230625 WAF 36 Read on……!

In our imagination, as one more frequently associated with a destruction of books which started with the burning of ‘un-German’ books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square in 1933 and ushered in some 12 years of uncompromising state censorship, Adolph Hitler had established, at the time of his death, a formidable personal library.

The conclusion of World War 2 saw some 1,200 surviving books, which comprised the substantial part of the remnants of his 16,000-volume collection, transported to the Library of Congress in Washington where they would be stored in climate-controlled obscurity for some 50 years in the rare book division. There they would remain inaccessible to the public, uncatalogued, and little studied, until Timothy Ryback secured permission to research the collection as a basis for his book, ‘Hitler’s Private Library’, which was published in 2009.

Amongst those collections, which had during the war been housed principally in the Berlin Chancellery, and in his private homes in Munich and at Obersalzberg (the alpine retreat he so loved) were Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Gulliver’s Travels. Hitler ranked these as being amongst the greatest works of world literature. Niccolo Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was also present as was, perhaps more surprisingly, the collected works of William Shakespeare, published as a German translation. The entire nine-volume set is bound in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eagle flanked by initials on the spine of each book.

A row of books on a shelf

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

The collected works of William Shakespeare bound in                                                                  hand-tooled Moroccan leather.

Hitler considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller in every respect, 

and frequently incorporated Hamlet into his everyday speech, regularly saying “Sein oder nicht sein”, and “Für mich ist es Hekuba“. Neither of these lines though have quite the ring or gravitas of their english counterparts: ‘To be or not to be‘ and ‘It is Hecuba to me‘.

He was also especially fond of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and in this respect one of his early sketch books dating from 1926 contains a detailed stage set for the play’s first act in which sinister facades define the murder scene…..perhaps a foreboding of his own encounter with assassination, albeit unsuccessful, at the Wolf’s Lair some eighteen years later.  

More surprising, perhaps, as found in the collection, are Hitler’s copies of two of Henry Ford books. The first entitled ‘The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem’ was based on 91 articles that Ford had published from 1929 onwards following his acquisition of the ‘Dearborn Independent’ newspaper. The second Henry Ford book, ‘My Life and Work’ had been inscribed by the German-American businessman Ernst Hanfstaengl, an erstwhile close friend of Hitler who had assisted in the editing of the ‘Mein Kampf’. Incorporated into the marginalia of these publications are a series of notes written by Hitler which serve as evidence of his strong interest in Ford.

The library also contained folios of Hitler’s artwork, including work from his experiences of the First World War. As with the war poets, novelists, and artists of both sides of the conflict, Hitler’s drawings and paintings tell us much about the impact of events on him, as well as what they reveal about the environment within which he and his fellow soldiers struggled to exist.

A painting of a ruined building

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Ruin of a Monastery in Mesen: Adolph Hitler – 1914 

A picture containing drawing, painting, sketch, house

Description automatically generated

Sketch of his farmhouse billet near Fournes: Adolph Hitler – undated

Overall, the library tells us much about Adolph Hitler, both by way of the extensive marginalia that are to be found within many of the texts, but also as an indication of Hitler’s main interests. In this respect the original collection had fallen broadly into three parts: firstly, a military section containing some 7,000 volumes, many of them – especially those dealing with Napolean’s campaigns – particularly heavily marginated with Hitler’s notes. The second section comprise some 1,500 books on artistic subjects such as architecture, for which he had demonstrated a great love and considerable ambition, the theatre, painting, and sculpture. The third part of the collection reflected his rather quirky interest in astrology, spiritualism, nutrition, and diet.

But it is the sub-heading to Ryback’s work ‘The Books that Shaped his Life’, that I find so interesting: for it is this selecting of what it is that we will read that is so important in our study, and indeed in the very shaping of our careers as architects.

In terms of my early career that selection process took the form of a very dreary false start: indeed, I cannot begin to understand what the faculty staff were thinking of when they compiled a reading list of books that they advised us to acquire prior to enrolling for our first term of study back in 1971. Those texts are still on my bookshelf at home, all unread albeit with one notable exception. I don’t in any way question the worth of such publications as Kidson, Murray and Thompson’s ‘History of English Architecture’ with its opening sections on the Anglo-Saxon period and Norman Church Architecture through the Tudor and Jacobean periods to the end of the Victorians at page 298. But goodness me; only a mere 29 pages within Chapter 13 were dedicated to Modern Architecture in a book published in 1962 in the immediate aftermath of the Festival of Britain, the Skylon and the new town programmes that were transforming the then often bomb-damaged slumland legacy of the Victorian era. I wanted to look forwards and shape the future, not backwards!

And of course Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Outline of European Architecture’ was also on the list devoting some 403 stuffy pages of grim text to everything that wouldn’t interest my young mind at that time; that is until, finally, in Chapter 9 he let rip and looked to the ‘Present day’ for a refreshing 31 pages which gave us glimpses of the Barcelona Pavilion and Ronchamp. 

Even today, I do severely challenge the wisdom of offering such a turgid list to a first-year intake, particularly at a school that would attract low grade A Level achievers such as me.

The notable exception to which I refer was of course Le Corbusier’s ‘Towards a New Architecture’ which offered an electrifying introduction to my chosen career, with its provocative and beautiful images, its breath-taking optimism and challenging concepts such as ‘a house is a machine for living in’, and his commitment to mass production.   

So apart from that, I read next to nothing until I found myself in the privileged position of working my first ‘year out’ in the office of Cedric Price. There, some three months on and having given me time to settle in, Cedric called me into his private room adjacent to which were floor to ceiling shelves devoted to just a part of what I came to learn was his formidable 6,000 plus book collection.

‘What are you reading at the moment?’ he enquired against which I offered the disappointing reply of ‘nothing’. Cedric’s response was to promptly march me to the shelves where he instructed me to carefully select two books prior to returning. I chose works by two regular visitors to the office:  Peter Hall’s ‘London 2000’ (first published in1963) and Reyner Banham’s ‘Age of the Masters’. Blowing the dust off each volume, Cedric paused to thumb their pages, whereupon he carefully put Hall back on the shelf and handed me Banham with the comment: ‘I never lend two books at once!’. This was followed by the terrifying instruction for me to read it carefully over the next four weeks after which I would be invited to give a presentation to the office over morning coffee and brandy.

Thus started my own serious interest in books and reading, and the beginnings of a collection which has continued to grow to this day. I too write commentary in my books…..always in pencil which I see as non-defacement, and absolutely essential. Indeed, I cannot read without a pencil in hand.

Visiting the offices, and occasionally the homes, of many friends in architecture, I have always taken pleasure in scanning my eyes across their collections, and it is amazing how often the same great classics of architectural commentary are found on their shelves. In each case those libraries have informed, stimulated, and nourished the work of the offices in which they are housed, and in each case, they again reveal much of their collectors. I especially remember enjoying seeing the respective libraries of Rick Mather and Eric Parry, both generously available to their respective offices, and both clearly much in daily demand and use. So often on such visits I have wished for the time to not only browse the shelves in more detail, but to peep inside the books to see what more the marginalia might indeed reveal about their respective approaches to architecture and the incredible work that they and in Rick’s case, their teams, continue to produce.

Which takes me to the epitaph at St Paul’s Cathedral, which mercifully survived Hitler’s intense bombing campaign, ‘Lector, si momentum requires, circumspice’….’If you wish to see his memorial, look around you’. These words were memorably repeated within the eulogy of the brilliant engineer Sam Price at Peter Foggo’s memorial service in the now brutally destroyed Broadgate Arena. I could add to those fine words: ‘si vis scire quid opus suum certiorem fecit, vide in bibliotheca’…. ‘If you want to know what informed this work, go look at their library!’

230521 WAF 35 – Game Up!

Dame Judith Hackitt was awarded an honorary fellowship at the RIBA last month. Now a household name within the construction industry, the impact of her report ‘Building a Safer Future’ has been profound: it is no overstatement to suggest that the new Building Safety Act, which came into force this month, is built almost entirely on her recommendations.

The speed of her work was astonishing. Instructed on 30 August 2017, a mere 11 weeks after the fire at Grenfell Tower, Dame Judith published her interim report on 18 December 2017 and her final report on 17 May 2018 – an incredible achievement.

Another, in my view equally important, report was instructed in April 2021 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Led by Paul Morrell (ex-senior partner of Davis Langdon Everest Cost Consultants) and King’s Counsel Anneliese Day, ‘Testing for the Future’ was finally published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) on 23 April 2023 – rather mysteriously a good 18 months after its completion. An obvious complement to the Hackitt Report’s focus on Building Regulations and Fire Safety in terms of statutory controls and design, this second report has investigated the territories of product testing, certification, and representation through trade literature – another world of astonishing mystery and confusion.

Despite Morrell’s thorough understanding of the UK’s extraordinarily fragmented construction industry, he must surely have benefited enormously from the partnership with KC Day who was recently described in language not common to her profession as “an absolute Rockstar at the top of her game”. Praise indeed for someone who, in 2020, was named ‘International Arbitration Silk of the Year’ having previously been shortlisted as ‘Professional Negligence Silk of the Year’, named ‘Construction and Energy Silk of the Year’ three times, and ‘Barrister of the Year’ in 2014 by The Lawyer. 

The Morrell-Day report should have an impact on the construction industry just as profound as that of Judith Hackitt, for whilst Hackitt has laid bare the confused complexity and ambiguity of a regulatory process which she described as ‘not fit for purpose’, Morrell and Day have opened the lid on a pandora’s box of misrepresentation and deception. They have also drawn attention to the extraordinarily fragmented nature of our industry which the following image listing the members and associate members of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), illustrates only too well:

A picture containing text, screenshot, font, logo

Description automatically generated

A picture containing text, screenshot, font, web page

Description automatically generated

A picture containing text, screenshot, font, number

Description automatically generated

Apparently, British construction is represented by over 500 institutes, guilds, confederations, and the like….

In a fascinating early section of their report entitled ‘Mapping the Landscape’ Morrell and Day illustrate this fragmentation by reporting that in 2019 the ‘headline statistics’ across the entire UK industry – that is contracting, professional services, and product manufacturing – were:

  • total UK turnover: £432bn, representing 8.8% of UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 
  • number of firms: 407,754 
  • number of people employed: 2,243,000 (plus 843,000 self-employed, primarily in contracting) 
  • size distribution of firms: 

A picture containing text, screenshot, number, font

Description automatically generated

It is not difficult to see that that such fragmentation has obvious and very serious implications with respect to regulation, control, quality and, in consequence, the safety of our buildings. Indeed, in a somewhat chilling passage of the report the authors describe in detail the realities of the industry’s trading conditions and the business models by which it operates in response to the forces of demand and supply:

……these forces, which have been the subject of constant studies, do not excuse the inexcusable: incompetence should not be tolerated, and there should be no hiding place for misconduct. They do, however, mean that propositions for change, including the expectation of a change of culture, are likely to succeed only if they are rooted in an appreciation of the powerful business drivers that the industry’s operating model responds to. 

These drivers and operational responses can be summarised as follows:- 

(1) a pattern of demand that is both diverse (from small refurbishment projects to huge new build infrastructure) and volatile (as the capital investment tap is turned on and off in response to economic cycles), compounded by constant bespoke variation of clients’ requirements; 

(2) an industry that is consequently reactive, waiting for the next enquiry before equipping itself to respond; 

(3) fragmentation within the industry, both in terms of the number of businesses and the way it organises itself, with fractures between design and construction management, between the management of construction and its execution, and between those who design and construct buildings and those who occupy them – with the critical consequence that nobody owns the whole process; 

(4) an industry that is not dominated by a small number of major players in the same way as more concentrated industries (the turnover of the largest UK contractor is about 15% of the turnover of the largest supermarket, and the market share of the top 5 contractors is less than 20%, compared with more than 60% for the top 5 supermarkets); 

(5) a high dependence upon subcontracting; 

(6) a highly mobile workforce, with a high proportion of self-employed (and, to date, a significant proportion of migrant labour), so investment in training is a particular casualty of market failure; 

(7) relatively low barriers to entry, with working capital largely provided by the industry’s customers; 

(8) notwithstanding low barriers to entry, relative protection from the high levels of foreign competition that have transformed other industries; 

(9) low levels of innovation, including slow take-up of industrialisation and digitalisation;. 

(10) a limited understanding and appreciation of how built assets actually create value, on the part of both the demand and supply sides, with the result that lowest initial cost becomes the principal driver; 

(11) consequently high levels of competition at low margins, often in the expectation that a margin can be created or increased by “playing” the terms of contract later, by driving down suppliers’ prices, or by product substitution; 

(12) the consequent prevalence of opportunistic tendering within the supply chain, rather than the assembly of a settled team that can strive for continuous improvement; 

(13) the absence of a feedback loop by which learning can be collected and disseminated; and 

(14) low levels of independent oversight of quality assurance and compliance. 

Make no mistake, this is sobering stuff which well illustrates the challenges we face in, for example, matching up to the performance and safety standards which are achieved within aviation design, production, operation and maintenance.

The authors concluded this part of their report with the observation that:

……..to the extent that a whole (construction) industry can be said to possess a culture (and, indeed, to the extent that such a diverse sector that represents almost 9% of GDP can be said to be a single industry), it is inevitably shaped by these forces.

This all makes for some very dismal reading, and it will be a matter of great interest and concern to see how, if at all, this Government, as well as future governments, respond.

For our part, we as design professionals have more than enough to do to get our own house in order, and in this respect, we will do well to take note of paragraph in which Morrell and Day remind us that:

‘products… (are developed)….. from raw materials (insulation for example) into a component (an insulated panel) into a system/assembly (cladding) and then into a completed building, with all of its systems and sub-systems, which must be built, commissioned, maintained and managed to serve its intended purpose.’ 

This again resonates with Dame Judith Hackitt’s view that building safety is contingent on safe systems. And here is the point: to date, with respect to the performance of buildings in conditions of fire, both the Approved Documents that provide guidance in terms of compliance with the Building Regulations, and the BBA test certificates upon which so much reliance has been placed by designers during product selection and specification, have placed far too much emphasis on the behaviour of discrete parts of buildings in isolation, rather than in the context of the ‘system’ or assembly of which they are but an isolated part.

That approach has been found to be as woefully lacking as it has been easily ‘gamed’ by manufacturers and suppliers whose interests and responsibilities stretch no further than maximising their market share and profit margins.

Thankfully, and not a moment too soon, their game is now up……. And if the Morrell and Day recommendations are adopted, those who design and specify buildings will find that the more comprehensive regulatory system recommended by Dame Judith will be complemented by a product testing and certification system that is easier to understand.

In terms of safe design and fitness for purpose can only be good news.

230416 WAF 34 – Send that email back……!

Some 20 years or so back news cameras caught the moment a scaffold collapsed in Knightsbridge, central London. Not an uncommon occurrence, but one not commonly ‘caught’ on T.V., so, as no-one had been injured, what could have been a tragedy made for some very entertaining viewing on the evening news. It had all started in the later afternoon as workers reported that the scaffold, erected along the pavement in front of a four-storey brick terrace, had become unstable.  

The project involved a terrace façade which was being retained as a frontage to what would become an entirely new office development; all that of course a whim of the planners who wanted to retain the street’s character. Thus it was that the early 19th century building, comprising 9” party walls, timber floor joists, and a mix of brick and stud internal partitioning, was stripped out to make way for a steel frame and concrete floors that would form the new structure to which the original brick façade would be secured.

I know about this because having seen the scaffold collapse broadcast during that news programme I was, some 20 months later, instructed to act as expert in defence of the hapless architect who was being sued for alleged incompetence and negligence in the matter. And so it was that I came to learn a little about the various types of scaffolding design used in the UK which are usually assembled from tubular steel, connecting fittings and timber boards – as opposed to continental Europe where ‘system scaffold’ assembled from modular units is preferred; or China and India where I have marvelled at the extraordinary use of bamboo scaffold, even for high-rise projects.

Herein, within the British scaffold industry, lies a wonderful world of components: single couplers, double couplers, swivel couplers, pin couplers, sleeve couplers, band and plate clamps, girder clamps, swivel girder clamps and so on – but I digress.

The important point for the purposes of this story is that there are principally three types of scaffold arrangement adopted here:

  • Self-supporting with lateral stability provided by building.
  • Self-supporting with lateral stability provided by raking shores.
  • Cantilevered off building (i.e., no ground support).

The scaffold in question had been of the first type; that is, self-supporting off the pavement in front of the building, deriving its lateral stability from the façade. 

All had gone well with the project until the contractor’s team removed, as part of a phased demolition programme, the party walls that had hitherto restrained the front façades. Anyone who has worked on such buildings knows that such ‘connections’ can, at best, be tenuous as Victorian builders often used a relatively poorly skilled bricklaying team for the party walls (which would be concealed by plaster and could be ‘rough’), other better skilled gangs for the rear elevations, and their most skilled bricklayers for the frontages. Such work practices inevitably led to sequencing delays where the bonding of party and front and rear elevations was less effective than would otherwise be the case had they been built simultaneously but, Hey Ho, that was the way they worked.

The problem here was, of course, that when even that lesser tying in of the partially connected party walls was rendered ineffective through demolition, the roles of the front façade and the scaffold were, in structural terms, reversed: the scaffold which had hitherto derived lateral support of the street elevation was now required to provide that support, albeit off a wholly inadequate base. 

As the workers smashed out the latter parts of the party wall they heard a loud bang, and fearing for their safety, scrambled out of the site and raised the alarm. The street was of course closed and cordoned off, crowds gathered, and the press arrived in good time to see the entire wall swaying in the wind until, just in time for that night’s News at Ten, down it all crashed.

So, I hear you ask, ‘what had all this to do with the architect?’ Well, read on……..

The losses were substantial and led to a heavy claim against the D+B Contractor; you know the stuff: escalation of work, abortive work, major contract overrun, L+A Damages and all that….and no doubt claims from local traders for losses during the street closure, and even the Council. As would be expected the builder co-joined the scaffolder who pleaded ignorance of the fact that the façade was to ever have been left unsupported, but it all shook down in the end to a defence on the contractor’s side that the external wall was adequately constructed to remain stable in its own right during the works, but could not carry the lateral load of the scaffold; and on the scaffolder’s side, that that method statement for scaffold erection and restraint had been clear from the outset: it was to be provided throughout by the wall.

And indeed, in that respect, there it was: a clear method statement that supported the scaffolder’s position. So, next came the second line of defence from the builder: the scaffolder’s method statement had anyway been passed to the Project Manager who had approved it. In, therefore, was dragged one of London’s major QS companies that had masqueraded as the Project Manager, howling and squealing as normal that they were only shuffling paper and were neither qualified to know, and indeed did know, nothing about anything.

The QS/Project Manager’s defence was that they had passed the method statement for scaffolding to the architect, and as he had not responded they had assumed all had been checked and was well….that having hitherto driven his fees through the floor.

Happily, we got the architect off, but it was a close-run thing, and therefore offers a significant lesson for us all: don’t let Project Managers, or anyone else for that matter, just send you stuff willy-nilly. This is particularly important in these days of easy copying of emails and the massive overload of information flows. Instead, instruct your teams to root out all such correspondence and, without fail, send it back, making clear that such work lies outside your scope of service and responsibility. In the alternative, agree to provide the checking required if you are qualified so to do, but get paid for it! Boring task I know, but a lot more fun than spending hours in litigation.

Indeed, with the new Building Safety Act coming live, it is more important than ever before that you limit your responsibilities to whatever they should be under contract, and that against them, you perform as you should.

230222 WAF Feb 2023:  A Pox Across Our Nation

It seems that an awful pox has enveloped large parts of the housing stock of our nation. Across the entire land, be it large city or small town, older Victorian stock, or the newer housing estates of the early and middle 20th century, that pox is everywhere to be seen. Indeed, barely a street has been spared.

Much of this takes the form of additions, be they new front porches, side additions, or the mutilation of roof lines to accommodate attic extensions. But window and front door replacements; new facias, soffits, gutters and downpipes; new plastic weatherboarding; and the frequent introduction of stone cladding, pebble-dash renders, or simply paint to what were originally traditional brick facades have also taken their toll and added to the visual dross that now surrounds us. And all that takes no count of the stripping away of finials and ridge tiles, the cheap and nasty plastic car-ports, the damage to fences, gateways, hedges and the like, or the sacrifice of front gardens to car parking.

Tragically, much of this havoc has been wreaked on some of the finest housing stock in existence. For example, at the Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith which has been described as the ‘culminating achievement of the (London County) Council’s venture into garden suburb planning before the first world war’*.

A picture containing sky, outdoor, building, street

Description automatically generated

The second photograph tells an entirely different story: a virtually identical architectural composition, the end property has been rendered, thus concealing its fine brickwork, and the third and fourth properties have been respectively rendered and painted, and clad in imitation stone.

And it does not stop there! Apart from being replaced with plastic windows, the window openings, and thus their proportions, have been re-configured to the end house, the transom and mullion arrangements have been varied, and a crude array of drainage pipes have been added. All in all, the architectural homogeneity of the original composition has been so heavily compromised that it is all but lost.

Another photograph, shown below, of a part of a terrace in the adjoining Wulfstan Street tells a similar story.

The care with which the pebble dashing has been applied is sure testimony to the owner’s aspirations and evident pride in the property, but again, the damage to the overall composition is extensive. Indeed, the full extent of that damage becomes all too apparent in the oblique view as shown below: the bay windows to ground and first floors have both been removed and replaced with much smaller plastic windows that severely compromise the amenity as well as damage the appearance.

The London County Council’s Chief Architect who oversaw the Old Oak Estate work was William Riley who John Boughton informs us in his splendid new book ‘A History of Housing in 100 Estates’, was a member of the Arts and Crafts inspired Art Workers’ Guild founded in 1884. Amongst Riley’s talented team was Archibald Stuart Stouter who designed three blocks in Du Cane Road, two of which are illustrated below. Happily, the fenestration of the first is largely undamaged, but the painted brickwork does much to undermine the integrity of the composition.

In contrast, the replacement windows to the building at the junction of Du Cane Road and Fitzneal Street have severely damaged the composition of that otherwise gem of a project. No doubt the Art Workers’ Guild would have had much to say on that score.

The scale of all this damage, when viewed across the nation’s housing fabric, is truly astonishing and it all seems to have happened, pretty well unchallenged for the most part, in only the last few decades. Indeed, for the first half century of its life Old Oak Estate, built as rented accommodation as part of a general movement towards much improved standards in public housing, would have remained virtually unchanged. 

Well maintained by its municipal owners, even the colours of the windows and doors would have been controlled as part of the routine and diligently applied maintenance and decorating programmes. (In this respect I remember the respective council landlords of the four council house that were my childhood homes in Cwmbran and then Hereford would not even permit tenants to paint their front doors: colours were chosen by the council and were uniformly consistent.)

I am not, of course, advocating that residents should be so restricted by their municipal or housing association landlords, but the value of maintaining the integrity of a housing terrace can be seen in the picture below, taken by me back in 1994, showing a row of obviously tenanted dwellings just a few miles north and east in Finchley. All the windows and beautiful doors remained at that time intact, and even the ridge tiles, finials, and front gates had been retained.

Sadly, as the recent shot below reveals, the properties have since been sold into multiple ownerships and consequently the architecture’s integrity is under assault – note the new roof, of different materials and without finial or ridge tiles, and the replacement windows absent of the original glazing bars! Architect Stephen Mullin, a scholar in the history of housing, talks in this respect of the ‘tipping point’ being when the assault on appearance reaches a level at which the essential integrity of the whole has been lost. Long Lane has clearly yet to reach that point, but examples certainly exist in the Old Oak Estate.

A picture containing sky, outdoor, building

Description automatically generated

The big change came, of course, with the introduction of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ programme, as delivered initially by Michael Heseltine during the first of his two stints as Secretary of State for the Environment. A man of culture, he surely could not have anticipated the appalling damage that this single policy would cause to the architecture of our streets, our towns, and our cities.

E N D*S Beattie: A Revolution in London Housing / 1980 / p106

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!

Graphical user interface

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

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.