Times are hard as we live through the fall out of the recession that began 2008. To add salt to the wounds, it’s that time of year again where graduations across the country are now upon us and another wave of young talent are competing for an ever dwindling number of jobs.
For many students, particularly those of architecture, exiting university over the next few weeks into such austere times might look very bleak. Pricked from the safety bubble of campus and now denied the financial cushion of the student loan with nothing more reassuring to replace them than a series of unpaid internships- graduates could be forgiven for believing that things are unprecedentedly bad.
But of course the UK has been through dramatic downturns in the past that conversely have generated new generations of doers.
If you cast your mind back to 20 years ago, Britain was in the middle of its longest recession since The Great Depression. Thatcher’s reign was nearing its tearful end and Tony Blair was still only a minor Shadow Secretary of State.
Outside of politics a loose group of young artists in London compelled by the austerity of the times were organising themselves to create provocative warehouse shows as an alternative to the establishments galleries. Led by Damien Hirst and promoted by a rich patron called Charles Saatchi this group would later be known simply as the YBA -Young British Artists, and their art would become the most publicised, expensive and sought after in the world.
Simultaneously, in Scotland the architecture landscape was quietly changing. The fallout of the early 90’s recession was opening the door for young talented architects with experience such as Malcolm Fraser Architects who formed in 1993 or, Gordon Murray & Alan Dunlop (1996) and Chris Stewart Architects (1997).
Chris Stewart explains the mood of the time*, “we originally set up in the wake of the nineties recession. In 1996 / 1997 I was working with Simister Monaghan who were forced to make a series of redundancies. At the same time I had some success with two international housing competitions in Berlin and Edinburgh and chose to leave and set up my own practice.”
“it was a big risk and if I had thought about it more I may not have taken it. Fortunately I was naïve, although I now realise that people especially in a city such as Glasgow encourage those that take a leap of faith.”
Chris Stewart went on to change the practice’s name to Collective Architecture in 2007 to reflect the principles the office was founded on of participation and sustainability.
Going it alone may have been a big risk but it was certainly an opportunity that Chris Stewart and his contemporaries were able to seize. Recessions and downturns can be a release from established ways of working, engendering a fearless ‘got nothing to lose’ atmosphere they can be an opportunity to pursue way of working that you really believe in.
When we graduated last year we turned down job opportunities in established offices instead to set up our own studio, Pidgin Perfect, with the goal of creating a new typology for architects working within the urban realm. We wanted to make something that we could be proud a studio that was focused on innovative community led solutions because we believe that the public is entitled to have a greater dialogue between architects and other professionals who shape the urban environment that we all have to live in. We try to combine this ethos with a desire to engage in multi-disciplinary dialogues; art, design, fashion, architecture.
In fact in Scotland Pidgin Perfect is just one part of a new wave of young graduates with start up studios such as Icecream Architecture,Roots Design Workshop and Dress for the Weather who are all socially minded and delivering innovative community centred work.
It is our firm belief that as budgets tighten and civic projects are shelved, the next few years are going to see a real shift in the focus of architects to delivering grass roots community focused work. Young start ups like the ones mentioned, are small, agile and eager enough to respond to these changing needs as well as being affordable to the community to employ. They also don’t require the large fees that established offices need to sustain themselves.
So if this ’New Wave’ of architects are to succeed long past this downturn then their patrons (north of the border) will increasingly be bodies like Architecture & Design Scotland, SUST and Creative Scotland. Local authorities should be encouraged to place trust in young practices by allowing them greater access to the procurement process. Established offices will also need to recognise the value in collaborating with smaller studios in order to deliver more community centred work.
We should be using this current climate of slow growth as an opportunity to lay the ground work for a better more community focused way of working within the urban realm.
If we are all able to work together now then out of this downturn we might just be able to build an urban landscape that we can all be proud of.
*Interview conducted 30th May 2011
Original article 'The New Wave' by Pidgin Perfect published by The Culture Blog at bdonline.co.uk on 13/06/11