Architecture / UK
49. Can we fix it?
Yes, says architect Sir David Chipperfield. The pandemic has shown us that we can build a better future.
Sir David Chipperfield is not only one of the world’s most accomplished architects, he’s also one of the industry’s most important critics. In the past year he’s both opened the beautiful James Simon Gallery he designed in Berlin and taken up guest editorship of Italy’s most important architecture title, Domus, founded by industry visionary Gio Ponti in 1928. Chipperfield, who typically splits life between London and Berlin, is spending the lockdown in the UK capital, where he has given some serious thought to our society’s reaction to the pandemic. Here he discusses his ideas with Monocle.
You’ve come into your tenure at ‘Domus’ at an interesting time.
How has being a magazine editor helped you see the world a little differently, especially now?
I accepted the position at Domus as an opportunity to both raise themes and step outside of the office. I am at a point in my career where I am interested in the practice more broadly. Within our office we try to engage in more meaningful work and we are very lucky because so many of our commissions are public buildings, such as museums, which in a way are reasonably innocent. But none of us in the profession, especially in so-called “developed” countries are working enough in social housing, planning or the things that have a profound effect on the way that we live and what we are doing to the environment.
We are collectively confronting two main issues at the moment. One is sustainability and the environment, and the second is social inequality. These are two existential crises and this was an opportunity to step out of the constraints of my practice and have the freedom to be a bit more questioning.
The coronavirus pandemic adds a third crisis to the mix. How is the outbreak being talked about within the architectural community?
I suppose it is a third crisis but I don’t know if there is much to learn from it in terms of what caused it. As a practising architect I can stand back and say, “We should never be selling [wild] animals in wet markets in China again.” Maybe it highlights issues about food, how we produce food, how we distribute food and hygiene around food. I might wash my hands a bit more next year but I haven’t learnt anything, except that if there is a pandemic we all have to stay inside, and it is a bit weird.
What do you think we will take away from this time?
What is interesting is that we have learnt from what is caused by a pandemic and I see this as rather instructive. The reason that we do nothing, relatively, about climate change and social inequality is that it feels a long way from us, even though it’s not. There are 14 million people in the UK on the poverty line. We have a huge amount of people without permanent housing of any sort. And this is the developed world I’m talking about, not Mexico or India or South Africa. We felt uncomfortable about climate change; we felt uncomfortable about social inequality – but we haven’t done much about it.
But then, when a pandemic hit us head-on, we changed our behaviours almost instantly.
Yes, coronavirus comes along and all of a sudden everybody who presumed that we are not capable or willing to change our lives assumed a totally different reality as a normality. We have changed our lives. What I think this teaches us is that it is possible to do things differently. So the interesting thing about this crisis for me is not its cause but what it might teach us about community, society and what is important to our quality of life. It might teach us more about how much we need to travel, about globalisation. My take on this is that it’s not a third issue distracting us from the other two [climate change and social inequality] but actually that it will help put them into extreme focus in the years to come.
So it has taken a pandemic to highlight the other problems we, as a global society, need to be dealing with?
We are now learning why the British are so romantic about the UK’s National Health Service [nhs] – because it is the last remnant of the welfare state. This event is awakening in us all an understanding of our values. Before this happened, hedge-fund managers and executives of all sorts were valued and rewarded above all other people. But now, who are we focusing on? It’s frontline people. Who would you pay more money to tomorrow – someone from the banking industry or someone working in a hospital? All of a sudden, we have started to change our values; all of a sudden, a doctor or a nurse is honoured more than a hedge-fund manager; and a scientist is an expert to listen to because of what they have to tell us. We are changing our perspective.
Focusing on the city and what you are seeing around you, what do you think this recovery will look like in terms of the built environment?
We don’t build our cities any more based on what we want as citizens, or the sort of place that we might need for our children. The days of social planning – planning the city for the benefit of all – have disappeared. Instead in the past 30 years, commercial pressures, investment and speculation are the forces that shape our cities.
After the Second World War there was a very self-conscious and engaged welfare state that was building social housing. We don’t build any social housing any more. Maybe this new awareness is showing us how unequal society is and might encourage people to think that we need to look after infrastructure. This should not only be for health systems but also our housing and our schools. All of a sudden, people have realised that there isn’t much open space or the open space in the city has been used up; maybe we need to think much more about that too. I think, socially, we will come out of this slightly different but the question is whether that can be galvanised and have any influence. I certainly think that localisation is something that we need to think about – and cities are already thinking about that in terms of breakingthe scale of infrastructure down. This could be the theme for the next 10 years – the theme of scale.
So who will succeed going forward?
We all need to think again about the quality of life that is given to us by our built environment. At the moment the criteria that motivate development is profit. That profit goes to a very small group of people and we as citizens don’t benefit from it. If you look at London, it hasn’t necessarily become a more beautiful city in the past 20 years. It hasn’t addressed issues of social inequality or quality of life; it’s essentially just generated a lot of money. The wealth here conveys itself to citizens through things such as restaurants and shopping options. And maybe, in the past four weeks, we have realised that there could be something more to life than shopping and eating in nice restaurants, which have been the opioid of a city such as London. My question is: how does the opinion of normal people, and the sensitivity and sensibility of normal people, convey itself through the system in a meaningful way? Are we really going to start caring for poor and homeless people all of a sudden? I don’t know. Maybe we will – let’s hope.
How can people like yourself and others with influence help to encourage this change?
It’s difficult. Leading by example, by demonstrating, by questioning values – this is definitely a start. What is interesting about working on Domus is noticing that the right things are not happening in the developed world – they are happening in the developing world. There, architects and designers have more purpose and a more meaningful role because they get engaged in slightly more real issues.
There are a lot of architects and designers sitting in London who would love to be more engaged in social programming but there needs to be a rebalancing of criteria, as this period has shown us. Police, doctors, nurses and train drivers have become people again. We previously saw them as people in background; now we see them in the foreground. If we can shift what is in the background to the foreground, maybe that can be reflected in bigger decision-making. This goes beyond supporting the NHS. The reason we’re all interested in national health is because it represents a compassionate view of the world, as opposed to a profitable view of the world or an exploitative view of the world.
Monocle comment: We’ve dedicated many pages of this magazine to the pioneering work of postwar architects. The post-pandemic work of today’s architects can be equally important if they take a thoughtful and social approach to their solutions.
About the interviewee: Chipperfield is an architect and designer. Since 1985 he has headed up David Chipperfield Architects, an award-winning firm with offices in London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai. He is the guest editor of design magazine Domus for 2020.