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UK Architecture Debates Challenge 'Rubbish' Design Dialogue

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Beginning with a discussion called "Quit Architecture Now," the new Turncoats debate series, launching tomorrow night in London, aims to add a more blunt voice to the contemporary design dialogue. Organizers Phineas Harper, Robert Mull, and Maria Smith want to get past the idea of "lukewarm love-ins" and "rugby tackle" issues such as community consultation, the design media, and the profession's gender imbalance with a more lively series of open debates. Curbed spoke to Harper and Smith about the aims of their series, and how they plan to inject personality and spontaneity to the same tired old topics.

Judging from the topics you've introduced, the profession seems pretty unlikely to produce happy architects. Let's start by asking, what do you enjoy about architecture?

Phineas Harper: "Enjoyment is dull. There are many happy architects. That doesn't mean we're not at risk of deluding ourselves into a stupor of contented inertia. Life is short and we owe it to ourselves and each other to think rigorously about how we're spending our time, energy and creativity. Turncoats is about creating an atmosphere where critical issues are confronted properly in a way that is permissive, effective and fun."

Maria Smith: "I enjoy friendly fisticuffs. Turncoats gives people permission to argue in an enjoyable, productive way that explores and diversifies ideas, as opposed to restricting them."

How would you describe the tone, topics and dialogue you want to create with these debates?

Harper: "Punchy, playful, important. We are extremely bored of mainstream architectural events - they are so often like watching dog owners compliment each other's pooches."

Smith: "As far from stuffy as we can manage. Combative but not antagonistic or patronizing. We're hoping that the audience will feel very encouraged to get involved and that nobody needs to feel bound to their own points of view. We want people will take a holiday from their hang-ups."

To leave architecture is to fail, is part of your description of the first discussion. But, maybe the architectural training the panelists received prepared them well for another career route -- is there something to be said about the value of an architect's mindset, even if it's not dedicated to architecture?

Harper: "There's many who like to whine about architectural education - they blame academia for the dwindling professional power of the architect, failing to prepare graduates to work in the real world. However, our panel for Quit Architecture Now is entirely composed of brilliant people who've left the profession to pursue other adventures and are all innovative leaders in their fields. Maybe it's not architecture school which holds people back but architecture itself."

Smith. "Being an architect is not the best, or only, way to positively impacting on our built environment, in fact it's arguably pretty low down on the list. For those who are attracted to architecture with this aim in mind, it may well make excellent sense to use their education as a jumping off point for something slightly different."

Exciting buildings and skyscrapers are inspiring. Yet you tell someone that you're holding a debate about architecture, and they suddenly lose interest. Why does architecture have a tough time inspiring in theory, while it has so much success in practice?

Harper: "Platitudes and archi-jargon are getting us nowhere. Blaming the unincluded for not being included is counter productive."

Smith: "People don't move to cities because they're inspired by architecture."

Community empowerment seems key to the discussion, yet as you suggest with your second debate topic, it's typically "tick-box bullshit." How can we get the public more engaged in community and urban planning without being condescending?
Smith. It is revealing that 'consultation' or 'engagement' or 'activation' suffers from the euphemism treadmill of ever new terminology intended to be less condescending. Why is condescension such an easy trap to fall into?

Harper: "Maybe the public don't want to be more engaged - maybe they just want better buildings. Maybe consultation is merely a tool we use to quash dissent before it can ferment into an all out campaign. Condescension is one thing - all out manipulation is another."

You also don't spare the media. How do we cultivate a more probing, engaged and responsible design press

Smith: "We need forums where we can explore ideas. The design media should be a place where we as a profession can genuinely reflect on what we're doing, how we're operating, and what we can do better, collectively. Turncoats is aiming to help breed this atmosphere."

Harper: "The architectural media at large has not kept up with a changing world failing to fully grapple with the machines of speculative capital which drive development. Our way of talking about and framing building criticism has never really come to terms with the rise of Thatcherism. But earnest hand wringing and impident foot stamping is not enough to help in this case, we need to develop the business models which allow independent journalism to flourish. The Kickstarter-funded Real Review, the Architecture Foundation's new publishing program and even the RIBAJ are suggesting possible futures which don't rely on big publishing houses to call the shots."

How do you create and design an exciting debate?

Harper: "Change the rules. There's nothing that says you've got to do things the same every time. We're throwing in standup comedy, banning twitter, serving drinks and a few other twists. For me, great debate is not a static spectacle which can be watched through the lens of a camera but a dynamic participatory process relying as much if not more on the energy and contribution of the audience in the room as the panel. Ultimately, it's about creating an atmosphere which can allow anything to happen."

Frank Lloyd Wright, One Tough Architecture Critic [Curbed]