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We need to talk: Collaboration is essential to improving our planet

Simon Allford

The passing of some big names in 2021 reminds us of our fleeting impact: working together is key to making a difference, says Simon Allford

Chris Wilkinson’s Wilkinson Eyre designed the Stirling Prize winning Millennium Bridge in Gateshead.
Chris Wilkinson’s Wilkinson Eyre designed the Stirling Prize winning Millennium Bridge in Gateshead. Credit: Steve Mayes

Last year was tough for many, for many different reasons. The world of architecture sadly lost a number of key figures, all of whom had been closely connected with the RIBA during their careers. In October Owen Luder – the brutalist architect and twice RIBA president. In November Oriol Bohigas of MBM – whose practice was heavily involved in the urban renaissance of Barcelona, leading to the city’s receipt of the 1999 Royal Gold Medal. In December we lost Chris Wilkinson – whose practice won the Stirling Prize twice, and Richard Rogers – whose practice did the same, while he himself won many personal awards including the Royal Gold Medal. As I write this column I also learn of the passing of Max Fordham, another visionary who will be remembered as a pioneer of sustainable design and engineering. 

I am sure this is not statistically unusual but it did feel like a sudden winter flurry of losses of friends and colleagues and architects of great note. But reflecting on their legacies was also a reminder of the importance of pursuing ideas with conviction – not only in the teaching and practice of architecture but in greater engagement in the collaborative design of a better world. 

Indeed, the role that architecture and design play in rethinking how we live in our cities, and how we connect in the virtual and real worlds, is ever more a topic of conversation. Covid has forced everyone to reconsider how they work, travel and live. This reflection is useful – essential even. And one positive outcome of the pandemic is that we have had some time – as the world slowed – to think of our place in it. 

RSHP’s Maggie’s Centre, Hammersmith, London won the 2009 Stirling Prize.
RSHP’s Maggie’s Centre, Hammersmith, London won the 2009 Stirling Prize. Credit: Richard Bryant

And in light of COP26 we must think how we might contribute differently to the flight called ‘Spaceship Earth’. Of course not all have the luxury of taking stock and reflecting – the hospitality sector, health and care services have been hit very hard and – as all who have started a practice know –  just keeping in business is a an all-consuming task.

The flurry of losses from our profession is a powerful reminder to make the best of our time. We will each have our own view of what is our best. On an operational level for me it remains about trying to focus on what I think I can do to best improve the quality of my life – better time management, less emails (received and sent), more focus on the things that I actually enjoy doing: thinking strategically about design challenges at all scales, spending time with friends and family – and not taking the loss of a football match or The Ashes to heart!

As a profession there is much for us all to do. Post-Grenfell, post-Covid, post-COP. You will all have set out your own ambitions in one way or another, for yourself, your practice, your life, and I wish you every success in delivering on them as best you can. All I will note is that working together we can achieve a great deal more than working apart. Indeed if we are each to fulfil any of our no doubt many ambitions this year, it will be because we worked more collaboratively – and that includes realising that proactive discussions and differing opinions are the first step to establishing common ground. Debate and discourse are key to designing a better future.

Retrofitting England’s inter-war suburbs

The RIBA’s latest report, ‘Hero Homes – retrofitting England’s inter-war suburbs’ urges government to prioritise retrofitting inter-war housing. This is essential if the UK is to meet its commitments on net zero and raising families out of fuel poverty.

Visit to read the full report