What should architects talk about?


During the pandemic, we’ve all spent the last 12 months following guidelines as best we can and for most we’ve spent the vast majority of this time at home. As an organisation, this time has often been spent considering: what should architects speak about?

In the spring of 2021, we are facing the decisions over how we regain a little more control over life and how we can recapture whatever normality is – and we feel this is a discussion for us all.

As I sat to write this first JDA article, my overarching feeling was one of having more questions than any form of answers and perhaps we should start with these and potentially work through them in the coming months.

 What is the long-term impact of what we do on Community?

 How do people feel in the emerging towns and cities?

 What residential products will best support thriving neighbourhoods and economies?

 Where do people want to work in a post-Covid environment?

 How can region access sufficient funds to become the best it can become?

The last couple of weeks has seen a startling increase of people in the city and with it a new-found sense of optimism in the air –with this in mind, perhaps the biggest question of all is how we can capture this as we all move back to a post-pandemic world and develop a recovery strategy that further supports growth for all.

But all the same, there’s still a lingering uncertainty. What will our towns and cities become? Will we simply resume where we left off, or will we create something different and better?

It’s important that as a built environment sector, we explore properly and probe carefully. We need to get under the skin of things to understand how we can best contribute to a changing and evolving economy and the communities that are essential components in it.

Behind the façade

In his book Pure City, Peter Ackroyd described Venice as having “an abiding attachment to the surface.” It’s a city disguised by rich stucco and plaster but founded on a functionality that we recognise in the North West as being our own bedrock. Beneath the Venetian plaster was brick, but underpinning the brick were long wooden piles, designed to be water-resistant and perhaps we need to remember how we can create our own solidity as the city reignites itself.

We’re all familiar with debates around form versus function, but even when the movements around us are potentially seismic, any recovery and regeneration of our towns and cities must be built on more than surface appearances. We need to look beyond the moment to identify what the true undercurrents of change are.

We can’t simply repurpose our office blocks based on the assumption that more people want to work from home. We can’t revive ailing high streets by assuming that transforming shops into community hubs will keep local economies afloat.

Working in the built environment, we need to go beyond the obvious and the visible. We have to engineer from the ground up.

The end-user defines the purpose

As a practice, much of our work is in residential and care environments but the design principals here can be applied across the board and from the micro scale of personal choice through to the macro scale city-wide planning that others, no doubt, will be taking on. One key principle we apply here however, is not to make assumptions and we believe that ultimately people come first.

We’re a mixed bag of a community here in the North West and everyone contributes from the young professionals through to the older generations and we all need to be housed, cared for, and valued. For example, why shouldn’t a residential treatment centre be aspirational? Why shouldn’t a care home be a home of choice?

People should feel that their surroundings contribute to their sense of being valued. Sometimes comfortable surroundings are also part of the function of a place.

If the built environment is going to support the recovery of economic centres and local communities, then it has to embody a set of values that reflect a clear purpose based on understanding the various needs of diverse end-users.

Clarity comes from developing a depth of understanding, and from a willingness to uncover what’s beneath the façade. The voices that shout loudest don’t speak for everyone, just as the needs that attract the most publicity and headlines aren’t always the most pressing ones.

If we base our decisions largely on what’s happening right now and ignore the less visible currents that drive change, then we’re unlikely to leave a positive legacy behind.

And this perhaps is our collective opportunity.

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