The next decade is going to reinterpret, reorganise and abolish much of our familiar world, so we’ll need creative thinking from government. Which could be a problem
I’ve just moved into a new house (that we’ve designed). It’s exhausting, it’s exhilarating and it raises all sorts of issues; expectations, like that everything should function as planned (well it just doesn’t work like that), new proximities such as neighbours (which can be tricky), and change (which can be exciting and fear-inducing all at once).
How we adjust and adapt to newness lies at the heart of the planning process and development and is responsible for a high degree of personal and corporate angst.
There is often, well more like usually, a presumption that development per se is bad. Whether on a domestic or corporate scale the prospect of a new building, which more likely than not replaces a smaller building with something bigger, is viewed as changing the character of a neighbourhood for the worse.
And yet we all know that cities thrive on density and diversity and that they have to grow and that there is a terrible shortage of housing, both of the affordable and less affordable types. The capacity of London to reinvent itself is one of the reasons we love to live and work here, and why people from all over the world want to live here too; but time and time again we as architects, or clients, or developers are put through an increasingly tortuous mill.
I am not going to go over the same ground that I did in a relatively recent column (22 January, page 22), which interestingly provoked a large and generally negative response, but I will point out that almost all our best loved buildings, both historical and contemporary, were vehemently resisted when they were built. In fact, I would be hard put to name a single significant development of quality in the past 20 years that had universal support from locals and politicians alike - a bit odd, that, if you think about it.
Try to imagine the scenario if the status quo were reversed - that there was a general presumption in favour of development if it met the needs of the locale - and only if it were judged not to be of high enough quality would it be contested. But then …
Our adaptability as a species, at a psychological and physical level, is what enables us to evolve and survive as individuals and as a society. And adapt we must when confronted by change, whether anticipated or not - and right now change certainly is the name of the game. Turbulent Times is what we are living in. Or to put it another way, what we are experiencing is the Turbulent Teens. Like teenagers, we are not sure what we are growing into; it is a time of insecurity, mood swings, stress, trying out new things and experimenting - and I should know: we we have four teenagers at home!
The next 10 years will probably be the most challenging, problematic, optimistic and imaginative of our lifetimes. If there was ever a time for individuals to take on responsibility for making things better, to make things more sustainable in every sense of the word, then it is now. Leadership is no longer about being at the top of the mountain; it’s about being in the centre of the circle and that is a space we can all be in.
We can no longer take for granted what we used to. Design, science and technology will assume a new importance as we aim to address the environmental, social and economic questions of the future. In order to survive the turbulence we need to embrace change, not resist it; we need to question the status quo, to take risks and to use uncharted methods to reach an end. This can happen at the micro as well as the macro level. It’s about having the confidence in the power of ideas because it’s ideas that change lives, not things.
Sadly ideas are what most of our politicians lack; they do not use their imagination to imagine. What ideas they do have tend to be reactionary rather than generative. But we don’t need to rely on politicians or others to imagine for us; it’s within our gift, and one of the most valuable aspects of architectural education is the space and training it gives us to do just that.
We should be designing not just buildings but better ways of doing things. We should ask the right questions of the right people and set out strategies for change. Design and planning can create new networks that improve the way communities work. We could, for example, start to imagine a scenario where individuals rely more on each other for services, rather than depending on debt. If we don’t believe in change, be it physical or metaphysical, then we have no future. And let’s not forget: change starts at home.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects