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Lesley Lokko on diversity in architecture

I have to say, it feels pretty good to be British right now. Summer may have come to an end but the feel-good factor of our ‘golden’ Games lingers on. For my money, two things stand out: quivering lips and an image of Britain that owes as much to wit as it does to history. It was fan-tas-tic to see a Britain comfortable in its own multi-coloured skin. Yes, the sceptics moaned about authenticity, but for someone watching it all unfold from the couch, the image beamed across the globe of a contemporary Britain, proud of its multiple identities and histories, struck me as glorious. All that emoting over heroes as ‘diverse’ as Mo Farah, Jess Ennis etc, everyone, athletes and spectators alike, happily blubbing away. With great wit and panache, the Games put to bed, once and for all, the notion of Britons as repressed, shackled to the past and (ooh, dare I say it?), white.

Now, I know neither lips nor wit have much to do with architecture, but then I got an email asking me if I’d like to come to Moscow to judge a competition to select the ‘world’s best graduation projects’. The invitation was swiftly followed by a sumptuous book of the previous year’s projects to give us an idea of the quality and scope of the work. On closer inspection, I was amused by how easy it was to pick out the British entries. There was a humour in all of them, alongside considerable design and representational skills. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they were the best projects in the world, but they were certainly the wittiest.

A few days later, I read an article in Time magazine about the work of British-based Adjaye Associates and came across the following line. ‘The young Adjaye encountered many types of buildings, from slum dwellings to mosques, from regimented colonial cities and embassies to more organic African metropolises in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Uganda. It gave him an appreciation for different forms and human-to-edifice interactions. “I don’t make references [to my childhood] in a conscious way,” he says, “But I think the places I saw as a young child profoundly affect my sense of atmosphere, light, geography and people.”’ As a statement, it’s not particularly witty − quite the opposite, actually, more reflective − but as a way of thinking about those very same differences in culture, experience, history and geography that Danny Boyle moulded to such spectacular effect in the opening ceremony, it displays a lightness of touch in its approach that architecture, still uncomfortable with multicultural anything, might find useful.

Going back to the Games, alongside all the emotion and creative vibrancy of modern Britain on show, it was curious how quickly the commentary on our architectural achievements fell more or less neatly into two categories: buildings seemed to be either historically significant or technically efficient. The one exception was Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre, which garnered much praise for its ‘breathtaking’ form. It struck me after reading the article on Adjaye Associates that the same ‘differences’ in culture, climate, light, form and interaction that have shaped one modern Briton’s response to the profession were, in all likelihood, the same ‘differences’ that shaped another’s. This isn’t a plug or a comment on either architect or their work. It’s a comment on something else. For so long, the difficult, knotty question of identity has skirted around architecture, or vice versa, and our responses have generally been problematic. Low numbers of ‘others’ (whomever we define by that) within the profession is a ‘problem’, though few are able to articulate what the problem really means.

Diversity, seen as a political rather than cultural concern, is best ‘solved’ by simply swelling the ranks. More ‘others’ will automatically mean a shift, but in what? Can ‘difference’ in the ways in which we experience, understand, shape and create space lead to a richer, more vibrant built environment? It’s a tall order. The Time article stakes out an admirably clear position on the subject − it ain’t about skin colour or ‘race’ or ethnicity. It’s about climate, light, temperature, form, meaning, ritual, space. Experiences that were once geographically and culturally distinct have been brought together by our recent shared histories, allowing us not only the opportunity to compare, but also to combine. The Games offer a glimpse into the manner in which it all might take place.

A very British manner. Full of light, humour, emotion … not a stiff upper lip in sight.

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