Craftsmanship and QA

Standing at our local bus stop the other day, I pondered the miserable structure that purported to offer shelter from the heavy rain blowing in on the prevailing wind. Worse still, its gutter-less roof pitched south-west towards the road so the water sheeted down and puddled around our feet.

With its uncomfortable sloping bench seat this shelter is a product of one of several British companies who seem to have collectively cornered a substantial share of a global market created back in 1964. Then, young French entrepreneur Jean-Claude Decaux persuaded the municipality of Lyons to allow him to build bus shelters and keep them clean in return for roadside advertising rights which were then illegal in France. Decaux, who also personally designed the Sanisette self-cleaning public toilet that put paid to the infamous pissoirs of Paris, died in 2016 worth some $6.2 billion! There’s obviously big money in bus shelters….

One manufacturer’s website claims its vision is:

‘To enrich the personal mobility experience with meticulously designed innovative technology, designed by creative thinkers that craft compelling visions for a better way.’

I pondered these words as the rain slowly soaked through my shoes. Ambition and promise yet again cruelly savaged by reality.

And vis a vie my discomfort, was the installation simply at fault, or was the rain meant to cascade off the front onto the heads and down the collars of those alighting their buses? Or had (as I suspect) the shelter’s roof simply been laid to fall ‘forward’ by mistake? Maybe the whole thing had been installed ‘back to front’ for I know of at least one other seemingly identical shelter that faces away from the road, thus protecting its occupants from the spray thrown up by passing traffic in inclement weather. That shelter’s roof discharges rainwater into the roadway gutter.

My journey’s end that day was Seville. There the old historic centre offers a rich array of craftsmanship celebrated in the vast iron grills across windows, the elegant tracery of the metalwork from which the glazed balconies are constructed, and the beautifully carved doorways and window shutters, whilst its ironmongery, decorated mosaic tiling, and plaster reliefs combine to offer a veritable feast to the eye. The result: a rich backdrop to every street, square, alleyway, and courtyard.

But what impresses most is the consistency of quality: those medieval guys, be they blacksmiths or joiners, stonemasons, or bricklayers, all knew what they were doing, and they all knew how to deliver on quality, despite their lack of ISO operational systems and the like.

So how could my short stay in the bus shelter back home have emerged as such a wretched experience? Was it design failure, despite that suppliers’ claims of craft compelling visions…(whatever they might be)….or was it construction failure? 

The truth is that craft and nous at site level, as witnessed in Seville and a thousand and more other towns and cities around the world, remains in decline as an ever increasing proportion of buildings are manufactured remotely from systemised, factory produced components and products.

And with the progressive de-skilling of site labour and the consolidation of Design and Build as the preferred procurement route, the fundamental relationship between designer and installer is compromised if not severed completely. What chance quality?

No problem cry the advocates of ISO 9001: QA will solve it all. But the evidence emerging from the largest Inquiry ever undertaken in relation to UK construction is that despite the Quality Management systems and protocols so loudly proclaimed by our construction industry, all has been far from well. That is very much my experience in dozens of forensic investigations that now span back across some four decades: quality is all too often compromised by modern construction processes. This despite the ascendancy of ISO, and the claim that QA protocols can underpin all services from professional design to manufacture, and from assembly right through to delivery and handover.

ISO is of course not an acronym, coming instead from the Greek word isos meaning equal, and its origins can be traced back to the medieval guilds of 13th century Europe. Their inspection marks on products and work served as an endorsement of quality but come the Industrial Revolution, and the transition to factory manufactured components, those responsible for construction on site became ever more de-skilled. With that was lost the sense of empowerment, autonomy, and ownership and outputstended to be audited, if at all, after completion rather than during assembly. This, despite the claims of the ‘tick-box’ brigade, is a harsh truth that must be faced.

The later 19th century had seen further breaks with the traditions of craft and worker self-auditing processes as, particularly in the USA, the goals turned to ever greater productivity against a further de-skilling of the workforce, but come World War II the US Government saw the urgent need to improve quality: unsafe military equipment could not be tolerated and checking regimes were introduced to ramp up standards.

All this was subsequently fed into the manufacturing operations of Japan during the post-war reconstruction of its economy. Consequently, the quality of Japanese goods which had hitherto been notoriously bad (seriously impacting on its performance in combat) was ramped up. Aided by America, Japanese manufacturing was subjected to the ‘total quality’ approach: TQM (Total Management Quality) was thus born, and Japanese manufacturing systems rather than products became the focus of scrutiny. The rest is of course history: Toyota, Honda and in Europe Mercedes, Audi and BMW, swept the floor as, for the next four decades or so, UK manufacturers languished ever further behind in the value/quality proposition.

But while the ISO systems may have done much to improve product manufacturing qualities in areas such as car and plane production, its beneficial impact on the construction industry – certainly in this country – has been far less effective. Perhaps that’s because cars leave factories in finished form, good to go, but products destined for incorporation into buildings must still be assembled on site by people who have at least some knowledge of, and skill in, construction. Against that most obvious of principles, those overseeing UK construction work are increasingly drawn from the ranks of surveyors and managers whose training and value systems focus on timetable, speed of assembly and cut-throat cost reductions. And of course, risk transfer ever further down the line, and into ever more fragmented and remote quarters of the supply chain.

I can hear the howl of those that I have offended already, but perhaps, just perhaps, they should take a weekend to enjoy Seville and then go sit in my local bus shelter.

Professional Interaction: a Higher Calling

Re-examining the tenets of interpersonal

Written by Paul Hyett and published in Design Intelligence magazine, Q2 2021

“I did not like the tone of your letter — please
don’t ever write to me again.”

So wrote avant-garde architect Cedric Price to Pat Enright, then a director of Murphy, the builder responsible for constructing the new InterAction Centre as commissioned by community activist Ed Berman in London’s Kentish Town. The issue at hand, inconceivable in this era of email communication, was Cedric’s insistence that Murphy should identify its correspondence by both date (day/month/year) AND the time of day. This he required to distinguish one letter from another when referencing replies to the many requests for information and clarification that were arriving daily during the early stages of the contract .

General arrangement drawings for that project, as with all others, were drawn on an unusual paper size unique to the Price office (by memory, somewhere around 700 mm x 350 mm in dimension). “Details” were produced on A4 sheets that, after allowance for borders and titles, all too often yielded less than satisfactory space for the image.

Enright had responded to the request by suggesting that the project would progress with greater efficiency if the architect focused on the issue of timely information, rather than becoming preoccupied with administrative processes — hence the infamous “please don’t ever write to me again” retort.

I reference this story because, as well as the coincidental word in this article’s title to the name of Berman’s organisation (Inter-Action) and project (the InterAction Centre), it highlights the importance of constructive relationships in any kind of creative collaboration.

The title’s other word raises a second question — what is meant by “professional”? Lest arrogance or conceit be suspected, let me immediately make clear that builders can, and indeed should, conduct themselves in all aspects of their work in a “professional” manner. But in an age where the word professional has been so demeaned as to be virtually meaningless in daily parlance, what, we must ask, is meant by “professional”?
One definition I have used over the years in teaching
“professional practice” to architects is that “professionals carry knowledge and skills that their clients do not usually possess. They offer this knowledge for a fee, albeit always with the client’s interest placed first and foremost.”
The patient therefore assumes, and codes of practice in my country certainly demand, that a doctor will prescribe with only the patient’s interests in mind: the medic will not, and cannot, take a second fee or commission from the drug company. Likewise, the architect must select and specify solely in the client’s interest and cannot receive gift or favour for so doing. That, in essence, is the distinction between “professional” doctors or architects and quacks or spivs.

And that is why footballers cannot be professionals: they may be paid, and thus distinguished from amateurs, but have only self-interest to serve in the performance of their duties. Likewise, the second-hand car dealer, and so on.

Rewind some 80 years — to the White House. The date: 27 December 1941. Winston Churchill is in bed and worried. “I am so glad you have come”, he told Charles McMoran Wilson, better known as Lord Moran, who, as his physician, accompanied him on all engagements. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had laid on a splendid supper, but on retiring to bed, Churchill had suffered chest pains and breathing problems. The prime minister’s mission had been to persuade the president to commit America’s efforts to the European theatre — a commitment much threatened by the events at Pearl Harbor just 20 days earlier. As the physician knew all too well, the stakes could not have been higher.

“Is my heart all right?” asked Churchill
Moran’s professional duty was clear and simple: it obliged him to hospitalise the patient — period. Remember the Hippocratic oath against which doctors are bound:

“I will follow that system of regimen which,
according to my ability and judgement, I
consider for the benefit of my patients, and
abstain from whatever is deleterious and

So, what did Moran do?
In full knowledge that the correct diagnosis was a mild heart attack, and that correct action was immediate hospitalisation, he told his patient “there is nothing serious.” As he later revealed in his biography (Churchill: The Struggle for Survival), “I determined to tell no one.” (Not even the patient!) In short, recognising the propaganda coup that would otherwise ensue for the German and Japanese high commands, Moran put the Allied war effort first. In attitude, if not physically, he propped his patient up to enable him to carry his American mission through to its successful completion.

Increasingly, construction professionals face the same dilemma: like Lord Moran, we have a higher calling that demands we put our world first, and where appropriate, ahead of the Developer/Client.
This increasingly requires new levels of professional interaction and shared ambition hitherto rarely seen — certainly outside the theatre of war. Essential to such professional interaction is design intelligence.

We need to exchange ideas across professional disciplines; we need to use conflict and competition in constructive ways and as vehicles to test ideas and search out the truths that will inform strategy and direction; and, above all, we need to co-operate, both within our construction professions and across our professional construction disciplines, as well as beyond our traditional industry borders.

Through all this, we, as construction professionals, need to distance ourselves from the path that law and finance have encouraged us to pursue — the path of abbreviated and ever-later information; of short-termism; of packaging and transferring risk “downstream” to those least equipped to assume it, be they suppliers or contractors, whose want is profit at any cost. Above all, away from the real problems afore us.

Striking in this respect is the dismay expressed by a senior executive of China State Construction Bureau 8, part of the world’s largest construction company, who once said to me:
“Paul — you all do it wrongly! Your people identify and then pass risk to others ‘downstream’ who all too often cannot cope. We identify risk and share it together. We solve problems — you pass them away.”
The message of this polemic is simple: “professional” conduct has always demanded attention to higher callings — beyond mere self-interest.

Interaction with fellow professionals within our own and associated disciplines has always offered rich reward in terms of innovation and execution. But now, as the young Greta Thunberg has so aptly and effectively warned us, we sit at a nanosecond to midnight: the world will see 80 billion square metres of new building in the next 20 years — a built area equal to 60% of the existing global building stock. Now we have a greater calling as professionals, one that mandates a higher level of interaction than ever before seen.

Take a look Google Earth’s time-lapse video entitled “Our Cities” published 15 April 2021 if you want a visual of what 80 billion square metres means and looks like.

Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities. Do we have the design intelligence to solve this problem? Yes! Do we have the social, economic and political systems in place to facilitate the contribution that such design intelligence can offer? No! So, to where should we turn?
Governance aside, I suggest we turn to our instincts as professionals, that we lift our sights firmly towards the territories of collaboration, sharing knowledge and creative discourse that can shape and offer that better future we know we can construct.

The platform for such effort that can connect that higher calling and combine it with the intensity of purpose and disciplined focus essential to any success is professional interaction. There, and only there, lies the combination of ethics and discipline that, together with knowledge and invention, will be critical to any collective success we might achieve.

The view from here: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’.

Published in Design Intelligence magazine Q1 2021

Paul Hyett reflects on three challenges facing RIBA’s new president and Britain’s architectural profession: Brexit, The Grenfell Disaster’s Insurance Impacts, and COVID-19.

Simon Allford, the recently elected 60th president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, faces greater challenges in terms of scale, breadth, and complexity, than any incom-ing president since the aftermath of World War II. Back then, Sir Lancelot Keay’s concern was essentially singular: how best to orchestrate the repair, renewal, and expansion of the national building stock. When Keay took office, that process was already well underway: the great reforming Labour Government of Clement Atlee was a year into its stride creating the infra-structure of welfarism – new towns, suburbs, schools, hospitals and above all, new housing. The aspirations of the New Jerusalem Movement, which had long engaged in informing the post-war agenda, were to be pursued with a vengeance.

In contrast, Allford’s problems today are multifarious, and there is no ‘New Jerusalem’ style roadmap to guide his effort. Sir Lancelot was also superbly well prepared to respond to his challenge. At 63 years old, he was the first RIBA president to come from a Local Authority salaried background. He had spent his entire life in the public sector, first at Birmingham where he was responsible for 16,000 new homes, then from 1925 at Liverpool where he ultimately became City Architect leading the effort to re-house families from the cleared slums of inner Liverpool.

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man…’

In stark contrast, and through a career spent entirely in the private sector, Allford has, with college chums Johnathan Hall, Paul Monahan and Peter Morris, created one of the finest architectural practices in Britain. AHMM has established a prodigious reputation with a string of awards to its credit across a wide range of building genres, the Stirling Prize being the recent crowning glory. Like his father David, who also enjoyed a distinguished architectural career, Simon lacks nothing in guts, grit, determination, and intelligence, but again in contrast to Keay, Allford’s back-ground offers little in the way of relevant experience to the tasks before him. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man ….?’

What an hour it is! Unlike the concentrated reconstruction challenge facing Keay, Allford must urgently shape the profession’s responses to three pressing practice related issues: Brexit, The Grenfell Disaster, and COVID-19.

The burden will be awesome for we must look to Allford’s presidency alone to lay the groundwork and frame the essential responses to each of these challenges.

The competition for presidential office at the RIBA was fierce this year and offered no shortage of enterprising talent: three women and two men campaigned on agendas which covered all the familiar territories: low carbon ecofriendly design, innovation, diversity, inclusivity, communi-cation, and government lobbying. But only Allford’s campaign included initiatives for the wider range of Grenfell and COVID- generated problems, and only Valerie Passetti campaigned on the issue of Brexit. So, let’s look at these issues in their order of emergence, starting with:

Brexit’s potential to damage the interests of UK architects is enormous. Hitherto free to practice across the European Union, British architectural qualification and registration are no longer recognised. That privilege was traded away as a last-minute Government concession to secure the elusive, much coveted ‘Brexit separation deal’. Beyond that, UK architects will now be ineligible for inclusion in European tenders for public commissions – a condition that had previously been mandatory.
Our freedom to recruit younger architectural talent from across Europe will also be severely hampered as the lethal impacts of work permit restrictions kick-in. This has potentially dire consequences for a profession that exports professional services extensively, relying on architectural ‘overseas’ talent to deliver its workloads, and on the ‘core’ language skills of our continental friends to communicate on a par with our clients and competition. (As in America, the presence of second and third language skills among our indigenous British architectural population is shamefully limited.)
Allford has much to contemplate here, and much to do to get architectural service exports into Europe onto the Government’s priority list. Public and Government interest remains stubbornly preoccupied with the emotive subject of UK fisheries, an economic segment with an annual catch value of just £987 million which is insignificant when compared to the UK’s Professional and Business Service exports into Europe which stand at £66 billion.
Of that, architecture and engineering services represent 16% — over ten times the value of fishing! The shocking explanation here is that our 12,000 fishermen – with their 5,911 small trawlers which are over 50% foreign owned anyway – have appealed to this once maritime nation’s nostalgic sentimentality in a way that 56,000 architects, despite our extraordinary global influence and earning performance, have notably failed to do.
As a celebrated Stirling prize-winner, and a sophisticated lobbyist, Allford is well equipped to bang this drum at Government’s door.

The Grenfell Disaster: Insurance Impacts
Sir Martin Moore-Bick who has, with admirable determination and skill, led the investigation into the tragic fire to the residential tower block that killed 72 people on 14 June 2017, is still hearing evidence for Phase 2 of the Inquiry. But even as that process continues, the impact of the Grenfell tragedy wreaks havoc across the entire construction industry’s indemnity insurance market. A recent issue of the Architects’ Journal reported three-fold Professional Indemnity (PI) premium increases, with some architectural firms unable to renew coverage at all. An incredible 69% and 58% of firms respectively report cladding related claims and fire safety issues being excluded from future coverage. Some architectural practices with large portfolios of completed, metal clad buildings, reportedly face ‘eye-watering’ 1000% premium increases…. irrespective of the quality of their work and their ability to show code compliance and safety of design. Understandably, architects’ insurers have no appetite for these risks.
To attract renewed interest in our PI business, some argue the profession needs to increase Insurers’ confidence in our education, training, and quality control. Either way, we will need to increase fee levels to facilitate payment of higher PI coverage costs. One commentator insists that in getting our own house in order we must re-establish authority over our own work. Allford will have a heavy-duty agenda to deal with in this regard, but there can be no doubt that he carries the experience to lead the response.

Covid-19’s Effects
James Pickavance, one of London’s leading construction lawyers, recently said in a PODCAST interview: “The world of construction litigation is only just beginning to ‘inhale the impact of COVID-19.’” The pandemic has certainly had far-reaching social and economic consequences beyond anything seen in my lifetime.
Our architectural responses can anticipate incorporating ‘intelligence’ into our building surveillance and services systems to facilitate early screening and detection of ‘COVID-Carriers’ (see this author: Design Intelligence Q3, 2020). Short-term, architects will continue to assist in planning safer circulation and separation arrangements in those public buildings that have remained in use, and they will continue to design conversions and adjustments to provide emergency COVID hospital facilities. Like many other professions, architects have adapted quickly to remote and isolated working practices, on-line meetings, and virtual communications.
But Allford’s attention will principally need to turn to the further impact on PI insurance cover for COVID is set to generate a heavy stream of claims relating to construction delays, many of which are already in incubation.
Much of this will centre upon the legal battles around the meaning and application of appointment clauses relating to force majeure. These disputes will feed lawyers for a decade and more as new Case Law emerges. Developers and Contractors will clamour to establish their respective rights during a pandemic which has made it all but impossible for the construction supply side to discharge its duties under contract.
Consultants can operate a remote working policy courtesy of today’s brilliant IT facilities, but how can builders build when the UK Government has enforced a Stay-at-Home policy? Breaches of Stay-at-Home directives may not have been an option for Contractors, but Developers can claim that Government ‘lock-downs’ have merely been a necessary response to a force majeure. The issue of whether force majeure applies will surely become critical.

Pickavance estimates it will be six to twelve months before we see these claims coming on stream in construction disputes around the world. Much confusion will surround multitudes of scenarios where contracts were already in varying degrees of delay before COVID circumstances began to impact progress adversely. Architects whose fortunes are inextricably bound up with Design and Build procurement will be particularly exposed here.
Ultimately, this will only escalate the cladding crisis that has already consumed the world of construction insurance. We need to mature in our attitudes towards insurance…. it’s essential as a profitably functioning insurance market is one of the cornerstones of our industry. Allford has serious work ahead of him on this issue.

Nettles Grasped
To put all these challenges into further perspective, let us go back to an RIBA presidency even earlier than Sir Lancelot’s. Just over one century ago John William Simpson took office. Like Allford, Simpson, also the son of an architect, faced the fall-out of a global pandemic.
Spanish Flu became the worst healthcare disaster of the 20th century. It was so named because, unlike allied and axis powers, neutral Spain had no censorship imposed on reporting outbreaks there. But the disease didn’t start in Spain.

Some historians trace its true origins to Kansas and the illness, on 4 March 1918, of US Army Private Albert Gitchell. From there it spread rapidly across the Atlantic to the trenches of Europe – in the last months of Word War 1, 84,000 American soldiers were deployed to join the allied war effort in March 1918 alone. As with Covid, both the USA President and the British Prime Minister – Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George – would catch the virus and survive and, as with COVID, a second and far more lethal ‘wave’ of the pandemic followed shortly after the first. Ultimately, 675,000 Americans would die, and some estimates put global deaths at up to 50 million. The toll in the UK was around 228,000. In comparison, UK COVID deaths already number 106,564 .In this respect Allford is destined to lead the architectural profession in its response to the worst pandemic in a century. If history repeats itself, it will also be the worst pandemic of this century. Unlike Keay, whose profession embarked on a rapid course towards a majority of its membership being in state employment by the early 1970’s, Allford, courtesy of Mrs. Thatcher, will preside over a largely privatised profession with less than 1% in state employment. However, notwithstanding these statistics, some believe that the RIBA’s broader membership has never properly thrown off its state employee culture, arguing that despite notable exceptions among its leading practices, too many UK architectural practices have remained shy of the commercial sharpness and discipline expected by the development world.

Any residue of such shyness is surely set to change. We’ve received the shrillest of wakeup calls and Allford is set to turn all lights on as we face his call to arms to meet the churn in the months ahead. These crises may well spark a major cultural re-orientation of UK architectural practice. A yawn-ing vacuum openeth before us. Will we step into it, grasp the nettle, and stand to be counted? There is no doubt we should, and no one is better positioned to lead the process.

In so doing, Allford will do well, irrespective of Brexit, to look beyond our shores. The UK architectural profession already punches well above its weight on the international stage with some 10% of our £4.8 billion contribution to the national economy being in exports. Our biggest markets for architectural services are Asia, The European Union, the Middle East, and the USA with respective shares of 27%, 23%, 20% and 14% of our international revenue. These figures have grown rapidly with exports of professional services by UK architects increasing some 28-fold in the last twelve years.

The future is bright if we continue to grow these markets, and the demand is surely there: between now and the year 2035 the global market in construction is expected to be 80 billion square metres of new build. That equates to 60% of the entire current stock of building worldwide — to be added in just fifteen years. Of that 38% will be in China and 15% in North America. If the world’s design teams address the eco-agenda effectively in this work, the beneficial consequences will be incalculable. British architectural practices can and should play an enormous role in this challenge, potentially taking our export services up as far as five times their current values – that would be 50% of workloads to be export based.
Simon Allford’s presidency should be the stepping-stone to great days ahead.
Yes: cometh the hour…!

Pace and Place, Planet and Purpose: Reinvention Required

First published in Design Intelligence 23 Dec 2020, by Paul Hyett


If Christopher Wren had walked into my father’s new office, he would have felt very much at home. Albeit a small practice, like architects’ offices of all sizes across the country and around the world, the basic tools of the day were very much as they had been down the centuries: refined but largely unchanged.

Sir Christopher would have been familiar with Dad’s drawing board, T square and high draughtsman’s stool, his pair of compasses, dividers, the multitude of pens of various thicknesses, the pencils from hard to soft, and the many other fine instruments required for making those marks on paper intrinsic to the processes of design. Those marks slowly and surely became ever more clearly defined until, ultimately, they were copied and transported to the site where skilled craftsmen would translate them into reality.

The staff and dumpy level used to assess terrains, the tape measures, scale rules and set-squares, the brushes and colour washes, erasers, dusters, draughting tape, drawing pins and lettering stencils – even a plumb-line: Sir Christopher would have been “good to go” without a word of instruction or explanation. Or perhaps not quite: it was 1972 and Britain had just “gone decimal.” Not only had shillings and pence been abandoned, but our beloved feet and inches had been replaced with metres and millimetres, and our pounds and ounces had given way to the kilo.

But Wren would have mastered such changes in moments and taken just minutes to come to grips with the telephone (securely connected to the wall by wires) and the little battery-operated calculator — great for doing those complicated calculations. And, of course, the electric kettle and the fluorescent lights would have been welcome comforts — to say nothing of the heating.


Fast forward another fifty years and this most revered of architects would be completely lost in my office of today. So intensive and extensive are the learning and training necessary to operate current IT systems and equipment that the process must begin pre-school. Generations of professionals of all disciplines are being left behind, floundering and incapable, as system and communication developments accelerate along an exponential curve.

For the drawing board, wonderful paraphernalia, and instruments in Dad’s office, substitute the modern computer screen and its array of programmes: Revit and Rhino; systems like BIM and parametric design; Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and WeChat for communication. For archives, plan chests and the multitude of filing cabinets, take The Cloud. For physical state take cyberspace and virtual reality. Such changes and radically new equipment and methodologies transcend previous innovation of practice: the architect’s office has been completely reinvented over these last three decades. The journey to reinvent the architect’s office started with Rubenstein and Barnaby’s word processing in 1979; then progressed through the fax machine (common from the early 1980s but invented back in 1846); the mobile phone (1985); CAD (1989); websites (1991); Google (1998); screen sharing (2014); and all the other contemporary tools that have transformed design and construction from physical to virtual processes. 

The breath-taking scale of this reinvention is now being further accelerated, courtesy of Covid-19. As has been noted far and wide, we are entering a new “norm” from which there will be no return. The pre-COVID office that, despite its systems, technologies, and virtual connections within and beyond, had stubbornly endured as both a physical reality and an institution, cannot and will not survive. As a hub where workers occasionally meet in real time and place? Perhaps. But as a work setting, with the restrictive demands of assembly and nine-to-five entrapment? We are witnessing its death throes.

Just as our towns and cities have suffered the upheavals of shopping centres and out-of-town malls replacing the High Street, and the disinfecting choreographies of mail order and on-line food delivery have replaced our shopping excursions, so our commercial landlords face the imminent collapse of that hitherto bastion of investment: the office. We are witnessing the phenomenon of collaborative assembly dissipate into a dislocated corporate condition: the virtual office matrix. 


This is where we designers must shift from a reactive assimilation of the skills necessary to survive and compete in the digital world of an office environment that has been reinvented and virtualised around us, to the proactive role of using our programming and design skills (our ‘stock in trade’) to reinvent the very essence of towns and cities as we currently know them. 

In this respect, everything is up for grabs, and all norms will be swept aside. To quote Brennar Bhandar, even “the conceptualisation of wealth as a fusion of the value of land with the value of people,” initiated through the thinking of that father-founder of the modern political economy, William Petty, will inevitably be challenged as never before.  

Our recent dalliance with globalisation; the ability of multi-nationals to shift materials, production and capital around the world in pursuit of obedient and competitive labour sources; the desire of our large corporates to provide services tax-free across borders — all these agendas are up for review and revision. So too is the essential purpose of our cities and their buildings. As IT-savvy urban populations relocate to their new sub-urban and rural home platforms, the dinosaurian fabric of the commercial city will be rendered increasingly redundant. For architects, urban designers, planners, and engineers, the challenges are immense: our cities need to be reinvented in terms of programme, and their existing fabric must be retrofitted to new purposes hitherto unimaginable.  

Despite the extraordinary impacts of IT that now threaten our essential concept of place, the challenges can only intensify as the very notion of freedom — so beloved by the West — is threatened by the escalation of a multitude of factors, such as monitors, sensors, barricades, business closures, and masks. Against all this we will see the increasing phenomena of migration not only from strife and economic catastrophe, but also increasingly consequent on climate change, as our global populations continue to grow exponentially:

Taking one million years to double from two and a half to five million in 8000 BC, the world’s population doubled every thousand years thereafter through to 1650 AD, when it reached five hundred million. It doubled to one billion less than two hundred years later in 1805 AD, while the next doubling took only until 1930. By 1974 it had doubled again to four billion. Today, the global population is nearly eight billion souls.

So, here we find ourselves, at a second to midnight. Population growth attenuation, education and sustainable lifestyles have emerged as challenges against which our politics appear increasingly unable to cope, the eco-systems of our world struggle, and disorder threatens from every side. 


But our resolve must not falter. Just as the developments in information technologies and communication have prompted the reinvention of the very ways we work and live, so we must now reinvent our relationship with both planet and place. As never before, the very purpose of our cities and their buildings needs reinvention. Now cities must accommodate their functions as safe havens and adaptive organisms. 

DesignIntelligence has never been in greater demand.