Working in Public

by
David Knight, Cristina Monteiro

An essay on our political and social inheritances, first published in the AD issue 'Multiform'.

We are children of the 1980s. Though originating from very different places – northern Portugal and southern England – with very different relationships to modernity, we both grew up at a time when the certainties of the ‘postwar consensus’ had disappeared and the world around us was absolutely ‘postmodern’ in the term’s wider meaning: fractured, complex, multivalent, contradictory. Bits of history bobbing up and floating around us.

The education in architectural history that we then gained – together – reflected that context. In the wake of modernity and modernism we had arrived into an era of multiple different shades of practice, all apparently acceptable and existing sometimes in different worlds. By the time we formed DK-CM in 2012, contemporary architecture could be a myriad of different things, depending on which school you went to, which magazine or journal you picked up.

We share our lives and our studio with a black and white spaniel called Morris, who appears to be untroubled by the powerful contradictions that shaped the life of his namesake, the nineteenth-century designer and social activist, William Morris: a struggle to maintain parallel commitments to aesthetics and to political activism. Our dog’s day to day life is not defined by the agonising tension between wanting to tear down society and build it anew along just and democratic lines, and wanting to design wallpaper. We engage in those tensions for him while he looks on from his basket. We are trying to make a practice that engages head-on with architectural and spatial design for its own sake, as something important in those terms, whilst also delivering upon what we feel are our political and social responsibilities. For us, the political questions that frame a space – its potential to suggest or support new ways of living, new forms of conviviality, to enrich lives – are not reasons to ignore or suppress conversations about style, language and character, but reasons to celebrate those things and bring them to bear in that context.

Public values

DK-CM builds and proposes in public, for the public and often with the public, and the public sector is our client. We came together out of a shared commitment to architecture’s political and social role, not as the solution to anything really but as a participant in how we talk about and make our world anew. And arguing about wallpaper at the same time, in the same argument. So inevitably a first point of reference is the architecture of the welfare state and of the postwar period, where (amongst many other things), architecture and urban design had a powerful transformative impact on the world, often with a powerful social conscience and bulwarked by a confidence that is now hard to imagine.

Many of the results of that period are gorgeous, powerful gestures that remain valid today, whether as ideas, memories or as built form. Many others – extant and not – were the cause of colossal destruction and trauma. These and everything in between were borne out of a professionalism that was ambitious, powerful and cultured but also very often characterised by an arrogance and dismissiveness to the people its projects were for, as can be found in countless examples globally from the expressways driven through New York by Robert Moses through to the chief planner of Newcastle describing in public the residents of a redevelopment area as ‘almost a separate race of people… most people who live in slums have no views on their environment at all.’[1]

The professions of architecture and planning, it seems in retrospect, had discovered the relevance of the public’s actual voice just as their power to transform that voice into profound spatial change eroded away to almost nothing. In the UK, ‘participation’ was written into the town and country planning rulebook one year after the infamous partial collapse of the Ronan Point towerblock in East London in 1968. and in the midst of ongoing popular outrage at the proposed demolition and comprehensive redevelopment of Covent Garden in central London. Meanwhile, in the USA, the students of Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour were systematically taking apart Las Vegas in their landmark quest to understand how and why a place was in advance of proposing how to change it.[2]

When we look back at the last time there was a strong public sector effecting real social change, we must do so through a lens which also shows us the limitations and failures of that period. However much we long for that capacity, it is always tempered by a reading of what was too often missed out. And our commitment to an architecture that generates – or at least participates in the creation of – public value is always inflected accordingly.

Inheritances

In looking back, we also witness the extraordinary social movements and projects that emerged as the postwar consensus ended, particularly those concerned with shining new light on the actual mechanics of popular culture, working class life and social change. We might think of Raphael Samuel, whose History Workshop (1976-) aimed at reconfiguring historical research and writing towards the perspectives of those at the bottom of the social ladder, rather than the top – which he dubbed ‘history from below’. We might think of oral historian Tony Parker , who spent 18 months on a south London housing estate in the early 1980s interviewing and giving voice to its diverse residents, finding none of them typical, in a list that included local squatters, pre-fab residents and caretakers.[3] Or of Queenspark books, a publisher of local history and working class autobiography that grew out of opposition to a redevelopment project in the Queens Park area of Brighton, and which continues to publish works and run diary-writing workshops in the town. Or of historian and novelist Mary Chamberlain, whose work Fenwomen (1975) was a then-unprecedented exploration of the desires and lives of women living and working in a remote part of the Cambridgeshire Fens.[4] Or of teacher and oral historian George Ewart Evans, sociologist Herbert Gans, and urbanist Philippe Boudon.

Then we naturally look at the architects whose work appears obviously to have been inflected by this new wave of understanding: Ralph Erskine, the feminist design co-operative Matrix, Walter Segal, Venturi Scott Brown, and Giancarlo de Carlo. And the groups of architects, among them future superstars Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, who worked to deliver inner-city housing for the urban poor in the immediate wake of the Portuguese revolution in 1974, in what is possibly modern architecture’s most profound and tumultuous engagement with popular desire.

So we want the public commitment of the postwar period, but transformed by the shifts in understanding that came in its wake which make the simplicity and clarity of its project seem naive. No wonder the architecture we are drawn to is provisional, well put together but also clearly ‘made’, asymmetrical, difficult, speaking multiple languages at once. Its these attributes that draw us to some buildings and projects of the postmodern period, but they also draw us back to what we call the ‘uncertain’ period of modernism when the style was not yet a style and everything was in a powerful, energising state of flux: the clad works of Hendrik Petrus Berlage, such as Holland House in London (1916); the radical conservationism of Morris and his ‘Ruskinian’ allies, such as the Red House, Bexleyheath (1860), which struggled to look forward and backward at once; Martti Valikangas’ ‘folk classicism’ at Käpylä; and Gunnar Asplund hovering deliciously between Nordic classicism and modernity, most famously in the Stockholm Public library (1928).

Thus, in making a practice we are aiming, in a hand to mouth sort of way, at a position that straddles the worlds set out above whilst also embracing the Morris-ian tradition of juggling aesthetic and political concerns, to ultimately consider them as one practice. Except that the nature-worship that characterised the work of Morris, John Ruskin, radical poet and philosopher Edward Carpenter and so many others of the late nineteenth century and in that tradition must now be updated to reflect the fundamental importance of environmental issues and of rebalancing humanity’s relationship to nature.

We are interested in an architecture that is an active participant in the actions, movements and conversations that form society. We want to make places and buildings that can be explored in high and low terms, that impact upon people’s lives and shift possibilities and perceptions.

Public projects

[imageC] DK-CM’s Barkingside Town Square in the London Borough of Redbridge, completed in 2015, transformed a series of public spaces around a sequence of modernist civic buildings by Frederick Gibberd. Gibberd’s work at Barkingside was brilliantly civic and generous as a series of interiors, and in the form of the lofty ‘crown’ of clerestory windows that are its most significant public gesture. But, reflecting his rejection of the suburb of the speculator, the spaces around the buildings – and between them and the 1920s High Street – were hard to occupy and framed by blank walls. Presented with the task of enriching that High Street, our project aimed at retrofitting Gibberd’s civic modernism with a new attitude to public space that was generous, gregarious and encouraging of both formal and informal use.

The most prominent gesture was a new loggia that reworked a blank concrete wall facing the High Street as a place for shade, shelter and inhabitation. On special days the loggia provides a rhythm and form to market stalls, and a focal point for events. On ordinary days it is a place where kids watch other kids kick a ball on the way home from school, and where locals seek shade or shelter. We once had a memorable conversation with the receptionist at the front desk who was apparently in the midst of an ongoing argument with her sister about whether the new loggia was art deco or not. She insisted that it was, because of the jazzy black and white terrazzo below the arches, but her sister was adamant that it couldn’t be because it was newly built. This conversation has stayed with us because it was so good to know that an intervention of ours was causing discussions – heated ones – about the aesthetics of architecture and urban design.

The theme of conversation is a recurring one. Whether through architectural design, for example, in our ongoing projects for Bruce Grove Public Conveniences and Romford Market House, and the one completed at Wroughton Academy, or through the public discussions that shape a masterplan or piece of spatial policy, such as the research we have undertaken in Harrow, we go in search of two-way conversations. In this way we do not abscond from questions of architectural character or style but attempt to ask those questions in public, whether as the context of a project or the project itself. For ‘New Publics’, our exhibition at the British School at Rome in 2019, DK-CM undertook video-conference interviews with members of the public who had experienced the English planning system first hand, where we drew out their experiences and propositions for planning and placed them together in the gallery, unmediated. The project built upon ‘Making Planning Popular’, David’s doctoral research at the Royal College of Art (2018) which remarkably was the first attempt to research public perception of the UK planning system since 1995 and the first to do so with particular attention to the shifts in knowledge-exchange and communication that have happened since the arrival of the ubiquitous internet.

Building on this work, DK-CM, with Spacemakers and Europa, have recently been writing design guidance for the future expansion of rural villages in South Cambridgeshire. We were able to design a methodology which acknowledged that future expansion was extremely likely and which enabled a public, villager-led conversation about the future of the settlement to take place. This was achieved in this case by means of making a ‘fanzine’ with an editorial board of interested locals in the space of a day, drawing out annotated visual cues that together hinted at locally distinctive, progressive visions for the future of each village. The material collected in the fanzine was carefully recomposed into adoptable council design guidance, with the images and captions often surviving into the final adopted documents. In a way, we were taking the ‘popular’ approaches we find so inspiring from the late twentieth century and plugging them directly into development management processes. In current work we find ourselves building on this method with a view to directly engaging with young people, ‘future generations’ and the wider non-human ecology of a place, for example in our Placemaking Study around the Grand Union Canal.

Unpicking some inheritances has allowed us to explore how DK-CM’s work seeks to embody the commitment to public good of the postwar era whilst acknowledging and modifying its practices in response to the radical shifts in popular desire and public culture since that period. For the most part, these shifts are still to be fully recognised in architectural or planning practice, which continue to ask the public to ‘participate’ in the built environment professions when really it should be the professions that seek participation in the wider world. It is up to architects and planners to constantly adapt their own working methods to find relevance, meaning and agency in a messy, challenging world.


[1] As cited in Ward, Colin: Welcome, Thinner City. London: Bedford Square Press, 1989.

[2] Venturi, Robert, Brown D. Scott, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1977.

[3] Parker, Tony. The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants. London: Hutchinson, 1983.

[4] Chamberlain, Mary. Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1983.

Spread of the essay in its original format, showing a visualisation of our Bruce Grove project.