Time for a rethink

Alastair Donald | 3 August 2008

In June, Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly unveiled plans for the redevelopment of the famous but long derelict Battersea Power Station on the south bank of the London Thames. 

The designs incorporate the now ubiquitous commercial combination of shopping centre, hotel, offices and luxury flats. An energy museum in the original control room represents the obligatory nod to history/culture. The future meanwhile is represented by an office and retail development next to the existing station that claims to be the ‘cleanest and greenest building in London’. Employing an ‘innovative natural ventilation’ system, the buildings are entirely contained within a glass shell that extrudes into a 300 metre transparent ‘eco-dome’.

A quarter of a century after the turbines last generated electricity, and following several failed redevelopment ventures, the latest proposals illustrate the chronic lack of dynamic amongst those charged with building the structures of the future. For example, it’s not a great sign when the main innovation and selling point of a £4 billion redevelopment is an oversize ‘eco’ chimney.

According to Vinoly, his designs aim at “diminishing the consumption of the building”. In the past the architectural and urban ambition of such a conspicuous project would have been writ large. Today, when announcing major projects, architects seem almost scared to talk about architecture, relying instead on justifying themselves through back of fag packet energy efficiency calculations of services engineers.

Over the past few years architecture has become dominated by the ethos of sustainability. Confident, bold, transformative architecture that sets out to maximise the benefits for humanity has been replaced by buildings which seek instead to minimise the impact on the planet.

It is as a response to such diminished ambitions and low urban horizons that earlier this month, I, and my co-authors at ManTowNHuman published the Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture. Arguing that the exhaustion of architecture has coincided with a diminished sense of human possibilities, the manifesto is a cry for dissent; a call for architects to stand up for themselves and resist the contemporary mantra of sustainability in which preservation and regulation has become all. Instead we advocate winning support for an architecture based on the ambitious and human centred goals of discovery, experimentation and innovation.

Today the key problem is widespread acceptance of the dictum expressed by former Labour Environment Minister Michael Meacher, that humans are ‘a virus infecting the earth’s body’. Accepting such a misanthropic stance has led architects to an infatuation with constraining human activity. Yet where the argument of environmentalists is that we accept less and make do and mend, for ManTowNHuman we suggest that architects should demand more – on the basis that human activity is fundamentally a good thing, and the source of a materially and culturally richer future.

The indications thus far are of some encouraging support for this stance against the prevailing cultural pessimism. In seeking to create a dialogue within architecture, we hope engage architects in the pursuit of a new architecture more fitting of our times, and which might allow us to re-imagine the city of the future.

It is, alas, clear that we are swimming against the current in many respects. Yet while the plans for Battersea Power Station reveal the current limitations in architecture, they also suggest weaknesses in the current orthodoxy. Those who adopt the moral high ground to exalt Vinoly’s plans on the basis that bio-fuels and an eco-chimney offer a visibly ‘sustainable’ response to the station’s ‘dirty’ past are clearly short not only of imagination.

In embracing small scale energy generation of the new Battersea they endorse a significant retreat in human aspirations. The original Battersea project was a cornerstone of the progressive and ambitious project of developing the national grid to help dispense with the uncoordinated and unreliable world of bit part suppliers. Providing universal supply held the prospect of freeing people to do something more meaningful with their lives other than worrying about their electricity supply.

The irony is that in some quarters the new proposals have been criticised not for their lack of ambition, but the opposite. George Fergusson, former RIBA President suggests it the ‘height of arrogance’ that anyone could dream of ‘a vast gimmicky tower’ that might undermine the hallowed place of Battersea Power Station in the ‘London psyche’. Such an attitude cynically plays with today’s fashionable distrust of anything that hints of boldness and experimentation.

There is much wrong with the self-conscious ‘icon’ architecture of today, not least that it signifies architecture’s retreat from meaningful engagement with society into the world of endless play with shape generating computer software. Tellingly, iconic buildings are most often procured by society’s leaders when faced with a need to offset their own lack of social or cultural vision, or economic prowess.

The weird and wacky shapes of such buildings often derive not from specific programmatic needs of the building, but often from needs external to architecture itself – for example the need to create a visual impact that, in the crass estimation of some policy makers, can tell a community that it has identity, ‘create’ economic regeneration, suggest cultural authority or signify social inclusion. Indeed architecture now appears to revel in its role at the forefront of Government attempts a creating social identity, promoting community values, or securing better social behaviour – all things that a confident society would see as social issues to be resolved through the working out of a political vision for society.

In the absence of a vision for society, the way architects have rushed in to play the role of social engineers is deeply problematic. In their willingness to design building and spaces with the explicit aim of shaping behaviour they view people as passive objects to be controlled rather than active citizens. Not only have architects adopted an authoritarian outlook, but they deny communities the space they need to develop connections and identities based on genuine social freedoms.

Finally, by accepting a new role as the design arm of Government policymakers, the managerial ethos that has become the basis of all politics has been transposed to architecture. The design process of a building is now centred around ticking the right boxes and entering the right details on a spreadsheet that ensure policy aims may be met, and environmental credentials can be proved. As Vinoly indicated of Battersea, the design was less a reflection of the ‘architectural mission’ of the building than ‘expediting the project through planning’. In other words: tick;tick;tick.

For ManTowNHuman, the time has come to break free of this architecture of diminished ambitions, excessive regulation and social engineering. Instead of meekly accepting the array of constraints and operating within prescribed limits, we should ask ‘what could architecture be if the imagination was truly set free?’ Only by doing so can we recover the confidence to pursue the buildings of tomorrow that might play a part in developing a new metropolitan dynamic.

This article first appeared in the Big Issue

Further information at www.mantownhuman.org


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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