Infra-Structure and Safety Nets: Our Duty to Provide Resilient Security

Paul Hyett challenges design leaders across the globe — regardless of their political context — to meet the real needs of our planet and its peoples.

The Scene

Luton airport, just after midnight, awaiting a family of Ukrainian refugees, my friend stooped to chat to a thin, hooded person slumped in a corner.

The Man

“Mick,” just 51, looked frail and elderly. Shivering, pale, gaunt and with most teeth missing, he cut a Dickensian figure. And he stank.

Sheltering on trains for warmth by both day and night, service cancellations (consequent on rail strikes and plummeting sub-zero temperatures) had driven him to seek refuge at airports. Until, that is, he iswas unceremoniously expelled: iIt’s not only busy commuters who are inconvenienced by industrial action!

Mick refused the offer of food: Eating made him nauseated. Dirty as he was, an awful smell emanated from his breath. An oral abscess? Perhaps bronchiectasis? For this and so much more, Mick needed urgent medical attention. The average life expectancy of London’s homeless population is just 46.

He also refused money. Pride and dignity there! What he really craved was resilient security, a place of respite providing support for as long as necessary — something that, despite our welfare state’s bold efforts, we still seemingly fail to provide for our most needy. Sadly, the divide between rich and poor continues to grow here: 10% of our people currently hold half the country’s wealth. It would take a U.K. nurse 21,000 years of salary to amass the fortune of our new prime minister — nurses’ pay in the U.K. remains shamefully low. The global picture is even more nefarious: The richest 1% own half the world’s assets, and they get exponentially more prosperous by the hour.

The Family

“Natasha,” “Darya” and “Yulia” (respectively, grandmother, mother and eight-year-old daughter) finally emerged from security looking as exhausted as they were bewildered. Lives upended, family torn apart, home destroyed, savings plundered, lucky to escape with their lives; they also crave resilient security.

The Agenda

For an architect, the term resilient security would normally prompt consideration of agendas such as protection of intellectual property, establishing a robust reputation and secure market share, perhaps even ensuring that quality assurance protocols minimised risks of claims and litigation. Or it might be to do with keeping pace with developments in information technology and procurement or developing new design responses to the challenges of COVID-19, or the “woke” agendas. But the kind of suffering described above rightfully challenges our own selfish focus.

Since these are far from normal times, I focus my agenda and take my cue from last September’s DesignIntelligence International Leadership conference in Madrid, entitled “Our Collective Responsible Response to Crises,” and the subsequent Lisbon World Architecture Festival. During the conference, an architecture dean reported her students’ growing interest in more economically, politically, and socially oriented agendas. Reinier de Graaf and Ana Pinto da Silva (the latter well known to DesignIntelligence) gave brilliant keynote addresses that illustrated the compromising impacts such agendas hold for architecture.

De Graaf offered a shocking sequence of PowerPoint images, the first comprising a map configured to collectively show the respective extents of the world’s democracies, those parts subject to totalitarian control and the areas that he described as being under pseudo-democratic control. That is, claiming democratic legitimacy in circumstances where its essential culture and values (such as the peaceful transfer of power) are under threat. He then posted further images that charted the proportion of the world’s eight billion people that reside under each and quantified the proportion of the world’s wealth attributable to each category. You got it: Wealth and population are both rapidly shifting to the nondemocratic settings.

All of which poses a significant question: At this nanosecond to midnight, for the eco-agenda, and against the need for socially responsible development, how do the challenges vary for building professionals around the world in terms of designing for resilient security against their disparate contexts?

Wherever they are located, their burden is immense: As reported during my own Madrid presentation, in 2015, American architect Ed Mazria, co-founder of the China Accord, advised that by 2035 some 80 billion square metres of new building will be constructed across this planet.

At this nanosecond to midnight, for the eco-agenda and the need for socially responsible development, how do the challenges vary for building professionals around the world in terms of designing for resilient security against their contexts?

That was the equivalent of 60% of the world’s then-total current building stock to be built in just 20 years, by one generation of designers — and we are already five years or 25% in. If you want to know what that looks like, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v74_mf2usc0&list=PLLW-qoCMKQsxa40eB1YUuSs3MKaYvd53b.

The Responsibilities

Who will these 80 billion square metres be built for? How will they be built and for what purposes? The markets will determine most of that. Meanwhile, irrespective of political context, our fellow professionals haven’t the proverbial “snowball’s chance” of delivering the ecologically and socially responsible work needed without the effective regulatory framework of incentives and constraints that should be routinely provided by governments. Within democracies, that would require a renewed trust and belief in “government” and, across the international political divides, it requires a will by governments of all persuasions to work collectively and in common accord.

Sadly, the endemic mistrust of the state on the part of electorates, and their apparently expanding blind commitments to unfettered freedoms and deregulation, remain the order of our day. So, within democratic contexts, any worthy efforts toward much-needed development and programming policies are routinely undermined by the noise and chaos of the current political debate, the constant abuse of truth, and the same culture of short-termism that triggered the 2007 financial crisis. Together these issues routinely sabotage any sensible assessment of our circumstance and render all but impossible those basic steps so necessary to pursuing architecture’s essential agenda — resilient security.

Changing Agendas. Basic Needs.

Before any higher aspiration, the earliest purposes of construction were shelter and security: shelter from the weather in a place secure from intrusion. Hence, the Stone Age cave with fire at its entrance, and walled cities providing gated security overnight for those who worked the surrounding land by day. Indeed, resilient security was one of the primary purposes of construction from the outset: The city walls should not be breached, the house walls should never blow down, the gates and doors must always hold fast. Only when those basic needs were dealt with could architecture pursue its higher goals. The awful truth is that despite the incredible progress thereafter, we are fast regressing once more toward an agenda of simple survival as we face rising sea levels and an increasingly inhospitable man-damaged environment. Against that, the growing economic gap between the masses and the rich can only aggravate the socio-political challenges ahead.

Today, as we try to make sense of our world post-globalisation, we can do little but acknowledge the grim plight of Natasha, Darya and Yulia as they flee Putin’s tyrannic, ill-disciplined and vicious army. Surely, we can do better for Mick in his undignified loneliness and misery.

That possibility takes me to a wonderful passage in Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit.” In it, he suggests that the continued pursuit of “equality of opportunity” for all, as routinely promised within our liberal western democracies by politicians of all persuasions, is no more than a cruel diversion:

“If, in a feudal society, you were born into serfdom, your life would be hard, but you would not be burdened by the thought that you were responsible for your subordinate position.”

Whereas, in a meritocratic society, it is:

“Difficult to resist the thought that your disadvantage [is] at least partly your own doing, a failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead.”

His conclusion that “a society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates that rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so,” brings us to two simple questions: How harsh should that verdict be, and do we prefer to live in a society that accepts, but limits, the extent of inequalities, whilst providing a “safety net” for those least able to provide for themselves?

Little doubt what Mick would say!

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Fairness vs. Power

Sandel’s argument, distilled, is the reason why resilient security must ultimately shake down to delivering that fairer socio-eco-political context, one in which we can create architecture better geared to serving our wider society in as utilitarian a fashion as possible. That is, ensuring the ongoing supplies of sustainable hospitals, schools and homes that our citizens so need, including, even, somewhere for Mick. But unless we temper the excesses of our market forces, re-establish some trust in politics and begin to get some accord around truth, we will have ever more difficulty in designing and building what our societies really need. Those with power and money have always enjoyed the ability to deliver their architectures: the pharaohs, the emperors, the dictators, the religions and, recently in free market economies, big business. However, the emerging clash in the west between increasingly unrestricted market forces and the needs of our planet and its people is variously testing democratic governments to their limits, so much so that the famous Churchillian quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried,” might well come under renewed scrutiny.

Indeed, unless our democratic systems mature and “step up,” they will fail our planet at its time of gravest danger. It’s even conceivable that an enlightened totalitarian system might do better! But irrespective of context, for the sake of humanity and our ecology, construction professionals across the world must turn their efforts to the long overdue call for resilient security.

Paul Hyett, PPRIBA, Hon FAIA, is past president of the RIBA, co-founder of Vickery Hyett Architects and a regular contributor to DesignIntelligence.

Honey, We’ve Shrunk the World

Paul Hyett reflects on IT’s distortion of time, interval and distance. Can design benefit from its impact?

The Old Rules: Where and What? 

Since time immemorial, technology has had a huge impact on  the where and the what of architecture and building. From the  earliest days of urban settlement, beyond any Stone Age decision to bunch a few dwellings around a space for market and  trade, the where of town and building location has always been  dictated by issues of accessibility. 

This was very much the case in England. Early internal trade  depended heavily on shipping. For centuries, sturdy little craft  braved the coastlines, especially down the country’s east side,  before plying their way up the estuaries and rivers as far as their draught depths would permit. Thereafter, further haulage relied on horses (or oxen) and carts. The Ouse and mighty Trent at Hull, and the Thames out of London, were the key river routes  inland from the east, and the Severn, Avon and Mersey offered  access from the west. 

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, the cost of shifting raw materials and finished goods became evermore critical. Transferring loads to wheeled transport only exacerbated expense, so  a series of brave, complex civil engineering projects involving  systems of weirs and locks were undertaken. These were de-signed to ensure sufficient depths and enable water navigation farther up riverways and deeper inland, for example to Nottingham and beyond.

Such initiatives were complemented by an intense parallel  programme of canal construction. At its peak, this campaign extended over 4,000 miles, linking rivers and positively impacting trade and manufacturing while connecting growing towns and cities across the country. Emerging industrial settlements expanded along navigable waterways. 

In the 19th century, newly invented railways scythed their ways  through fast-growing suburbs, improved supply lines of raw  materials and components, and serviced outward markets. What  was their impact? Even greater influence on the where and the  what of building across our towns and cities. 

When oil replaced coal and straw as the power source, new  tarmacadam roads came into their own. Once again, building  typologies and location were influenced by innovations in transportation methods, always in pursuit of speedier door-to-door journey times, and for freight-goods, minimal double handling. 

The principal generator of these changes was economics: A dollar invested in a product must be returned, with interest, at the earliest possible time. Nothing has changed; newly made goods  cannot be allowed to accumulate interest debts and erode profits  

during a slow journey to market. As a result, the where of township growth, if not the origins, was  always determined by the technologies and reaches of available  transport. In America, the form of urban design (or lack of it)  was dictated by the available space (usually more in the U.S.  than in the U.K.) and by the internal combustion engine; the  impacts of emerging transport technologies drove development.

New Technologies 

To complement all this, construction technologies emerged in the latter half of the 19th century that enabled even denser city centres. These were: 

• The elevator, which facilitated the development of tall, steel framed buildings. 
• The availability of electricity to power artificial lighting. 
• Mechanical ventilation, which enabled the “deep plan”  building (notably without lightwells and internal court yards). 
• The emergence of wafer-thin curtain walls and lightweight  cladding systems that reduced loads on frames and foundations while yielding super-efficient floorplan “footprints.” 

Clearly, the impact of technology was profound, causing a complete inversion of social hierarchies. From the Romans through  to Haussmann’s Paris and Edwardian London, the cheapest  rentals had always been at the top of buildings otherwise inaccessible except by stairs. This established hierarchy was quickly  reversed as elevators and escalators offered effortless vertical  mobility and created optimum values for the now newly desirable penthouses with views! 

Occasional efforts were made to blunt the powers of market  economies on location, but with little effect. One of the most  heroic was the modernist Brynmawr rubber factory, designed  against a progressive social agenda to provide local employment  up in the mountains of South Wales after World War ll.

But the costs of hauling raw materials up, and finished goods down, the narrow winding roads proved prohibitive and Brynmawr, with its generous clinics, creche, canteens and class rooms, was closed. In the meantime, Wolfsburg triumphed in its efficiency as a manufacturing base for the Volkswagen Beetle and dispatched German exports via Hamburg, while other U.K. locations, such as Derby and Linwood, also proved too expensive as manufacturing bases for the U.K.’s export markets. As ever, the long shadow of basic economics impacted the what and the where of architecture and urban design.

New Rules

But today the basic rules have changed again as a new technology has emerged, previously inconceivable even in the mind of Mary Shelley and her fellow science fiction novelists of the 19th century. This new technology continues to evolve and make its full impact felt. It is now beyond doubt that its influence will exceed that of all previous transport and building innovations combined. 

Its impact is twofold: it “shrinks” distance (reducing demands for movement and transport) and reduces space requirements and therefore demand for volume and new building. 

This powerful new force is, of course, the “wireless” transmission of sound, images and data. Consider these time and distance comparisons:

• When John Adam travelled eastward from the Chesapeake Bay in 1778 as envoy to George Washington, it took him and his son John Quincy some seven weeks of sailing to get to France. 

• In 1866, a mere 88 years later, as described in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book “Atlantic,” the British ship Great Eastern laid the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy of the brilliance and determination of Cyrus West Field, the adverse impact of distance on  communication had been largely curtailed. 

• Fast-forward to the 1950s. Sports fans could by then watch  the Australian Open tennis tournament at their local cinemas. Technology had distorted distance. Spectators no longer had to be there to see the event unfold. The “exchange”  was one-way and limited, but conventional interaction with  fellow spectators had been forever dislocated by technology’s  newfound capacity to transmit experience to remote loca tions. “Virtual” had commenced its assault on “real.” Hitherto unimagined forms of remote socializing would stream  forth as new norms.

Deconstructing Time and Space 

Even though there were still significant delays as pre-digital film  reels had to be transported and then laboriously copied and  distributed to movie houses around the country, the processes  continued to accelerate. By the 1960s we could watch sporting  events live on our TVs, broadcast directly to our homes (albeit only in black-and-white). In the 1970s good quality colour was  affordable, and by the 1990s we could further deconstruct time  by recording, “fast-forwarding” and replaying our favorite sporting events all on our own device. Two decades later, we could  even “deposit” information on the “cloud” — a shared global  storage network. 

Against today’s norms, those were the “Dark Ages” of information technology. More recent evolutions have since transformed every aspect of our working and personal lifestyles and interac tions. The rate of progress has been exponential. We now take  for granted the experience of riding “live” in Lewis Hamilton’s  Mercedes Maclaren or partaking in an outpouring of shared  grief during our late beloved Queen Elizabeth’s funeral from as  far afield as Auckland and Soweto in the southern hemisphere  to Montreal and Balmoral in the north. We also take it for granted, in international businesses, that we can dial into conference  calls or workshop sessions, one after another, and again shrink  time courtesy of videoconferencing software, such as Microsoft  Teams or Zoom. 

It is clear after only a few millennia of scientific and technological progress, our species has effectively conquered the limits  distance had hitherto imposed on communication. The world has shrunk in real terms as we quickly morph into an age of augmented and virtual realities and immersive experience. One might say, “Honey, we’ve shrunk the world!”

Assessing Impacts 

But what will be the impact of the IT revolution on the where and what of building? 

To start, the need for local and long-distance business travel has  been slashed overnight. That is a game-changing development with extraordinary impact for the what and where of our building programmes. Since COVID-19 accelerated the effectiveness  of virtual exchange, I have been participating in online conferences, meetings and workshops, as well as design reviews and  joint design charettes with delegates from around the world on a  regular basis. 

At the international scale, such practices have saved millions of  tons of aviation fuel. The all-time high for aviation fuel consumption was 2019’s use of 95 billion gallons. The COVID years  saw that same rate fall to 52 billion gallons. Increasingly sophisticated and available IT will enable us to reduce those levels  further. 

As we search for solutions, the IT and communication revolution provides our best hope for saving the planet. We have the  technology. Now, in the words of the ever-gracious President  

Barack Obama, we need only to “do the right thing!” And as  President Ronald Reagan, that most genial of American presidents liked to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” 

So, buckle up for the ride. It’s time for designers and builders to embrace these powers and employ others creatively as we seek  greater impact and influence. The world may be smaller, but it desperately needs our help.

Paul Hyett, PPRIBA, is a past president of the Royal Institute of  British Architects, co-founder of Vickery-Hyett Architects and a  regular contributor to DesignIntelligence.