The most interesting bit of the London Festival of Architecture for me is the London bit. Working in architecture in London is a real privilege. There’s an incredible richness to the design scene and concentration of talent in this city. There are big practices, small ones, local players and foreign outposts, a few Pritzker laureates, several world leading architecture schools, an unusually high concentration of architecture critics – even some of the engineers are interesting people to talk to. Add to the mix the English language, our multiculturalism, the legacy of great institutions and, yes, the concentration of immense wealth, and there’s a perfect storm. Our city might just be the world capital of architecture. Maybe, but we dare not say it.
We moan a lot about things in London, but we should appreciate that in this moment, our old ex-Imperial capital is one of the epicentres of 21st century civilisation. Others certainly think so. Anyone with a culture desk or a travel section, whether in Los Angeles or in Singapore, will review the new Tate extension or this summer’s Serpentine pentaptych. Location matters. There is a London brand. Architecture is central to that brand.
People come here to learn about what we’re doing. Just yesterday, we had a Korean delegation visit us at Allies and Morrison. They want to know how London gets things done. They’d like to repeat the success of the Southbank. They admire the way London did the Olympics. What we’ve done with King’s Cross, with those two beautiful train stations, great public spaces, a sexy arts school, a future Google; it’s a case study on steroids, which would make any mayor green with envy. I’ve seen many of these delegations. Shanghainese. San Franciscans. Angelinos. Milanese. They all want to know the ingredients to the London recipe.
There are moments where I realise I live in a city that the whole world considers home. Last week, I went along to the shortlist announcement of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture at the Ismaili Centre across the road from the V&A. Finalists hailed from places like Azerbaijan, Beijing or Ceuta. None of the shortlisted projects were from this city, much less this country. But the London-firster need not fret, because what really matters is that it was in London where the announcement was being made. That’s soft power. For an increasingly large part of the world, our city is the common ground.
But we shouldn’t let it all get to our head. This isn’t the only global city and it isn’t the first global city I’ve lived in. It’s the fourth. And one thing that has been common to all four is that it is too easy to fall into the trap of ‘city centrism’. One tends to forget about the rest of the world when it’s all there right on your doorstep.
I have an old mentor – a GSD alum – who would often recount a story. He was at one of those very plush and well-healed alumni events, the kind that American universities do well. He was there representing the GSD, joining a group of contemporaries from other Harvard schools. The then president of the university introduced each of the schools through their alumni representative – we have Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Business School, and that one over there, he’s just the design school. Just the design school.
The lesson here is that architecture is quite small. In the pantheon of the great professions, we don’t really have a seat at the table. We’re often looked over. We expend great effort in speaking to ourselves, in exhibitions, biennales, monographs, books, archives, fanciful competitions, but most of the world barely notices. We should be better at talking to the world. This is our Achilles heel.
But then we’re in London – one place where the world does notice things. Therein lays my hope for the London Festival of Architecture. It can bring architecture to the streets of a world city. It is one chance for a wide audience to realise it’s not just design.