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No more heroes:the urgent need for political engagement by architects

Intentional design decisions play only a small part in shaping the city and architects are deluding themselves if they think otherwise

Earlier this year architect Doug Wignall contributed to a debate hosted by the American Institute of Architects on the theme of ‘architect as leader’ with a piece titled ‘Architects as Heroes’. In it he mused on the absence of architects from the ranks of a US political leadership dominated by lawyers and bankers: in the country of Thomas Jefferson, Wignall could find only one architect who had been elected to national government in the previous 50 years.

It might be noted that other countries − and related disciplines − do a little better by this measure. In the decade up to 2013, both China’s president, Hu Jintao, and prime minister, Wen Jiabao, were engineers. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a transport planner before he became Iranian president, although he did have to steal an election from an architect, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, to get a second term. And the odd architect has even been known to sit in the UK’s House of Lords.

Wignall’s larger point was a call for political and public engagement by architects, but the trope of ‘architect as hero’ remains a powerful one. The great man theory of history may have been roundly rejected in that discipline, but is still prevalent in the field of architecture. (In fairness, under the current conservative turn, it’s coming back into vogue in the study of history.) As standard narratives go, it does particularly badly at capturing the realities it purports to describe.

The popular representation of the architect as starchitect is perhaps only outdone by their other common depiction: as unemployed. The reality is somewhere in-between. For every architect as hero, bestriding the building site like Gary Cooper in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, there are some thousand architectural underlings working on his door details.

The heroic version of the architect gets at least two things wrong. It both imputes too much agency − and too much power − to the architect as designer, and obscures the many other actors involved in the making of buildings and cities.

It was hard not to admire the brio of Rafael Viñoly’s response to the problems of his 20 Fenchurch Street building in the City of London, which had been frying eggs and melting Jaguars on Eastcheap during a hot spell in August. If the developers regretting the position of the sun in the sky was a little rich, Viñoly surely was right in referring to ‘the super-abundance of consultancies and sub-consultancies that dilute the responsibility of the designer’. It really wasn’t him, guv.

This ‘dilution’ requires us to think in a more critical way about what we mean by design, and whom we think is engaged in it. An extended sense of the term − appropriate to the kind of complex problem a city is − includes not only physical designs but also legal and policy designs, the design of organisations and economic strategies, as well as numerous designs for living in the city as a social environment.

While it goes beyond disciplinary conventions, such an understanding is one I take from Kevin Lynch: city design, he held, is what emerges from the ‘interrelations between urban forms and human objectives’.

This is in part a technical sphere in which architects and urban designers, planners, surveyors and engineers purposively organise urban space and construct built forms. But the design of buildings, spaces, streets and cities takes place within a much broader context involving legal divisions, economic distributions, political deliberations, social institutions and policy processes.

These less visible ‘designs’ create the conditions under which anything gets built, occupied and inhabited in the city. Indeed, the nominal ‘designer’ may have least of all to do with the ways in which different spaces come to be produced and consumed, as any frustrated architect might aver.

Such an approach to design calls into question a number of concepts with which − in heroic mode − it is more usually associated, including expertise, coordination and intentionality.

An emphasis on expertise, first of all, trains too narrow a lens on the range of actors involved in the design and production of space. It both gives too much weight to agents (planners, engineers or architects) who may have relatively little power over how urban spaces ultimately are produced, and renders invisible other kinds of agency implicated in the making of buildings and cities (from financialised property schemes, pension funds and asset managers, to politicians, interfering princes and crime bosses, or stubborn and resourceful local populations).

While coordination, secondly, remains an important category for thinking about the work of design, the instrument of coordination is not simply the architectural firm, the engineering office, the planning department or the city hall. What happens in a city happens as the result of innumerable more or less conscious designs on the part of its inhabitants: improvised or long-game, intentional or incidental, temporary or more permanent.

It is that principle of urban order which is the ‘manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans’, as Jane Jacobs so memorably expressed it. You needn’t be an unreconstructed Hayekian to see these many designs on space as a mode of ‘spontaneous’ planning or improvised design that takes place off the books and under the radar of expert systems.

The notion of intentionality or conscious design, lastly, raises a number of issues of its own. A great deal of what occurs in cities can be understood as the unintended consequences of design. This is true in a very basic sense − the map, or the plan, is never the same as the territory − but also true in a broader way. Modernist designs for rational, socially beneficial, healthy cities too often produced their opposites in dysfunctional zonings, alienating housing tracts or degraded environments.

As Lewis Mumford grumpily noted, the signal effect of designs to ease congestion in the modern city has generally been to increase it − as in the contrary equation that more roads equals more cars, not less congestion. And the work of time, even over the short term, means that built forms tend to outgrow their designers’ intentions.

There is an emphasis in contemporary urbanism on the growth of new cities, but many metropolitans still live in old cities: driving cars or motorcycles on streets made for foot traffic; running electrical wiring and plumbing through pre-modern buildings; working at computers in buildings designed for looms; setting up market stalls or barter-blankets on pavements (or dual-lane carriageways) meant for transit; living middle-class lives in housing built for people on low incomes, and the reverse.

There is, after all, no end-user for any urban design: there are only different users doing different things over time. Intentional designs and the resulting built forms are subject to numerous subversions, not just over the longue durée but on more everyday time scales: re-tooling, derailing and pebble-dashing are also practices of design, however unfaithful these may be to original intentions.

Finally, a great deal of urban form is made not on the basis of conscious design objectives, but out of our intentions to do other things, such as to make a living, to find a space to sleep, to get from A to B and then on to Z according to routes and along desire paths unanticipated by the transport planners − even Ahmadinejad.

IMAGE
Gary Cooper, as Howard Roark, the quintessential cinematic embodiment of architect as hero, relaxing in The Fountainhead, framed by the towering vitality of the city

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