The Activism Award rewards a practice, individual or organisation whose work is making a difference on critical issues. In 2021 the Award was won by Oxford-based collective Transition by Design that utilises empty or underused spaces in the city to help support the homeless. The 2020 winner was Amy Francis-Smith who raises awareness around disability access in the urban environment and housing.
We’re looking forward to seeing the 2024 entries and the individuals and practices who are taking action on some of the most challenging issues of our times. In the meantime, we look at the work of eight notable architect activists past and present.
Peter Ahrends left South Africa at the age of 18 to study architecture in London and became chair of UK Architects Against Apartheid, an affiliate of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in the 1960s. He was a founding partner of ABK Architects and Professor of Architecture at the Bartlett.
AKAA successfully lobbied RIBA to de-recognise the Institute of South African Architects and the National Union of South African Architectural Students. Its work also involved researching building companies and manufacturers active in South Africa under the apartheid regime and then publicising the list. AKAA had 200 paying practice members which funded its work, including Richard Rogers Partnership and Edward Cullinan Architects.
Kate Macintosh is best known for her 1960s social housing projects, the first of which was the distinctive Dawson’s Heights estate in Dulwich. Following its completion, Macintosh embarked on a project inLambeth, tasked with designing a housing facility for the elderly, and went onto work on similar housing projects in East Sussex and Hampshire. She established a private practice with her partner, the architect George Finch also known for his post-war social housing projects. Now no longer practicing as an architect, Macintosh is a "tireless and tenacious housing campaigner" arguing against regeneration plans that involve the demolition of existing council homes.
Brian Anson and Jim Monahan
Conservation + community action
Architect Brian Anson, who worked for the GLC, was part of the team charged with thinking of new uses for Covent Garden after the market moved out to Nine Elms in the early 70s. When he realised that the favoured plan involved demolishing 60 per cent of some 100 acres of property between Holborn and Trafalgar Square to make way for a four-level highway parallel to the Strand, he blew the whistle and was fired.
Jim Monahan was a student at the AA when he became involved in the campaign to stop the plan, helping to set up the Covent Garden Community Association that 50 years later remains the representative voice for the area. They were successful and large scale redevelopment was halted while 250 buildings were listed after a 42-day public enquiry in 1972. Jim still practices as an architect. Brian Anson died in 2009.
Architect Sam Webb first became concerned about the risks of prefabricated high rises in 1968 after Ronan Point in Newham, east London, collapsed killing four people.This began a lifetime of campaigning to make council tower blocks safer, leading to the demolition in 1986 of the nine tower blocks at the Freemasons Estate including Ronan Point.
Webb also warned of the risks of fire spreading in high rises. His report into the fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009, which killed six people, identified flammable cladding panels as responsible for the rapid spread of the blaze. He criticised the government for not implementing the Coroner's fire safety recommendations and said subsequently that the Grenfell tragedy "was ‘entirely predictable, sadly”.
Although veteran climate campaigner and ZEDfactory founder Bill Dunster says he has "given up a bit" at protesting, his designs remain a challenge to both housebuilders and local authorities who nevertheless over the years, have dismissed his projects as being either unaffordable or out of keeping with the local area. His most famous project is the Bedzed development, built for Peabody in south London, which is the UK’s first and largest zero-energy development. Prior to setting up Zedfactory in 1999, Dunster worked for 14 years at Michael Hopkins & Partners, where he was instrumental in embedding a sustainability agenda.
Educator and change maker
Scottish-Ghanaian author and educator Lesley Lokko founded the African Futures Institute in Accra, Ghana and curated the 2023 the Venice Architecture Biennale, the first black architect and fourth woman to do so, which representing a turning point for architecture’s pre-eminent cultural event. For the first time the majority of contributors to the exhibition, The Laboratory of the Future, were from Africa and its diaspora. There was also gender parity and an average age of 43. All were asked to address twin themes of decolonisation and decarbonisation. She was an awarded an OBE for her services to architecture and education in King Charles III’s first New Year's honours list.
While Richard Rogers cannot be identified with a single cause, as a committed urbanist his championing of compact, pedestrian-friendly cities changed mindsets at the top of government. Throughout his time as New Labour’s architectural advisor, Rogers was careful to argue the view that investing in architecture was not simply a matter of aesthetics, but made sound financial sense. His report Towards an Urban Renaissance, published in 1999, heralded a focus on higher-density housing supported by public transport which remains policy to this day.
The Activism Award is free to enter. The deadline is February 28th, 2024.
This year’s award is being supported by Heatherwick Studio.
Image: (top) Kate Macintosh speaking at RIBA Council meeting, 1979. Peter Ahrends (bottom) Credit: Architectural Press Archive/RIBA Collections: