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Bridging the chasm between architects and planners

Helen Castle

This year’s creative directors of Guerrilla Tactics are transforming public procurement. What’s their secret?

Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams, Public Practice co-founders.
Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams, Public Practice co-founders. Credit: Tim Smyth

Much lip service has been paid in recent years to the need for architects to resume leadership of the design and construction industry, but few, if any, have implemented a clear strategy. Pooja Agrawal and Finn Williams of Public Practice are the exception. Still in their 30s, they co-founded Public Practice in September 2017, a not-for-profit social enterprise that is placing a new generation of planners in local authorities that need extra expertise.

Public Practice arranges year-long placements in councils, bolstered with kind of support that Agrawal and Williams wish they themselves had received. ‘Associates’ start with an intensive induction week and are given mentors, opportunities to write and talk about their work publicly, and peer-to-peer support from their cohort. Research takes 10% of their time, giving them space to develop new models of public practice in ­collaboration with local authorities, academic institutions and experts in the field.

  • Practice mayoral launch in London.
    Practice mayoral launch in London. Credit: Tim Smyth
  • Induction week for Public Practice.
    Induction week for Public Practice.

They are a formidable duo – both studied architecture and worked in practice before entering the public sector. They are notable for choosing to work within the system rather than reject it. ‘We have come to the point where architects have designed themselves out of positions of influence by appearing to be above the system,’ says Agrawal. ‘By failing to engage with the complex technical, political and economic realities that come with the designing of buildings, a new breed of consultants and sub professions has been created: project managers, landscape architects, executive architects, employer’s agents, interior architects and quantity surveyors; with separate consultants for planning, townscape, sustainability and access. Each role is important, but none has the agency on their own to be transformative. So the profession is increasingly marginalised, has lost leadership in the vision and delivery of projects, and can seem disconnected from everyday reality.’

Williams adds: ‘We wouldn’t say every architect should work in the public sector to deliver social impact. But decent affordable housing, and good social infrastructure or public realm that is genuinely inclusive, relies on a progressive and proactive public sector – we can’t expect the private sector to do this on its own. We face a massive imbalance of power now bet­ween local authorities and developers with their consultant teams. Many officers are doing heroic work – but too often it’s in spite of the system they work within, rather than because of it. As a profession, we can complain about the system and attempt to bypass it, or we can try to engage constructively with it, lobbying from the inside.’

  • Pegasus Academy by Hayhurst and Co is an example of the public architecture commissioned at Croydon Council while Finn was working there.
    Pegasus Academy by Hayhurst and Co is an example of the public architecture commissioned at Croydon Council while Finn was working there. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

For Agrawal, part of the issue is the vast chasm between architects and planners. ‘From day one in education, architects and planners are taught separately and there is really no question of collaboration. Neither profession understands each others’ constraints, which breeds a culture of “us and them”.’ As deputy team leader of place making at Croydon Council from 2008 to 2013, Williams experienced first-hand ‘how constructive a collaborative  approach could be on both sides, with planning officers and architects forming alliances to challenge briefs and raise the quality of development’. Croydon also offered Williams, a recent Part 2 graduate, the opportunity to commission some of the most talented practices in the UK – including Assemble, Duggan Morris, East, Erect Architecture, and We Made That – to design public buildings and public realm projects.

The ideas behind Public Practice began when Williams moved to the GLA. It became clear that the culture and leadership in support of innovative planning and placemaking at Croydon was an exception. Responding to the Farrell Review call for evidence, he wrote a position paper outlining a new programme to help build local authorities’ capacity for proactive planning. Terry Farrell’s support helped to turn an idea into a project.

In 2016, the London mayor’s Design Advisory Group identified the need for a new way to bring built environment expertise into the public sector. However, this remained a side project until Agrawal joined the GLA. Fresh from the private sector, she was acutely aware of the difficulties of bridging the processes and approaches of the two sectors, whether it was planning, property or procurement. Under the new mayoral administration, she and Williams started to design Public Practice together with authorities inside and outside London, developing a business plan and securing cross-sectoral support and the mayor’s backing. Public Practice was established as an independent social enterprise in September 2017, with Williams as CEO while Agrawal divides her time between Public Practice and the GLA. Partnerships with British Land, Future Cities Catapult, Historic England, Karakusevic Carson Architects, L&Q, Local Government Association, the mayor of London, Peabody and The Berkeley Group, as well as authorities across London and the south east, demonstrated a commitment for rebuilding the agency of public planning.

  • Pooja worked on Blackhorse Road as an architect at We Made That. It was awarded the Mayor’s Prize at the New London Awards in 2015 as an 'inventive and resourceful strategy that works with the strengths of the area'.
    Pooja worked on Blackhorse Road as an architect at We Made That. It was awarded the Mayor’s Prize at the New London Awards in 2015 as an 'inventive and resourceful strategy that works with the strengths of the area'. Credit: Jakob Spriestersbach
  • The GLA Regeneration Team that Pooja works on funds projects such as The Granville, a mixed-use community-led project
    The GLA Regeneration Team that Pooja works on funds projects such as The Granville, a mixed-use community-led project Credit: Jakob Spriestersbach

For the first intake in October 2017, Public Practice received over 200 applications for placements in authorities. Around half were architects seeking an alternative role. Now 17 associates have placements in councils.

Agrawal and Williams are creative directors of the Guerrilla Tactics conference in November and intend to demystify planning, property and procurement, encouraging architects to actively engage with these aspects of practice. Williams mentions a developer who described the planning process as being like a series of curtains: ‘You don’t know what will be behind each curtain, or how many there are. It is a matter of step-by-step unveiling.’ This will be tackled at the conference through a live enactment of a planning committee, revealing the inner workings of the planning process. A workshop on procurement will also cover the process of bidding for work by looking at it from the client’s side of the table. As Agrawal says, architects should recognise the opportunities that working the system offer for creativity as well as pragmatism: ‘Architects should see the system as part of the creative process – we have the skills of problem-solving, working with constraints, re-imagining rules and communicating this creativity. It is time to engage with the system, and expand our practice.’

RIBA Guerrilla Tactics is on 13 and 14 November. 

Helen Castle is publishing director of RIBA Services



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