Introducing the Irish Architecture Foundation’s second international conference on participation (Beyond Participation #2), programme curator Tara Kennedy declared that “participation is fundamental to architecture.” But is participation really embedded in the practices and processes of how we develop, improve and shape the spaces where live, work and play? This conference, held over two days in Dublin (9-10 March), set out to explore democracy and responsibility and the consequences of how we make our places.
I was there on behalf of The Glass-House to host a workshop exploring the complex set of relationships involved in the design of our places and how we can make the process more meaningful and impactful. Participants in the workshop comprising of designers, artists, community activists and students, took part in a role-playing exercise to negotiate the development of a project to create a new public space. We discussed the challenges in progressing participation when the structures that govern the design and planning process are not designed to accommodate this, beyond consultation, and where there is a gap in skills-building and support.
Some of the issues that arose in our discussion at the workshop had been explored by speakers on day one of the conference.
Hana Loftus, Director of HAT Projects (and a Glass-House Enabler), shared her personal reflections on participation as a designer and enabler in the design process. Echoing a sentiment that others have shared over the years I’ve worked at The Glass-House, Hana urged that when engaging people in design and supporting people to participate, to treat everyone as you would a friend or family. It also makes a fundamental difference to your ability to understand and empathise if you spend time in that place, experiencing and listening to people’s stories. “It is relevant you’ve been there”, Hana argued, referencing the comments by the incoming Leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea after the Grenfell Tower fire that it didn’t matter whether or not she had every been in a flat of a tower block: “Whether I have been on the 21st floor of a particular tower block, I don’t think it is particularly relevant.”
The design profession can offer significant confidence-building and support to community-led projects, as demonstrated by Alex de Rijke, whose practice dRMM won the 2017 Stirling Prize for their rebuilding of the ‘People’s Pier’ / Hastings Pier, a project championed and led by a community determined to bring this unique public space back to life, but not always with the clout to achieve that. (The Glass-House also contributed to this particular project through a series of workshops in 2011 – designed to build the group’s knowledge and skills to develop their community-led vision for the pier).
From 2018 Turner-nominated Forensic Architecture, Stefan Laxness demonstrated how architecture and spatial technologies can provide tools to help us to reclaim the notion of truth and uncover injustices by governments and other institutions. Stefan’s poignant presentation shared a spectrum of the agency’s projects including their work modelling and analysing airstrikes in the Middle East and a project examining the case of 43 disappeared students in Mexico (the Ayotzinapa Platform).
We also heard calls for caution regarding the narrative of ‘bettering’ people and places: from Killian Doherty of Architectural Field Office, whose research in Rwanda and Liberia has explored the ‘problem’ of new architecture in development and the homogenisation of diverse places and peoples; and from Ana and Lucinda from Arteria, who challenged the narrative of regeneration in their native Lisbon, with approaches and interventions to support existing places and give people greater ownership of their position and actions.
Reflecting both on an international context, and the Irish experience, it was clear to all present that there is still a lot to do to change the political and economic structures that make it difficult to embed participation in design at all scales. As conference chair Diarmaid Lawlor (of Architecture & Design Scotland) made clear, participation is there for the making, and we all have a responsibility to help make it happen, in our communities and in our work, wherever we are.