A panel at the Wellcome Centre asks: is it the task of architects to offer an antidote to social and political failings?
There are 67 steps between the Euston Road and the Henry Wellcome Auditorium at the Wellcome Trust. I mention this because soon we may be ‘encouraged’, ‘nudged’ or even forced to climb them by government-sponsored, architect-designed policies that aim to make us, as a population, less fat. Architecture as Antidote: Should Cities Make Us Fit? was the question asked at the keynote debate for the London Festival of Architecture, ironically held on 4 July, American Independence Day.
Vicky Richardson, Director of Architecture at the British Council, introduced the debate and the festival’s ‘Playful City’ theme, a title which in this context conjures up the metropolis as perky aerobics instructor. Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, was a perfect chair and animated agent provocateur who openly declared her aim to make the four participants fight with each other.
Speaking first, the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s Mirko Zardini, who curated the recent exhibition Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture, was disturbed by architecture pretending to be the ‘cure’ for something. ‘Architecture is simultaneously much less and much more than that’, he said, and argued against a reductionist view of society seen ‘only through medical eyes’ which would lead to an outcome too mechanical and predictable, and with a hidden moral agenda. In his book, Zardini used the rise and fall of asbestos from ideal material to carcinogen to illustrate ‘the inability of architecture to offer an optimal or permanent fix based on its promise of rational parameters’.
London’s leading architectural impresario Peter Murray then said that architects don’t have a ‘moral duty to incorporate ‘‘cures’’ into their buildings’, but that they only ‘have a moral duty to avoid anything injurious’. His position seemed milder than some of the others as he pointed out that architecture itself is a constraint, ‘otherwise we would all just be living in one big open dome’, and used bicycle helmets to illustrate a moderate position towards relationships and risk. If people were forced to wear helmets, he argued, there would be fewer accidents, but also fewer riders. ‘Don’t force people to wear helmets or climb stairs,’ he concluded, ‘but give them the option.’
Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, and David Burney, an architect and the Commissioner of the New York Department of Design and Construction, represented the other extreme of the debate. Horton painted a bleak view of the city, using medical imagery from Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote: ‘to look at the cross section of any plan of a big city is to look at something like the section of a fibrous tumour’. He went on to argue that cities are ‘not medicalised but mechanised’, that we are living an ‘accelerated and sterilised life’, and that we ‘swarm through the city in a demoralised way’ towards ‘damage and death’, from which ‘alcohol and sex’ offer only brief respite.
David Burney produces Active Design Guidelines to fight the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘epidemic of obesity’. ‘Why are fat Americans a concern to architects and planners?’ he asked, ‘Because obesity is an urban design problem.’ Burney had the most faith in the transformative power of architecture and saw not only health, but also climate change, immigration and gun control as issues where cities must take over from federal- or state-level failure.
Mid-argument, however, both Horton and Burney shifted the fundamental problem from health to social inequality. They spoke of the chasm between rich and poor: here was Burney’s ‘social inequity’ where property prices and obesity are linked and Horton’s ‘social gradient’. ‘Architecture needs to reduce that inequality,’ Horton announced. But how?
Claire Fox mischievously pointed out that when the Body Mass Index (BMI) redefined ‘overweight’, the medical profession effectively created 25 million obese people overnight. She accused The Lancet and medics of creating a moral panic in a language taken up but not understood by those making the new legislation. There is something uncomfortable about the use of the word ‘epidemic’ in the absence of a conventional ‘infectious agent’. ‘Epidemic’ suggests the helplessness of a passive, infantilised society, preyed upon by cotton candy.
But surely the decisions that lead to inequality are political, economic and social, not architectural? And are the people who have brought us McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as sponsors of the Olympic Games the same people who are complaining about an ‘epidemic of obesity’ and trying to invent legislation to reconfigure the built environment to correct it? Has a political and economic problem been turned into a ‘health epidemic’ that architects and urbanists are now expected to solve?
Vicky Richardson was the only one to openly salute the humane, cultural and intellectual role of architecture, qualities implicit in Zardini’s demedicalisation. But perhaps it’s already too late for architects. In 2004 the NHS Healthy Urban Development Unit, or HUDU, seems to have vaulted over architects entirely, landing directly in planning legislation. Their aim is to ‘narrow health inequalities’ through the ‘alignment of health and planning strategies’. Architects will presumably just follow their commands. The debate didn’t mention HUDU, a dangerous oversight perhaps.
Taking the stairs back out of the building leads past the Wellcome exhibition space. Brains: The Mind as Matter was an excellent show with many actual specimens. Suspended like small clouds, these mysterious and isolated containers hinting at human consciousness seem somehow prophetic in the context of this debate. Maybe brains in glass cases are the answer if an ‘evidence-based design’ trajectory is taken to its logical conclusion where architects are found to be redundant. All the messy problems and ‘urban design challenges’ of being human are cut away. Social interaction is a waste of space that leads to terrorism. Isolate the brain, reduce the human condition, and put it neatly into a box. The design is efficient and easy to stack, and renders the problems of space, light and obesity completely irrelevant.