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How to make buildings meaningful again

Charlie Butterwick

How can architects restore buildings’ value to local communities? What’s missing is from Vitruvius’ firmness, commodity and delight is citizenship, says RIBAJ Rising Star Charlie Butterwick

Community assembly of one of Architecture Unknown’s projects, a scout hut.
Community assembly of one of Architecture Unknown’s projects, a scout hut. Credit: Architecture Unknown Ltd

The potential for buildings to communicate ideas about society has been a defining myth of architectural practice until relatively recently. Whether it was the ‘equilibrium and lucidity’ of a Palladian villa or the drive towards ‘originality and creative intelligence’ of Brasilia, the transmission of ideas underpins our conception of the beauty of space. From afar, it seems that being an architect used to mean tapping into the zeitgeist to drive change and make a case for an ever-evolving idea of the good life.

However, whether it is reason or emotion that architecture is supposed to be able to influence, one thing is certain, buildings have proven to be terrible communicators of ideas. We think this is because buildings are prone to failure and become either monuments to the hubris of the original designer, or casualties of that moment in history. Faced with this repeated battering, we created today’s post-modern flip side where architecture is stripped of this purpose – leaving society caught between a message lost in translation and no message at all.

This is important. On one hand, buildings full of ideas about society’s future continue to animate non-market-aligned, community-led housing groups – for example Manchester’s Crescents, Tower Hamlet’s Robin Hood Gardens and Sheffield’s Park Hill, and these failed through extremely poor execution. On the other hand, this ‘idea-gap’ is being filled with capital’s profit motive – the results of which are most clearly shown in the Grenfell Tower disaster. As architects we need to resolve this in everyday practice.

We need a way for architecture to communicate ideas about a society fit for the 21st century that goes beyond Vitruvius’ Firmness, Commodity and Delight. Missing from these values is civitas, or Citizenship. We need an architecture that can intervene in the real world in a way that is generally convincing, understandable and speaks positively about value of community. At Architecture Unknown, we use four critical processes to imbue our work with civic value because we think that buildings are an unparalleled opportunity to effect positive change and create healthier, more equal, uplifting places to be.

Early, substantive consultation – RIBA Stages 0-1

We see buildings as opportunities for creative conversation and communal growth where objectives can evolve through dialogue between stakeholders. Project definition and briefing are crucial moments to interrogate the assumptions of a design. We believe that most communities can tell when they are being exploited and we see nimbyism as a natural response to the blindness of many schemes to an area’s unmet needs. We have developed briefs with communities on many schemes – including our Scout Hall community centre in Bolton, and with the RSPB about changes to one of their sites. We have found that with a greater awareness of the wider social issues and an honest commitment to making positive change, buildings can become embedded in local hearts and minds before they are even built in a way that transcends aesthetics and improves social cohesion. All you have to do is ask.

How Buildings Learn (1994).
How Buildings Learn (1994). Credit: Stuart Brand

Space programming – RIBA Stages 2-3

Many buildings do not make it past their designed lifespan not because they have become redundant but because of changing them is too complex. As well as being a disaster for the climate, this routine demolition of sound structures prevents buildings becoming repositories of local community memories and so from grounding more ephemeral life experiences with their permanence. But longevity is found in easy adaptability. We have found Stuart Brand’s 6 S’s (Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan and Stuff) instructive in how to design for easy adaptation and the serial redundancy of separate layers of the building without the need for wholesale removal. Recently, we have been working with a fantastic community housing group in Bradford, called Rooted In Homes, to develop the idea of ‘and-a-half’ bed housing so each dwelling would have a non-specific additional space to accommodate the fluctuating needs of real life. There is no reason why we shouldn’t we consider the conversion of commercial offices into community spaces and subsequently into housing as part of the initial design process and think about how this increases the long-term value of a building for owners and communities alike.

Hyper-local construction – RIBA Stages 4-6

When communities have a clear narrative of ownership and investment in places, myriad secondary benefits – such as increased social cohesion, a more dynamic local economy, improved physical and mental health and a broadening of education opportunities – can be realised. Architects can unlock this through a localisation of labour and materials during the specification phase and by framing construction as a public good. In its simplest form, we aim to create a connection between contractors and communities so that builders can view their work as integral to the brighter future of local areas. This encourages civic pride, creates deeper connections between people and place and lets communities take responsibility for their surroundings. We try to take this idea even further by using community-led construction systems, such as WikiHouse, that radically lower the skill-barrier for construction. The community can literally become the contractor. The emotional power of communities building together knowing that their contribution will be there for many years to come is an untapped well of community cohesion and should be an integral part of technical design and construction.

Embedded value evolution – RIBA Stage 7 and beyond

In the longer term, we want to ensure that community-focused design and construction processes are a benefit for those who come afterwards. Buildings are ideally placed to make an ongoing commitment to their surroundings through the provision of space for local good causes. We try and model an ‘effective’ architecture where the positive impact of a building can be measured using key performance indicators. On a recent community scheme in Little Hulton we’ve included an assessment of the reduction in vandalism in the adjacent park as integral to the success of the building. If this was commonplace we could create a powerful, caring city, with each newbuild addressing a communally mandated, socially beneficial issue as part of its operation. Fostering a culture of participatory democracy as this key issue morphed over time to support other local needs. Buildings have the power to become the anchor for positivity spirals that support grassroots movements working towards social justice.

For us, citizenship is a key aspect of what gives architecture the potential to be a force for good as it naturally fosters healthy and positive connections within our towns and cities. Architects should not be afraid to jump back into the messy realm of ideas – but as community-partners using our skills to unlock the benefits of architecture for the public good, not as top-down autocrats or idealistic dreamers. By reshaping the tired modernist edict that a building should communicate ideas about society into more effective vehicle for change, perhaps we can finally contextualise post-modernist aesthetic populism. Free from the necessity of communicating visually, buildings can become merely beautiful (or not depending on your opinion), safe in the knowledge that each scheme is also acting as a resilient resource for communities to realise their best lives. By engaging with a community’s opinions, embracing lifecycle design modelling, investing in skills and the local economy, and by thinking long-term about the effective value buildings bring to their surroundings, we believe that architects have the power change the world for the better. What do you think?

Charlie Butterwick is founder of Architecture Unknown and a RIBAJ Rising Star

RIBAJ Rising Stars 2022’s edition is now closed for entries. To see the winners check back here in November


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