ARCHITECTURE AT THE TABLE

Stephen Taylor of Stephen Taylor Architects argues for the importance of placing architectural values at the heart of the conversation about London's new social housing.

London’s Boroughs are undergoing a quiet revolution in their delivery of social housing on a scale not seen since the late 1970’s. Following the lifting of borrowing caps on local councils’ ability to raise capital against their assets we have seen a greater push by the Boroughs to become more enterprising in their ambition to deliver housing, albeit a mixture of social, affordable and private sale. Across London this is progressing at great pace with some, such as the London Borough of Hackney, internally recruiting imaginative professionals - architects, project managers and other broad thinking creative people - to help deliver their housing supply programs. It is not, however, an easy task. Spending money from the public purse on projects that are often complex and drawn out does not always come easily to risk averse public sector organisations. Inevitably it incurs chains of officials in sign-off procedures from elected members down.

Amidst the often competing and sometimes opposing forces at play - environmental, economic, planning and local community interest - the conversation around ‘architecture’ is often overshadowed or missed altogether. In meetings with project managers, quantity surveyors and real estate consultants an architect defending the virtues of form and composition or the elegance of a plan, can struggle to make themselves heard above the more ‘absolute’ arguments of their colleagues. But we should not be apologetic for bringing artistic values to the table or downplay the language inherent to our discipline for fear of alienation. The phrase ‘design quality’, so often used and promoted by the GLA over the past 15 years, has been a good step in raising expectations within local authorities but it is too often boxed up as a series of rigid aims that can be registered and measured. The qualities of architecture are manifold: detectable by the body and mind, the eye and the hand. Buildings impact us physically as well as intellectually, visually as well as materially. Architects place importance on form making, facade composition and the rigour and importance of the plan. The artistic and intellectual relationship between these things, as well as their relationship to context, is at the core of our actions and we should be more upfront about our interests.

The masters of the Arts and Crafts movement, such figures as Shaw, Webb, Lethaby, Voysey and Lutyens, all made buildings with considerable invention, experimentation, and surprise. They placed artistic discourse at the heart of their work and discussed style and craftsmanship with their clients. They openly sampled architectural styles, distorting and reworking techniques to make them their own. They composed domestic facades with a public reach, framing them as gifts to the city. These architects’ buildings could project ‘attitude and awkwardness’, they could be theatrical, command an urban junction, turn a corner. They could be figurative, brooding, humorous, ironic, commanding and indeed romantic. The buildings of this new housing revolution will have a long lasting reach not only for their immediate inhabitants but also for the many other inhabitants of the city that they are serving to shape. As cultural and artistic endeavours they have a broader duty towards society.

Stephen Taylor Architects are Supporters of The Architecture Foundation