Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Architects don't know best

An online poll is asking residents of UK towns and cities what are features of their locality of which they are most proud. Apparently, 14% of Lewisham's votes have gone to the Catford cat.

Now, I am no fan of this moggy. Catford's great if you like roundabouts, but that's about it - the cat doesn't save it. However, it obviously means something to Catford residents. As it's their community, I'll respect their call on what they see as the defining feature of their bit of south east London.

In recent months I have had a passing involvement with the large scale regeneration of a famously drab and declining midlands town. The council want to raise people's aspirations for themselves and for their place, and have engaged a range of architects and artists to think about how the town and the lives of the people in it could be better.

All well and good, you might think, and I applaud the council's effort to put culture at the heart of what they are trying to do. Yet, there's something about the architects that worries me.

Without a shadow of doubt, architects have been part of the problem. Let's not overstate the case - the collapse of this town's main industry and employer was the main cause of its current woes. But there can be little doubt that the horrendous post war housing estates contributed to the malaise.

The architects I have met freely admit this, and I admire their vision that architecture, public art and design should be part of the solution. The risk is, though, that they repeat their mistake. Their modus operandi is to make aesthetic judgements about what buildings and spaces would be appropriate, rather than actually asking the people who would have to live in them what they would want.

On my visits I have met architects who have bewailed the council's decision to knock down a particular housing estate, despite its horrendous social problems and bewail the pastiche village new build.

If I was being asked to make an aesthetic judgement, I'd probably agree with them. However, my concern is with regeneration, creating places where people want to live. If they want pastiche villages then it may be not be poor taste which can be corrected with a carefully selected piece of public art. It may reflect an aspiration for some idealised view of village life - with its connotations of communities who know and trust each other and who can live, work and play in a pleasant environment.

This, then, is the nub of the issue. Architecture and public art have a role to play, but only if they help to deliver the communities people want to see. It is a conceit to justify leaving a gap between what you give people and what people want by saying that you are seeking to raise their aspirations. People's aspirations are raised by a variety of things, and one of those things is the built environment.

Perhaps we would do better if we raised aspiration by trusting people to make decisions about the environment they wish to live in. If we showed we had confidence in their ability to decide their own futures, then we give people the confidence to articulate what they want in the broadest sense, which may include innovation in art and design - in time. But first you have got to help communities make their own choices, and empower them to make them well. This might mean architects and artists making less calls based upon aesthetic assumptions and more based upon delivering what a community wants to see.

Even if it means giving them a giant fibreglass cat.

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