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How do architecture and society interrelate?

A Note by the Director (Ditchley 2009/06)

28-30 May 2009


Summer came early for this conference, which escaped from our usual round of foreign policy subjects and delved into the value and functions of architecture for advanced democratic communities.  The sun even drew one working group out on to the terrace.  Whether it was the rustling of green leaves against a blue sky or the imprecision of the terms of reference, we found it hard to pin down exactly what needed to be discussed.  The relative absence of policy-making or city planning experts (there were late cancellations) made it difficult to generate a political discussion.  Nevertheless we had a stimulating debate about the nature of architecture and about the difference that good architecture can make to a human habitat.

Much of the vigour in the discussion came from differences of view about the architect’s responsibility.  Some participants wanted to take architects out of the equation altogether and make them the servants of their clients’ instructions and of the needs of society.  Others saw the architect as central not just to the aesthetic quality of the built environment, but also to its functionality, sustainability and feel-good factor.  The more the conversation focussed on this dichotomy, the more we realised that the link between buildings and the overall spirit and health of a community, especially in the intense environment of a city, was very hard to describe and even harder to regulate for.  As some participants pointed out, the concepts and complexities we were dealing with seemed to lack the spread and depth of language they deserved.  This made the opportunity to have such a discussion all the more valuable. 

With no great sense of order, we covered a number of attributes of the architect’s function and responsibility.  Architecture was a profession and a business, with strong economic and commercial factors which could not be ignored.  The closest relationship for the architect, and sometimes the only significant one, was with his client.  At the same time the architect was also a designer and an artist, strongly influenced by his cultural environment and fully capable of artistic innovation, even audacity.  He had the opportunity to contribute something of beauty to the locality he was working in; or he risked subtracting beauty from what was already there.  In this context we had some trouble with the concept of iconic buildings, which could, according to the public reaction, be striking symbols of either something good or something bad.  Nevertheless, as this conversation developed, we increasingly focussed on both the quality and the functionality of buildings in their immediate environment:  in other words the place, not just the edifice.  What mattered to a community was the nature of a building in its space, within a specific locality, as part of a town or city, within a community territory in which people lived, worked, travelled and expressed their freedom, while also requiring a response to the needs of an increasingly fragile planet.  This sense of a building’s responsibility to contribute to the “village green” characteristics of its locality ran as a recurrent theme throughout the conference. 

We had a good discussion about the setting of the criteria for judging buildings and their effect.  Who is supposed to do this?  Where does the important feedback come from?  Within what framework of people, place and time is the judgement made?  Cities differ in the statement they make to the observer:  New York, for instance, makes an urban rather than an architectural impact, whereas Chicago does the opposite.  A whole range of people get caught up in the response to the built environment:  clients, users, people in the locality, planners, regulators, local politicians, central government, the media, the public.  Against that background, it was not surprising, participants thought, if the architect withdrew behind his immediate responsibility to the client.  We noted the distance that often existed between an architect’s office and the people in communities, and between the political realities of society and the exercising of imagination in design.  With the increasing use of sophisticated computer techniques, this distance might grow wider as time passed.  It was nevertheless a gap that had to be bridged if the architect’s service to the wider community was to deliver full value, as judged by a building’s usability in practice and its contribution to the happiness of the locality.  When our discussion looked for a definition of good design in this context, one participant suggested that it was a design that was light and fresh, that used the void in the space around it rather than the shape of what was there.  The people in the community concerned might not be able to articulate what made up the spirit of a good building, but their reaction to it showed that it made a difference.

Given the complexity of the things that contribute to a successful built environment, we found it hard to allocate professional responsibility for bringing it about.  Many participants believed that social engineers, planners and politicians had a larger responsibility for this than the architect himself.  Most of an architect’s time was spent doing something else.  But it was important to remember that social criteria for the good or bad effect of a building kicked in only after the buildings were finished and in use.  The judgement involved in good planning had to come from imagination and experience, with sensible adaptation to changing styles, which some cultures managed better than others.  Barcelona and Freiburg were cited as examples of cities where planners had allowed scope for imaginative variety within a coherent overall culture.  We were fortunate, too, to have representatives from countries of the South, who suggested that Latin American or Asian talent for mixing life, art and design could help the North to construct communities, particularly urban communities, with a stronger life spirit.  Yet South-North connections were not particularly frequent and it was worth seeing whether better interchange could be achieved.  Perhaps globalisation and the use of computer technology would make this more likely in the future, but it was worth making a deliberate effort to share experience. 

The conference did not want to be distracted by the current economic challenges, but we recognised that the context for the use of resources and for the affordability of good buildings had to be taken into account.  Twenty years on from the last Ditchley conference on the subject of architecture, it was hard to see what had changed in the discussion of the various ingredients which made up good architecture.  But there was no doubt that the global environment had changed.  Stronger influences on the west from other continents were material.  So was the whole debate about climate change and sustainability.  Vast improvements in information and communications technology affected both architectural methods and the public response to the results.  The relationships between politicians and their electorates were also changing, making it more difficult for political leaders to define the kind of community that needed to evolve or control the factors that affected the evolution.  The proportion of city dwellers over the rural population was increasing; so was the number of older people.  All this affected not just design, but the requirements of a whole community. 

This took us to the nature of political leadership.  While no-one disputed that democracy was the best system, occasional bursts of benign dictatorship might not go amiss.  Was top-down better than bottom-up?  No-one advocated the one or the other:  it had to be both.  Where leadership was missing, it was noticed.  Setting the right goals and driving the delivery of them all came from good leadership.  But it was the wider population who expressed their requirements and reacted to the results.  Governments could be too prescriptive in the interest of their own control.  Most participants appeared to prefer a shift from the concept of government setting limits to the concept of authorities releasing opportunity and freedom of choice, allowing risk-taking and encouraging community involvement.  This gave leadership a quality of service rather than control. 

This fitted well with the growing feeling in our debate that architecture was a profession that was embedded in the whole community, connected to a whole variety of interests.  Much as we might want to simplify the role of the architect, the complexity of it all in real life could not be erased.  The examples we discussed of good city mayors or municipal leaders illustrated the wisdom of the two-way approach, providing a strategic framework and listening on the requirements.  Barcelona again came to mind.  In this construct, no-one would dominate anyone else.  The architects, planners, developers, clients, politicians and the public all had to be represented.  This created a problem of organisation and coordination, but these seemed to follow when a certain baseline of quality, education and professional competence had been established.  Even the complexities of scale in a large city could respond to a devolved treatment, where the people in each locality had the freedom to develop their spaces as they wished, within a concept of the local place which satisfied their identity.

We also touched on the importance of new technologies, but participants did not want to place too great an emphasis on them as the possible solution to the questions of community discussed above.  Sometimes low-technology applications could be as successful as high-tech ones.  New materials were useful, but concrete – and even mud-brick – remained a staple.  The innovation could just as easily come in the use as in the material, as often happened in, for example, India.  The architectural profession was now completely computer-literate and architects were able to manage and integrate much larger areas of information than before.  Satellite systems for city planning, climate effects, energy and water use, the deployment of the labour force and several other areas were becoming increasingly valuable.  But these applications had to respond to an overall framework of participation, consultation and response.  The top-down/bottom-up dichotomy was gradually moving to a horizontal networking alternative.  And the internet was bringing in the citizen into the equation in new ways, with novel software that could potentially enhance active community participation into the process of design.  As for climate change and sustainability, the problems could not be resolved in one profession or in one generation.  Affordability would always be a vital ingredient.  But architects had to understand the impact their buildings would have, preferably in advance of their clients’ understanding of it. 

The conference found it difficult to draw precise conclusions from this many-faceted conversation and we cannot claim to have found unanimity on many points.  But certain big ideas kept on coming through.  Communication/consultation was one of them, as there was a general feeling that architects remained too isolated from the wider community.  Resource management was becoming an increasingly vital factor, because the use of space, power, water and other environmentally sensitive inputs had such an effect on other aspects of community life.  This made it important to understand the effect of scale, given the accumulation of so much new development in so many growing cities.  In this context, the place became more important than the building.  That might help to simplify all the complexities, if we imagined what was truly salient for a political economy.  Then it might be possible to articulate a route-map for the meeting of society’s requirements.  Architects could not absent themselves from this interaction, because a triangle of input was needed from government, the profession and the public.  If all the complex relationships involved in creating a dynamic community were shaped in that way, then the skills of the architect, educated and trained with that in mind, would be used to the greatest effect. 

This Note cannot do justice to a fascinating discussion, which owed a huge amount to the deep expertise and enthusiasm of those around the table.  We were particularly fortunate to have a chairman with the experience and perception to steer us through the thickets.  In another twenty years time we may still be talking about the same ingredients, but the hope that came out of this conference was that the overall mix would be different.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.



PARTICIPANTS

Chairman   :  Professor Sir Peter Hall
Bartlett Professor of Planning and Regeneration, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London;  Honorary Member, Royal Town Planning Institute;  Honorary Fellow, Royal Institute of British Architects;  Fellow, British Academy, European Academy;  President, Town and Country Planning Association.  Formerly:  Chair, ReBlackpool (Blackpool Urban Regeneration Company) (2004-08);  Member, Expert Advisory Committee to the Barker Review (2006);  Member, Deputy Prime Minister’s Urban Task Force (1998-99);  Chairman, Town and Country Planning Association (1995-99).

CANADA
Mr Philip O’Brien

Administrator, Viger DMC International Inc;  Member, Board of Trustees:  Canadian Centre for Architecture and the McCord Museum;  Board Vice Chair, Montreal General Hospital Corporation;  Member of the Advisory Committee, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.
Mr Grant Reuber OC FRSC
Senior Adviser and Director, Sussex Circle (1999-).  Formerly:  President, Canadian Ditchley Foundation (199-2006);  Chairman, Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (1993-99).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation;  Co-Chairman, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Joseph Rotman QC
Chairman, Roy-L Capital Corporation;  Chair, Canada Council for the Arts (2008-);  Member, Board of Directors and Board of Trustees, Canada Gairdner International Awards (2005-);  Founder and Member, Board of Directors, Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District (2000-);  Founder and Director, Clairvest Group, Inc.  A Member, Board of Directors, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.

FINLAND
Dr Kaarin Taipale

Independent Researcher and Columnist, Helsinki;  Senior Visiting Fellow, Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research, Helsinki School of Economics;  Chair and Coordinator, UN Marrakech Task Force on Sustainable Buildings and Construction;  Council Member, World Future Council (2007-).

FRANCE
Mrs Odile Decq

Architect and Director, Odile Decq and Benoît Cornette Architects and Urban Planners, Paris;  Head, Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, Paris;  Jury Member, End of Year Evaluation, Westminster University and The Bartlett School.
Mr Albert Dubler
Board Member, French Order of Architects;  Regional Vice President, International Union of Architects;  Practising Architecture, Strasbourg.

GERMANY
Professor Dr Hartmut Dorgerloh

General Director, Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, Berlin-Brandenburg (2002-);  Head of Division for Monument Conservation, Ministry of Culture and Sciences, Brandenburg (1991-).

INDIA
Mr Riyaz Tayyibji

Principal, Anthill Design Architects, Ahmedabad.

SWEDEN
Professor Björn Hårsman

Professor in Regional Economic Planning, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.  Formerly:  Dean, School of Architecture and the Built Environment, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

SWITZERLAND/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Mr George Deikun

Senior Policy and Programming Advisor, UN Habitat, Geneva.  Formerly:  Mission Director to India (2005-08), to Central Asian Republics (2002-05), United States Agency for International Development.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES/UNITED KINGDOM/CYPRUS
Professor George Katodrytis 

Director of Scholarship and Outreach and Associate Professor of Architecture
(2001-), School of Architecture and Design, American University of Sharjah;  Member, Royal Institute of British Architects.

UNITED KINGDOM
Professor Robert Adam

Principal, Robert Adam Architects, UK;  Chair, College Chapters, International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism;  Founder, Popular Housing Group (1985);  Director, Design for Homes;  Senior Fellow, Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (Heritage).
Professor Richard Burdett
Director, Urban Age Programme and Centennial Professor in Architecture and Urbanism, London School of Economics and Political Science;  Chief Adviser on Architecture and Urbanism, Olympic Delivery Authority.
Mr Adrian Cave OBE
Principal, Adrian Cave Associates, Architects and Access Consultants;  Consultant Member, National Register of Access Consultants;  Advisor, Royal Institute of British Architects on Disability, Access and Inclusive Environments.  Author.
Mr Jonathan Glancey
Architecture Critic, The Guardian (1997-);  Honorary Fellow, Royal Institute of British Architects.  Author.
Mr Nicholas Groves-Raines
Principal, Groves-Raines Architects Ltd, Edinburgh.
Mr Edwin Heathcote
Architecture Critic, The Financial Times.
The Rt Hon Lord Howarth CBE
Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Architecture and Planning.  Formerly:  Minister for the Arts, including Architecture (19998-2001);  Minister for Higher Education (1990-92).
Sir Simon Jenkins
Columnist;  The Guardian (2005-), Evening Standard (2009-);  Chairman, The National Trust (2008-).  Author.
Sir Stuart Lipton
Co-founder and Deputy Chairman, Chelsfield Partner, London (2006-);  Trustee Urban Land Institute, Washington DC (1996-).  Formerly:  Edward Bass Visiting Fellow, Yale School of Architecture (2006-);  Stanhope plc:  Chairman (2004-06).
Mr David Nelson
Head of Design, Foster + Partners, London (2007-);  Senior Partner, Foster + Partners, London (1991-).
Mr Robin Nicholson CBE
Senior Director, Edward Cullinan Architects;  Joint Deputy Chairman, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment;  Board Member, National House-Building Council;  Chair, Department for Children, Schools and Families Zero Carbon Task Force.
Professor Richard Sennett
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE);  New York University.  Formerly:  Chair, The Cities Programme, LSE (1998-2004);  President, American Council on Work (1993-98);  Chair, UNESCO Commission on Cities (1988-93).
Mr Tony Travers
Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics and Political Science.  Formerly:  Advisor, House of Commons Education and Skills Committee and Communities and Local Government Committee.
Mr Roger Zogolovitch
Chairman, AZ Urban Studio Limited, London;  Chairman, Solid Space Developments Limited, London;  Trust Board Trustee, Royal Institute of British Architects.

UNITED KINGDOM/CANADA/CYPRUS
Professor Engin Isin

Professor of Citizenship, Department of Politics and International Relations, and Director, The Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Open University, UK.

UNITED KINGDOM/UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Professor Roger Graef

Writer, Filmmaker and Broadcaster;  CEO, Films of Record;  Visiting Fellow, Mannheim Centre for the Study of Criminology and Criminal Justice, London School of Economics and Political Science;  Founding Chair, Youth Advocate Programme, National Youth Justice Board.
Mr Charles Knevitt
Director, Royal Institute of British Architects Trust (2004-).  Formerly:  Journalist, Author and Broadcaster, including Architecture Correspondent, The Times (1984-91);  The Sunday Telegraph (1980-84).
Mr Elliott Kulick
Chairman and Chief Executive, Pegasus International Inc (1985-).  Formerly:  Associate Director, Middle East, Mobil International Oil Company;  Senior Consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Mr Robert Campbell

Architect and Author;  Architecture Critic, The Boston Globe;  Columnist and Contributing Editor, Architectural Record;  Fellow, American Institute of Architects;  Fellow, American Academy of Arts.
Mr Lawrence (Fritz) Haeg
Artist/Architect, Fritz Haeg Studio, Los Angeles;  Fellow, MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  Formerly:  Adjunct Faculty, University of Southern California (2006-07) (2000-04);  Founder and Teacher, Sundown Schoolhouse (2006).  Author.
Mr Robert McNulty
Founder (1975), President and CEO, Partners for Livable Communities, Washington DC;  Writer, Editor and Contributor on Urban Strategies.  Formerly:  Fellow, School of Design, Harvard University.
Mr Chien Chung Pei
Founding Partner, Pei Partnership Architects, New York;  Vice Chairman, Board of Trustees, China Institute in America;  Chairman, American Institute of Architects Delano-Aldrich Fellowship Committee.
Mr John Peterson
Founder and President, Public Architecture, San Francisco;  Principal, Peterson Architects.  Formerly:  Loeb Fellow, Harvard University (2005-06);  Senior Lecturer, California College of the Arts.
Mr David Riemer
Director of Policy and Planning, Community Advocates, Inc, Wisconsin.  Formerly:  Director, Wisconsin Health Project (2004-07);  Budget Director, State of Wisconsin (2002-03).  Member, The Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Gwendolyn Wright
Professor of Architecture, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University (1988-);  Host, History Detectives, PBS.
Ms Jessica Zimbabwe
Executive Director, Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use (2009-).  Formerly:  Director, The Mayor’s Institute on City Design, Washington DC (2006-09).

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/GUATEMALA
Professor Teddy Cruz

Director, Estudio Teddy Cruz;  Professor in Public Culture and Urbanism, Visual Arts Department, University of California, San Diego;  Fellow, American Academy in Rome.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/VENEZUELA
Professor Alfredo Brillembourg

Architect;  Director and Co-Founder (1993), Urban Think Tank, Caracas and New York;  Member, Venezuelan Architects and Engineers Association (1994-);  Director, www.SLUMLAB.com, and Visiting Guest Professor, Architecture, Art and Design Studio, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning (2007-).