What exactly is “architecture for the common good”? The new MacEwen Award just found out

The upcycled building as it appears in Stockwell today. Image: Hugh Pearman.

We all know what one of the problems is, when it comes to buildings. Naked speculation. Greed.

In other words, the erection of buildings – often involving the destruction of other, perfectly good, perhaps even historic, buildings – for the sole purpose of enriching their developers and overseas investors. This, rather than, say, providing genuinely affordable housing, excellent schools, good places to live and work, hospitals that might make you feel a bit better, and so on – you know the kind of thing.

Hence the new MacEwen Award. It’s subtitled: “Architecture for the Common Good”.  

I launched the award as a zero-budget affair that was more of a journalistic investigation than anything. I edit an architecture magazine, the RIBA Journal.  Malcolm MacEwen had been an activist ex-Communist predecessor in my chair in the 1960s and early 1970s, campaigning successfully to reform what had become a mistrusted profession. His wife Anni, no less politically engaged, was a leading conservation-based town planner, who had doubts about the rule of the motor car way before anyone else in her line of business. 


I’d noticed that there was once again increasing unease in the architecture profession – especially at its younger end – about some of the sometimes regrettable things architects were getting associated with.  What about the good stuff, though? The ethical stuff?

There’s nothing wrong with commerce, you understand – great cities have always been all about commerce, and the homes and offices and resorts of the wealthy are part of that. But I also knew that there was another kind of architecture going on in the UK – often unsung, often small-scale, low budget.

Sometimes it involves new buildings; sometimes doing clever things with existing ones, and sometimes it’s not really buildings at all, more open space, or the streets. 

So we launched the MacEwen Award as a way to winkle these out.  We grandly said that whatever was entered should be of demonstrable benefit across society – whatever that meant.

Vague though all this was, it worked.  We got more than 80 entries, made a longlist of 39, and our judges whittled it down to a final dozen or so. Finally, we ended up with a winner, a couple of commendations and a special mention.

People sent us community-aware schools, properly affordable housing projects, imaginative youth centres, sundry social enterprises, welcoming healthcare buildings, streetscape improvements, and rural access schemes. Ultimately, though, the winner was a second-hand wooden hut in South London.

 

A squad of volunteers helps to reassemble the reborn building on its minimal foundations. Image: Jessica Thom/author provided.

Inside the building. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided. 

But a noble one. The Oasis Children’s Venture in Stockwell is an inheritor of the post-war bombsite adventure playground movement, making good things happen in what can be a tough area.  The group needed a building kids could use in bad weather, but couldn’t afford to build a new one. 

Then it transpired that a very different organisation, Coin Street Community Builders on the South Bank – the group behind a lot of good co-op housing there, plus the OXO building and much else – actually had a 1988 building to give away.

 

The beautiful delicate timber system was designed by Walter Segal. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided.

The building in question was built to an ultra-simple bolt-together timber construction method by an architect called Walter Segal. He had invented the system in the 1970s so people could build their own homes easily and cheaply.

Coin Street had adapted his system for their HQ building – but 25 years later, they no longer needed it. You can have it, they said to Oasis – so long as you take it to bits and take it away.

So – thanks to two determined architecture students, Matt Atkins and Benjamin Marks – they did so. Oasis recruited squads of volunteers; Atkins and Marks designed a new configuration for Segal’s kit of parts and led the way with spanners themselves. And so the building was taken in hundreds of bits to Stockwell and re-assembled in a different shape which suited its new use. And for the past three years it has been well used.

Inside the building. Image: Benjamin Marks/author provided. 

How could the MacEwen Award judges not love this? Not just the use it was put to; not just the dedication of volunteers or the design skills of Marks and Atkins; but the fact that a whole building could be moved and upcycled – boiler and radiators included – in this nifty medieval way. It’s an elegant post-and-beam system, too: it looks good. It has no obvious style you can readily date it by. It works. Clever old Walter Segal.

And bear this in mind: it started its new life at 25 years old. That’s the age when plenty of seemingly permanent heavyweight buildings costing untold millions in the City of London, say, get demolished and replaced – and that’s the end of them. Just a bit wasteful. 

Our inaugural MacEwen Award winner, in contrast, is the very antidote to waste.  And here’s the clincher. It’s a great thing, loads of people made it happen – and nobody made any money out of it. 

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal and the former architecture critic of The Sunday Times.

You can find out more about the MacEwen Award at RIBAJ.com.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.