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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog 14 - to P or not to P

December 16th, 2014

'What a question, is it nobler to take on board the thoughts of others or to follow your own path'

Is the watered down soup of the many, at best destined for bland mediocrity or at worst a frankenstein minestrone of co-joined ideas. Is the strong minded individual, at best a Fountainhead from which clarity rings true or at worst the egotist erecting hatred, discomfort and generating social disease.

Architecture can not shed it’s disasters of the sixties and seventies, deluded that it is beyond the understanding of the great unwashed. The anti modernism of the eighties and nineties did little to win back the public, now out of these dark ages has there emerged an architecture of P.

'There is nothing either good or bad: but thinking makes it so'

P brings legitimacy, ownership and has become such a necessity that no decision will stick unless all have a stake, but what does P mean. One way is to check out Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of P, twenty years old but still relevant today. The top rungs are reserved for citizen control, delegation and partnership; mid rungs are dedicated to tokenism, consultation, informing and placation; on the bottom rung sits no P and it’s world of manipulation.

Rarely does architecture ever reach the dizzy heights of citizen control and today’s P sits uncomfortably in the realm of tokenism, consultation and placation neither half way up or half way down. If mid table is the worst of both worlds which way should we climb.

'I must be cruel only to be kind: thus bad begins and worse remains behind'

It was standard practice for the Ancient Greeks to debate their future environment and the merits of their architecture, while it was expected that a Caesar would erect a massive monument to himself. On which rung would you place Monsieur Charles Edouard Jeanneret, revered by architects, less so by Senior Theodore Dalrymple, try his paper ‘The Architect as Totalitarian, Le Corbusier’s baleful influence’. Suspicious of anyone who uses a self invented nom de plume, Theodore describes Le Corbusier’s life’s work serving both Stalin and the Vichy as appalling.

It is hard to argue against the misery for which Le Corbeau helped to create; the result of a heroic age, the fault of poor maintenance, sink estates and second rate imitations his followers still cry. The fact is these experiments have been a catastrophe, while you wonder why it took over fifty years for us to realise that the crow, a symbol of ill omen, would be lucky to perch on the bottom rung of P.

'Though this be madness, yet there is method in it'

The top rung is the true land of P, and these days it’s getting a bit overcrowded. Some have been tottering up there a while now, the likes of Rod Hackney, community architect supremo and unlikely bed fellow to that most global of totalitarian families, the Windsors. It is hard to argue with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities’ manifesto - established to teach and demonstrate the principles of traditional urban design and architecture which put people and the communities of which they are at the centre of the design process. Top rung pure P.

The sceptic in me suspects this unlikely marriage is a result of the Prince sharing architectural taste for Georgian and Victorian nostalgia with the general public, which is understandable. Yet if the public had more of a preference for brutalist reinforced concrete, can you imagine the Prince building his very own megastructure in Poundsbury. This is of course here-say, Poundsbury has proved so successful it is now cited as an example of good practice in government manuals for improved design. What is also true is that Poundsbury is not cheap, note what happens when some mid to bottom rung developers take hold. Those hideous swathes of Barrett noddy houses built over the last thirty years would make the most stained of seventies concrete disasters desirable.

'Conscience doth make cowards of us all'

It seems that there are few rungs on the ladder of P where we can hope for any success or perhaps the problems lie more with those who climb up and down, than the rungs themselves. Those obsessed with P are as bad as those who disregard P, and those neither half P up or half P down sit on a very unhappy middle ground. What is required is the architect strong enough to gain respect through skill and clever enough to speak to people.

'This above all, to thine own self be true: And it must follow, as the night the day: Thou canst not then be false to any man'


SEDA's Krystyna Johnson Award 2014 will be exhibited at the Lighthouse from 04th December 2014 until 28th January 2015, please check for further information.

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