It is often assumed that delivering a city-defining opera house or an epoch-making civic extravaganza is what occupies the dreams of most architects.
A desire to create beautiful things is what inspires us all and visions of personal legacy and public adulation are undoubtedly an intoxicating mix for many who come into the profession.
But architecture is ultimately about people and shouldering the responsibility of delivering on the expectations of those people who are directly affected by your work – the people whose quality of life depends on it – quickly puts adolescent reveries into perspective.
There can be no greater professional responsibility than being involved in the demolition of somebody’s home – even with the express intent of building something better in its place – and it is with this in mind that the recent interjection by the Centre for Social Justice should be welcomed. Its claim that many mono-tenure estates built in the last century have suffered because of ‘misguided ideas about architecture and neighbourhood design’ is only half right but the idea that resident input into design should be enshrined in a legal framework has the potential to benefit all parties.
It would be foolish that assume good consultation means good design but neglecting the thoughts, ideas and experiences of the people who have lived on these estates for generations and have no desire to live anywhere else has never made sense. Our experience working with Orbit, Bexley and Wates in creating Erith Park from what was once the much maligned Larner Road estate is that involving the residents from the earliest stage significantly improves a highly complex process while it also ensures that the needs of the local community remain the primary focus from the design stage right through to delivery.
As part of the design process on Erith Park we had a constant calendar of meetings for listening and sharing ideas which were administered in pairs so that residents were reassured that their voices were heard and that they were affecting design change. Ultimately it is about gaining the trust of residents who for many years have felt marginalised and neglected and creating a legal framework would be an important step towards empowering the community who may not feel they have the voice they deserve. And what is clear is that residents who are well informed are also realistic. As part of the Erith consultation the residents looked at other estates and told us what they liked and what they didn’t like. It wasn’t a case of them heading off to the circus and demanding changes to their estate that couldn’t possibly be delivered.
It would be understandable if developers saw a move to enforce a culture of ‘co-design’ between architects and residents as another bureaucratic imposition but the obvious quid quo pro of this kind of engagement is better relationships with all stakeholders and more importantly, quicker approvals, the panacea for developers who are making the investment and residents whose lives are being turned upside down. We talk of these estates in abstract terms but they are people’s homes, beloved for all their failings as the places where residents enjoyed the rich tapestry of their lives. Ultimately the residents of these estates just want normality and if it has been decided that their home has a date with the bulldozer then they want to have a say what is going to replace it rather than being the subject of somebody else’s experiment.
If we can get this right it really could be what dreams are made of.