Will Brexit pose a risk to British architecture and design?

By Mark Leeson

A director of property consultancy McBains Cooper on what Brexit means for the architecture industry.

Brexit has opened up a whole range of new questions and uncertainties for the country. But no-one has – yet – discussed the effect of our withdrawal from the EU on the architecture and design of our cities. Will there be a real impact on architecture in its wider sense, our approach to design and its influences? And how might it reflect the emerging culture of a post-Brexit UK? What might history teach us? What dangers lurk out there for architecture?

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the referendum result was that the leave vote, in a large part, seemed to reflect an increasingly insular population wishing to close our borders. But many architectural practices have teams that are drawn from different countries; teams that are rich in diversity and cultural differences which are reflected in their designs. Changes to freedom of movement within the European Economic Area will impact on the nature of design teams, and the insight obtained from such a diverse cultural pool. This cannot be good for architecture as a whole.

Brexit could also have an effect on physical design itself. There has always been a link between architectural style, and social, political and economic change expressed through different building typologies and even nation states. Just consider the social and political backdrops to classicism, neo-classicism, fascist, renaissance, modernism and post-modernism to see how each was driven by a political and or socio-economic response to the particular time and place.

In today’s world, a scan of the architecture journals might lead one to conclude that today’s design is driven by “modern vernacular”. But maybe, in uncertain times, there will be a return to materials like brick and timber as a form of architectural comfort food.

After all, an inward looking nostalgic mood could easily be seen as part of the Britain’s DNA anyway, regardless of Brexit. Post-war modernism still has its devotees who favour open plan living in statement settings, yet many Brits still retain a traditional aesthetic: period-style homes continue to cast a spell on 21st-century buyers. As a result of restrained British taste, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian styles remain the most popular choice of homes, while owning a Regency house or a traditional country pile is seen by many as the height of aspiration. 

So how should architects and architecture respond to this uncertainty, and perhaps fundamental shift in European politics, and the views of the 52 per cent who voted to leave? In my view, we should re-double our efforts to ensure that architecture remains at the service of society, even if it is inevitably influenced by politics and economics. No matter how it is funded, architecture serves people. Even the most “symbolic” commercial schemes – those that display the economic might of the corporate organisations that sit behind them – can still achieve both ends, serving both their private equity masters and those that will use them on a daily basis. There is no conflict between good architecture and good business.

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The Vitruvius/Wooton principles of architecture – firmness (honest use of materials and systems), commodity (function) and delight (beauty) – are now more important than ever. And, in the current climate, simplicity and economy could be added to that list. In this post-Brexit uncertainty, the best approach is to return to the safety of these five pillars and remain open to the richness, skills and work ethic of our global influences.  

So let’s ignore cries to close borders and build Trump-type walls, and instead remain open to the richness, skills and work ethic of our global friends and influences. Thankfully, I can’t see architects in the UK becoming puppets of those wishing to create a society intolerant of those from other parts of the world. I see no return to architectural styles that express such unacceptable views: we are too plural and independent a profession these days.

The desire to deliver simple, functional, robust and beautiful buildings should transcend short-term political upheavals and economic fluctuations, otherwise the British reputation as a country of architectural excellence will be damaged. Let’s build on our technical capabilities and show that architecture in the UK is a safe haven of integrity, honesty and creativity in these uncertain times. In the end, this approach will open both minds and borders. And this has to be better for everyone in the long term.

Mark Leeson is director of design at McBains Cooper, an international property and construction consultancy.

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