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.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”