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Shaping Cities: Form shouldn’t follow finance

Architects and designers have become increasingly marginalised in shaping our towns and cities, as have the people who use them. Despite having a long history of political figures such as Richard Rogers, there seems to be very little desire from architects to be political anymore, scared of biting the hand that feeds them, as the built environment changes dramatically all around us. More often than not, big business or politics dictates what is built and where, often to the detriment to the social and civic life of our towns and cities. With companies like Tesco building 18,000 home developments with a private supermarket as the centrepiece, rather than a vibrant high street, form is no longer following function - form is following finance. Our existing high streets are rapidly changing as we shift the way we shop. Their future is dictated by the likes of Amazon as we spend more money online, while visions to save the high street are being created by celebrity shop keepers like Mary Portas. This misaligned expertise is being used in the education department too, as Michael Gove calls on out-of-town shopping chains to help design cheaper schools that look no better than glorified sheds. We think this should change. Architects and designers need to be proactive and political again, designing cities with a social and civic future. They need to engage with the policies that shape cities, not agonise over the colour of the facades. Take, for example, the Use Classes Order. On the face of it this law is quite dull, dictating what every building in the UK can be used for, be it pet shop or a public house. It stops your neighbour turning their house into a takeaway. But dig a little deeper and it is clear how this legislation controls how spaces feel, prescribing high streets as places where only shopping can occur. We think this rigid control on high streets should be removed, using changes in policy to create better places. We propose that the high street should be a flamboyant mixture of uses, placing residents next to restaurants and schools next to shops. A high street in which you do not have to be buying something to visit. A high street where people make things in community workshops, learn to cook in local kitchens and meet under local monuments. Another area in which designers can be proactive is our rapidly ageing society. Rather than adding grab handles and ramps to buildings to accommodate the elderly, our whole approach to buildings must change, planning for future use and adaptation over time, becoming proactive rather than reactive. What if the working men’s club was re-imagined as a 'people’s club', creating spaces for an enhanced civic life in older age - spaces where men and women can come together to socialise, stay healthy and meet others in later life. One other building architects and designers need to address again is the school. Since Gove came to power, the national school building programme has moved from the aspirational sounding 'building schools for the future' to a more mundane 'baseline designs', and the architect has become a pantomime villain in the process. Design is seen as a luxury that can’t be afforded. What a school looks like is controlled by a series of rules, from the shape of the walls and the banning of curves to the size of the windows and roofs. We think there should be a radical alternative - a school which challenges this government policy, a more aspirational environment to learn. A civic school, built in the centre of our city, connected to the everyday, combining an education budget with that of regeneration. A school which houses an exciting range of environments, offering facilities for the public as well as pupils, like gyms and sports halls, opening up public assets for all to use. Providing spaces for people of all ages to come together. Spaces that our towns and cities rarely see anymore. Architects and designers must offer proposals that have positive effects on the centres of our towns and cities. Rather than complaining on Twitter, we must create and use proposals to offer real alternatives to the way things are now. )

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