect.

So what has been the key knowledge gathered from The New Wave series that could imparted on students soon to graduate?

In the introduction to the series we defined five clear categories of emerging trend: The Community Consultant; The Environmental Studio; The Collective; The New Traditional and; The Creative Studio; and spoke to five start up practices from around Scotland that exemplify each category. Interestingly, when viewed in context we could see that The New Wave is not a typical revolution, in that in each typology there were existing precedents within the tradition of Scottish Architecture.

First of all, the practices that we looked at have demonstrated to others that it is possible to set up and operate a business fresh from university. To an extent The New Wave are sheltered from the worst of the economy because of their small scale, typically no more than 2 – 3 people, operating with limited overheads. They have overcome their inexperience by collaborating with more experienced practices and individuals.

Innovation has also been incredibly important to the successes of these practices. Each has been able to define a distinct identity for themselves, considering carefully exactly what kind of practice they are, who their customers will be and what type of work they wish to undertake.

This may be why The New Wave of practices that we see emerging do not bear the titles of the founders as their company name. Instead, Icecream Architecture, Roots Design Workshop, Desire to Build, Dress for the Weather and Pidgin Perfect are memorable names that communicate values particular to each practice.

The New Wave articles have explored each young practice in the context of the wider profession, asking two key questions: what are their opportunities in the current economic climate? And, how are they making a difference? The results of which are summarised below:

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Image: Engaging with the public in new and imaginative ways. © Icecream Architecture

In the case of The Community Consultant we highlighted the fact that community consultation is now a prerequisite of planning law. In addition, there has been a cultural shift towards greater participation in the process of creating urban projects. In many cases, the public demands a meaningful engagement process and, the ‘townhall and cup of tea’ approach is simply not good enough. Traditional Architects are often unable to deliver this service, providing a real opportunity for young graduates who are keen on finding innovative ways to engage communities. Allowing them to make a real difference by giving people a sense of ownership over the development of their communities.

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Image: Taking design services to rural locations. © Roots Design Workshop

When we looked at practices with an emphasis on environmental design it was clear that there would be many opportunities emerging due to the Scottish Government’s goal of a zero carbon target for all new build housing by 2016, demonstrated through such events as the 2010 Highland Housing Fair. In particular, there are opportunities in rural and remote areas with often limited access to architectural services. In these locations, small practices can make a difference to communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access to quality design services, let alone quality environmental design.

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Image: Generating own projects and support group beyond safety net of university. © Desire to Build

When investigating The Collective typology it became clear that this provided the perfect opportunity for students and recent graduates who are keen to gain hands on experience in order to create their own opportunities. Strength in numbers, with the aid of social media, creates a potentially powerful group identity. Across society, collectives such as Community Interest Companies, cooperatives and housing associations are being proactive to self actuate projects. The Collective architecture group has the ability to be at the forefront of this movement, making a difference to the urban realm with their unique combination of expertise in creating places and spaces.

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Image: Collaborating with those more experienced. The Roost project, led by 55 North Architecture working closely with Dress for the Weather. © DftW

Of course, the more traditional route to work still remains through small built projects, such as housing extensions and design competitions. But, whereas in the past people would wait to gain their Part III at an established office, now the key is to collaborate with more experienced individuals to complete these jobs. There are plenty of experienced architects willing to mentor young start up practices and The New Wave are taking advantage of this, proving that it is indeed possible to create highly detailed, quality built work as a young graduate fresh from education.

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[Image: Combining multiple skills and disciplines empowering communities to be a part of the design process. © Pidgin Perfect

Young practices acting as Creative Studios are able to broaden their options when tendering for jobs within the urban realm. Employing the skills developed at university to a wide variety of projects related to space and place. These might include service design, public artwork, event production, exhibition curation, and community engagement. The Creative Studio often collaborates with other creative disciplines such as artists, filmmakers, designers and illustrators to help give them an edge over the competition. Combining creativity with an architectural rigor and a talent for creating spaces is not just an intellectually and socially fulfilling way of working but can result in a more enriched and meaningful place-making.

In fact the endeavors of The New Wave have been so effective that we have already been noticed by the Architecture and Place Division of the Scottish Government. We asked Ian Gilzean, Chief Architect, Scottish Government for his comment:

At a time of economic difficulty, it is encouraging to see new innovative young practices springing up such as those featured in The New Wave series. Moreover, it is encouraging to see that these new practices are exploring new ways of working – with other disciplines such as artists; as social enterprises; by being mobile and proactive.

The Scottish Government is committed to encouraging young talent to succeed and continues to work with new practices to support the transfer of learning to younger architectural graduates through initiatives such as Scottish Architecture Student Association (SASA); the annual ‘Designing Places’ Student Competition that will take place again this year at The Lighthouse in Glasgow on 25 February; and our continued work with architecture and planning schools to encourage hands on learning through site visits, masterplanning masterclasses and drawing classes.

It is also clear to me that the new emerging practices have been very adept at engaging with communities and use social media to reach beyond the conventional client base for architectural services. Establishing this as a central part of your business model, alongside a positive ‘can do’ attitude, is crucial for generating work in the current climate.

I am encouraged by the mutually supportive approach of these practices which requires a mature understanding of the benefits in collaborative working and a willingness to share experience and expertise with each other. Learning lessons from the success of visual arts in Glasgow has encouraged an outward focus and will bode well for the development of well connected networks nationally and internationally.

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Image: The Mackintosh Lecture Theatre, Friday Lecture in which Dress for the Weather, Pidgin Perfect and Roots Design Workshop spoke together. © Natalia Palombo

The New Wave may be a new generation emerging out of the wake of recession, but it is the fact that they are so innovative, able to find the gaps in the marketplace to do things differently and, to do them better that makes these practices so potentially powerful. In the process, The New Wave are rediscovering the values of community, the strength in empowering people to be a part of their process, a richness of collaboration, and an authenticity in quality sustainable design.

Yet deep in the recesses of our collective conscience is a sense that this New Wave of young practices is a part of something much bigger and, not quite understood. Across the globe dramatic shifts are taking place; people unhappy with the status quo are taking action to make a difference; from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Revolutions; and closer to home, the talk of Scottish Independence. This generation of The New Wave will be the ones to lead us through these changes. Where we are going exactly is still unclear. Typical to our times there exist no overriding ideologies, just the desire and opportunity to re-shape society for the better. But as long as we continue to empower ourselves to make the difference, this goal will be achievable.

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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