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Wednesday24 September 2014

The UK riots: Is architecture irrelevant?

From: Building Blog

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Water cannon, curfews, burning buildings, rubber bullets, widespread looting, wanton vandalism, evacuated residents and calls for the army to be deployed. Just five days ago the thought that any of these events would occur or have the potential to occur on the streets of London would have been utterly unthinkable. And yet in the space of just 96 hours London has descended into a terrifying vortex of violence and destruction as it suffers its worst peacetime collapse of public order in modern times.

Even worse, the riots have now spread across the country. The reasons for them are already mired in controversy, recrimination and debate. The results however are far clearer. There has been appalling physical destruction to residential and commercial property across the capital and elsewhere. Residents and shop-owners have been left homeless overnight. London’s public transport network and everyday London life have been gravely disrupted with sporting fixtures such as yesterday’s England friendly cancelled.

And with the IOC yesterday insisting unequivocally that responsibility for security at next year’s Olympics is a “local matter” amid images of a burning London being beamed around the world, there is now a real threat that London 2012 could yet turn into the biggest PR disaster in history.

The role that architecture plays in all of this is of course limited. New business eventually accrued from rebuilding destroyed buildings will have a negligible effect on the construction economy. So far the London riots have claimed two historic landmarks, the Victorian cottages at Croydon’s Reeves Corner (1867) and Tottenham’s Art Deco Union Point (1930), both of which survived the Blitz. But this physical loss of course pales into insignificance when compared to the havoc wreaked on livelihoods and the potential for loss of human life.

But the riots have exposed curious anomalies about the relationship architecture maintains with society – at least in London. Tottenham, where all the trouble began, is in the borough of Haringey, one of the poorest in London. And yet Haringey also contains desirable suburbs of prodigious wealth within a stone’s throw of the initial riot zone, such as Highgate and Muswell Hill. This diverse economic mix, with its endemic rejection of ghettoised segregation (as in Paris’s infamous banlieue) is replicated across the capital and has long been considered one of its great social strengths. 

Tottenham may also be a relatively poor area but its urban fabric is in a far better state than it was when it was last besieged by riots in 1985. Then, the notorious Broadwater Farm Estate where the last riots began was a crumbling cauldron of urban menace and decay. Similarly Tottenham High Road was crippled by municipal neglect.

Today, a massive £33m regeneration programme has transformed Broadwater Farm and ensured that crime rates across the estate have been slashed. The English Heritage HERS programme (Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme) has restored several of the Victorian shop-fronts and facades along the High Road, building on the success of its earlier work in another deprived London neighbourhood, Forest Gate. The Tottenham Hale Retail Park, scene of an unprecedented and unimpeded seven hour looting rampage on Saturday night, has recently been expanded.

Haringey Council was also in the process of preparing Tottenham’s application for Enterprise Zone status, which would have provided vital tax relief and triggered desperately needed local investment. And Tottenham Football Club finally looked set to abandon their moronic fixation with the Olympic Stadium and commit to redeveloping White Hart Lane, thereby unleashing a massive wave of urban regeneration.

And yet the riots still happened. And with tragic irony, they eradicated overnight much of the progress that had been made since 1985. The message for architects, planners and developers is a chastening one. As Churchill famously intoned, we shape our buildings and then they shape us. But they do not shape us alone.

Of course the original Broadwater Farm itself and the legion of similar dystopian housing estates built in the 1960s are incendiary examples of how bad architecture can foster urban spite. Architects also have a clear social responsibility to improve the built environment and nourish a collective sense of citizenship and community. But London’s riots have savagely exposed the humbling limitations of this covenant, there is only so much architecture, however well intentioned, can do.

What then can be done to prevent the kind carnage we have witnessed over the past few days from ever happening again? The relative calm we mercifully witnessed in London last night, although sadly not elsewhere, is a clear indication that more robust policing, or at least the threat of it, works. Regrettably, had that line been adopted in Tottenham on Saturday night, then the deluge of disorder that followed may well have been averted.

Some, such as our former mayor, have already been quick to try and seize political capital out of the tragedy, impassionedly blaming austerity cuts and unemployment for breeding a nation of disaffected youths. Of course London still harbours intolerable levels of deprivation. But this spurious and superficial analysis fails to explain why London’s worst rioting avoided both Newham (its poorest borough) and the Great Depression.

Countries with economic woes and unemployment levels far greater than our own, such as Portugal, Ireland and Nigeria (to name but three) have also remained, as yet, riot free. Furthermore, it is difficult to envisage how the cited withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) would spurn an otherwise diligent student into burning down his local Halfords.

London’s strength lies in its tolerance and diversity. It remains an instinctively humanist, inclusive and resilient city, as reflected by its continually evolving architecture and by the hundreds of Peckham, Clapham and Hackney residents turning up with brooms and wheelbarrows to help clear their battered streets. Furthermore, the civic jubilation prompted by the Royal Wedding barely a few months ago remains a far more accurate depiction of the city’s social cohesion than running street battles or burning shops.

But brazen criminality on the scale we have recently witnessed marks a new and disturbing shift in London’s civil order. A line has been crossed and a precedent set. To understand why we must first accept that discipline, morality and responsibility are not determined by cuts, class or consumerism and should not be taught by the government, the police, youth workers, judges, role models, teachers or celebrities. They should be taught at home. And until they are, no amount of good architecture or government spending will diffuse the rage and barbarity that has ripped our cities apart.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Anonymous

    Harrumph!
    I dare say that the author choked on his cornflakes when reading the headlines from the kitchen of his house in the leafy suburbs.
    FACT….heavy handed and “robust” policing caused riots across the uk in the 1980’s. Having been stopped and searched on numerous occasions as a youth merely on suspicion of being Black, I know that to be factual. The fact that armed gangs have been roaming the streets killing each other for at least a decade and a half is evidence that the Met. lost control of the streets ages ago. (funny how suddenly they are really paying attention). The author has also forgotten the recent student riots, probably because they were in the main middle class luvvies, who nonetheless defaced Churchill’s statue etc. The children involved in the recent carnage, are for some reason not given any credit for having intelligence, which the’ leafy brigade’ confuse with education. That’s why these muppets think that the 16,000 plod on duty last night have reclaimed the streets, as they actually believed that the youth would return to the same hotspots. I am seeing that in Eltham, ‘Millwall’ fans are intent on defending the town. Eltham? That rings a bell. Ah yes, the same sort of folks that murdered Stephen Lawrence, will be moving into action……after leaving a trail of destruction wherever they themselves go. Laughable. “The Dunkirk spirit” has been heard. Dunkirk of course was an embarrassing defeat? The country alliance types that do not live in the inner city and do not have children that also suffer greatly from all of this, are out of touch, have no insight, and therefore do not have a clue that they do not actually know what they are talking about, as to know something, you have to experience it. A 14 year old rioter, suffers from the same greed and avarice as the type of person that would destroy lives at the stroke of a ‘redundancy pen’, in order to make a profit, at the expense of others. Who taught kids this greed and avarice? Fred Goodwin? Rupert Murdoch? Cameron and co and MP’s and their fiddled expenses?......or society as a whole? Refusal to stand up and own a problem means that it will reoccur and permeate throughout society at large…even into leafy suburbia. Architecture as a cause? My sides are hurting and this is just further evidence that in this world, the only thing that matters is materialism and money. Cameron! For the sake of the country….go! Now, you buffoon!

    PS
    Who predicted civil unrest within 2 years if the tories came to power? Me….

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  • Anonymous

    A simple observation on the lack of any rioting abroad is very easily explained.
    The police forces in Europe do not argue with rioters, they do not prevent them from moving arround, they simply charge in and beat the living dailights out of them. If you are in the area and told to move by the police forces abroad you move on quickly, if you don't you get a thrashing. Very simple. When people abroad start to riot they have usually got a very good reason for it as they know the full consequences of challenging the police forces.
    If you are in a riot situation and are part of it you should expect to get hurt.
    Unfortunately our police forces cannot defend our basic human rights because of the so called human rights of the rioters. It all gone too pc

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  • Will 'good architecture' ever have to include designs for shopping areas that facilitate police work and hinder looting? Can architecture help to create the kind of homes where 'discipline, morality and responsibility' can be taught?

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  • Is architecture irrelevent was the question?

    The answer is No, the 1950's and 1960's "award winning" housing developments which were lauded in the industry at te time were the incubators of the seeds of the rioting that we have just seen.

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  • "The devil finds work for idle hands"

    This is probably more true now than ever before. Architecture can can and must play its role by making a case for the upgrading or creation of sporting facilities (and other community services). Not just facilities requiring expensive monthly subscriptions, but facilities that cost nothing, or nearly nothing to use.

    It would be simplistic to suggest that this alone will solve all the social problems we have witnessed recently, but it is one thing that can be done.

    Councils in most countries are notoriously short of money so it is up to architects to find creative ways to offer the most for the least outlay.

    It may be the time for architects (and other design professionals such as industrial designers etc) to follow the suggestion of a well known industrial designer called Victor Papanek ("Design for the Real World", and "The Green Imperative"). His suggestion was that a designer should be prepared to give up approximately 1 week or so out of every year (for free) to design something of benefit to the community. In a time when there is probably less work for architects it is something that can be done without too much difficulty.....

    There are many other social things that need to be looked at too such as making sure people stay in education etc that should be discussed, but I'm focusing only on the architectural side of things.

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  • I've come to this a bit late, but 10 days on, it remains one of the best, most thoughtful contributions.

    Ike is right to reject spurious, simplistic explanations, and it's true that blaming austerity and cuts leaves us no better off in terms of an understanding.

    The question is, re the last paragraph, how to kickstart that process of wrestling control of community affairs away from those in authority that are ever more keen to intervene. The very fact someone raises this as a question is a good start

    Alastair Donald, Future Cities Project

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