Features / Architecture

Life beyond the pandemic – the view of an architect

By anna rutherford, Friday May 1, 2020

Our world is changing, the school strikes of spring an ominous precursor to the full lockdown of Covid-19.

But in this global pause for reflection, what have we learnt? What can the pandemic teach us about the design of our cities, of our society, of our homes, our commutes and our communities? What could the new normal be?

Dr Anna Rutherford, director of The Architecture Centre, asks a series of leading urbanists, designers and city-makers about life beyond the pandemic. First up, Piers Taylor, a RIBA award winning architect and broadcaster.

How has your life changed under lockdown?

I guess previously, I spent a lot of time travelling. I never wanted a local practice where we only do local work, so almost all our work is far flung and dispersed.

Under lockdown I’m much more rooted – I’m a little uncomfortable with it; as I enjoy inhabiting the world as a geographer, moving from place to place.

Piers Taylor working remotely in his studio. Photo: Jim Stephenson

But we’re lucky – my studio and home is in a woodland, so we have space and a landscape in the thick of spring. I have always loved being connected to that which we can’t see – over the horizon, and we’ve always worked in a remote manner with everyone based in a different place.

My day-to-day in the studio is little different, just with a lot more Zoom.

What do you think lockdown has revealed more widely for people across the UK? 

How fragile those things we think are stable and permanent actually are. That, and the extraordinary inequalities in the built environment. I think good housing is a fundamental right within a civil society and should be provided by the state.

Historically, almost 50 per cent of people in this country used to live in social housing and could again. Good housing is the backbone of any place, and good public housing could form the future of the urban infrastructure in this country.

Now, you have access to good quality open space if you can afford it, and not if you don’t, and that is an enormous failing of the state.

Limited access to good quality green space is “an enormous failing of the state”, says Piers Taylor. Photo: Ellie Pipe

What are your hopes for life on the other side? Where are the opportunities for change?

Well, the current moment is a portal; we’re about to emerge into a new landscape and right now, that landscape is pretty scary.

I’d hope for a rethink about what our cities need. Urban conglomerations are still how we will, and should, continue to live. We need good quality, low cost public transport (which we don’t have), good quality housing (which we don’t have), well-funded state education (which we don’t have), and investment in public infrastructure (which we don’t have).

And, of course we need to re-think our relationship with the natural world – and separate food production from agriculture which is generally unsustainable and often unethical. If we did that, we could begin to rewild many of our green spaces.

We need to hope something better and more resilient can be built.

Do you have any fears?

Yes lots. Politically and socially, we’ve just had the biggest revolution of my lifetime where experts, facts, education, freedom of movement have all been devalued, and I guess I’m pretty pessimistic about what is on the other side.

Our world has already been diminished because of Brexit and now, socially and culturally it will shrink more. Life springs from dense cities and gatherings, and virtual contact can’t make up for the loss of casual and chance interactions that can’t now exist as they did.

If you could bring one design innovation from around the world to the South West after the pandemic, what would it be?

I’d give everyone a passport that entitled them to freedom of movement, as so many in Europe have.

But other design innovations? There’s the sensible stuff like free public transport, and I’d also like to make better use of the technology we have to enable us all to work and learn in smarter and more time-efficient ways.

But I guess if I could have one design innovation, it would be to fix transport so it worked (trains and buses are appallingly designed and unreliable). The space given over to private cars is absurd.

Piers Taylor would improve city transport if he could. Photo: Ellie Pipe

Who holds the power to make change? 

Recently, we’ve seen a power grab by the reactionary, angry, resentful, anti-science, anti-expert contingent (usually middle-aged males).

Wrestling power back from those people is to diminish ourselves.  We want to lead by example, where intelligence is implicit in how we act, not the slogans we use.

Speaking as an architect though, we need to disentangle architecture from money and power, which is often diminished by its relationship with those things.

Piers Taylor is an award-winning architect. Photo Jim Stephenson

One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen recently, has been people making change for their own towns – particularly the Onion Collective CIC in West Somerset who were not originally expert change-makers, but who have made the most extraordinary change in their town through consultation and through asking questions the local authority never did.

They’ve raised significant sums of public money for a whole series of new buildings and facilities for their town, because they can say exactly what things will change and how these new facilities will help. They’ll make 37 jobs and help move Watchet from being the region with the lowest social mobility in the country.

So, who actually makes change? Ordinary people.

With Active Citizenship on the rise, how do you think people can best effect change? 

By acting locally but not losing sight of the bigger picture. We can only combat Covid-19, climate change, whatever – if we focus on the whole – not a region, place or nations state.

How will you celebrate your release?

Getting out of the UK and expanding my world again.

Find out more at The New Normal: Piers Taylor at The Invisible Studio, on Thursday, May 7: www.architecturecentre.org.uk/whats-on/the-new-normal-invisible-studio-with-piers-taylor

Piers Taylor is a RIBA award winning architect and broadcaster. Piers founded two architectural practices – Mitchell Taylor Workshop and Invisible Studio. Piers is a former Design Fellow at the University of Cambridge, external examiner at Arts University, Bournemouth and the Convener of Studio in the Woods. 

The Architecture Centre bring professionals, politicians and the public together to shape better places.

Main photo: Jim Stephenson

Read more: ‘Walkers in Bristol benefit from the reduced dominance of motor vehicles’

Related articles