A lot of people don’t understand what it is that Architects do. It’s a fair and modern question, in a world driven by advanced technology and engineering, mass production and profit seeking contracts. Not for a second do people look at De Basilica di Santa Maria in Florence and ask, “But what did Brunelleschi actually do?”
Of course styles change, but the essence of what an Architect is meant to do is to show the beauty of man’s abilities and efforts throughout the arts - when done justly, buildings give you not only shelter but a sense of belonging, pride and inspiration. Today, where the engineer’s knowledge defines our complex structures and mass production largely controls the way a building will look, the Architect’s creative input is often compromised for the need to co-ordinate those involved in the building works and to keep up with the pace of machine controlled processes. I know it to be true from my own experience in architectural offices and my current work advising on design and engineering of public space. The latter of which now takes me most often to London where the number of large development projects significantly outweighs the rest of the United Kingdom.
In the public sector, schemes were developed in the 1930s to ensure a percentage of the construction costs of a project were dedicated to the arts. Beginning in Finland examples of these “Percentage for Art” schemes spread across Europe and America, peaking in the 1950s and 60s as a result of the necessary rebuilding of cities after World War II. Where detailing and craftsmanship had to be compromised for the necessary speed and cost controls of the time, it could be replenished once the building was completed with the contribution of art in the public spaces of the buildings, on the facades or the street facing them. My recent visit to Cologne showed me just one of many examples of cities in Germany where this scheme which gave people the confidence and pride they needed to rebuilt their own lives. The scheme still exists today for public projects, however it is not compulsory and the number of public projects is steadily decreasing. In 2011 RIBA released a report showing that the workload of small Architectural practices in the uk was 82% private works, and in large firms 58%. The continuation of privatisation poses the threat that our cities become more and more monotonous in the way they look and that the only people profiting will be those who own the buildings (who more often do not live in the city in which they are built).
On my way home the other day my eye was caught by a newly completed project in the East end of Amsterdam which I assumed must have had an strict “Percentage for Art” scheme, it is beautiful. A modest brick, six-storey apartment residential building called Oostpoort by Architects, Heren5 in Amsterdam. It's design hints towards the “Amsterdam School” style, which made the Netherlands famous for its social housing design between 1910 and 1930. This already makes it pleasant to look at however what is so striking is the glass strip around the central entrance stretching to the top of the building. Collaborating with artist, Stefan Glerum, a burst of coloured glass depicts the history of the Polderweg area in a contemporary design. I called the Architects to find out if this project had a percentage for art scheme. It didn’t. They told me the idea was that of the client (housing corporation, Ymere) and the Architect team who both felt it was important that the project resonated a sense of pride in the area. It gave me a reassuring feeling to know that some Architects still exert the will and the passion to gather a balanced, multi-disciplinary team.
The role of the Architect is indeed changing and sometimes difficult to understand, but the essence is still the same. It requires new ways and support (local as well as national) to ensure that a diverse range of arts and crafts are included in the design of buildings that define our cities. Having that, the Architect regains the ability to create and co-ordinate a balanced design that people are able to relate to and benefit from.