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Other People’s Dreams

Advocating for collective agency driving forward the future of our built environment, the work of Baxendale rallied against the production of the ‘least worst’ – as the practive’s Lee Ivett reflects upon
words and photography – lee ivett
location – preston, united kingdom

We increasingly work and live within a society that is fearful of ideas and agency, where the general public have been conditioned to consider and believe that architecture isn’t really something for ‘them.’ It’s something ‘other’ – for other people, for other places. It is either lifestyle or spectacle – Grand Designs or the V&A. Architecture has become the go-to scapegoat for many of society’s ills: slums, sink estates, museums that cost too much and parliaments that take too long to build. The development system in Scotland has become a dysfunctional bureaucracy that breeds a culture of mediocrity amongst the disciplines of planning, architecture and urban design. A much vaunted policy on Architecture and Place appears to mean nothing in practice as a quality built environment becomes the exception rather than the norm. Schools that fall apart, big box retail that destroys our town centres, cycle lanes that crash into bus shelters and the proliferation of developer led suburban housing spread like a virus of banality. All are symptoms of a systemic failure that lowers the aspirations of common society and stifles creativity, innovation and agency amongst our planners, architects and designers. As a profession we seem trapped in a cycle of trying to produce the ‘least worst’ instead of delivering what we know to be the best.

Over the past 60 years a perception has arisen that regeneration is only possible through development at a macro level: through the imposition of large scale physical and spatial infrastructure in the form of housing, shops and offices. Following the Second World War this infrastructure was imposed by the state as a means of quickly repairing war damage and creating new communities that would provide a standard of living appropriate to a returning populace scarred by the endeavours of war. But communities cannot be created overnight; nor can their importance be swept aside to make way for the latest wave of post-industrial renewal.

In 2014 Glasgow rather questionably attempted to ‘celebrate’ the decline of its communities when it proposed using the timed demolition of the Red Road flats as a glorified firework display during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. I had this to say at the time: “in many parts of the city, Glasgow is now witnessing the fourth phase of demolition and rebuild in the space of 120 years. This city has a habit of mindless physical regeneration that occurs at the detriment to actual community regeneration. It knows no other tactic and strategy for improving the lives of the marginalised urban poor than to destroy the dehumanising box that they currently live in and place them in a brand new dehumanising box that is then positioned in a wider physical environment that dictates activity and behaviour in a manner that, over time, deteriorates the human spirit.

Places like Red Road don’t decline because tall buildings are a bad place to live, it is because those places were made without the opportunity and invitation for the inhabitants to generate a culture through their own creativity and to meaningfully effect and develop their community in an organic and responsive manner. Floods of new social housing are popping up all over Glasgow at the moment which will no doubt win their architects’ awards and bring smiles to the faces of their new inhabitants when they move into their new shiny, warm homes with a drive at the front and a garden at the back. But unless we start asking questions about what we want people to do in these places, how a place can truly bring delight into the everyday and how people can see and touch the opportunity to create their own place, we will find in another 30 years we might need to start all over again.”

We increasingly work and live within a society that is fearful of ideas and agency, where the general public have been conditioned to consider and believe that architecture isn’t really something for ‘them.’

Within the fields of urban design, architecture and community development there has recently been an increasing and welcome realisation that the mere beautification of a physical environment does not, on its own, create a sustainable, active or vibrant place. What most communities desire is a physical environment that provides an invitation to do things; people want to experience, participate in and consume the productivity, creativity and activity of others whilst also developing their own agency. Within my own work and the work of my practice, Baxendale, this realisation has caused me to see that no place can be successful without the consideration of programme. The programme of a place can be facilitated by the activity associated with surrounding buildings and environments, or it can be formally arranged and organised. A truly sustainable and successful place will often be enlivened and activated through a combination of both.

Within this context and with a desire to make useful things for all people without prejudice whilst engaging, consulting and including those deemed to have been most affected by the perceived failings of architecture, a generation of ‘socially engaged activist’ practitioners has emerged.

Over the last 10 years there has been a notable increase in the number of young architects delivering and developing self-initiated projects; these projects are often low cost, small scale and aim to communicate some form of societal concern. At its best this form of practice initiates action in the here and now, becoming a catalyst for incremental, organic and responsive acts that ultimately lead to community led change at a serious and significant level. At its most naive and ineffectual this mode of practice becomes a soft power tool for those infrastructures of power that were the problem all along. Over the last 10 years I’ve tried to develop a mode of practice that has been described as, and been delivered as, all of the above. I have found this work hard to define and to articulate; it has been difficult, frustrating and contested. The more recognition it has received the more compromised it has become.

The terminology and practice relating to engagement, consultation, co-production and participation has become more than just commonplace; it has become uncritically normative. Contemporary consultation and engagement practice create abstract and unfamiliar scenarios that remove both the inquisitor and participant from the literal reality of the condition. These consultation scenarios often involve creating maps, models and games for participants to engage with as a device for coaxing information out of them. Delivered as a workshop or charette, this particular kind of consultation is too often merely entertainment presented as empowerment.

Amidst this all, the work of Baxendale has attempted to propose and develop alternative forms of engagement and inquiry. Our practice sought to create new scenarios of engagement, live action research and ‘co-production’ by placing the practitioner in the role of participant. Instead of attempting to learn within an imposed context of contrived realities through an enforced collection of words, pictures, phrases and sketches, we sought to participate in as many aspects of a particular place to create an embedded and responsive process of learning through doing. Through the application of this method we attained knowledge through experience. Upon initial investigation these experiences would appear to be exceptionally simplistic in their application and utility: we made use of local shops and amenities, we spent time in parks and pubs, we attended events and functions whilst consuming the culture of a place as it existed at that time. We bought coffees, spent time in people’s homes and workplaces. We conversed. We enquired. We observed.

The act of considered and critical observation of people’s behaviour, and the impact of this behaviour on the visual amenity of place, presents another form of documentation. This not only reveals the existing physical and visual condition of a place but also reveals desire, frustration, conflict, oppression, agency and ideas. In some cases these characteristics are implicit rather than explicit – but always revealing. This type of analysis positions the built environment as the now ubiquitous post-it note; we believe that the marks, scars, reactions and interventions created by the actions of individuals, collectives and institutions create a story of place that can be read and interpreted as if they were chapters in a book. The documentation and interpretation of this physical narrative then reveals desires, needs, functional and dysfunctional behaviours in response to the nature of a place.

To act as a participant in the existing life of a place, becoming a passive observer of the place’s condition, creates insight and knowledge that is never predictable and which is genuinely learnt instead of being taught.

I’m interested in work that creates fresh perspectives, suggests new possibilities and fabricates alternate realities. I’m interested in the act of making not as a finite act but as a suggestive act. Design not as a means to dictate behaviour but as a means to facilitate new behaviours through an acceptance and celebration of other people’s ideas and agency. The success of a place is ultimately dependent on the success of its programme and to what extent its design can facilitate accessibility, diversity and flexibility in terms of human experience. An invitation to be a part of Scotland’s contribution to this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale provided the perfect opportunity to bring together and produce a piece of work that consolidated these ideas around agency, ownership, collaboration and public space. To test our ideas, our practice and our work in a very different context with a different set of challenges.

Many of these ideas had previously been tested during a one year project called Pollokshields Playhouse that was initiated on derelict land opposite the Tramway in Glasgow. Conceived and delivered with artist Rachel O’Neil, the Pollokshields Playhouse provided an opportunity to create an environment that would become a catalyst for the ideas and agency of people. Regardless of age, gender, sexuality, wealth, knowledge and ability it was an open, safe and supportive space for people to pursue their own creativity and develop their individual and collective capacity. The premise and ethos of the Playhouse was simple but extremely rare: a place to play and learn through doing. The Playhouse suggested a method of creating conversation within a community that always led to action. People had the very real opportunity to not just suggest an idea but to act on that desire, test it and develop it. The Playhouse was a project almost entirely unique insofar as its programme and its development were not predetermined; they developed naturally and organically in response to the contributions of those who engaged with the project.

As an artist-led project the Pollokshields Playhouse offered an alternative view of how culture can be utilised as a vehicle for transforming people and place. It provided people with the opportunity, the tools, the knowledge, the infrastructure and the support to create their own culture and to create it through multiple forms and mediums. The level of variety in the creative output at the Playhouse was what ultimately pleased me the most: swing dancing, stained glass making, raves, den building, performance art, visual art, listening to records, drawing dinosaurs out of rubble, cinema, food, sculpture… all unexpected, all grassroots, all delightful, generous and ambitious.

The Pollokshields Playhouse affirmed my belief that every community should have such a place as an essential form of public space. A community ‘playhouse’ should be seen as just as essential as the baths, the library and the school. A place where ideas and potential are encouraged rather than dismissed, where risks can be taken and creativity supported; a truly democratic space that encourages a community to create its own future rather than accept the one it is given.

These lessons were to form the backbone of Baxendale’s contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale, which went on to refine, develop and represent this approach. The armature we created was delivered as a critical component of The Happenstance, Scotland’s contribution to the biennial exhibition. The design of the armature was intended to test ideas that myself and Baxendale’s fellow Director, Ambrose, had about the role of design for facilitating peoples’ agency within public space. We are interested in what constitutes successful public space and how to enact design that suggests rather than dictates behaviour. With The Happenstance project the key to the successful application of the armature was the collaborative relationship between ourselves and the lead artists and curators, Wave Particle. They ‘anti-curated’ a team of artists and architects from Scotland to act as the spark that would ignite the activity within the space and structure that we created. Our intention was to provide a meaningful resource to local Venetian people. A resource in the form of place but also a resource in the form of people. As a result, a formerly underused and difficult to access private green space in Venice has become a unique public space that has been utilised by local families and Venetian organisations in multiple ways. The armature creates a space for cinema and performance, a space for play and a space for making, along with the ‘tools’ and material with which to occupy and interpret those spaces. The armature also acts as an enclosed route to provide sanctuary and connectivity between these spaces and other areas within the gardens of Palazzo Zenobio. This project, playful as it is, is not solely for children. It is a place to play regardless of age, ability or background. It was important that adults felt equal amounts of delight, potential and opportunity in a place that they wanted to be rather than just leave their children.

The armature’s visual language is heavily inspired by Venice. It is a meaningful response to the physical, spatial and existing activity of the site and to a vernacular application of temporary structures in the city: the altane, the passerelle, the sets and colours used during carnival. We utilised timber and simple methods of assembly to permit participation in its construction and to encourage replication and adaption beyond our involvement. From the outset people engaged with the structure in a multitude of ways; they touched it, climbed it, cycled through it, sat on it and swung off it. As a resource it quickly became precious but as an object it was always intended to be quite the opposite.

The manner in which local people and groups have taken up the invitation provided by the project has been truly humbling and inspiring. The armature has hosted film screenings, a music festival, a Mexican themed evening, community meetings, activist groups and local schools. Every day it is visited by local families seeking a place to be playful. The project has become a freespace in every sense of the word and has provided something meaningful and useful to local people within the context of the biennale – often thought of as a noise that many ordinary Venetians are not interested in hearing.

The success of the Venice project – critically acclaimed, award winning and transformational for the community within which it was delivered – needs to be juxtaposed against a growing self-critique of the mode of practice I’m engaged with. It has created a situation where I feel the need to pause, reflect and reconsider. To question my effectiveness and the effectiveness of my practice. In 2014 I had this to say about myself when I presented my work at a conference on humanitarian architecture and emerging practice in that field: “I’ll probably never get decent sized work being a one man band that predominantly works behind the scenes of things. I don’t fit that easily into public sector procurement processes, I’m disorganised, dysfunctional, erratic and unlikely to fit into the criteria demanded by large organisations and stakeholders. I love a lot of the grassroots, self-initiated work I do – public art, using reclaimed material, research – but I’d love to do a wee social housing job, or community space, or other significant piece of architecture. It just really, really, really fucks me off when I see other people getting such opportunities and churning out lazy shite…”

Years later, I’m not sure much has changed.

I’m tired, I’m poor and I’m increasingly aware of the futility of my actions which – however well meaning – aren’t enough to truly combat the forces at play which create and perpetuate marginalisation, unfairness, isolation and poverty. Whatever Baxendale was and has been is finished. A failure as a business but hopefully, and possibly, a learning experience like no other. Over the last ten years Baxendale created objects and things in order to enact and embed permanent and sustained change: changes in behaviour at an individual and an organisational level. These changes often started with the small and the temporary that was immediate and tangible. An opportunity to display agency, amend a condition and shift the social, cultural or economic dynamic of a place is incredibly enticing and incredibly powerful for communities of people that have been consulted to within an inch of their lives and promised big change and big ideas that they may have informed but will never own, whether in terms of process or product. Ownership is key, but not just ownership of things, places or buildings; not just a patronising ‘sense of ’ ownership manufactured through participatory process, but actual ownership and in particular ownership of the process and infrastructure and resources of change.

Organisations such as Beith Trust and Woodlands Community Garden have continued to flourish and make consistent and sustained change in their communities long after my involvement. These organisations now own land, buildings and assets, delivering critical and essential services. They provide solid evidence of how a successful relationship between place and programme can be transformational. I increasingly wonder, however, whether these community projects merely fill voids of responsibility that should lie with the state and existing systems of government. Communities shouldn’t be required to spend huge amounts of money trying to evidence need through surveys, consultations and engagement when the problems are so visible, so obvious. They shouldn’t have to fight each other for the attention of politicians before entering the demeaning talent contest of third sector and public sector funding, fighting to simultaneously prove their desperation and their competency. The real changes in behaviour, attitude, systems and infrastructure are required in councils and governments. The fight perhaps needs to grow from the streets and the grassroots into the corridors of power. We need to develop, articulate, prove and demand fundamental change in the accessibility and the functions of democracy.

I’m not entirely sure where my own ideas and agency are best employed but I am resolute about the importance of constant enquiry, action, disruption and a desire to recognise and facilitate the realisation of other people’s dreams. Dreams that feel unobtainable, abstract, that feel denied through circumstances beyond the control of the individual. Not the dreams of developers, speculators, politicians and ‘visionaries,’ but the dreams of ordinary people leading extraordinary lives.

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