Supporter's Column: Anthony Staples

As part of the new Supporter's Column Anthony Staples, Associate at RCKa, reflects on why engagement and participation are central to their practice and its transformational creative capacity.

Why We Engage

Anthony Staples, Associate at RCKa, Reflects on why engagement and participation are central to practice, and its transformational creative capacity.

We’re becoming accustomed to the idea of living in a fragmented society – systemic inequality, polarised public debate and an epidemic of loneliness – we’re struggling to communicate with one another.

In this unsettling context, I find myself wondering about my own profession and the traditional role of the architect. How our industry, faced with social, economic and environmental complexities, has fragmented into specialisations and adversarial practices. Compartmented work stages, consultants with specialist knowledge, a maze of procurement and policy rules – all abstract us from the people who live and inhabit the environment we seek to shape. It doesn’t feel conducive to good city-making.

Shouldn’t those of us, who society has equipped with the skills to design and create spaces, seek to make our work more open, transparent, and accessible to everyone?

As the oft quoted Jane Jacobs so clearly put it:

‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’

To tackle this issue, our industry has begun to discuss and recognise social value as an opportunity to lift people-centred design up the agenda[1]. This is a fantastic step in the right direction and the mood change – from the way in which local authorities procure work to the language developers use to attract investors – is palpable.

A lot of good work is being done to ensure a better understanding and effective delivery of social value, from the National TOMs Framework to the RIBA’s Social Value Toolkit. These studies provide metrics by which social value can be demonstrated, allowing it to be evaluated alongside more easily quantifiable performance targets such as economic value and environmental impact.

This is necessary work in order to make the case for investment in people and communities. However, in relying on standardised tools to assess social impact within an existing outcome-based system, I fear we’re at risk of falling into the same old trap. Using language most people wouldn’t understand and separating ourselves from the everyday lived experience of sharing an urban space with hundreds, thousands or even millions of other people. How can anything as complex, diverse and constantly changing as a city, be properly understood using a ‘standardised tool’?

Again, good work is being done in this field, with the UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity recognising that metrics differ from community to community and what gets measured nationally might not be the same as what should get measured locally[2].

As practitioners, stepping back from debate and policy, we believe there’s a more applicable, transformative, and frankly human approach we must embrace when embarking on any project. As architects we must be prepared to let go of our professional baggage; set aside the inward-looking systems our industry has created for itself; and trust in the open, collaborative and creative process which is inherent in doing anything out in the public sphere.

Musician and composer Brian Eno coined the word ‘Scenius’ to define the creative intelligence of the community, as opposed to ‘Genius’ as the isolated intelligence of the individual[3]. In these terms, it seems obvious to me which has the greater inherent power and creative problem-solving potential.

 [Credits: Adapted from Brian Eno and Austin Kleon]

Engagement, collaboration, participation and co-design. Language again. Words that mean different things in different situations to different people, and which unfortunately have too often been co-opted to mean very little at all. But when approached with openness, curiosity and a genuine willingness to listen and learn from one another, they all suggest an open-ended process with no fixed end. One in which delivering a building is only one stop on a longer journey. Replacing pre-defined outcomes with an adaptive needs-based approach – offering communities the necessary tools to realise a sustainable future on their own terms and in their own time.

There’s a project in our office which we keep returning to. Not because we’re proud of the design, but because its impact continues to resonate and evolve.

The TNG Youth & Community Centre was completed nearly 10 years ago. The building itself was the outcome of a community asset assessment undertaken with Lewisham Council that identified a chronic lack of service provision and a potential capital funding stream. By engaging with and listening to young people from the outset and involving them in the process, they were empowered to use their energy to positively shape a new space that catered for their needs. The impact was truly transformational – all the young people we engaged with went on to further education and employment, supporting the formation of an employee-owned trust (Youth First) to whom the ownership and governance of the building and services has recently been transferred. It is this legacy of first engagement, then a growing self-reliance and ultimately long-term independent stewardship that resonates with us so profoundly.

 [Image: Youth First, TNG, Lewisham]



Article by Anthony Staples, Associate at RCKa, as part of the new Architecture Foundation's Supporter's Column.