When we launched the Activism Award last year one of the first people I contacted was Marco Goldschmeid because he’d set up the Stephen Lawrence Prize among other things. I wanted to know what he thought of the idea and I knew he’d give me an honest answer.
This is an edited version of our email exchange.
The reason for the email is I'm writing a piece for AJ about architects and activism and searching through the BD archive, I came across an interesting quote from you about architects not wanting to get involved in politics because it might jeopardise their fees.
Do you think post-Covid & BLM this is still the case?
Are we seeing a resurgence of young architects willing to be identified with a cause and if so, why?
We’re launching an 'activism award' this year to reward a group or individual that's raising awareness of architecture's challenges from issues of inequality and diversity to homelessness and climate change and using the digital space to make their voices heard.
I thought I'd talk to a few architects who have spoken out on various issues.
Do get in touch if you have any thoughts on the above.
Architecture is by far the most expensive art to bring to fruition. It costs much more to bring into the physical world than literature, art, sculpture or music.
Beyond the domestic level it depends on the wealth and influence of governments, institutions, corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals to make it happen. People and organisations like Ceacescu, Pompidou, Hitler, Stalin, Getty, the Vatican, the Paraohs, Roman Emperors, Google, British Land, the Royal Family, the Duke of Devonshire, the Medicis, etc,etc.
In other words: the Establishment in any given time and place. Only in a few small windows of time has something flourished that was really in the interests of ordinary people. Moments like the LCC Housing Department 1955-1965, the early Housing Associations in the 60’s, Chartres Cathedral and, to an extent, Bournville, Leverhulme etc.
The Stephen Lawrence Prize was strongly resisted by the RIBA in 1998 on the grounds that it was too ‘political’.
Maybe climate change is a cause that the Establishment currently likes to be associated with, up to a point (but not if it damages the bottom line). The Establishment does not want troublesome architects. It will always find ways to marginalise them.
The world of social media may allow people to talk about issues but that’s a passing show that may make people feel good but is not the same as getting architecture built.
Thanks for your reply.
Your last sentence about the challenge of getting architecture built is ever thus. But I think what’s happening is there’s a new generation who are questioning the dogma that you can affect change only by design.
When it comes to climate change I find architects are generally (not all) compromised so broadly I agree with your point about the bottom line. Aside from climate change, the issues are diversity/inequality , profession-pay and long hours mainly, LGBT and homelessness. Most of these issues were never discussed when I was editing BD except on the margins. I think Covid and BLM have changed all that.
Marco's final email to me was more downbeat. In it he questioned if the interest in activism was simply a passing phase. "I wonder how much BLM and Covid will be relevant or topical by 2030" he says. "Fancy a lunch? ".
Marco sadly died this summer so we never got to have the lunch. But I still hope to prove him wrong.
This year's Activism Award was won by Transition by Design, which ran a four-year research project to explore how empty spaces across Oxford, including vacant homes, underused garages and flats above shops could provide housing for people without a home.
The Activism Award 2022 was supported by SOM, Buro Happold and Wallpaper*.
The judges were Julia Skeete, SOM, Wolf Mangelsdorf, Buro Happold and Ellie Stathaki, Wallpaper*