Proscription, Prescription, Liberty and Freedom

Originally published by World Architecture Festival, May 2020

Here, in an increasingly beleaguered Britain, many analogies have been made between Covid-19 and World War II: 

……the biggest threat to our freedom since fascism; the virus personified as a hidden, ruthless and cruel enemy random in its attacks; the impact on our economy, manufacturing output, distribution and way of life, destructive. 

Effectively ‘gated’ on this island with all but essential workers under 24-hour curfew, we are imprisoned in our homes large and small, urban and rural, our liberty, so prized, indefinitely suspended. The shock has been profound, the consequences incalculable.

So, having reached the end of the beginning of this viral siege what next? 

‘Tagged’, courtesy of our new phone apps, our movements will be ever monitored and recorded, those we meet identified and traceable. Virtual policing will become routine within the society in which our Prime Minister now so believes. And thereafter, when the enemy is beaten and the virus destroyed, what kind of future awaits us? 

The political battleground will surely become a struggle between Orwellian control and a ‘virtual’ version of another New Jerusalem Movement. Which brings me to the issue of the ‘intelligent’ buildings that will become an inevitable part of our future architecture: what kind of ‘intelligence’ and how will it be used?  

Supermarkets and digital purchase stores already maintain substantial profiles on the buying habits and the preferences of every one of us. Advertisers use these to influence our behaviours and expand our purchasing activities. Further surveillance and monitoring of our movement and contact profiles will facilitate yet more sinister abuse: these are very dangerous times for privacy and freedom, offering rich rewards for those who gain access to social profiling. 

A more progressive insight into the coming post-Covid architectural world can, of course, be found in the anticipatory projects and teaching of Cedric Price, once famously described as having a ‘capacity for making the complacent sit up, and the over-confident sit down’, which is precisely why we so much need his scepticism and wisdom to guide us now. 

Intelligent buildings are potentially good: the key is, what are the goals of those who direct and monitor that intelligence, and what will constrain their mischief. It is for this reason that the socio-political agendas that will inform the re-booted environment in which we will in future live, work and play are so critical to liberty and freedom.

As we tiptoe back to some kind of normality, to a world in which we can once again gather within our buildings for work, trade, worship, learning pleasure and fun; where we can sit at the same tables and drink at the same bar; where we can queue and jostle, cheer and clap, huddle and all the rest, we should therefore think about the architecture of Cedric Price which enhanced, rather than limited liberty, and of his prototypical ‘intelligent buildings’ which reinforced rather than constrained freedom. 

We of course already suffer massive invasions of our privacy in the form of security cameras – you cannot complete any urban journey unseen, unrecorded and unmemorised. Your progress by foot, car and public transport is watched silently, recorded meticulously, and archived for eternity. 

But from here on that game is going to get even more clever. Mobile phones will be screened, thousands of contacts traced, and our unfolding risk profile assessed at every step of life’s journey. At points of entry, shopping centre security systems will automatically measure our temperature and bio-recognise our profiles; pathogen monitoring systems will detect any offending microorganism emissions and, whenever appropriate, alert the authorities. Likewise, for stadiums, theatres, cinemas pubs and clubs. In Benthamite fashion, those whose ‘condition’ threatens the good of the majority will have been ‘spotted’ even before they have reached the top of the escalator. Whether you freely turn right or find yourself ‘firmly guided’ left into the restraining arms of authority will be a consequence of the surveillance and analysis systems incorporated into the very architecture that surrounds us. 

So whilst, courtesy of ever more efficient technologies that observe, manage and alert, we will once more soon be free to enjoy our buildings with a sense of normalcy, ‘Big Brother’ will be ever present in the metaphorical rafters, watching over you and yours. This is only good if it is for your good. 

We cannot go back to yesterday because we were different people then. But, Legislators and Regulators be warned as you shape and set rules for our new and safer world: enforced social distancing is the enemy of the marketplace; the shopping centre; the bar and the restaurant; the mosque, temple, synagogue and church; the arena and the stadium. And anyway, laws that forbid and prohibit are as alien to our liberty as are walls to our essential freedom. Safety must not be secured through proscription.

We yearn to return to a time in which we can breathe the same air, touch, shake hands, love, be loved and be human again. But that return is ultimately contingent on the complete eradication of Covid-19. On the way architecture will gain a new string to its bow the development of which should be guided by a philosophy of liberty and freedom as opposed to one of prescription, or its ugliest sister, proscription.  

So yes, we must for the common good accept a future in which surveillance of the public realm, both within and without our buildings, is the norm, but only where our government’s purpose and practice is itself proscribed and regulated, and where protections ensure that information gleaned about us is not raided and misused by others. The sole purpose of such  surveillance as will be delivered through tomorrow’s intelligent buildings must be to sustain our collective health and wellbeing, and to ensure our innocent freedom and right to learn, explore and develop within a virtual world that is becoming curiouser and curiouser with every step we take.Tomorrow is coming, but what will we become? That is the great puzzle….