Loud and clear

Now more than ever architects must make their individual and collective voices heard

‘There’s always a moment that separates the past from the future, and that moment is now.’ Aniekee Tochukwu Ezekiel

I’m writing my last RIBAJ column as your president following two major events, one awful – the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower – and one uplifting: the RIBA International Week. Both will and indeed should have far reaching effects on the profession.

The horror of watching the inferno at Grenfell Tower shocked the nation. Our hearts go out to the victims of the tragedy, including two young architectural assistants, Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi, whom we remembered at RIBA Council last month. As the authorities struggled to support survivors, the response from the community was both astounding and generous in an era of supposed smart-phone social isolation.

It is essential that the public inquiry seeks the detail of what issues – technical, regulatory and managerial – led to the events at Grenfell Tower. In advance of that the government urgently needs to undertake a comprehensive, transparent and fundamental reappraisal of the fire safety and building regulations to remove uncertainty, provide clarity of guidance and protect public safety. However there are also wider issues to consider about the role of social housing, and about the impact of value engineering versus the value of people, and the value of quality.

For decades councils have been unable to borrow money for new or replacement council housing. Only a few enlightened ones have grasped the social housing procurement nettle and now stand as responsible, professional role models. Social housing tenants are often ignored in decisions that have a significant impact on their homes, living conditions and even potential risks to their lives. This situation is unacceptable; it must change.

We should consider what action we can take as individual practitioners

At the RIBA International Conference  global policy makers and architects reflected on the UN’s New Urban Agenda with its mission to ‘end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions; reduce inequalities; promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth; achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls contribute to sustainable development; improve human health and well-being; foster resilience; and protect the environment...’ 

George Ferguson claimed architects are natural campaigners who need to be brave and play their part in local politics. David Chipperfield challenged us to speak up and act together, lifting our focus from the red line around our site of the moment. Liz Diller exhorted us each to take action, however small. It was an energising day full of insight and challenge – if you weren’t able to attend catch up on the highlights at architecture.com.

As members of the RIBA we are part of an organisation that can amplify our individual voices and lobby for change, but we also have a responsibility to our own communities and should consider what action we can take as individual practitioners. Yes, every little helps.

I’ve been inspired by the recent clamour from the Chicago-based Architects Advocate Action on Climate Change, an industry-focused public outreach campaign involving 68 architectural practices and six design and engineering firms to ‘give voice to an important issue that affects healthy and livable communities and cities’.

After the devastation of the Grenfell Tower fire and the challenges thrown out by the RIBA’s international week we must not settle back quietly, but ensure that we take action together – loudly.

‘There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.’ John F Kennedy 

@JaneDuncan/PRIBA


International prize

Entries for the 2018 RIBA International Prize are now open, deadline 17 October 2017.

The prize is open to any qualified architect in the world, for any building of any size, type or budget. Elizabeth Diller of acclaimed US firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro will chair the grand jury. Enter at www.architecture.com/ribainternationalprize