The winner of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal for architecture discusses urban resilience amid the pandemic
Given your emphasis on responsible architecture, what role do you think architects can play in promoting sustainability and resilience?
‘Responsible architecture’ is the only way that architecture survives, not only as a critical art form, but as a viable tool in development.
While these are topics that everyone is talking about it, the architect’s influence tends to be limited to requesting things until policymakers and the government make it a mandate to start bending towards these goals. The past 30 years of hyper-capitalism have rather made architecture somewhat a tool or a broach for development. Here, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the limits to resilience without a more holistic idea of what city-making is.
As the architectural profession begins to work towards the social sustainability of cities, this really needs to be part of a joined-up agenda. Materials are needed that support this new emphasis, such as zero carbon emissions within the concrete industry.
What role can architects play in influencing values in city-making?
The industry has been set up as a polluting, consuming, extracting animal, serving the market as fast as possible, and we are now told that we want it to be responsible and caring at the same time.
On top of that, architects tend to be the mouthpieces at the end of the chain, being relegated to tools of developers. This has bred a vacuum in which people don’t necessarily understand how their world is made, and architects don’t care for standing in front of it because they have had their authorial power taken away from them.
What impact is the coronavirus having on architecture, with the shift to indoor life in some countries?
COVID-19 has triggered a lot of questions by throwing us into a live experiment of the city under assault. In my sector, issues that were framed as questions of ‘good design’ are now discussed within a conversation on ‘resilient design’. For instance, adapting space standards to the demands of lockdown is now an imperative in planning discussions, and questions around the right to fresh air within high-rise buildings are becoming a critical design requirement.
We have learnt that a city’s resilience cannot rely on the economic benefit of a few. Focusing on refreshing the engine of the centre at the expense of the periphery is a model increasingly in question.
How do you see increasing social consciousness and use of digital platforms influencing inclusive design?
First, when it comes to the question of inclusion, it is important to note that you don’t want a city where every citizen is designing, like a video game. The city is a much more complicated kind of creature. Inclusive design is really about an agreed set of priorities on what makes a ‘good city’, rather than questions focused on aesthetics. What is important is to focus on how cities can develop high standards in areas such as healthcare and public infrastructure, and the problem is often whether there is enough investment in areas that will enable a community to withstand shocks.
You have been involved in major museum projects. How do debates around education and reconciliation affect inclusive design priorities?
I don’t see my job as trying to help people reach a conclusion, but I use design as a process to have a conversation. Usually, whenever I have been able to carry out a project, it is the result of a healthy debate or a sense of resolution that this is what people want.
How are the relationships between the urban and rural changing?
In the West, the relationship between the countryside and the city was one of moving from agrarian to industrial. Across Africa, it tends to be something slightly different – urbanization is not necessarily about industrialization that requires people to travel to the city because of factories. Instead, the relationship between the two is more co-relational. In fact, in much of Africa, the countryside affects the city in more profound ways than the other way round. The practices of the countryside are often amplified in the city in a way that they are not, for example, in European cities, where certain ways of life were eroded by the industrial revolution.
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As cities across Africa grow, are there baseline principles of urbanization that you think should be followed?
A major issue facing African cities is how to effectively develop cities that are interconnected by infrastructure that enables them, both digitally and in terms of mobility, to work as proliferous networks. The single-node model followed by many African cities, with a centre surrounded by vast peripheries, is wholly inadequate. This is a big issue for the continent but it is not just a political or economic issue – it is a much more complicated one that should involve health, science, city planning and architecture professionals. Another big challenge is to create edifying environments for citizens to feel empowered by cities. That is what well made cities should do.
Sir David Adjaye is founder and principal of Adjaye Associates.
Hanna Desta, Assistant, Africa Programme