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Architects Declare softens its hard line as Grimshaw wins airport job

Words:
Simon Aldous

Architects Declare continued to hold the news, now taking a more conciliatory position, as another big name supporter announced an airport contract. There were small blows for diversity and inclusion too at Southwark and Harvard, while the government got rapped for 'serial' housing policy failures on one hand and backed benefits of MMC for public buildings on the other

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It seemed to be a case of dumper’s remorse for Architects Declare, the group that more than 1,000 UK practices have signed up to, pledging to tackle the climate crisis through their work.

Surveying the bloodshed from the previous week – having rid itself of Zaha Hadid Architects and lost Fosters into the bargain – it seems the group’s steering committee felt a pang of regret.

In a turnaround that demands careful use of hyphens, it has gone from calling on practices to resign, to asking them to re-sign.

The committee has now suggested its call for ZHA to leave went against its original principles of not publicly calling out signatory architects’ work.

It pleaded the strain of thousands of hours of pro-bono work, saying it needed to create a paid co-ordinator role, as well as regularly refreshing the steering group’s composition.

Its retreat will have pleased Grimshaw, another of Architects Declare’s big-name signatories, which last week affirmed its continued support for the group, while doubtless fixing the steering group with a steely look as it added: and you won’t have a problem with us designing a new airport in India, will you?

Grimshaw is part the team that has won a competition to design Delhi Noida International Airport, which will serve the fast-developing industrial region between Delhi and Agra.

The scheme is being billed as ‘India’s greenest airport’ being carbon net-zero in operation – and while many purists will deride ‘greenest airport’ as an oxymoron, the claim will be appreciated by Architects Declare, anxious that practices are at least making an effort rather than simply adding their name and carrying on as normal.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is how green this fast-developing industrial region will be.

In any case, ignoring global warming is increasingly a non-starter. The Architects Registration Board has said it plans to insist architects have the skills ‘to be able to address climate change through sustainable architecture’. It intends to include these in the competencies in its plans to start regularly testing throughout architects’ careers –  just as the RIBA is addressing these through the road map for lifelong learning.

 

Southwark reframes its framework to widen diversity

Southwark Council is looking to add 20 more practices to its architecture framework following criticism of a lack of diversity in the 110 teams it named back in May.

The borough had set out to ‘engage a new generation of designers’ for its building projects when it launched the £10.2 million Architecture Design Services framework the previous November.

But, it was swiftly pointed out, in a borough where a quarter of the population is black, not one of the firms was led by a black architect. Indeed, only half a dozen of the practices was believed to be BAME led.

Southwark defended its selection, saying applications had been blindly evaluated by a 21-strong panel that included 12 BAME people and 12 women.

However, London mayor Sadiq Khan described the lack of diversity as ‘clearly unacceptable’. Nor is the problem limited to Southwark. Reporting on the issue, The Guardian contacted a number of councils to find whether they had ever employed a black-led practice. None had.

Commissioning projects from a more diverse range of practices isn’t just anti-discriminatory. There is also surely a strong argument that if the people designing buildings have similar backgrounds to those people using them, the results may well demonstrate a better understanding of users’ needs.

And now the council has conceded that the appointments did not go far enough in terms of representation. It says amended selection criteria are intended to attract talent ‘that puts the local community at the forefront of their designs and can demonstrate a lived experience of that environment’.

A slight hitch may be that Southwark believes all 110 practices already on the framework need to agree to its expansion. According to the AJ, two of them have yet to give their consent.

 

  • Architect Philip Johnson at approval of design of proposed addition to Central Library building. Credit CC BY 2.0,  City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States .
    Architect Philip Johnson at approval of design of proposed addition to Central Library building. Credit CC BY 2.0, City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States .
  • Philip Johnson as seen by Louis Hellman.
    Philip Johnson as seen by Louis Hellman. Credit: Louis Hellman / RIBA Collections.
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Architect Philip Johnson at approval of design of proposed addition to Central Library building. Credit CC BY 2.0,  City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States


 

Harvard erases its association with Philip Johnson 

From inaugural winner of the Pritzker Prize to persona non grata, the reputation of Philip Johnson continues to plummet as institutions become less ready to gloss over the late architect’s racist views.

The Harvard Graduate School of Design has renamed a building Johnson designed while studying there. Formerly known as the Philip Johnson Thesis House, it will now be known simply by its address, 9 Ash Street. The university said Johnson’s views had ‘absolutely no place in design’.

The architect, who died in 2005, was a celebrated modernist and postmodernist architect, whose works included the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the AT&T Building in Manhattan. But he was also a fascist, anti-Semite and white supremacist who tried to start a fascist political party in the US.

He did later renounce fascism, and even became celebrated as a gay icon.

But his reputation took a battering in 2018 with the publication of a biography, The Man in the Glass House, which highlighted his fascism and described him as ‘effectively an agent of the Nazi state operating in the United States’.

Following the Harvard move, pressure is growing on New York’s Museum of Modern Art to take similar action. The museum currently employs a ‘Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design’ to honour Johnson, who funded the creation of its architecture department.

The museum has said it was ‘aware of new and recent scholarship that explores Johnson’s possible affiliations with fascist and Nazi political figures and ideologies’ adding that it was taking the issue ‘very seriously’. 

 

Housing Ministry blasted for repeated failure to deliver

Amid a severe housing crisis, we have heard regular government announcements of new programmes to ensure more homes are built. But have they amounted to anything? The Public Accounts Committee has concluded that very often they haven’t.

Its report last week said the Ministry of Housing had ‘serially, constantly failed to deliver affordable new homes or even make a serious attempt to execute its own housing policies’.

It singled out the ministry’s Starter Homes policy. Announced in 2015 it set out to deliver 200,000 discounted homes for first-time buyers. This year the scheme was scrapped without a single home having been built – despite spending £173 million – and without informing the 85,000 people who had signed up for the initiative.

The committee accused ministers of creating a ‘cycle of policy invention, abandonment and reinvention’.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said the department had ‘serially failed to deliver affordable new homes. It has not even made a serious attempt to execute its own policies or achieve targets before they are ditched, unannounced.’

The report also criticised the ministry for failing to say how it intended to reach its ambition of building 300,000 homes a year in England and accused ministers of an ‘alarming blurring’ of the definition of affordable housing.

The ministry rejected the report, calling it misleading, while failing to disprove any of the specific allegations. It claimed that ‘last year alone we delivered a quarter of a million new homes, the highest number in over three decades’.

 

Government advocates kit of parts for new public buildings

Why can’t we construct buildings in the same way as we do cars? This has been an often repeated question through the years, alongside assertions that using factory-produced components would be faster, cheaper, greener and more reliable. 

Now the government is suggesting such methods should be used for new public buildings, such as schools, hospitals and prisons.

The Cabinet Office’s newly published Construction Playbook (fun title, guys!) calls for public buildings to be built from standardised manufactured parts.

Architect Jaimie Johnston, a director at Bryden Wood, was involved in creating the publication, and commented: ‘For too long we've designed every school, hospital and prison as a one-off. But when we focus on what is common to different types of building, we gain a huge advantage.

Nevertheless, it’s a bold proposal to be putting trust in building product manufacturers at a time when the Grenfell Inquiry has been exposing the cynical disregard for safety of some building product manufacturers. 

The report, however, says this can be tackled by improving the procurement process. ‘This is where the drive for quality and the required safety outcomes, rather than lowest cost, must start,’ it says, adding ‘when considering “outlay” the key factor is whole-life cost, not lowest purchase price.’ 

Heartening words, though perhaps a robust and independent inspection system will also be necessary.

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