This week Architects for Social Housing met with Adrian Dobson, Executive Director for Members, and Maxine Mckenzie, Executive Director of Communications, to discuss ASH’s protest against the RIBA’s nomination of Trafalgar Place for this year’s Stirling Prize.
First of all we got security out of the way. We asked them to speak to the police and tell them we have the RIBA’s agreement to protest outside their headquarters at 66 Portland Place. To their enquiry, we warned them that since it’s the Heygate Estate redevelopment that the RIBA has chosen to nominate for Britain’s foremost architectural prize, we expect a lot more angry people to be there this year than there were at last year’s protest against the nomination of Neo Bankside, and advised them that the best way not to piss off protesters is for cops not to push them around, tell them the pavement they’re standing on is private land or that they’re blocking a public right of way. They agreed, and will be speaking to the police in advance. However, we told them that our intention is not to stop people attending the ceremony or to enter the building ourselves, but to speak to guests on the way in and make them aware of the reasons for our protest.
We then moved onto these reasons. We filled them in on the Secretary of State’s decision, which they hadn’t heard about yet, to reject Southwark Labour Council’s Compulsory Purchase Order on the Aylesbury Estate on the grounds that it violated leasholders’ human rights to enjoy their property and have their homes respected, and that the redevelopment scheme discriminated against them in contravention of the Equality Act. To make the link between this decision and their nomination of the redevelopment on the former Heygate Estate we told them our protest chant:
AYLESBURY ESTATE: HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATION!
HEYGATE ESTATE: STIRLING PRIZE NOMINATION!
Which they looked slightly worried at. We then raised the issue of Ben Derbyshire, the RIBA’s new President Elect, being Managing Director of HTA Design, the lead architectural practice on the Aylesbury Estate. At their suggestion, we will be writing to him to ask for a response to the Secretary of State’s decision, and whether he now agrees that the Aylesbury regeneration scheme he has steadfastly supported against widespread criticism does in fact violate the human rights not only of leaseholders but of all tenants on the estate, and whether he intends to continue colluding with its implementation by Southwark Labour Council and Notting Hill Housing Association.
We then went on to the specific reason for our protest. They were fairly vague on the social cost of demolishing the Heygate Estate, so we gave them the figures on how many homes for social rent are being built on the ruins of the demolished 1,200 council homes (82 out of the 2,535 new builds), and showed them a displacement map of where the previous residents have ended up. We then gave them the figures for Trafalgar Place, the project nominated by the RIBA, which is providing no social housing, and showed why its 25 per cent affordable housing quota, based on a 2-bedroom apartment selling for £725,000, is only affordable to real estate investors. We accused the entire Elephant & Castle regeneration project of being social cleansing, and questioned why its first completed stage has been nominated by the RIBA for the UK’s foremost architecture prize.
They looked pretty sheepish about this, so we criticised the role of the RIBA in giving legitimacy to the false narratives of estate regeneration propagated by politicians and developers with awards like the Stirling Prize, and accused them of contributing to the disinformation and lies with which the public are deceived about the reality of a property boom disguised as a housing crisis.
We brought up the fact that only 16 per cent of RIBA members even bothered to vote for the new President, citing this as an example of the lack of a clear reason for the existence of the RIBA, and suggested that taking a stand on the social and ethical issues facing the architectural profession, specifically with regard to its role in the social cleansing of estate communities, would give the RIBA a clear identity and role to play in the profession. This occasioned much scribbling.
We discussed the barriers to the agency of architectural practices, and they told us that whereas 85 per cent of architects were employed in the public sector in 1965, today the figure is 2 per cent. We argued that if the profession is to claim that distinction, keep dressing its practitioners in funky glasses and black polo-neck jumpers, and not become mere tools of the building industry, it has to work to reclaim a wider remit than its current reduction to an employee’s duty to the client. We spoke of the social legacy of the post-war era, and of its betrayal by the current generation of architects, and argued that the over-riding duty of an architect is not to the client but to the residents who live in the homes and spaces they design. Once again, as we had when we met the RIBA last year, we spoke of the need for architects to start observing the existing ARB Codes of Conduct, and specifically their responsibilities for the effects their work has on the community, and suggested that a new Social Code of Architects be drawn up.
They argued that there is a contradiction between the values expressed in the RIBA’s nominations for the Stirling Prize and its housing policies, which they proposed were not so far from those of ASH. Rejecting this comparison, we referred to the recent RIBA publication on the ‘Ethics of Estate Regeneration’, which they said was produced by its Housing Group in response to the issues ASH raised at last year’s protest. We gave them a copy of ASH’s commentary on this text, suggested they publish it in the RIBA Journal, and pointed out that, among its many faults, it took as its point of departure the conviction that the exclusive role of architects in estate regeneration is to use their skills to convince residents of the error of their misconceptions about the benefits of having their homes demolished and replaced by high quality homes they can’t afford to live in.
To our enquiries, they told us that Ben Derbyshire has made noises about turning the RIBA into a forum for debate rather than the promoter of a particular architectural stance, so we suggested they invite ASH to speak at their next debate on these issues, such as the recent Stephen Lawrence Memorial Lecture on the theme of architecture and community. They nodded, but made no definite commitment, even when we promised not to offend too many architects.
We ended by relating to them some of the comments and suggestions on this page by supporters of ASH, as follows:
- Get rid of Ben Derbyshire. Since he’s their new boss, they somewhat understandably didn’t respond to this, but it was worth a try.
- Set up an RIBA Ethics Committee to ensure that no estate regeneration scheme that reduces the overall number of homes for social rent or socially cleanses the community from the estate, or any project that incorporates segregated entrances, etc, is ever again nominated for the Stirling Prize.
- Recommend that architects employed in estate regeneration, as part of their contractual obligations with clients, insist on an analysis of the social cost of the project and its negative effects on residents, as well as its environmental cost and negative effects on the wider area, and not be satisfied merely with its financial viability, before accepting the brief.
- Replace the cult of ‘Starchitects’ and their celebration in awards like the Stirling Prize with an appreciation and promotion of the social values of architecture.
- Create an Albert Speer Prize for architects that don’t care whom they work for. This got a bit of a laugh.
Finally, we told them we would once again be awarding the O. J. Simpson Prize at the protest. We were slightly surprised that they’d heard of the prize, but we assured them that in five year’s time it will have overtaken the Carbuncle Cup as an expression of the failings of contemporary architecture, and asked them if they wanted the RIBA’s name indelibly associated with its winning.
If you’d like to continue this conversation and make your own views known, please join us at 6pm on Thursday, 6 October, outside the RIBA headquarters at 66 Portland Place, for the ASH Stirling Prize Protest.
Architects for Social Housing