Letter from London
Paul Finch, 16 March 2021
Architecture needs to respond to the big picture
As we rethink the way we live, work and play in a post-pandemic environment, architects will have an important part to play in delivering a better world, writes Paul Finch.
We need to think about how architecture can play the fullest part in ‘making things better’, the phrase deployed to describe the social purpose of architecture by the late-lamented editor of the Architectural Review, Peter Davey. It is questionable whether the internal structures of the global architectural profession will make much difference to this noble task, compared with the thinking that will be required, both political and architectural (that two-way cultural street) if we are to achieve transformational environments over the next 50 years.
For one thing, the context will be the doubling of the world’s population, with its concomitant demands on the planet in terms of food, water and air quality. This aspect of the drive for a zero-carbon economy currently gets far too little attention, because it is easier to demonise the aviation industry, car-drivers, concrete, office developments and anything else smacking of filthy capitalism than to analyse seriously what extra billions of human beings imply for our built environment.
The good news, at least according to the smarter demographers, is that the rate of population increase will level so that in the latter half of this century net numbers of the human population will stabilise (assuming no untreatable pandemics). That nevertheless means a huge increase in demand for natural and man-made resources for the foreseeable future.
Is there any global strategy in respect of construction which addresses these matters? As far as one can tell, the answer is no: predictions about population growth are linked to the inevitable expansion of cities and the increasing movement of people from agrarian to urban environments. This is a familiar pattern in the West following the industrial revolution, but the story is not being repeated in the same way in the so-called developing world: far bigger, far faster and far more transformational is the order of the day.
Where are the informing ideas about how this growth will be accommodated, along with the implications for built form and city planning? The answer seems to be in the minds of leading architects and urbanists grappling with theoretical ideas in the context of commissions from clients prepared to invest in unknown future possibilities.
Those clients, by definition, are unlikely to be conventional developers relying in an internal rate of return to satisfy the spreadsheet requirement of their investors and financiers. They are more likely to by cities, regions or states; ironically, those that do not have to rely on public opinion at election time, are more likely to be able to experiment, assuming they have the money to start with. Step forward the Gulf and Middle East states, who are planning and building truly radical experiments in respect of urban development and transport infrastructure. – aided and abetted, of course, by Western consultants.
Experimentation, by definition, is risky. Too many governments and clients in general, believe that their creative consultants can automatically deliver ‘risk-free innovation’, a tautology if ever there was one. Calculated risk is what is required, not the pretence that risk can be eliminated in the rethinking of our built world.
Fortunately, the history of architecture is the story of how designers have responded to radical changes in terms of client, finance, materials and construction techniques. There is no reason to believe that the current generation of worldwide practices will be unable to rise to an unprecedented occasion.