Foto: Hannah McKay/Reuters
A prime example of creative dissent; large painted mural by street artist Banksy in Dover, UK. Foto: Hannah McKay/Reuters

16. januar 2018

Brexit: Flawed by design

18 months on from the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, we assess the state of play and look to those working hard to keep us informed and connected in uncertain times.

Today I write to you as an architect, the owner of a small business and a British citizen who voted in the UK EU referendum in June 2016. Such was the unprecedented complexity of the issues at stake, verifiable facts were difficult to come by during the referendum campaign but this much we now know: The EU referendum was won on a vote split of 51.9% to leave and 48.1% to remain with a voter turnout of 72%. Make no mistake – this was not a clear-cut decision by the British electorate, but nonetheless an important one for it to make.

Conviction vs. consensus

There are certain schools of thought that one returns to, time and time again. For me, in the context of the vote, it was the idea of consensus vs. conviction. The late Margaret Thatcher once famously said; “I am not a consensus politician, I am a conviction politician.” Political democratic process and architectural design often share the great challenge of whether they choose to be guided by conviction or by consensus. Leading up to the referendum, Sir David Chipperfield published an opinion piece on “The European Union [as] a political, social and cultural project […] the rhetoric has for tactical reasons been limited to commercial criteria and has avoided explicit philosophical and political debate. This has allowed us to pretend that we don’t need to be ideologically engaged in this project.” On the campaign trail, the commercial criteria, (re)presented as seemingly objective fact, drowned out any enlightened debate about our collective culture. Whilst our architecture industry is rooted in commercial business interests, it is fundamentally a representative of our culture.

In trying to reach an informed decision, I found myself extrapolating the potential political outcomes in the same way that an architect might model different design outcomes; could leaving the EU and renegotiating our relationship from the outside offer the UK effective political autonomy? Or could the same energy and action be expended in championing reform within the EU and be effective in achieving a better country and continent? Surely, of the latter, the conviction to work with the consensus, would be the best course of action.

The bigger picture

We architects as designers are inherently problem-solvers and today, 18 months on from the referendum, there are very real issues to engage with and solve. Here are some of the key Brexit-related facts and issues that could most affect architecture at present:

  • At the highest level, there will be no change in the rights of any EU citizens living or working in the UK until the formal departure, set for March 2019.
  • UK architecture practices currently working on projects in other EU countries and vice versa, will retain the existing tariff-free exchange of goods and services until March 2019, after which there will be a time-limited implementation period.
  • At an institutional level, our industry bodies including the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and Architects Registration Board (ARB) are lobbying to ensure the continued reciprocal recognition of professional qualifications between the UK and EU member states, to mitigate the otherwise onerous processes that could evolve.
  • With regards to building and quality standards, the current EU regulations that apply will no longer have effect after March 2019. However, at present the government intends to incorporate parts of the legislation into UK laws and undoubtedly, the British Standards Institute will remain a member of the International Organisation for Standardisation.
  • Any EU students currently studying in UK schools of architecture will continue to have ‘home status’ but it is not yet clear what their immigration status will be for the term 2019/20 onwards.

How soon is now?

The time for awareness, ambition and (re)action is now. I’d be deluding myself to think as a correspondent that I might meaningfully influence things per se, but if you remember this article and it encourages you to remain engaged and knowledgeable, then I’ve done my part. I have no interest in fear-mongering, but I have every interest in bearing witness; observing, recording and recounting. And what I see today, are individuals and groups who are working hard to maintain and strengthen our design communities across our borders – boundaries which may harden, very soon.

The availability of reliable information is key to building a reasoned response to any issue. The RIBA recently published a Policy Note entitled “Building a post-Brexit immigration system that works for UK architecture” highlighting the important effects that immigration policy has on our industry, both for British nationals who live and work in other EU countries and vice versa. Open and accountable sources of information such as this are necessary for assessing the state of play and forming opinions.

Together with sharing information, the sharing of our ideas ensures we continue to learn from our peers, through open debate and research. One group providing an accessible platform for debate is Europa, supported by the L.K.E. Ozolins and The London Community Foundation and Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, dedicated to “focusing on a new generation of designers, the talks will offer exposure to the most experimental approaches to architecture shaped by the different geographical localities, political and social realities of countries on the European continent.” Only in November, young Danish architecture practice Gjøde & Povlsgaard Arkitekter were invited to present their latest projects, including landscape design and installation pieces.

From a different context of civil discontent, a quote that stays in my mind comes from a book I was reading around the time of the referendum vote. In her book The Battle for Home, architect and Homs resident Marwa al-Sabouni shares her insight on how the built environment is, in her opinion, an often neglected yet contributing factor that led to civil unrest and ultimately, the Syrian civil war. Of the people of Damascus, al-Sabouni writes that “the spread of an idea is no proof of its validity.” All civil discontent, through its myriad of manifestations, is complex and seemingly omnipresent and yet – as architects, as business owners, as voters – we must always remember to question the information and ideas at hand, whether through words as policy notes, open debate in industry forums or acts of creative dissent – engaging with the issues now is vital.

Stay tuned

Undoubtedly, Brexit will be one of the biggest influences on our profession in the years to come, forcing us to question who we (can) collaborate with, reflect on the importance and influence of culture, review the regulations to which we build and make difficult decisions as individuals and a profession.

To my colleagues, collaborators and clients, I offer this – we are the next generation of architects and architecture practices in the United Kingdom and we will remain informed and involved in the debates to come.