A recent spat between Chipperfield and Wolf Prix over the brief for Venice biennale represents the contradiction that exist within our profession. There are architects who believe their contribution works towards making this world a better place, while some like me are always suspicious that we are assisting in creation of environments that will only assert and strengthen the same socio-economic hierarchy, so the true exploration of 'Common Grounds' should be represented differently.
RIBA as an institute that provides licences to architects to practise in the UK and thereby maintains quality but has very little power when it comes to the market forces that govern the price or even the size of the dwellings. According to a recent survey the dwelling sizes in many cases are as low as 77% of the recommended size. so in such cases the 'element of humanitarian effort' is often shouldered at an individualistic level, in the spirit of trying to do our best within the constraints which ofcourse comes with an asterisk of if the developer permits. These endeavours often become personal battles waged with option 1 which is more profitable and option 2,3,4 and 5 developed during late after office hours by some underpaid intern or worse, a slaving optimist, to have the opportunity to do some good. The choice of the preferred option is determined by the profitability, so option 1 wins, but there is always a warm feeling that we tried out best, and the saving grace skewed block from option 2 did get accepted in option 1. So it wasn't all that bad, we lose some we gain some...and many other self congratulatory phrases that I feel go along the lines of Zizek's anecdote on subversive politics.
To be blatantly honest as architects we have very little control over the environments we design, if the economy and market forces facilitate shoebox houses with bad light and ventilation and on the condition they start selling, we would be very soon presenting each other case studies and precedents of such "interesting high density" housing types.
A very basic preliminary survey of all the new developments taking place around London mostly due to the coalition government's policies geared towards first time buyers and faith in the idea that we can build ourselves out of recession, shows a considerable reduction in floor heights, this in itself is an excellent example of how even the best practise standards are manipulated by the market, so if an architect were to design such a residential project, he/she would ofcourse do the best one can but within the specifications of low ceiling heights as kindly requested by the developer, or if you are BIG who follow the motto Yes if More, you could reduce the height even more so that ones hair brushes against the ceiling, but with an advantage of a beautiful lush garden on the rooftop with collages of happy families enjoying the views to the city.
So what should we do? one friend suggested, "just make a choice, either this side or that". I wish it were as simple. to print my ticket to global occupy movement and become a farmer, or take refuge within academic space.
Another said think of it as subversive..with and against, fighting the system from inside, this unfortunately keeps bringing the happy Russian farmer (from Zizek's link above) to my mind...or the example of university professors who teach in Columbia but their true heart resides in Cuba. (Zizek you bastard! I was happy once!)
Though another friend who was more sympathetic to the confusions brewing in my head explained, life is like driving, if everyone drives strictly by the rules there will be accidents all around, so instead we look around, negotiate with the context and continue driving, but with an acknowledgement that contradictions do exist and we have to drive none the less, because there is no choice.
I hope by the end of our drive, atleast some of us, reach a destination that we pride in as architects living lives filled with constraints, complexities and most importantly contradictions.