A version of this article is published at Archinet.
I started writing this on the 13th of June. It was going to be a piece on the importance of critical engagement for sole or small practitioners. Thoughts on why, generally, as architects, we don't engage with other practices as much as we should; why it is important to do so; and to tell you about something we did here in Belfast to begin to explore how we might address this issue. Then, on the morning of the 14th of June we all woke up to the news. The pictures. Smartphone footage. Tweets. Stories. Silhouettes of ghostly figures standing in smoke filled rooms behind double glazed windows. The recordings of firefighters as they first saw the 24-storey, 67m high building that moments later they would be entering — “Fuck me, there’s children in there, there’s fucking children in there”. The numbers; statistics; faces of missing loved ones and the beginnings of public displays of collective grief soon to be followed by anger and protests.
Then while the fire still burned — the questions about cladding, fire regulations; the architects website offline, the contractor saying that everything had been built in compliance with current regulations and every few hours the alarm sounds in the fire station next-door to my office, followed by a muffled automated voice and within seconds the sound of sirens. And as I sit and draw and detail and plan and specify and read and design, I wonder what it is they are going to find when they get to wherever it is they are going. I have a friend who works at that fire station; he says that most of the time it’s nothing — a barbecue that got a little out of hand, someone stuck in a bathroom — but then “you get those calls” he says, “the ones you will never forget”. So every time I hear the sirens from my office, I think about him, and wonder if it is going to be one of those calls.
The reason why I am telling you all of this, if I am being honest, is that writing helps me process stuff — stuff like this. I have spent most of my architectural career working in the social housing sector; it was a conscious choice. I have spent hours over the years, standing in cold and damp community centres in council run estates listening to the stories of residents — the problem with the boiler; the letter box that flaps in the wind; the man next-door who covered his entire flat with tin foil for fear of an impending nuclear attack or the eighty-nine year old grandmother of ten, who'd lived in that estate through the blitz, and just came along to see if anyone there had seen her cat which went missing last week.
I’ve stood through year long resident consultations knowing that for the developer it was nothing much more than a box ticking exercise; something to bolster the planning application. I’ve seen social housing residents take payments for their flats for less than half the market value of what the developer will build in its place. I’ve seen some of the poorest people, from the most broken of backgrounds, sold promises that never materialise — for many perpetuating the story of their lives. I’ve mediated heated exchanges between ‘other’ local residents, objecting to schemes, the ones who live on the other side of the fence, who don't want ‘those kinds’ living near them, decreasing their house prices. And I have, of course, taken part in many consultation processes with local residents that are successful, do listen, do include and are meaningful — usually smaller scale schemes.
Anyway, in the days since the 14th of June I have been reminded that, unfortunately, it is often the case that the voices of the poorest and most needy people in our cities and towns are the ones deemed less important, less informed and less worthy of a hearing than the others. I’m not saying that this is always the case — of course it isn't — but it is often the case and it is deeply unfortunate, and wholly unsatisfactory, that it has taken something like the Grenfell tower fire to begin a process that may, we hope, redress the balance.
I have been reminded, that what we do as architects is not neutral: it is political. Architecture is a political act. Intentionally or not when we design and build we engage in the political. Bricks and mortar are the stage set upon which the narrative of the political and cultural is outworked but they are also the realisation, the actualisation, of the political will. Practicing architecture, by its very nature is political; and as a profession we can, and should, and should continue to, use our skills and knowledge to speak for those whose voices are not being heard.