“Why aren’t we relevant?” Architects and their place in Britain’s housing crisis

A misleading impression of the architect's job? A scale model of London on display at last year's MIPIM real estate conference. Image: Getty.

Even post-2008, Britain’s worsening housing crisis still lingers around the fringe of the political radar. In London, while official figures put house building requirements at 49,000 units per year – and economic research suggests a figure closer to 60,000 – output in 2014 was a meagre 18,700.

Double-digit growth in property values, a depleted social housing stock, exploding private rents and continued foreign investment have culminated in the all-too-familiar reality of a crisis of affordability – not to mention a rapidly rising £25bn housing benefit bill, of which a quarter is spent on private rents in London and increasing homelessness.

Suggested solutions to these problems are not in short supply, and go beyond simply building more homes. We could allow local authorities the finance to engage in their own house building programmes, for example. We could introduce rent caps within a more regulated private rental sector; tackle the issue of land banking; encourage smaller independent contractors and self-builders to create a more diverse end product. All are plausible reactions to this situation.

The role of architects in all of this lies in a somewhat hazy landscape determined by the mechanisms of politics, powerful house building firms and the complex nature of the real estate market. In effect, architects succumb to the reality of being employed by a client, normally to carry out works within a highly regulated framework, and arrive far too late in the political and real estate food chain to be of any real significance in initiating how the built environment is produced. The overarching failure to solve the housing crisis has not been down to the architects, or even developers; rather, it’s because of limp public policy.


Architects are, to their credit, well-trained in spinning several bureaucratic plates at once, managing, coordinating and tip-toeing their way to the end goal of practical completion. Balancing numerous vested interests and regulatory risks, while possessing enough business acumen to make the task worth their while, the architect has clung on for many years while being derided from all corners and accused of leading the built environment to ruin.

In a process captured in the grainy black and white images of dreary Modernist estates, public trust has been slipping ever further away from architects for decades. Yet the fact is that the vast majority of what we build has little to do with an architect at all.

For example, a high proportion of architects in southern Europe currently fund themselves unemployed as commissions, except for a few pre-crisis top-down investment projects, have become increasingly scared. As the construction industry began to falter, architects were among the first to be deemed disposable and wholly unnecessary as budgets were increasingly squeezed. This is not down to “bad” architects: it is down to the fact developers rarely actually need to use architects, or spend any time or money on design.

However, we now live in a time in which we are seeing a subtle, yet potentially potent, shift in future models of housing, particularly in London. The market has failed us; now we are gradually seeing cash-strapped second-tier level government bodies and councils motivated by targets in the housing sector.

In isolated examples such as Camden and Hackney, councils are becoming their own developers. Benefiting from the absurd levels of property value growth in London, the boroughs are seeking the opportunity to cross-subsidise their own schemes by providing private as well as social accommodation.

Last November, a report revealed that 40 per cent of brownfield land in London is still owned by the public sector: that means that effective house building by local authorities would go some way to plugging the gap. Where the local authorities remain impotent, however, is in the resources and know-how to carry out successful development of the sites which they hold.

This is where architects have something to offer in a world which fails to produce high quality housing. They often find themselves retreating into comfortable fields of design, based purely on formal properties – a phenomenon undeniably caused by the way in which architecture is generally still taught in the UK.

But knowledge of proportion, light, space and so on form the architect’s most reliable set of skills. Instead of considerations on form, the tools and knowledge which architects pick up across other fields, almost unknowingly along their career path, have huge potential within an institution which has a genuine necessity to build, namely local government.

All this runs the risk of appearing overly nostalgic. Older members of the profession have long reminded us of the golden days, reciting to younger colleagues their favourite bedtime story of times during the 1970s when the public sector employed half of Britain’s architects.

Yet as we speak, programmes are being drafted which provide placements for young architects seeking experience in the public sector: these should be wholly encouraged. Issues of viability, strategic development and planning policy are all inevitably part of the architect’s remit: often, though, they do not feature in their day to day work, because of the which in a building is procured.

One solution to the housing crisis is to provide the facility for local authorities to engage in their own house building programs: this is a far better alternative than creating a liberalised planning system, which will weaken the very last powers of the architect to act as guardian of quality and longevity.

Architects must have faith in public and semi-public organisations to maximise the benefits of the huge swathes of land which remain in public hands – and develop these as part of an overall long term plan.

Thomas Feary is an MA graduate in architecture, and works in practice and as a writer in London. He tweets as @thomasfeary.

 
 
 
 

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.