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Editorial: A new foundation has been laid by the EU referendum, and we shudder at it rising, brick by brick

September editorial mary turner

In the fight against Notopia, we need the dissolution of borders - not their reinstatement

In 1973, the AR celebrated Britain’s entry into the European Common Market with ‘genuine enthusiasm’. Today, we greet Britain’s mooted departure with sadness and apprehension. 

To the editors of thirty years ago, the joining of the European single market represented increased opportunity for British architects to work across borders. But they remarked that the union would make not the ‘slightest difference to an exchange of ideas which has no need of economic or political treaties to flourish’. 

While it is true that ideas have no borders, the creative exchange that resulted from the free movement of Europeans has led to a flourishing of discovery and creativity in everything from food to science. The closing of Britain’s doors will end the opportunity to work and study freely in 27 countries.

The personal impact of the European Union experiment on the British people has been profound. Young people, the majority of whom voted to remain in the EU, identify as European, as well as British. The results of 23 June have not only set grandchild against grandparent, but also orphaned them of a cultural identity.

‘London is now a creative service hub for architecture – even practices with no work in the UK call it home to benefit from its cluster of global design talent’

Over the past three decades, British architecture practices and universities have increasingly become international hybrids, with ancient rival nations merged to common purpose in the same faculties and offices, becoming friends, colleagues and lovers. London is now a creative service hub for architecture – even practices with no work in the UK call it home to benefit from its cluster of global design talent. In the run-up to the referendum, impassioned messages from British architects appeared online – one practice, 6a architects, still carries a simple affirmation on their homepage: 6a is European.

As an Italian-Canadian, the mother of two British-born children, I was devastated by the results of the vote. I felt suddenly unwelcome after more than a decade in London. The rise of racism around the referendum revealed a sinister anti-immigrant undercurrent, with some either ignorantly or deliberately misunderstanding the meaning of the word ‘Leave’, seizing on it as a campaign for the deportation of mainland-European nationals from the UK. 

The vote for Brexit has raised the potential un-homing of 3.3 million Continentals living in Britain and over a million Britons across the EU. Unpicking the policy and trade agreements that have successfully resulted in the longest peace in Western Europe since the Roman Empire may be a complicated and daunting task for government. More worrying is the personal cost of unpicking lives. When the wall was built across Berlin it divided not only a city, but families and friends – so this referendum, if carried to its logical conclusion, will carve up practices and people. It has already divided Britain itself, pitting Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales, and within England, north against south.

‘In the fight against Notopia, the city as a place of human exchange and cultural vibrancy benefits from the dissolution of borders’

Now as the temperature following the referendum cools, the British are picking themselves up in that quintessential way: keeping calm and carrying on. But for others, something fundamental has shifted – an unpalatable direction of travel; they can no longer identify with their nationhood. They are holding their breath for the invocation of Article 50, which will confirm the two-year countdown to Brexit – only then will they consider finding a new culture to call home.

These Europeans, suckled on a diet of Erasmus exchange programmes and Continental lovers, are not natural island dwellers. There is wanderlust to be part of something bigger than any one country. Their selfie-persona inhabits a single digital world that praises the unique nationless individual over any established collective identity. In the fight against Notopia, the city as a place of human exchange and cultural vibrancy benefits from the dissolution of borders – even if free economic trade has accelerated the spread of sameness through franchises and brands (this needn’t be). For the 48 per cent that voted to remain in the EU, the freedom of movement is progressive, not problematic. After decades of walls coming down, a new foundation has been laid by this referendum, and we shudder at it rising, brick by brick.