Scarce Times: Alternative Futures | Report on Event 1


Report on event at London Festival of Architecture

Jeremy Till

(There is a video of the overall event here with edited highlights of the presentations, and also videos of the talks by David Baker about Kingsley Hall and Dan Hopewell of the Bromley-by-Bow Centre)

For the final stage of the London project, we are going to be working with teams of designers in Bromley-by-Bow. The question was how to select these designers. Typically people go to teams they know or else hold a competition. Often these are almost one and the same thing, as competition juries tend to land on stuff that they are comfortable with or already know. The trouble with architectural competitions is that they privilege objects over approaches, pictures over ideas, taste over mess, and the static over the dynamic. In addition, while they might give breaks to the chosen few, competitions generally sanction unpaid labour in which architects give up their intellectual capital and human resource, seemingly willingly but actually exploited. Finally, they present designs as architectural fait accomplis, drowning out the voices of others and eschewing all but the most token of consultation. Though trumpeted by the great and good such as Sir David Chipperfield as the way forward, competitions perpetuate much about architectural culture that I find problematic. This is especially the case for this SCIBE project, in which engagement with the here and now is essential, and where scarcity shifts attention from the refinement of the object. We also wanted to encourage teams of varied people to come forward, and preferably those with fresh approaches rather than rolling out what they had done before.

We therefore came up with a different way of engaging with potential teams. The first stage of the process, held on 2nd July as part of the London Festival of Architecture, was the result of a completely open call announced with our partners at the Architecture Foundation. The task was to make a 200 second presentation in response to the issues raised by Deljana Iossifova’s magnificent brief, which set out the conditions of scarcity encountered in Bromley-by-Bow. We sat back, rather nervously, to see what would come in. Nervous, because we had not control over who and what might emerge.

On 2nd July 100 people gathered in Kingsley Hall, home for Gandhi on his 1934 London visit and to R.D.Laing’s anti-psychiatry experiments in the 1960s; a historically counter-culture place in the heart of Bromley-by-Bow. The purpose of the event was not to judge the presentations, but to allow people to share ideas openly and coalesce teams around them. In my introduction to the day, I noted that the event had to be conducted in a spirit of generosity (“please applaud after each presentation…”) and also expressed my concern that in normal circumstances give an architect a PowerPoint opportunity and they will load up 100s of images, thereby greatly exceeding the 200 second limit (which we needed to stick to if the 27 scheduled presentations were not to go on all night).

As it turned out, all our fears were put to rest. The event was wonderful, not just for the ideas presented but also for the spirit in which it was conducted. It probably helped that the call had attracted a huge variety of people, from local historians to fundraisers, from students to experienced urban designers, from activists to the odd hard-core designer. Just this mix exploded the limited purview of a typical design competition, allowing other voices to enter the conversation. It probably helped too that the gender balance of the presenters was exactly equal, far away from the male world of most architectural events. And it definitely helped that Deljana had organised the event scrupulously, and that nearly everyone defied norms and kept to the 200 seconds.

It is probably invidious to talk about particular presentations given the collective mood, but to give a flavour of the event, here are some. Alison Killing showed how it was done in Rotterdam. BS&T acted out a performance that at the same time was funny and asked difficult questions of the research team. 815Agency showed some inspiring work of playful cities. Boom Collective somehow managed to get over a convincing vision of a carbon-free transport system in 200 seconds. Dan Hopewell of the brilliant Bromley-by-Bow Centre showed quite how our fragile society is held together through the selfless and unsung efforts of people and organisations like his. Assemble had the best punchline: “If you want a pizza, build a pizzeria.” Vision from the South, a collaborative from Portugal, came up with the great anti-Nimby slogan: AIMBY: All in My Back Yard, as a vision of collective space. And finally, local residents Lutfa Begum and Sonia Kahn who did a barnstorming performance which said architects might actually be useful, but only if they listen.  All this and much more, from a self-selecting group of generally unpublished and unrecognised people, ideas popping up where previously they had no outlet. And then afterwards people stepped outside their individual boxes and began to form loose teams of shared interests and mutual skills.

The next event, on 23rd July, will be longer presentations from these newly formed teams, from which will emerge four partners to work with the SCIBE teams. If this second event goes half as well as the first, then the decision to go down a different selection route will have been vindicated, and will suggest the benefits of alternatives to architectural competitions. After all, conversations are much more interesting than pictures.