By Felicity Parsons
I first became aware of the Architecture Fringe when the 2016 programme was being planned. I saw tweets about it and I can remember thinking what an interesting idea it was (more interesting than the official Festival of Architecture being run by the RIAS). I even considered going to one of the start-up meetings. But I didn’t. And in the end, I didn’t go to any of the events.
That’s a rather embarrassing admission. In my defence, I can only say that in July 2016 I was preparing to move house while struggling with chemo brain. That didn’t leave me with much headspace for anything else.
Twelve months later, tweets about the Architecture Fringe 2017 events began to catch my eye: Piss Poor Planning?, Publishing House, Voices of Experience, Greener Grass? With more space in both my diary and my head this year, I decided to make up for lost time by attending as many events as I could.
I was attracted to the Architecture Fringe by the breadth of its programme and its sometimes provocative themes. However, I was unprepared for the sheer creative, intellectual and political energy buzzing around the events. I came away from each debate, talk and exhibition with my mind full of ideas and creative energy.
At this point, I should say that I’m not an architect, although I’ve spent most of my life working in architecture. It’s a field I love. I enjoy working with architects because, in my experience, they genuinely want to use their skills, expertise and imagination for the benefit of society. However, that’s not always easy in our current political and economic climate.
Therefore, at the Architecture Fringe it was exciting to see how architects who are disenchanted with the mainstream practice of architecture are taking action (whether that’s by thinking, writing, exploring or doing) to change things. One of the highlights of the programme for me was the short film Architecture Working by the collective Architectural Workers at the Publishing House event. I also loved Dress for the Weather’s proposal for a self-running community centre, which was part of the New Typologies exhibition and talk.
While it was great to witness so much constructively critical thinking, some of the Architecture Fringe discussions seemed rooted in a belief in a sort of architectural exceptionalism: the idea that architects alone can bring about change in the practice of architecture and in our built environment.
I don’t think this is right. While some individual architects and practices may be able to work in radical new ways, it would be very difficult for the whole profession to do this without outside support and cooperation. Architects need the backing not just of clients, planners, cost consultants and contractors but also of politicians and the general public if they are to bring about meaningful change.
With the Piss Poor Planning? Turncoats debate and the Essential Relationship networking event for architects and clients, the Architecture Fringe did provide a platform for some of the non-architects who have a powerful influence on the built environment. In future years, it would be interesting to have more contributions from outside the profession. Bring on the quantity surveyors and the fund managers who invest in student residences!
Most importantly, architects need the support of the general public. Imagine what could be achieved if every voter started to campaign for more good quality social housing, more accessible public buildings and better public spaces. Given the opportunity at the Architecture Fringe, they could start by asking demanding questions of the cost consultants and fund managers.
I’m not sure what proportion of the Architecture Fringe audience was drawn from the general public, but events such as the New Typologies exhibition and talks could perhaps have been made more attractive to a general audience by having less jargony and oblique titles. How about New Ways of Thinking About Public Buildings? (Declaration of interest: I do not like the word ‘typology’.)
This reflection might give the impression that the Architecture Fringe is a very serious programme. At one level it is. But the events I attended were also very entertaining. The speakers were funny and irreverent; the discussions were lively and informal; and the audiences were sociable.
Produced by a team of volunteers, the Architecture Fringe is independent of Scotland’s mainstream architectural institutions. That is a strength, and I hope it will remain independent. Putting on a programme like this is a huge commitment, and I’d like to thank the organisers for all their work. I’m already looking forward to the 2018 programme.
Felicity Parsons is a freelance writer and writing skills trainer specialising in architecture. After living and working for many years in London, she moved to Glasgow in 2013.
She attended Architecture Fringe 2017 events including the Civic House exhibitions, Piss Poor Planning?, New Typologies, Publishing House, Voices of Experience and Pop Up Cinema in Glasgow, and Greener Grass? in Edinburgh.