Minister, ladies and gentlemen. I am so pleased to be able to join you today in your discussions of the importance of local identity when considering the prospects of vast tracts of new housing in our “fast-track” production age.
No-one, it seems to me, has been quite so articulate in drawing our attention to the hidden cultural wealth of the myriad “local identities” in this country than Bill Bryson – identities which, to our detriment, we so often take for granted – and it certainly seems to me ironic that it takes someone from another country to point out to us what is so special on this “small island”!
From all my many journeys across the country, I have always noticed how by traversing a hill or a moor one enters a completely different place, with changed materials, a different dialect, and different ways of building, embodying centuries of adaptation. What Mr Bryson undoubtedly “uncovered” in his book, Notes from a Small Island, was an intricately woven tapestry of local communities which have responded to their geography and climate and, evolving over time, have been able to develop and celebrate their local identity.
It has always seemed to me that this is a nation of people who are proud of their distinctiveness, and do not want to be presented with an environment of soulless homogenization. After all, this is so contrary to the individual character, wit and irony of the British people...
But after the industrial revolution, and with two World Wars in close succession, we began to do things very differently, and standardisation took on a new scale and a new intensity. How coldly logical, when you think about it, that cigarettes were soon made to the exact diameter of rifle rounds, and soft drink cans to the diameter of mortar shells. Slowly, too, the production of housing became rather like a military operation.
We have done our best to make a virtue from the necessity of this machine aesthetic, and the ideals were not all wrong. Before the Great War, overcrowded streets often harboured disease, and cities were polluted places. So the idea of affordably-produced, new apartment buildings which built upwards to the clean air and light was perhaps understandably appealing.
But we know in retrospect that this concept took away one of the fundamentals of civilization: the public realm. We lost the lane, the street and the square, which had provided the backdrop for the essential activities of public life.
But it seems to me, we might just be starting once again to recognize the importance of the “civic glue”, the binding social activities so vital to our “social capital”, and which underpin true sustainability. What I believe we are learning in so many areas today – in food-production, medicine and education – is that we can no longer go on confusing ourselves with our own technological ingenuity; we can no longer treat human beings as machines; and we cannot treat Nature as a machine either. Therefore, for what it's worth, I suggest that we can no longer treat the built environment as a “machine for living”.
Funnily enough, three weeks ago I was in Italy, speaking at a conference of 5,000 small farmers and food-producers from all around the world, organized by something called the Slow Food Movement (the antithesis of course of the “Fast-Food Movement” whose global tentacles will, at the rate we are going, eventually strangle the health and welfare of both people and their communities, as well as the Earth's capacity to survive). The, dare I say it, “Fast-Building Movement” will do the same, unless we recognize the need for “Slower Buildings” and, with them, the long-delayed restoration of the vital balance between efficiency and romance. As Ruskin once said, “Industry without Art is brutality”.
In Italy a number of people have called for a “Slow Town” Movement that draws on the kind of principles established by the “Slow-Food” Movement – local sourcing of materials, sustainability, environmental awareness and encouraging diversity above mass production to a set formula.
In contrast to our own experience, where leading English architects in the 1950s, fascinated on the one hand by the rich tapestry of street-life in places like Bethnal Green and, on the other, by the rich civic humanism in the work of Renaissance architects like Palladio, went on to starve our cities by serving up a thin gruel of badly-done Le Corbusier when, instead, we could have had our own feast.
As human beings, our own cellular building blocks are all virtually identical; but the joy is that we are not all identical – each of us has our own individual character. The beauty is the way these similar components manifest themselves in subtle, but profoundly different ways. If we then consider the production of housing over the centuries, the same is true: each community developed its own collective character, even though building components were almost universally standard – indeed, the basic family house has remained remarkably similar in its layout and proportions over the centuries (a reflection, perhaps, that the essential needs of human beings have not changed that much).
It seems to me that the problem with most standardized housing is that it lacks this individual character; instead, it relies on abstract shapes and colours to make it feel different. In our subconscious we are very rarely fooled by this phenomenon.
Organic growth, as the latest science is showing us, is richly varied. We see now that our cities and towns are marvels of layered order and variety; as Stewart Brand reminds us, even our buildings change and “learn”.
This language of urbanism and architecture, which has evolved so subtly over time, makes sense to us instinctively. We feel ourselves to be part of a logical, natural order down to its most subtle details – and we naturally find it beautiful.
These lessons remind us that the last century's “modernization”, which saw standardization and mass production as the way forward, is gradually giving way to a new understanding, and new advancements. Where once we were limited by technological efficiency to the old “machine aesthetic”, thanks to new one-off processes it is no longer more expensive to cut a beautiful moulding in a piece of stone. New production systems not only allow more complex forms to be affordable, but permit the replication of more intelligent organic growth.
Out of the new scientific understanding of Nature, promising new tools like dynamic coding sequences (developed by Christopher Alexander), or “characterisation programmes”, a new generation of pattern books, or other new design research processes, are beginning to be developed.
I am confident that through such tools we can recover this sense of living heritage, and apply it, amongst other things, to the current problem of housing numbers. One of the important issues my Foundation here is engaged with at present is that of persuading designers and planners to listen to what scientists have to say about Nature's way of handling large numbers. Nature offers clues as to how quantity and quality can go hand-in-hand; how a complex order can respect diversity; how we can again achieve the fine grain of scale that makes buildings and streetscapes such a delight; and, what's more, how one can be truly sustainable by being adaptive. It is time, I think, for a new approach, informed by such thinking.
And perhaps, Ladies & Gentlemen, it is worth asking, have you ever noticed that my saying anything about the built environment seems guaranteed to elicit howls of outrage from various Establishments? But perhaps I could remind you all that architecture is the most public of art forms, and as such, it dramatically affects our lives and our psychological well-being like no other. And interestingly, I recently learnt that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution is to investigate the influence of the urban environment, as well as the quality of housing and open spaces, on individuals' health and well-being. The reason I was so intrigued by this is that for the past twenty years, or so, these are precisely the issues I have been battling on, only to be met by an avalanche of ridicule, vilification and personal abuse!
Last year, when the Deputy Prime Minister kindly joined us here for a similar conference, he mentioned the “wow factor” in relation to delivering the new building programme. I certainly agree that artistic innovation is part of the adventure of architecture. But if we want a truly sustainable built environment, we must not let artistic abstractions override the subtle patterns of human life – the kind of fashionable obsessions that if they have no organic roots will invariably end up as expensive and incredibly wasteful mistakes some thirty years later. Hardly a recipe for sustainability.
So, surely the time has come to escape from an almost adolescent obsession with being “Modern” – the product, perhaps, of a twentieth century “teenage crisis”? – and, instead, to be more concerned about being “human”! And it may just be instructive to note that the Oxford Dictionary defines being human as “showing the better qualities of humankind, such as sensitivity”. And it is surely sensitivity or just plain good manners – or courtesy – (courtesy to the public realm and to the natural environment) that are so badly needed if we are to avoid the uglification of what is left of our small island.
It frankly puzzles me why, even among those who champion local character, there is a lingering taboo against the expression of that same local character in new buildings. For instance, you read in various Design Statements for new developments things like “the safe design solution might be simply to attempt to render any new development ‘invisible' as though it had always been there, or to resort to pastiche” and that “designers today should be encouraged to produce buildings that will reflect our time for posterity.”
But why the need to be egotistical as if, again in an adolescent way, we feel it necessary to reflect our presence for posterity by leaving behind the equivalent of graffiti on the beauty of Nature? Surely it is time to be grown up enough to realize that what sustainability really means is paying the necessary respect and good manners due to Nature – to that “sense of place” – which have been so arrogantly denied to Her, and with such recognizably disastrous consequences to our planet.
Isn't it curious, too, that copying from history – “pastiche” as they call it – is simply assumed to be wrong. And yet what's fashionable today is another kind of “pastiche” of almost century-old, Modernist architecture. Why does that reflect our time any better?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe the genius of human culture lies in the way that, like Nature, it copies, adapts and refines. The parts of London we all tend to love are almost entirely constructed of architecture from another time, revived in its own day. Such places meet human needs exquisitely, even now; they have proven they are sustainable, and they have ever-increasing value. They offer us an enormous repository of humane ideas. (And they even tend to be places where avant-garde architects, or even planners, choose to live from time to time!)
And yet, there is a strange notion that we must never build anything like these places again! In architecture, as in other fields, I can only suggest that we have reduced ourselves to an aberrant version of existence that is not modern at all; that it is an outmoded fashion that is more appropriate to the early twentieth century than the early twenty-first – and it is out of harmony with universal laws. The danger is that we are about to repeat the dreadful mistakes of the last century all over again, by returning to the tailor who made the Emperor's original clothes.
As we are tempted by economies of scale toward off-site production systems, let us be very careful to get the balance right. Certainly we can gain some benefits from the economies of scale and off-site production, as builders have been doing for centuries. But there must be a place for local craftspeople to make the critical link to local identity in the character of buildings and, in particular, the way the façade addresses the street and the public realm. To be successful, this requires a fine grain of adaptation.
If off-site production is not to prove a false economy (and it has been suggested recently that the concept has more to do with ideology than practicality as it would cost twice as much to build the components in factories and transport them to the site as to put up scaffolding and build houses in the conventional way – but I dare say there have been lots of arguments about that), then it must be integrated with other, local economies: let us not be penny-wise and pound-foolish, ignoring local employment, historic conservation and tourism. Let us remember the enormous economy in natural and cultural capital, and in enduring pride of place.
Above all, let us be mindful of the proven sustainability that comes from the loving stewardship of a timelessly beautiful place. And, incidentally, let us also be mindful of those areas of the country which are expected to absorb additional housing; they may well run a substantial risk that it will not be supported by the necessary infrastructure and thus unsustainable communities will result. The fact is that the time to build a housing estate is much quicker than the time to create the attendant transport, education and inward investment that are necessary for the creation of an integrated and sustainable community.
Private companies are always prepared to build profitable housing estates, but when it comes to infrastructure, it is often an entirely different story and history is littered with examples of good intentions, changed economic climates and rapidly moving goal-posts.
And speaking of climate, one of the last things anyone seems to think about when planning a development – if they think about it at all – is the availability of water and the need to treat wastewater. Yet this is a fundamental dimension of sustainability I would suggest. It is easy to look out of the window at yet another rainy day and wonder what all the fuss is about. But the fact is that the Thames Valley, for instance, actually receives less rainfall per head of population than Madrid or Istanbul. And 55 per cent of the available rainfall falling on that catchment is already being used for human needs. Of course water can, and must, be used more efficiently and good design of new buildings will obviously help here. It is also technically possible to build more reservoirs to store winter rain, and even to pump water around the country. But these are long-term and not particularly sustainable solutions, which should be a last resort.
What needs to be said I think loud and clear is that now is the time as part of our strive for sustainability and re-evaluation of local distinctiveness – not to mention our response to the current skills shortage – to understand that there is such a thing as a living tradition and bring our traditional craftspeople in from the cold: we should actively encourage them to apply their skills to new building. These living skills should be drawn to the attention of all architecture students as an important resource.
We now know that it is in small steps that Nature achieves its great complexity and sophistication. This continuing, creative process comes closer to what is really meant by “tradition”, than the usual attempts to describe it in terms of style: it is something infinitely varied, infinitely adaptable, infinitely changing – a language, even a dialect, that is based on a coherent grammar allowing infinite flexibility and creativity within a discipline. After all, how can you possibly construct beautiful, pleasing sentences that stir the heart and impart lasting meaning to our lives without the building blocks provided by a syntax that in itself is organic, rather than genetically-engineered in the “fast building” laboratory?
Borges wrote of tradition as the “knit-work of centuries of adventure”. So why don't we set our sights on a living traditional architecture of this kind, to complement our renewed respect for the sophisticated complexity of traditional urbanism? This is not a matter of personal taste or fragmentary meanings; it is a matter of finding again what is truly sustainable, and sharing once more what is truly human.
Each of you in this room possesses a little piece of the knowledge required to make things better. Together, your collective intelligence – in place of the collective amnesia that has gripped us for too long – is immensely powerful. So I find it enormously encouraging to see how many agencies and organisations are now working alongside my Foundation to promote better, more appropriate and more sympathetic ways of doing things; and when I see the quality and seriousness of those prepared to turn up to an event like this, that is really rather heartening.
Increasingly, I feel a new consensus emerging – a new kind of modernity, if you will. It implies that we can find effective ways of dealing with the big problems of our day, which do not oblige us to bury beneath our abstractions the very things that make life worth living – the types of places we all know strike a chord in our bewildered hearts, however “modern” we are, not to mention the types of food that tell an everlasting human story of meaning and belonging, in a world of apparent dis-connection and dis-integration.