I have always been fascinated by architectural competitions, especially the ones held for projects that will never be materialised. From their entries one can really assess the designer’s architectural abilities and also map out their politics and true motives. It is the closest an architect can get to his/her student years, when being a dreamer and not a pragmatist was the norm. Anyone who studies or has a creative profession knows that sometimes the most outrageous of ideas produce the most interesting of projects.
In this competition held by the RIBA, the contestants chose one area (out of some suggested ones) and then focused their intervention in whatever part of it they wanted. Each proposed neighbourhood has various places that seem to be forgotten and each project’s aim was to shed new light on them. All of the short-listed entries suggest a 180 degree turn from their original use. Aldwych station turns into a spa, where people actually bathe in the tube, old phone booths are transformed into bike repair stations and a part of the BT tower becomes a cultural centre.
Architectural studies involve coming up with schemes on how to regenerate areas and scenarios of what sort of buildings to make quite often. In fact there is so much time put into developing these scenarios during student years that one would think that entering the actual profession architects would be even slightly involved in them. This is really far from the truth. Even the biggest names in the business are presented with very precise briefs that have been developed entirely by clients, companies, strategists and governments and to which the architects have not contributed anything at all. Which means we are trained to be dreamers but we actually only execute orders. This is why I always thought that being an architect is like having studied to be a chef but instead having to wash dishes for decades. This is why most architects are not happy with their jobs even though they loved their studies. And this is also why most of us are willing to spend weeks of our precious time for a competition, even if there is next to no chance to ever win it (not to say that if won, the award would not even remotely cover the cost).
Another important thing that popped into mind going around the rooms of this exhibition was that regeneration is often promised in a vague, generic fashion that reminds me of politicians’ schemes that are presented to the public in order to win votes. Having the objectivity to read the intentions behind such ‘promises’ is an important skill to develop because often there are potent political motives hidden behind them. In our days regeneration usually equals gentrification. Attracting rich consumers to occupy an area is the goal, while social problems and inequalities instead of being addressed, are hidden under the proverbial carpet. Poor and marginalised people are sent away from the ‘regenerated’ area as out of sight is out of mind.
Some decades back, patronising or naïve as they might have been, architects were trying to face social problems, no matter how difficult or even impossible it was. In our days we are trained to forget and focus on design, beauty and generally the surface of things. It is as if designers only look into a repertoire of ‘problems’ that mostly relate to the environment and the need for more culture-related places. Thus the recipe is either to create a leisure/art space or something that addresses environmental issues via recycling and the production of biological products to hit the jackpot. Everyone will think the designer really cares. By that I do not mean that there is no need for additional public or cultural centres and I am not challenging the fact that global resources have been reduced and our health and well-being are not in danger. On the contrary. However I do believe that as citizens and as designers we should all be more sensitive towards the social impact and politics represented by the projects that claim to regenerate the areas that allegedly need it.
Having said that I do not want to state which projects in this competition -according to my personal opinion- were successful in addressing actual problems creatively and which not. This is something for each person to figure out on their own after careful consideration. However I do believe strongly in the importance of competitions because somehow they open up a horizon of possibilities for architects that reality has turn into cynics. Especially this competition had a very interesting subject as cities are literally filled with forgotten spaces. Ultimately, the decision to display it in an equally forgotten space, the basement of a building as famous as the Somerset House was a brilliant one.
I would also like to mention some projects that stayed in my memory for various reasons. Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones which is basically a moving kiosk that creates public space where there is none. Hidden Light by Threefold Architects, which is a series of flares indicating the Victorian technology that still remains underground of the city. The Museum of Memories by Claire Moody for its Gothic qualities and for re-introducing the necropolis. “In the Canopy” which is a tree-climbing system by Studio McLeod for its playfulness. Urban Agri-Aqua Culture by Ian and Peter Wale for its ethics even though I wish they had paid more attention to their aesthetics. And finally the Bike Box by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo because something truly helpful should be done for the cyclists in this city.
The exhibition has now ended but you can find the its website here
More information about the shortlisted projects at the RIBA website here