What if we pool our collective resources and share knowledge and experiences? Collaborative architecture begins in the design studio. It provides a space to develop and test approaches outside of routine commercial pressures, using research to yield new approaches that further the impact of the architecture sector more widely. In this interview, we talk with the editors of Collective Action! (RIBA Publishing, 2023) about the agitating power of collective participation, the value of grass roots initiatives and the agency of architects as facilitators of social regeneration.
This essay is part of Issue #1 “Agents Provocateurs: agitate normality”, a bimonthly series curated by KoozArch on the agency of architecture and the architect.
Architects can unlock solutions for local groups who don’t know where to start.
KOOZ In the introduction to Collective Action!, you write that the architects’ historical responsibilities have been eroded over the last few decades, sometimes reducing them only to project managers or design facilitators. What is the agency of architecture today and which role should architects play in our contemporary society?
ROBERT FIEHN | ARCHIO Architects can be great facilitators for communities. They often understand the complexities of land values, planning conditions, construction costs and local politics, which means they can unlock solutions for local groups who don’t know where to start. We feel strongly that architects should use their skills to benefit those with the least power in society. The profession doesn’t need to focus so much on what gets built but rather spend time thinking of what action can lead to the greatest impact for those who most need support within the built environment. This might take the form of a local strategy or innovative ways to exploit the smallest of spaces. Architects can engage with communities and help educate people about the potential within their area.
The profession doesn’t need to focus so much on what gets built but rather spend time thinking of what action can lead to the greatest impact.
KOOZ You cite the “Stop, Collaborate and Listen” conference that took place during the RIBA 2021 Guerrilla Tactics as the genesis of Collaborative Action! Can you talk about the process of bringing together such a diverse group of designers to discuss their different approaches and some of the lessons you learned as co-curators and editors?
RF | ARCHIO Archio was already working closely with different types of communities and starting to explore relationships with other practices. However, we felt that a true understanding of the power of collaboration wasn’t being properly discussed in the UK. The RIBA agreed that our topic was timely and they introduced us to a great steering panel, who helped shape the conference with topics that would touch upon most of the issues a small practice has to deal with. It was important for the RIBA that we reach out to practitioners and academics across the country, to prevent a London-centric viewpoint. We also made sure that the panels were as diverse as possible, ensuring gender parity and bringing in voices from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. We learnt that everyone has to make the most of collaboration, including smaller practices who should stand up for themselves in front of the client and the community. We began to understand that the benefits of sharing knowledge and expertise greatly outweighed any perceived “advantage” from hoarding information for your own gain.
The benefits of sharing knowledge and expertise greatly outweighed any perceived “advantage” from hoarding information for your own gain.
KOOZ Photographies of co-design sessions and public workshops are showcased broadly throughout the book. In your professional experience, what are some tangible results and what are the potential knock-on effects when architects ask the right questions and collaborate not only with other disciplines but also with the communities directly affected by their work?
RF | ARCHIO Co-design and community engagement have a wide range of benefits. If local people feel that they have some agency in the built environment, they tend to look more favourably on the design that is eventually proposed and (hopefully) built. Archio has submitted projects for planning in highly sensitive areas and received almost no objections, with hundreds of letters of support instead. In certain cases, some local authorities have been suspicious because they are not used to this level of engagement with built environment processes.
There is also a longevity that comes with co-design, as we’ve seen long-term advocates keep the faith in projects and remain involved in the process over the many years it takes to make community-led schemes become a reality.
Some local authorities have been suspicious because they are not used to this level of engagement with built environment processes.
KOOZ You start your “Co-design Tools: Regenerating Communities” essay by defining regeneration in terms of spatial prosperity through strategic planning and investment. However, you state that the change that accompanies that same regeneration also brings societal challenges and the creation of winners and losers. How can co-design approaches help address the challenges and concerns associated with urban regeneration and what specific tools can be used to promote cooperation between architects and community groups?
RF | ARCHIO Co-design helps you get to the root of the problem. A grassroots rather than top-down approach to regeneration means that you fully understand the needs of any particular community and can therefore respond responsibly. It’s important to stress that you have to work quite hard to know who the actual communities are. Historically, there have been a lot of assumptions amongst architects and clients about user groups and what they want or require. Challenging these preconceptions is very important. For instance, recent international discussions have revealed just how gendered cities are. Co-design is about not making assumptions, making sure you’re listening properly and getting to the heart of issues before committing to any design work, although these processes can run in parallel. This empowers people by making sure they’re more involved in the process and thus giving individuals and groups some agency in the built environment.
Architects should be serving and facilitating the communities they're working within, if you want to achieve equitable regeneration (which we do).
Co-design helps you get to the root of the problem. A grassroots approach means that you fully understand the needs of any particular community.
KOOZ One of the chapters of the aforementioned essay is titled “Giving other people the pen”. Do you think that architecture’s identity and relevance crisis can be associated with the architects’ monopolisation of the so-called pen? In order to regain their recent (and not so recent) lost influence, and looking into the future of the profession, should architects take a step back and regroup, in order to move forward?
RF | ARCHIO Yes and yes.
But seriously, the point here is that the complaints about losing relevance in the industry stem from the fact that architects haven’t adapted sufficiently to the new circumstances we find ourselves in. Our role as facilitators of regeneration should offer both social and economic value.
Rob Fiehn is Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Architecture, a Committee Member of the London Society, a Board Director for the Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow and a trustee of the DKUK gallery in Peckham.
Kyle Buchanan is a Director at Archio and a passionate and skilled architect, who was named RIBA South West Project Architect of the Year 2018.
Mellis Haward is a Director at Archio, as well as an A J Architects Award Judge, Civic Trust Awards Assessor, a member of the Urban Design London Environmental Design Review Panel and a Design Council Specialist Expert.