The London Society aims to provide a platform for the debate on how London ought to develop and to go with our theme of ‘change’ in 2021, we will have a strand of articles on the blog called “Change: Opinions” – polemical pieces that make a case for a radically changing some aspect of the status quo or of received wisdom.
Here, Patrick Lynch PhD RIBA MRIAI, founding director of Lynch Architects discusses the way class and politics are closely tied together and how this impacts the built environment of London. His piece points to how greater levels of openness within the profession could bring changes for the better. Dr Patrick Lynch is currently writing a book on Neave Brown alongside Professor David Porter, entitled 'Part of a City', to be published in 2022.
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I must confess to groaning at the prospect of writing this, not because class isn’t a massive issue in architecture, but because it is SUCH a big issue - in my life and in the lives of my colleagues and family - that I’m almost exhausted by it. The main issue seems to be that you can’t discuss social class without discussing politics: lots of privileged people will quite happily discuss race and gender, but for some reason, discussing class, i.e. relative financial wealth and social capital, is a no-go area. Largely this is because they’ve not read Marx, I think, or if they have, they don’t think it applies to their lives: as I’ve learnt to my cost, because just because someone is a liberal doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled, entitled to rip you off and gloat if you complain about it - pointing out the chip on both of your shoulders.
You see, already half of you reading this have got your hackles up: even mentioning that class is related to politics alienates half of a room, perhaps especially socially-oriented architects who hate to even contemplate the idea that their inherited capital and power might have more than a little to do with their success, than their talent. Honestly, it really does: At elite European universities, confidence and entitlement Rule.
We know it's now true of the acting game, always was in publishing, but now architecture seems embarrassingly dominated by posh people, again. It was in fact the norm until quite recently when highly talented lower class designers like S.D. Adshead would “ghost” for wealthier architects, winning competitions for them yet receiving no credit. I’ll never forget the day 15 years ago when the child of an Anglican bishop called me asking if we’d do a project for them “as I’ve heard you have some spare capacity”, aka need the cash and don’t have as many connections to get work (don’t get me started on this stuff, I WILL bore us both sick with it). In his book 1975 Edwardian Architecture and Its Origins, Alistair Service recounts how Adshead’ “ghosted” designs for the Old Bailey competition (opened in 1907) which he won for E. W. Mountford, unacknowledged. What is more alarming/amusing/disturbing/disgusting (delete to taste/class as you wish) was that Adshead also entered another dozen or so designs for different firms and won most of the prizes. His reward, almost total obscurity and an associate professorship at Liverpool in the school Civic Design (I warned you, don’t get me started on this stuff).
My M-Phil supervisor at Cambridge, the Czech emigré Dalibor Vesely, once remarked with withering irony that “the department is stuffed with the children of Quite Famous architects… you’d think they’d know better”.
An “intersectional” analysis, reveals that despite suffering clear prejudice Zaha Hadid had amazing achievements - for any architect, never mind a single woman of colour who was a migrant of colour. That said, by any estimate Zaha Hadid was undeniably incredibly privileged, part of what LSE emeritus professor Leslie Sklair calls, in his eponymous book, “The Transnational Capitalist Class” (2001). In this and then more precisely in The Icon Project (2017) Sklair traces the relationships between corporate power and its representation via architectural design in the work of some leading architects (OMA, Fosters, etc.). What emerges is a picture of a world of graduates from elite universities employing graduates er… from elite universities to create soft power via icon buildings. What has this to do with class and power you might ask, elites have always employed elite architects?
Today, you only have to look at the global “success” of designer/non-artist/urbanist/serial catastrophist Thomas Heatherwick to see how far modern “architecture” has drifted from its roots in tectonic discipline and social values. In contrast to the lobotomised and heartless architectural profession that garners most attention today, the career of Neave Brown shows us how architecture is directly political. Born into a comfortable middle-class international family, In 1948 Neave Brown left Marlborough College with a place at Oxford to study English, though he later decided to reject that offer in favour of studying Architecture at the AA. Whether it was his decision to reject Oxford (he was never clear on this point), Brown’s father refused to pay his son’s tuition fees and upkeep at the AA. So Brown approached the local education authority in the town where he lived, and after a nerve-wracking interview, he was surprised and overjoyed to learn that he’d been awarded a full maintenance grant to study at the AA.
Brown never forget his debt to the British Welfare State and to the ordinary people whose taxes paid for his education. His diploma project concerned the problem of the ground plane in a medium-sized social housing project, as he’d become conscious that the prevalence of the motor car was beginning to blight the site plans of GLC housing projects and creating asocial situations around large tower blocks in particular. Hired by Stanley Cook, the borough architect for Camden Council (a process described affectionately in Mark Swenarton’s excellent 2017 book Cook’s Camden), Brown ultimately realised his thesis project in a real building, a scheme in which apartment-homes were wrapped around a courtyard. In other words, theory informed praxis, as any good socialist would like to expect.
Brown came from a privileged background, from a social class far removed from the people that he built for and then lived alongside. The same might be said in fact for many of his generation - but what mattered to them was not superficial Modernist poses or pretend aesthetic progress, but the social and political dimension of architecture and its profound potential for a better life.
Now that local authorities are building social housing again it’s possible - I believe, to think of the rebirth of a socially-oriented modern architecture in London. But, I would argue (as Hatherley does in his brilliant book Red Metropolis) that it is vital to note that the capacity of local governments to build homes for poor people was curtailed in 1980 by Margaret Thatcher in a deliberate act of political aggression aimed at suppressing the creation of Labour voters (as was her decision to sell off Council properties).
Indeed, it's bloody irritating to someone like me, from an immigrant working-class family (albeit an Oxbridge graduate middle-aged, middle-class white male) that few talk about class in architecture. However, I think at the root of this is a lack of discussion about politics in architecture. Politics has ramifications on ecological and social justice and unglamorous things like citizens’ rights to daylight and sunlight, fresh air, decent room sizes, outside space, the right to car-free public landscapes – without which communities endure what I called in my 2017 book Civic Ground: “spatial poverty”. Architects can work to try to address these needs, but only if we stop not talking about the real tasks of architecture and politics, and focus on the real and pressing task of building a better future… for everyone.
Dr Patrick Lynch studied architecture at The University of Liverpool 1987–1993. He holds an M-Phil in The History and Philosophy of Architecture from The University of Cambridge. He was the founding director of Lynch Architects in 1997 and established Canalside Press in 2018. Patrick gained his PhD from London Metropolitan University in 2015, where he was supervised by Peter Carl, Helen Mallinson and Joseph Rykwert. Outside of practice, Patrick has taught at the Architectural Association, London Met, UCD, Kingston, and most recently at Cambridge. He is currently an Honorary Professor at The University of Liverpool School of Architecture, teaches on the MA Landscape Architecture program at The Bartlett, UCL, and is supervising a PhD at KU Leuven.