Identity dominated discussions by the latest cohort of RIBAJ Rising Stars as they grappled with the tensions between serving society’s most vulnerable, the technical implementation of climate action and the demands of today’s business world
Every year, members of the winning cohort of the RIBAJ Rising Stars Award, run in partnership with Origin Doors and Windows, get together to talk about how they see the issues of our time.
This year our stars found themselves almost in the firmament at the roundtable, on floor 35 of the Shard. This high-flying cohort of emerging architects descended on London from around UK; the issues and opinions raised during the afternoon gave us a special insight into what this generation is doing to progress the profession and the causes that motivate them.
Over the past two years we have been forced to reassess ourselves: how we work, how we interact with others, what is meaningful to us both as individuals and as professionals in practice.
Understanding the needs of society’s most vulnerable members was one concern. Designing with dignity for the disabled and elderly, and for children – especially those in care – was a key driver for many. It was clear that most of the group either had gained direct experience of attempting to improve conditions in this field, or had actively sought to familiarise themselves.
Yet the magnitude of the challenges visited upon them in so doing soon became apparent: institutionalising forces propped up by profit-driven mechanisms – that impose parameters on design not in the best interests of end-users – was one stumbling block. Another, particularly in conservation, was the complex marriage of access and sustainability needs with those of an inflexible heritage sector, insistent on prioritising historical fabric over user needs.
Persuading clients who lack the enthusiasm to value sustainability over budget, square meterage or aesthetics was a further challenge. While this could sometimes be addressed through dialogue (demystifying concepts such as Passivhaus and embodied and operational carbon for those with a foggy understanding but a willingness to learn), it was agreed to be an uphill struggle when regulations and government policies continually lag behind what is really needed to reduce the impact of construction on the environment. There is no easy way out of these conundrums.
There exists a further burden on this generation of architects, directly owing to architecture itself. ‘There is pressure and importance on young architects to deal with the climate crisis and inclusive design,’ said Mat Barnes of CAN, ‘but added to that is the need to focus on the stories that architecture conveys… I am interested in how people are represented in the built environment of their cities. How do we design in a way that creates memories for people using the building?’
This proved a pertinent observation.
For Barnes, whose influences include the arts and crafts movement and post-modernism, architecture’s idolisation of modernism is elitist and causes a disjuncture between what architects and the general public believe is good architecture. ‘Superfluous’ or ‘money-wasting’ details are often what people remember of a building, and which add to the rich tapestry of cities. Scott Abercrombie supplied an example in support of this: ‘Last year I worked on a synagogue in Glasgow where I was able to introduce decoration borrowed from existing encaustic tiling,’ he explained. ‘I feel I wouldn’t have been able to get away with that on a new build, but here I did because there was a historic justification.’
Closing down creativity
In the residential sector, as several in the cohort had experienced, a further hindrance to creative expression is the building developer. Incapable or unwilling to embrace designs which deviate from an easily-marketable norm, such systems propagate a culture of limited expectations and trap homeowners into a mindset of viewing houses simply as assets with retail value. Consequently, homeowners become afraid of anything idiosyncratic, however life-enhancing that might be.
‘What we are getting to is a sense of identity,’ Charlie Butterwick commented. ‘Ultimately our experiences, our memories, everything hangs on the architecture of our lives – that’s what buildings are really for in my opinion.’ It was agreed that – as programmes such as NLA’s ‘Don’t move, improve’ try to encourage – homes which are designed according to the needs of their owners, including multi-generational occupancy and access requirements, allow their occupants to remain in residence longer and alongside support networks, improving community feeling and positively affecting wellbeing and quality of life. ‘I wonder what would happen if developers truly engaged with the people who are buying the properties,’ pondered Butterwick.
This too is an accessibility issue of sorts; one which revolves around access to information and the inclusivity of architectural vocabulary. As Hiba Alobaydi observed: ‘The architectural lexicon isn’t accessible and that is sad… the disconnect between the architect and the client has a lot to do with language accessibility… that is very alienating to the layman.’
Where do architects fit?
Ben Brocklesby, sales and marketing director at Rising Stars partner Origin Doors and Windows, has a role that positions him between architects, builders and clients. He observed that builders are often better at communicating with ‘the everyday person’, which is detrimental for architects, whose contributions to even the smallest projects are hugely relevant. Conrad Koslowsky went further, arguing that ‘it seems we don’t have a particularly strong architectural culture in society. There is a general literacy problem… we have to show clients things they have never seen before – for instance “this is closer to what you want than what you think you want”. That isn’t arrogance but a means of exploration.’ The answer came yet again to the issues of education and communication. As Butterwick commented: ‘If we cannot describe necessarily [the intricacies of] how the architecture will happen, we can couch it in terms of what it would feel like to be in that space.’
‘Words are keys, they unlock ideas and help us communicate with each other,’ agreed educator Hannah Durham, who runs an undergraduate studio around words, stories and building narratives. Access to education was a major concern for her, and others in the group. ‘There is something about making sure our future architects are a diverse range of people; I feel very responsible to make sure I can help everyone,’ she said.
The cohort agreed that there was a disconnect between secondary school and architectural education, with limited visibility of the profession for less privileged students, and a failure of careers guidance in schools. As Brocklesby summarised: ‘The funnel is already narrowed because teenagers do not understand what architecture is and how to get into it. How do we widen that?’ Amy Francis-Smith experienced the fresh perspective of accessible education first hand at a workshop at the Bartlett, encouraging visually-impaired students to apply to architecture. ‘They had their own means of expressing spatial concepts beyond the visual,’ she observed. ‘Even how they measured and quantified space – based on echoes for instance – was completely different.’ The message hinged again on alternative ways of seeing, understanding and communicating.
So, the issues of the day concerned creating a democratic and accessible architecture that adequately represents the stories of the people that inhabit it. A question from Barnes seemed to perfectly round off the discussion: ‘In 100 years’ time what will today’s architecture say about the times we are living through?’ Indeed.
Members of the Rising Stars 2021 cohort at the discussion
Amy Francis-Smith, architect, Pinnegar Hayward Design, vice-president, Birmingham Architectural Association
Vocal and determined, leading the way on disability campaigning
Mat Barnes, director, CAN
Emerging design talent with a cheeky sense of postmodernism
Charlie Butterwick, founder/architect, Architecture Unknown
Engaging sustainably, innovating confidently
Hiba Alobaydi, assistant editor, Foster + Partners
Mentoring drawing on her own experience
Scott Abercrombie, associate director, John Gilbert Architects
Heritage cheerleader saving the grand and the tenement
Hannah Durham, lecturer in architecture, Oxford Brookes University
Caring and committed teacher
Conrad Koslowsky, architect, design fellow, Conrad Koslowsky Architects
Dedicated to delivery for his innovative clients