Without innovation and dramatic change, how will British architecture survive in a post-Brexit world?
‘The British,’ I was recently advised by a French friend, ‘are the only people in Europe who would jump out of a window purely on principle. Only once they’re falling would they organise a meeting to discover whether the window was on the ground floor or 20 storeys up’.
This remark captures l’esprit anglais rather well: our suicidal sense of moral duty, our predication for endless – often absurd – bureaucratic protocol, even our dislike of high-rise living. The same could not be said of the Scottish or Northern Irish temperaments, as the outcome of the recent EU referendum makes clear.
I was vocal before the vote, and still inundate my social networks with posts of doom and gloom, like a stroppy teenager. I don’t agree with those who voted Leave but I can’t blame them for the impending maelstrom. In fact, the list of people to blame for Brexit may be very long, but it does not include the voters.
‘“Taking back control” was always an illusion: the referendum was the wrong question asked at the wrong time by the wrong people for the wrong reasons’
It is inconceivable that the 52 per cent who voted Leave believed they would inflict decades of suffering on themselves and their compatriots. Still, the long-term outcomes will be economic hardship and political instability (although the greatest loss is surely one of cultural identity). The result also cemented the parliamentary majority of a party whose modus operandi has been to use crisis to accelerate the abolition of welfare and deconstruction of the state. This is at odds with the desires of the Leave campaign. Sadly, Brexiteers won’t get what they voted for.
‘Taking back control’ was always an illusion: the referendum was the wrong question asked at the wrong time by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. And even if you think the result regrettable, it must be acknowledged, accepted. The more important question for us is: what does Brexit mean for architecture and the social figure of the architect? As designers, our way of working is through the ‘project’; no matter how difficult the project’s context, our conclusion must always be a proposition to improve the situation. In that sense, we are an intrinsically optimistic profession, and the essence of architecture is, quite simply, the making of spatial proposals. So how can we anticipate the effects of Brexit and think about them positively?
Leaving the EU will take a long time – if indeed it happens at all (in the face of all the evidence, I still think there are even odds it won’t). Irrespective, the damage is done. Brexit will be a decade-long project of eye-watering public expense, the outcome of which will be a poorer UK. This discussion of time was painfully absent from both sides of the campaign but has assumed a critical role now for understanding what will happen next. It means we must consider Brexit an ongoing condition with a wake that could span two decades. It will fundamentally alter the course and nature of architectural discourse.
Economists are comparing the effects of the vote to those after the global financial crisis, from which we still haven’t recovered – consequently, the UK is likely to go into a recession early next year. After 2008, an entire generation of architecture graduates abandoned the field. They became musicians (like Renaissance Man, whose logo is a mash-up of Vitruvius and Corbusier’s modular men), chefs (Bompas and Parr) and artists (Flavie Audi). Many went into graphic design and publishing, even finance (rumour has it a large London bank has a whole team of architects designing investment funds and financial algorithms). Those who chose to remain in architecture embraced the only models they could reasonably hope to get built: small-scale, temporary, pop-up, low-cost and community building projects (like those of Studio Weave, Pidgin Perfect, Practice Architecture or Assemble). This way of working as an architect more closely resembled the precise spatial thinking and temporal interventions of Cedric Price than traditional building making.
‘As a graduate today the best options are to work for the small number of very large firms or the large number of very small firms - the conception of architecture by each is totally different’
At the other end of the scale, the larger, more corporate offices that thrived in the 1990s and early 2000s still suck up young talent. Their ability to execute international work more easily than smaller firms makes them more agile in procuring and maintaining new business (but when things do go wrong, the scales are colossal). Thus, mid-size practices, particularly those focusing on UK work alone, have come under the most intense pressures in the last eight years. To an extent there has been a polarisation of the field: as a graduate today the best options are to work for the small number of very large firms or the large number of very small firms. The conception of architecture by each is totally different: large firms must think of architecture as a service industry, churning out solutions in bulk and pursuing technological advantage over competitors, while small firms are forced to do more with less – an austerity that can produce some remarkably creative spatial strategies (which may or may not be buildings).
The economic history of the 20th century suggested that recessions and booms were cyclical. Paper architecture designed in one decade was therefore often realised in the next, as the markets picked up again. That is no longer going to happen. There will be no boom for at least half a century. The current financial crisis is a paradigm shift to a new model of zero growth, zero inflation as global capital unwinds its geographic inequalities and rebalances itself.
In a world of this kind the profession could well split in two. To hold the halves together – the invention and strategy of the small practice, and the innovation and efficiency of the large firm – requires some imagination as to how they could complement each other. One proposal would be for architects in post-Brexit Britain to follow the rest of the economy into services. There are still remarkably few architects that offer design or spatial consulting work to other firms.
Reframing architecture as a way of thinking, more than a way of building, could allow us to weather the coming storm by allowing more freedom to operate across disciplines. For example, what would it mean for Tesla to employ architects as design advisors? How could architectural thinking influence Amazon’s warehouse placement or the design of the National Grid? Convincing other practices that architecture is a powerful analytical tool for spatial and temporal design – and that it can benefit any type of business – is an uphill struggle. However, the shift to architectural consultancy could offer one way for those who would otherwise be restricted to low-paying and precarious jobs to develop a stable revenue stream.
What is certain is this: in its current model and without profound and extreme innovation, it is hard to imagine how architecture will survive in the post-Brexit world.
Illustration by Jonathan Farr