We spent last weekend at the Balfron Tower, discussing and presenting the work of the practices taking part in the British Council International Showcase.
A very short time frame and an ambitious brief, led everyone involved to create exciting, spontaneous and free flowing work. While the framing of the residency focused on emigre architecture and the work of Erno Goldfinger the work itself was far ranging and thematically diffuse. One key theme seemed to be a resistance to the sureties of architects and designers working in Goldfinger’s era, who when experimenting in Poplar in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, demonstrated their convictions so profoundly. Cities in the sky, grand plans from above and an unwavering belief in designing people’s lives.
These grand narratives come around often enough, Koolhaas is talking now of Vertical Cities, and building them too, and the end result looks no different to these experiments by the creative elites of the early 20th Century.
So what did we establish as a group of designers looking again at this legacy? Most significantly for me the need to look beyond our own narratives, and to elsewhere, to the South as we now call it, since the Third World is a thankfully defunct term. Working with Papa, I realised again the reality of something I heard Charles Jencks say about how little of what is actually built involves an architect. By saying architect, he didn’t necessarily mean the profession but more the literal meaning, someone who oversees, thinks in context, designs alongside; is in charge somehow of what gets built.
In Papa’s native Lagos, the delta city of Makoko is a fine example of what Jencks alludes too. No architects, or at least very few, and yet a well organised, sensible, liveable, dynamic city. I don’t mean here to gloss poverty as a key constraint of good design, there are of course many things that need to be improved in Makoko. It is what we would call a slum. It has however been conceived on the human scale, by necessity no doubt, yet incorporating the macro perspective also. Look at the arrangement of houses, their size and shapes, the ‘roads’, the rhythms of density. These are things that men of Goldfinger’s time would insist are the domain of the creative elite, those that can stand back further enough so as to understand how it all fits together. And yet, it fits together itself, all by itself.
For our presentation I and Papa talked about these themes, about the Modernist Utopia of the North and the self-organising chaos of the South. As a prism to view the legacy of Goldfinger it is a rich comparison, while to view the gargantuan re-shaping of East London it is crucial. A whole world is being created across Poplar and beyond that dwarfs the experiments made by Goldfinger, and still it seems we are caught up in the legacy of our ability to design people’s lives for them.
Photo credit: Mike Massaro