When architects only tell one side of the story
Event review

Are architects complicit in creating narratives that ultimately serve to line developers’ pockets? Joanna Day was at an Architecture Foundation debate on the subject.

What is the difference between storytelling and lying? This was perhaps the most pertinent question asked at “Selling the Dream”, an event co-produced by the Architecture Foundation and Studio Egret West. This troubling topic seemed to underpin each of the panel’s presentations and was the focal point of the spirited discussions that followed.

A concoction of a sparky journalist and author (Zoe Williams), impassioned developer (Martyn Evans), a couple of lively architects (David West and Maria Smith), and an opinionated young audience, made for a healthy dose of politics and colourful language. What a compelling way to spend a summer’s evening in central London, with the city itself contributing population growth, housing, high rise and superdensification as subjects of the stories told.

Much of the evening was spent in a battle of two visualisations, the arrow buttons on the laptop being worked hard as we were flipped backwards and forwards between two powerpoint slides of the same architectural proposal. One image was the architect’s vision of their fresh concept for living, the other a sanitised marketing tool for a developer trying to sell units (note “units” not “homes”). This battle was an apt illustration of the dance being described between, on the one hand, the genuine use of stories to aid decision-making and, on the other, the use of a narrative to justify an intervention or ultimately, to sell.

It seems that there is a common feeling among many of us involved in the making of the built environment at the moment. We feel like we have to try and sneak good architecture between cracks. The cracks are formed both by the governing state for whom creating beautiful civic space is the antithesis of its ideological and austerity-driven position, and by developers less interested in rich and varied placemaking than in attracting foreign investment.

Like a fairytale, architectural issues such as this contain goodies, baddies, morals and uncertainties. And, of course, as many interpretations as tellings.

This article first appeared on bdonline on 30 June 2015