Will Brexit pose a risk to British architecture and design?

Does Brexit doom us to another Tudor revival? Image: Getty.

A director of property consultancy McBains Cooper on what Brexit means for the architecture industry.

Brexit has opened up a whole range of new questions and uncertainties for the country. But no-one has – yet – discussed the effect of our withdrawal from the EU on the architecture and design of our cities. Will there be a real impact on architecture in its wider sense, our approach to design and its influences? And how might it reflect the emerging culture of a post-Brexit UK? What might history teach us? What dangers lurk out there for architecture?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the referendum result was that the leave vote, in a large part, seemed to reflect an increasingly insular population wishing to close our borders. But many architectural practices have teams that are drawn from different countries; teams that are rich in diversity and cultural differences which are reflected in their designs. Changes to freedom of movement within the European Economic Area will impact on the nature of design teams, and the insight obtained from such a diverse cultural pool. This cannot be good for architecture as a whole.

Brexit could also have an effect on physical design itself. There has always been a link between architectural style, and social, political and economic change expressed through different building typologies and even nation states. Just consider the social and political backdrops to classicism, neo-classicism, fascist, renaissance, modernism and post-modernism to see how each was driven by a political and or socio-economic response to the particular time and place.

In today’s world, a scan of the architecture journals might lead one to conclude that today’s design is driven by “modern vernacular”. But maybe, in uncertain times, there will be a return to materials like brick and timber as a form of architectural comfort food.

After all, an inward looking nostalgic mood could easily be seen as part of the Britain’s DNA anyway, regardless of Brexit. Post-war modernism still has its devotees who favour open plan living in statement settings, yet many Brits still retain a traditional aesthetic: period-style homes continue to cast a spell on 21st-century buyers. As a result of restrained British taste, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian styles remain the most popular choice of homes, while owning a Regency house or a traditional country pile is seen by many as the height of aspiration. 

So how should architects and architecture respond to this uncertainty, and perhaps fundamental shift in European politics, and the views of the 52 per cent who voted to leave? In my view, we should re-double our efforts to ensure that architecture remains at the service of society, even if it is inevitably influenced by politics and economics. No matter how it is funded, architecture serves people. Even the most “symbolic” commercial schemes – those that display the economic might of the corporate organisations that sit behind them – can still achieve both ends, serving both their private equity masters and those that will use them on a daily basis. There is no conflict between good architecture and good business.

The Vitruvius/Wooton principles of architecture – firmness (honest use of materials and systems), commodity (function) and delight (beauty) – are now more important than ever. And, in the current climate, simplicity and economy could be added to that list. In this post-Brexit uncertainty, the best approach is to return to the safety of these five pillars and remain open to the richness, skills and work ethic of our global influences.  

So let’s ignore cries to close borders and build Trump-type walls, and instead remain open to the richness, skills and work ethic of our global friends and influences. Thankfully, I can’t see architects in the UK becoming puppets of those wishing to create a society intolerant of those from other parts of the world. I see no return to architectural styles that express such unacceptable views: we are too plural and independent a profession these days.

The desire to deliver simple, functional, robust and beautiful buildings should transcend short-term political upheavals and economic fluctuations, otherwise the British reputation as a country of architectural excellence will be damaged. Let’s build on our technical capabilities and show that architecture in the UK is a safe haven of integrity, honesty and creativity in these uncertain times. In the end, this approach will open both minds and borders. And this has to be better for everyone in the long term.

Mark Leeson is director of design at McBains Cooper, an international property and construction consultancy.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.