It’s not so difficult to open young people’s eyes to the excitements of the built environment. All it takes is a little creativity, hard cash and the ability to surprise
On my way to the bus the other night, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that something strange was going on down a street I had hitherto been wary of walking down. I heard music, saw weird images and noticed a bunch of people all looking up at the buildings opposite. I had unwittingly stumbled upon some kind of art event in one of London’s finest ghettos.
Projections of still and moving photography drifted across the angular walls of the local magistrates’ court, as peculiar, operatic music echoed off the surrounding tower blocks. An audience of hooded youths huddled together on the street bollards opposite, silently revelling in the odd majesty of the spectacle in front of them.
The Elmington Estate project SE5 Scene, in Camberwell, south London, is an initiative of Oblique Arts, an artist-led, non-profit-making organisation that works with local communities to create multimedia urban installations. This particular event took 50 local young people from surrounding schools and allowed them to present their lives and stories to the world by projecting them onto the very estate they lived in. It transformed a preconceived notion I had of the area and of its inhabitants and somehow turned an otherwise unfriendly, badly lit street into a vibrant art scene, inviting everyone to linger, ponder, talk to strangers and reconsider the urban context and their neighbours within it.
As I stood, jaw dropped, I imagined weeks of workshops at schools, months of wrangling with local authorities, residents groups, parent consent forms, (in fact there’s a blog on the Oblique Arts website that takes you through the painful path of a non-profit-making art event from conception to creation). It’s obvious that stuff like this takes time, passion and, of course, money.
The event turned an otherwise unfriendly street into a vibrant art scene inviting us to reconsider the urban context
Arts Council England has just reviewed the way in which it funds artistic enterprises. On 1 February it will announce which of 990 arts enterprises will receive regular funding. Exeter’s Northcott Theatre, having just completed a £2.1m refurbishment project by Lacey Hickie Caley architects, is reeling from the news that its grant of over half a million pounds is being cut in its entirety and it faces closure, one month after completion. Their non-profit-making activities are now completely untenable.
Open House, an architecture education charity committed to raising awareness of London’s built environment and raising the standard along the way, does receive a small amount of money from the Arts Council, but relies heavily on voluntary services and private donations. Their Open UP programme, dedicated to enlivening the curriculum of schoolchildren, opens up the world of the built environment to an audience that arguably wouldn’t otherwise have known anything about it. People aged 11-16 are asked to use direct experience of London’s contemporary architecture as an inspiration for a design skills programme. They visit the buildings with the architects responsible and follow this up with workshops in the classroom where they build models of their own designs. I have been mentor on a few of these visits and it’s great to see how keen some of them are to soak it all in.
Which begs the question, why are architecture and construction not on the school curriculum? If you shrink a Walkers crisp packet in an oven and make a key fob out of it in CDT classes, you can learn to design a building. Well, it seems that 2008 is the year in which 14-19 year olds can do just that. Construction Skills is helping to develop a two-year diploma for construction and the built environment. The content will include techniques and design processes. But perhaps the most important thing is that it will open eyes to the career opportunities within the construction industry. Who knew I could be an architect when I was at school? Certainly not my careers development councillor who suggested accountancy.
So, if you ever come across any strange lights and operatic music on a street you’ve never walked down before, don’t be afraid to go and check it out. It might just be something interesting, and as I found, an excellent shortcut to my bus stop.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop