On architecture and a vision for city building

Alison Brooks on architecture, identity and culture

“The title of my talk, Future Heritage and the Culture(s) of City Building, is about the culture of city building — no matter what place it is and no matter what scale, there is a culture that can be enriched and interpreted and serve as a medium for us as creative people, as authors of the built environment, to really build a future that is meaningful and provides value in all its aspects …”

After showing a slide of urban regeneration projects on which her London office was working: “The reason I put these all together is to, in a way, test for myself the notion that maybe these buildings don’t have to be housing … they can become office buildings, hotels, workplaces, studios — that housing is actually the kind of stuff of cities and if it’s robust, adaptable and generous in its spatial characteristics, material characteristics, it can become a kind of adaptable future heritage …”

After a slide about The Origin of Species author Charles Darwin: “[Darwin’s] theory of evolution is that the fittest survive through adaptability and I’ve added the term generosity, because I think that’s one of the kind of huge problems in the kind of collective consciousness of people who commission buildings — is the lack of generosity … in spatial terms and material terms — and that’s what contributes to the decline and unsustainability of buildings …”

About the enriching aspects of garden squares, which were developed to help regenerate interest in urban housing, and other public spaces: “In a way all of these are part of a kind of principle I adhere to and try to promote in my work which is that housing is urban design, that you can’t — and actually architecture in essence is urban design — you can never divorce urban design or urbanism from an act of building because you always impact a city, or the place in which you build … . Housing should act as cultural artifact, a meaningful and enriching cultural artifact in terms of people’s quality of life …”

About Bath, which Brooks says epitomizes the idea of future heritage, thanks to the influences of Romans, Georgians and Victorian: “I’ve been sort of told, you can’t refer to Bath because it’s like — too beautiful and too extraordinary for anybody to try to emulate, but I feel, of course you should try to emulate the most beautiful and consistent city that’s been produced in Britain… Why shouldn’t we aim for the kind of highest level of what can be achieved when there is a kind of coherent vision? …”

After talking about the challenges of reinterpreting an Oxford college for the 21st century, Brooks offered this quotation from Edward Relph, Canadian geographer and author of Place and Placelessness — “In authentic experience, ‘home,’ whether a house, a village, or a region … is a central point of existence and individual identity from which you look out on the rest of the world.” 

She concluded, saying: “It’s an important point of reference for our work not just in housing, but also in projects like Exeter College where the idea of home, a place where one dwells and a place where you derive your identity and from which you look out on the rest of the world, is such an important aspect of our well-being and our sense of community.”

Watch Brooks' full lecture

ALISON BROOKS, (BArch ’88) who studied Environmental Studies and Architecture at the University of Waterloo, is a prize-winning architect based in the U.K. Her practice embraces both urban residential and cultural projects. She was recently named by the Sunday Times as one of the 500 Most Influential People in Britain. She spoke to students at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture on July 29.