Space in the making. Ethics in the making.

15.12.2012 at The Hub, Ouseburn, Newcastle
Interview with James Longfield, a PhD student at the University of Newcastle.

In my final year project I am exploring the role of the architect in creating more resilient communities. A lot of this work can be found in our studio 7 blog: http://studio7resilientcommunities.wordpress.com .

As part of the early research I am conducting, I have started investigating the possibility of designing a more ‘live’ education, by introducing a studio in the heart of Ouseburn where our studio is based. James and I met briefly for an informal conversation at The Hub, where we discussed the concept of the ‘civic’ architect and his decision to move to the iconic building by Ralph Erskine, Byker Wall, to set up his alternative architectural practice.

During the series of Y6 management lectures this year, we had the pleasure of welcoming the director of Hawkins Brown Architects, Roger Hawkins to our School, where he spoke quite openly about the challenges of setting up a practice in the current economic and social climate and the need to think like businesspeople. Having admitted the lack of new construction opportunities in the UK, Mr. Hawkins shared with us their plans to turn to China, where they would still get paid a lot of money to deliver western architecture. From my limited point of view this idea turning away from the UK, seemed a bit short-sighted. Why would an office who has mastered certain skills and tools to survive in a relatively small and competitive market, simply move out and squeeze another economy like a lemon for the possibility of getting enough money to go by for a short period of time? One of the limitations of such practices is the incapability to be adaptable and flexible to change to the systems it operates in. The incapacity to restructure and rework an office management and administration, must surely lead to a lot of insecurity and slow rate of growth.

In response to the aforementioned lecture, one of the questions  i posed in my work so far was: “How should the architectural practice be in order to be resilient against shocks?” This is a very difficult topic to spatialise and even speculate upon, as I have a ver limited work experience. However I am designing a structure and a scenario where I will be in, immediately after I graduate in July, a penniless,jobless architectural student seeking employment. Where do you even start?

I have been looking to the work of aaa (http://www.urbantactics.org), UdN (http://www.ud.hcu-hamburg.de/136-0-Start.html) and other similar studios that speak of temporality and being situated as well as nomadic as an architect. James and I were speaking of the advantages and limitations of such models, where the architect is a member of a community and possesses equal rights and responsibilities towards the growth and maintenance of it, as any other member. “Should the architect be a member of a community?”, that was the second question I posed myself.

During our talk with James, he shared his experience of living and working with and within Byker, as a civilian architect and exploring the idea of architecture as a hobby. James is collaborating with Byker Lives (a project by Northern Architecture and the community of Byker), where he offers some of his time in exchange of using their consultation room as a studio. He is currently in his second year of his PhD, and by the end of spring 2013, he will be accepting Part 2 students in his studio as part of their Linked Research module, where they will be exploring creative research methods and alternative architectural practices (for more information on the module: (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/apl/study/postgraduate/taught/architecture/documents/MArch_handbook12_13.pdf).

Basing this studio in Byker, James hopes to create a shopfront for the locals to visit and participate like they have been doing for some time now, in collecting memories and creating an archive for the past lives of the area. Students will be doing a series of “active events, speculative design and a whole series of drawings and constructions, revolving around the idea of hobbies and individual communities’ activities.” Education strives to be more social, and observing existing habitation patterns, and learning how to respond to the current social and economic climate with re-adjustments, rather than demolition and mass construction.

In an effort to understand how location affects the skills we, as architects, possess James hopes to create an architectural social centre in a community. Even though in the course of our education, we idolise these masters of architecture, we are in fact marginalised outside of the world we practice in. What James is attempting to do is to shift the focus from this idea of large-scale, modern ‘starchitect’ to a small-scale. Following the legacy of Ralph Erskine, James talked about architecture facilitating human relations, and realising people’s visions, desires and needs, and not the other way around.

But how do you create a practice that actually performs in this mind set? What would our practices and our education look like if instead of just monetary, we placed other values to identify the scale and quality of a project? This is a rather long conversation which of course will not be answered immediately, however it is worth the while to start incorporating a value system which will enhance the role and the place of the architect in a community. What are these values, are they deeply personal or universal? What are the highest and lowest values which architecture can possess? Can we create a tool that scales these values of an architectural project, that way we can overcome the question of whether we build something or not, but rather what would be the benefit to an area by choosing the one or the other?

How do we transgress our role as experts and become ambassadors of a community’s wellbeing? Even though by questioning the wider social implications of a project, we can make architecture more ethical, are these social values and tools a means to create more resilient architectural practices and therefore built environment? How do we start giving value to the pre-brief period of work?

Doctors take an oath that define the terms and ethics of their practice, there is a moral framework in place that guides a professional in doing their job. Of course, I am not romanticising, and I acknowledge the fact that it is up to the individual and their personal judgment to uphold or disregard these values instilled in this oath. Even though our work is impacting the way we live and work, we are bound only by legal terms and codes of conducts. There is an infinite amount of literature guiding us on how to act professionally (in terms of contracts etc), but not how to act ethically correct during the course of a project.

Borrowing an idea by Dr. Melanie Dodd (muf) of the architect having a series of roles and different personalities we take on, we need to be more fluid and adapt to the needs of the circumstances. Is there a way that architecture is more than just a profession? Would it benefit from being a hobby, like James suggested, were people invest a lot of time without expectations? Can location influence the way we set up a practice and the skills we possess as professionals? Can we alternate more between engagement, mapping, and reflection? Is there a possibility that the future generations of architects can through the education learn to focus on how to create  stronger human networks? Tapping onto the most important resource, in my opinion, people there could be a whole bigger generation of ideas coming through being collaborations between the architect and a wider community.

Although setting up an entirely different model of education and practice is something beyond my capacity at the moment, I am intrigued by the holes in the system in which we operate now. These flaws are interesting, as they help us start a discussion on how things could be. In less than six months, I will be (hopefully) a Part 2 student, and I would love the luxury of defining my profession.  The topic of architectural education is something I want to pursue and continue to investigate after I graduate. Retro-fitting a seven year-long process to respond to new parameters will require commitment, but it is also quite liberating, deconstructing some of the myths of modernism and really focusing on the life in the crevices of a city, that way we may move from our obsession with growth to the process of creating in a more conscious manner (ποίηση).

“The job of buildings is to improve human relations: architecture must ease them, not make them worse.” Ralph Erksine
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This entry was published on January 2, 2013 at 4:33 pm. It’s filed under Architectural education, Studio 07:Resilient Communities and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Space in the making. Ethics in the making.

  1. Interesting reading. While thinking about my own project the other day, the idea of an architecture profession oath fascinated me. We don’t have one, do we? I was just the thinking whether what I am proposing in my project is for the benefit of the community/area, because ultimately it absolutely has too. I think in ways architecture schools don’t help in this regard. I quite like this quote from Bryan Lawson; “The challenge for architects/designers is how to create space that invites and faciliitiates taking possession and personalisation. It is worth noting that this is a rather different view of the task of architects to that which seems to dominate in many contemporary schools of architecture. Here it seems the task is to create space that is a monument to the originality of the architect.”

    • Thank you Mike, I appreciate your comment. We are liable to a code of conduct by the RIBA and ARB, which are a yardstick which your professional ethos is measured by in a court of law, but not there is no oath as such we take. It’s always what troubles me too, whether my judgment is actually reflecting the needs of a community or whether is just vanity. We do have a set of tools that allows us to appraise a situation and make temporary or permanent interventions in space that could reflect the needs of its users. Great quote, as I feel that what I am doing now is a lifelong passion and I loathe the feeling of doing things to impress someone or to prove my “originality”.
      Hopefully the practice which we will lead or be a part of, will be defined by a different ethos.

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