Brexit : The Architect’s Opportunity?

I want to discuss Brexit in relation to the architectural profession, the role of architects as visionaries and speculate on how this might all play out. It’s a different perspective on Brexit, I promise.

Background

In my career so far, I have felt frustrated. Architectural education creates the beautiful illusion that architecture will change the world. I believed this. I still believe this, but I have gained a new perspective along the way. During first ever work placement in my second year at the University of Bath, the illusion of the master builder dissipated as I began to learn about the realities of the construction industry, the amount of people involved and my role within the design team. I have since become interested in how I can contribute to society through architecture and satisfy my millennial mindest of changing the world. I began to research different forms of practice; I read Rory Hyde’s ‘Future Practice: Conversations from the edge of Architecture;’ I attended talks by 00 Architects and discovered the WikiHouse Project; I then decided to study the work and practice of Cedric Price as my dissertation subject during my MArch.

My interest in the WikiHouse Project led me to Dark Matter and the work of Indy Johar, the founder of 00 Project. In a lecture he gave entitled ‘Democratizing Cities’ he showed a slide of an RIBA Award winning private house and explained that this architecture isn’t what he is interested in, because it is for one person, who is undoubtedly very wealthy. This statement came as a bit of a relief to me. I do enjoy working on private housing projects and helping people design their homes, but this is a luxury that many people cannot afford. Ultimately, I want to be involved in change; I want to be involved in creating innovative projects that improve the lives of many.

I believe in a holistic approach to architecture. Politics and policy, religion and culture, technology and production all need to be addressed to create innovative design.

An Opportunity?

This is what has brought me to Brexit. Right now the country doesn’t know what will happen – let alone forecast the impact on the architectural profession. At the moment, architecture magazines are publishing articles titled: ‘British architecture projects under threat from Brexit’ The Guardian, and: ‘Architects warn of ‘dull design’ following drop in registrations from EU’AJ. I, as a firm Remainer, am also worried about the impact socially, economically, culturally, that Brexit will have on Britain.

‘The Great Restructuring Begins,’ is an article on Dark Matter by Indy Johar. He explains: ‘The UK is the first global economy staring into the face of the 21stCentury Great Restructuring. This restructuring both in terms of speed and size will need to be of a magnitude unwitnessed by a major global economy in modern history,’ (Johar. I, (2018) ’The Great Restructuring Begins,’ [Online] Available at: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/the-great-restructuring-begins-dfba15d22019[Accessed 20th September 2018])Johar explains that Brexit has created a shock, like an earthquake, to the system, and once the shock is over the ‘restructuring’ will begin; and this can be seen as an opportunity which may or may not pay off. Johar talks about new ways of governing the country that operates under equality, justice and freedom. Therefore the reformation of policy following Brexit couldhelp to create more holistic legislation and policy that would aid this holistic approach to architecture and innovative design.

The Architectural Profession

Viewing Brexit as an opportunity, is something that may not be realised for years after Britain has left the EU. The RIBA have published two documents: ‘RIBA Global by Design 2018’ report and the ‘RIBA Global Talent Global Reach’ report. They highlight the major concerns for architects and the industry as well as trying to estimate likely outcomes. Architecture directly contributes £4.8 billion to the UK economy every year with a further £1 billion a year contribution embedded in the exports of the other industries it supports- from banking to museums, transport to IT service (Royal Institute of British Architects (2017), ‘Global Talent, Global Reach,’ [Online] Available at https://www.architecture.com/-/media/gathercontent/core-cpd/additional-documents/ribaglobaltalentglobalreachreportpdf.pdf[Accessed 20th September 2018] page 4). The biggest asset in Architecture is the people, where two thirds of the industry is labour. According to the Annual Business Survey in 2015 only 33% of production in architecture is accounted for by intermediate inputs, compared will overall 66% across the wider economy (RIBA (2017), p18). The UK industry is currently made up of 25% EU architects, therefore the major worry is the loss of skill and talent.

Here are some more figures from the ‘RIBA Global by Design 2018’ report:

74% of architects state that access to the EU single market is necessary to expand international work.

47% of architects working at large practices are concerned that a no MRPQ (Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications agreement) would mean they lose valued staff.

Ensuring retention of common product standards is a top regulatory concern.

54% think that new trade agreements with priority trading nations will further boost exports.

60% want new MRPQ agreements to boost architecture exports.

86% of architects believe that access to international skills and talent is important to the future success of the sector.

Over two thirds (68%) of architects have reported project put on hold, and more that 2 in 5 (43%) of architects report project cancellations since the EU referendum.

71% of architects are concerned that Brexit will have a negative impact on the built environment.

27% of architects have considered increasing workloads in the UK in response to Brexit, rising to a third (32%) for architects that work in small and medium- sized practices.

(Royal Institute of British Architects, (2018) ‘RIBA Global by Design 2018’ March 2018’ [Online] Available athttps://www.architecture.com/-/media/gathercontent/global-by-design-2018/additional-documents/globalbydesign2018pdf.pdf  [Accessed 20th September 2018])

If we consider the statistic in relation to Johar’s idea of the ‘Great Restructuring’ it appears ironic that this is the very time where in fact, the UK needs creative thinkers. If it weren’t for the leave campaign being aligned with racism and the hostile attitude to EU workers which have caused 60% of EU architects to consider leaving the UK since the EU referendum, then the UK would gain considerably from innovative thinkers from the EU and the world, to help design and rebuild the UK.

 David Chipperfield’s tone in his article: ‘The RIBA is letting the profession down over Brexit’ in the Architects’ Journal in May 2018, is frustrated. Chipperfield recognises the unique position of architects as a creative and cultural sector that has the advantage of a representative professional body. He also asks with some exasperation, ‘Can we imagine previous generations of architects being so quiet about an issue that will have such an important role in defining our future and what society we want?’ (Chipperfield, D (2018), ‘The RIBA is letting the profession down over Brexit,’ Architects’ Journal. [Online] Available at https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/opinion/chipperfield-the-riba-is-letting-the-profession-down-over-brexit/10030393.article[Accessed on 22nd September 2018]). I muse to myself at this, imagining Price and the Archigram crew who would be jumping at this opportunity to be involved in creating a new vision for the UK; because that’s it, no one is trying to create a vision. I think we are all hoping it won’t actually happen because of the fear of what will happen to the economy, our health service and the worsening conditions for the poorest in the country. Maybe it is due to the fact that architects have been restricted in many ways by the construction industry, that the pioneering attitude of the visionary architects of the 20thCentury has diminished?

The removal of free movement may also impact the innovations in travel. The Europe Hardt Hyperloop for example – topical at the moment with UNStudio unveiling its proposal for a hyperloop transport hub- a sustainable a transport system that travels between cities at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour, though semi-vacuum tubes. This could be implemented all around the world, across Europe and the UK. The possibilities created by allowing free movement between the UK and Europe could have an impact on immigration- where the need to live in the city you work in eliminated. The ability to move across borders would make a dramatic change to how we work and live. It would impact our cities and inflation as people wouldn’t need to live near their jobs. But what happens without free movement? Of course the UK could still build its own hyperloop connecting England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; but the opportunities of multi-border-breaching transport would in itself require restructuring of the country.

The conclusion?I have no idea what will happen, just like the rest of the country – but, the politics is interesting. Chipperfield and Johar seem like they do agree that this is a pivotal point in changing our society. Chipperfield sounds exasperated as he asks, ‘A few months ago, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier asked what sort of society Britain wanted to be?… Why is no one answering Barnier?… Is this not our challenge?As architects, we are on the very front line of so many of the issues that will, and do, affect us all. Should we not demand realistic answers to the issues that will determine our future, not only commercially but morally, emotionally, societally?’ As architects we deal with the issues of today, sustainability, transport, energy, as well as designing for well being, community and equality. Despite the disruption and instability that is to come, and is already affecting the country; there is also opportunity.

I think this is an important time of change and whether we voted for it or not, whether there is a second referendum or not and whether Brexit actually happens or not, the creative thinking of architects and designers is critically needed in order to create an innovative future.

Johar. I, (2018) ’The Great Restructuring Begins,’ [Online] Available at: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/the-great-restructuring-begins-dfba15d22019[Accessed 20th September 2018]

(Royal Institute of British Architects, (2018) ‘RIBA Global by Design 2018’ March 2018’ [Online] Available athttps://www.architecture.com/-/media/gathercontent/global-by-design-2018/additional-documents/globalbydesign2018pdf.pdf  [Accessed 20th September 2018])

Royal Institute of British Architects (2017), ‘Global Talent, Global Reach,’ [Online] Available at https://www.architecture.com/-/media/gathercontent/core-cpd/additional-documents/ribaglobaltalentglobalreachreportpdf.pdf[Accessed 20th September]

Chipperfield, D (2018), ‘The RIBA is letting the profession down over Brexit,’ Architects’ Journal. [Online] Available at https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/opinion/chipperfield-the-riba-is-letting-the-profession-down-over-brexit/10030393.article[Accessed on 22nd September 2018]

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