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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Design and Change

I spend a lot of my professional life persuading people (as much as possible those with political power) to open their eyes in a particular way to recognise and question how the human world has been designed. 

This is in stark contrast to my views on the natural world, where the crucial argument to win is the beauty of non-design, of a universe without prescient origin, end or purpose.

The argument goes: if you understand how the world is designed, then you can understand better how to change it. Before I started working in this field I too, as an amateur observer and fan of good design, had failed to understand just how socially and politically strident design can be, whether judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My colleague Jocelyn Bailey writes consistently strongly on this question (her blog is here) and I have so far kept this blog unprofessional in that I don’t tend to discuss the strands of my life that pay the rent. However, following a recently conversation we had whilst jaunting about the Houses of Parliament, Joss asked if I planned to write up my thoughts on the topic in question - namely whether the design of buildings is a barrier to change - I decided to dip my toe in the water of professional and personal cross-over.

The study of making policy is frequently a study of not making policy, i.e. why nothing changes and the status quo dominates. I came to the conclusion that in order to battle against the great static, resistant monoliths (or Leviathans, as I heard Conservative MP Jo Johnston recently describe the NHS) such as the Civil Service, the comprehensive school system, or indeed the NHS, you have to approach them as huge discursive structures which exist because of the linguistic patterns that flow through them, and stay the same because this quality is ignored. 

Bear with me. The above is a one paragraph summary of a rather self-indulgent (but I think interesting) 12,000 word dissertation. Essentially, my argument was that shifting norms in public bodies (or indeed any static and resistant organisation) is all about tapping into their background music, if you like, and changing attitudes and behaviours from the inside out. These are institutions in the cultural and discursive as well as historical and bureaucratic sense, and their behaviours and quirks are fixed in their wallpaper; they are not simply the sum of the opinions and attitudes of individuals who work there. The famous criticism of the Metropolitan Police post-Stephen Lawrence was its institutional racism – prejudice was in the air you breathed, and would not disappear with the removal of racist officers. 

(By the by, I once heard Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse use just the argument that the racism would disappear because the bad eggs would soon retire. My heart sank.)

The New Labour Governments appeared to understand this in certain fields. Look at how they embedded the idea of ‘customer’ within the front line benefits system as a way of changing culture and reflecting an important policy shift. This word ‘customer’ saturated departmental magazines, staff bulletins, ministerial speeches, training manuals, and represented a huge policy shift away from the perceived benefit entitlement culture of the early 1990s to a system that hoped to place benefits payment within a clear system of exchange. No more ‘something for nothing’; the 'customer' in a supermarket pays for their bread and we were expected to pay for our benefits through training programmes, or gaining experience through volunteering. A similar example is their approach to sexism (think of chairperson above chairman). 

What does this have to do with design? Well, I’ve started to think that my earlier thesis could be expanded. Why not look to the literal as well as metaphorical wallpaper of public bodies and see if we learn anything about why they don't change? Institutions don’t change because their design, as well as their discourse, can reflect an embedded status quo. 

The modernist architects understood this. Le Corbusier was almost revolted by earlier models of housing where status, wealth and political power were reflected in architectural opulence. In his version of housing - the great, stark, flawed Unit√© D’Habitation in Marseille - he managed to link a new political view of equality through housing to a particular design and tried to break with a long tradition of slum housing where poverty was compounded in your architectural circumstance.

Take a Victorian theatre. Never was there a starker example of social division made true through design. As you reach the rafters, as the prices go down, the seats shrink, the decor loses opulence, and your view is obscured. The wallpaper is always less extravagant in the cheap seats too. One might argue that opera as an institution will never rid itself of the label of elitism until the great Houses of the world are knocked down and replaced with Greek-style amphitheatres (Denys Lasdun’s 1963 Olivier Theatre at the National – a modernist masterpiece – is just that) where status is not embedded in their design. 

Only kidding.

Now apply these ideas to current pressing questions of the elite in public life. It is said to be problematic for both front benches to be dominated by a particular background, or indeed a particular school and University. Following my thesis, it’s hardly surprising that nothing has changed in this regard when you look at the design of the institutions that we are trying to shake up. Eton, Oxbridge, Parliament – the same carpets, the same wallpaper, waiters in the same clothes, courtyards based around the same essentially medieval idea of secure open space for those with something to protect. When Charles Barry was designing the Houses of Parliament, a nod to the hierarchical structures of the past served the need for Governmental buildings to emanate legitimacy and power. Also, I am sure he was keen to make sure MPs and Peers felt comfortable in their new Palace, and so gave them a building that felt, smelt, and sounded just like their school and university. The same is true of the Inns of Court, each like a small Oxbridge College (the bar and bench receive similar criticisms of elitism to those levelled at Parliament). You could say that the march of the elite through our public institutions is laid out for them in the design of the buildings they inhabit through the first decades of life.

Am I suggesting that if we knocked down the Palace of Westminster and built a new Parliament inspired by a 1960s comprehensive school, we would solve the problem of elitism in politics? No, I’m not. Well, almost. I think it is worthwhile to imagine how the elitism question would be tackled had the Luftwaffe destroyed more than simply the Commons Chamber during the Blitz.

Constancy is often something to be proud of. Ours is one of the world’s oldest Parliaments, founded on principles that I hope we never loose. But our political and governmental system also contains seemingly unbreakable blocks, which we should not see as unfixable quirks (House of Lords reform, for example, but that’s for another blog). I would suggest that politicians look around them, listen to their surrounding, and only then think how they can change the institution of which they themselves are a fundamental element.