Is the profession losing its sense of public interest?
In 1974, around half of the UK architecture profession was still employed in the public sector. At the peak of public employment, there were complaints from readers of this magazine that private architects were unfairly discriminated against. In 1973 the breakaway Association of Consultant Architects had been set up in an attempt to redress this perceived imbalance. And yet, when in 1974 the RIBA published ‘The Crisis in Architecture’, written by former RIBAJ editor and RIBA director of public affairs Malcolm MacEwen, this was not the crisis he was concerned with.
The profession, said MacEwen (and as a man of the Left he meant public as much as private), had lost touch with the people it was meant to serve. It had become too focused on protecting its own interests, producing buildings and environments that were increasingly unpopular with the public. This was in the aftermath of the Ronan Point disaster, when the high-rise, often system-built response to housing need was increasingly being called into question. The private sector equivalent of Ronan Point was London’s Centre Point, built and kept empty by its developer, allegedly for tax reasons. This was the time of prime minister Edward Heath’s famous quote (in another context) ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’.
A sense of unease has returned. Where is the social engagement, I get asked?
Architects of all stripes had become hate figures and had to shoulder their fair share of the blame for what had gone wrong, argued MacEwen. The profession had to recalibrate itself, return to its founding principles, eat humble pie and start again. The RIBAJ agreed: ‘The public interest cannot be indefinitely sacrificed to political muscle, commercial greed, and the profession’s reluctance to rock its own boat,’ wrote then editor Roger Barnard.
The Institute followed up. It did recalibrate itself. Community architecture came out of this; so did the idea of Portland Place as a public architecture centre. Architecture became determinedly low-rise, even for a while neo-vernacular.
Today the profession is not bilaterally split between public and private sectors as it was then – it’s 98% private. But a sense of unease has returned. Where is the social engagement, I get asked? Are not architects now designing the cityscapes of wealth and exclusion, ignoring the needs of ordinary people? Is it true that architects can only design what their clients ask them to, or can they use their influence to change things for the better?
Well, of course they can, and they do: go to architecture.com and check out the RIBA’s campaigns for better housing, community-oriented planning, designing for health in an ageing population, better schools, sustainability, flood resilience and – most recently – role models to encourage greater diversity in the profession (RIBAJ, June 2015). Architects have all the skills necessary to make a better world, but we need to keep saying and doing it. I’m with MacEwen and Barnard when it comes to the architecture of public interest. They were instrumental in giving the profession its conscience back, reminding us that architecture is for everyone, not the few. Let’s remember that.