Something Stinks

Austin Williams | 28 February 2007

I’ve just finished reading Steven Johnson’s “The Ghost Map” about London’s 19th C cholera epidemics. Until Dr John Snow located the source of the problem in the water supply, everyone believed that the killer disease has something to do with the all-pervasive stench of the city; the ‘miasma’ permeating the over-crowded slums of the city. Using painstaking empirical data backed up by meticulous research, the true cause was found. It heralded the triumphant era of Bazalgette’s sewer network.

Today, it seems that the miasma theory is making a comeback. Nowadays, the stink of bad design is being blamed for a range of intractable social problems, from anti-social behaviour to irresponsible travel; whereas good architecture can cleanse us. Larry Oltmanns of SOM describes Broadgate as “a design policy for fitter people and a fitter environment”, David Lammy says: ‘better places make us happier people.’ Not to be outdone, the Housing Corporation believes the architecture can combat racism and Bill Dunster believes that it can save the planet. If you believe the hype, cutting off the supply of bad design can begin to cure us of our ills.

However you look at it, the stench of Victorian condescension hangs heavy over much of this contemporary architectural discourse. Adam Sampson, chief executive of Shelter says that ‘offending and behavioural problems in adulthood may be traceable to behavioural problems that emerge when children are growing up in poor housing conditions.’ In 1900, Lord Rosebery wrote: ‘the great cities, in the rookeries and slums which still survive, an imperial race cannot be reared. You can scarcely produce anything in those foul nests of crime and disease but a progeny doomed from its birth to misery and ignominy’.

There’s no real comparison, of course. After all, the result of the Victorian cholera episode resulted in massive infrastructural investment, whereas there’s no chance of that today. Even where there is investment, it is centred on definable behavioural outcomes, putting great stock in natural ventilation to blow away our problems. Passive ventilation is said to increases productivity in offices; sunlight is thought to improve schools students’ performance (the Californian Heschong Mahone report, the basis for this claim, is frequently misrepresented); and clean, green spaces have spa-like, health-giving properties.

CABE’s report ‘Better Public Buildings’ baldly states that ‘evidence shows that the design of schools can promote the performance of pupils, the retention of staff and a more creative approach to teaching and learning.’ The key phrase here is ‘evidence shows’ (which, in a CABE report means that someone has spent half an hour on Google) and is intended to denote that the conclusions are unimpeachable. But when you read that ‘research’ also shows (‘research’ implies a full hour on Google) that ‘patients with open, natural views had shorter post-operative stays – 7.9 days compared to 8.7 days.’ This is based on a general study of just 23 people in 1972! We really ought to detect the foul odour of tripe. Why is architecture discussed in such crass terms? Why has architecture become such a malleable instrument of government policy? Why does architecture have to be quantifiable anyway?

Should we argue that the inadequate supply of housing is a problem because it has consequences for the well-being, mental health and self-esteem of the homeless – or because the housing shortage means that there aren’t enough ‘decent’ homes around to meet demand? The predominance of the former, more therapeutic interpretation, indicates that the architectural establishment has lost its ability to argue for better provision in its own terms, and for its own sake. Such defensiveness has infected us all.

At a recent discussion at the Bartlett, Sarah Hill from the British Council for School Environments (formerly Schoolworks) summoned up the mystical relationship between the built environment and ill-health (or its modern incarnation, ‘well-being’) by suggesting that the core aim of new schools is to improve the self-esteem of pupils. The ‘Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group’ wants school designs to exact ‘a positive impact on behaviour.’ Building Schools or the Future wants design to improve the ‘informal curriculum’ (‘learning that takes place outside the formal timetable – in the playground, the dining area or the corridor’) and reduce bullying. The government’s National Healthy Schools’ Programme wants architecture to ‘support young people in developing healthy behaviours.’

The problem, as social policy analyst David Clements argued at the Bartlett meeting, is that ‘the built environment nowadays is presented as a palliative for a sick society.’ Meanwhile, for all the spending on schools, eduation barely gets a look in. It’s enough to give you an attack of the vapours.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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