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An honest debate?

Jane Duncan

Let’s start thinking – and talking – about what matters

‘It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it’  – Joseph Joubert

I must admit I am excited about my last eight months in office.  There are many really important issues that affect architecture and architects that still need to be openly reviewed, mulled over, researched and actioned.  

Debate is is the activity that brings the knowledge, thinking and speaking together in one place. Establishing the curriculum in the world’s first universities, medieval scholars considered three liberal arts essential for leadership and promotion of the best ideas: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (reading, thinking, speaking). To test the depth to which these skills had sunk in, medieval faculty demanded students participate not in exams or papers, but in disputations – or debates. 

Although much has changed since the 9th century, the artium baccalaureus laid out these basic elements, the ability to conceive, articulate, and evaluate arguments remains not only the lifeblood of democracy and society, but essential to the development of an engaged and ethical individual, living in contemporary technological democratic society.

Intellectual progress has been linked to some spectacular clashes, starting with Socrates vs. The Gods: Triumph of Reason, the outcome of which changed the world.  The honing of the intellectual tools of reason and logic thus started long ago, but have we somehow lost this ability, and can we reclaim it?

Debate is without doubt both a theatrical and an intellectual sport. As with any sport, the thrill of competition and the uncertainty of the outcome should energize everyone. Debaters are judged on the skill evident in their performances, as much as on the content.

What’s the point of pushing for gender equality in the office when pay parity is 80 years away?

We’re all familiar with the usual architectural panel debates, but in practice few are really worth watching, as they rarely deal fully with the issues that really matter to most people, or provide an arena for passionately held opposite and challenging views. Journalist Catherine Slessor says that architectural debate ‘in all its forms has become increasingly stultified and stunted’. Architectural panels are ‘not even reliably despicable’ and are unlikely to get the architectural world on its feet.

Can intellectually honest debate about the subjects which matter to us as architects exist today? I watched the US presidential election debates with real concern and the ‘honesty’ analysis which followed.  There was a lot at stake of course, but are we capable of following the rules and restricting debates to pointing out errors or omissions in one’s opponent’s facts and logic?  Or is this just plain boring to today’s reality TV educated audiences?

I plan to see. I have decided to run a monthly President’s debate series. I am hoping an in-the-round format and some controversial debaters will create the energy and excitement to extract a truly dynamic participatory process, building the energy and contribution of both the audience and the panel. 

The motions are developing as I write, and will be visible on  I am considering six themes: First, gender: what’s the point of pushing for gender equality in the office when pay parity is  80 years away? Secondly, fees: will architects ever be paid a decent living when they always offer (spec) work sprats to catch an unlikely mackerel?

Housing: has the industry got the skills, capacity and will to build a mix of social and speculative homes quickly, cheaply, sustainably and well? Professional futures: if we are to be replaced by robots is there much point in educating more architects? Wellbeing: will governments ever insist on buildings being designed for health when social care and health seems stretched beyond breaking point? Finally, climate change: If the USA takes a denial stance, is it worth fighting to reduce carbon use here? Other ideas welcome.

There’s an old saying:’ When everyone is thinking the same thing, no one is thinking very much’.;

Royal Gold Medal Week:  Life By Design 

In celebration of Royal Gold Medal Week 2017, the RIBA takes new and existing RIBA international and honorary fellows to locations around the UK for a series of talks focussing on their personal stories with architecture.

Hear the fellows discuss their  work, inspiration and career paths and put your questions to them in an audience Q&A.  Locations include Glasgow, Belfast, Liverpool, Plymouth, Coventry and London.