At home in the inner city

Building Democracy

January 12, 1996

You don't even need to be an architect." Yes, I am afraid it is one of those. However, before you turn the page, I suggest Building Democracy deserves serious attention. This book is an exhaustive survey of a movement, signalling the emergence of a second generation in community architecture. It is an optimistic work written by an architect and planner with a lot of, at times bitter, experience who has gone beyond youthful idealism, without dismissing it. Graham Towers writes about what he and others have been doing, and he discusses process and practice at least as much as results.

The preface gives the book the seal of approval by a key figure in the 15-year history of the community architecture movement. Rod Hackney, the entrepreneurial architect/builder who was elected president of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1986, has now moved a long way from his home in a slum clearance area in Macclesfield. There he helped to revitalise the neighbourhood and used it to demonstrate the point that a revived (rather than rebuilt) neighbourhood can attract investment.

But though Hackney may have moved on in the housing market, he is still anxious to identify with a cause that concerns itself primarily with buildings for the desperately needy, the tenant rather than the client, and where the architect, if any, is merely a member of a team. It is an arena where there is an overwhelming dependence on public rather than private funding, with all the complicated negotiations which that implies.

Building Democracy is divided into three parts, dealing in turn with the history of the community architecture movement, contemporary approaches to current practice and finally with the theoretical debate and future prospects of the inner cities. Each chapter is accompanied by an illustrative case study, and allusions to specific examples are plentiful throughout. There is even a mention of Jamie McCullough's inspired Meanwhile Gardens, on land which was a sore point for the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington.

While serving as a primer for both students and practitioners in related professions, this publication will also be of use to the interested layperson. The appendix is particularly good on further reading, and not only lists selected books but gives a critical sentence or two on each. With another section on the organisation and funding of community projects, there is a great temptation to get out and tackle the problem armed with only this book.

According to the publishers, this is the author's first publication, and it has the feeling of being a life's work. Towers writes clearly and well, but there is perhaps a danger in the early part of the book, so densely packed with text and black and white illustrations, that it will be dubbed "worthy". However this impression does not persist, and in the last section he addresses difficult issues with a passion which takes the reader by surprise. Here Towers attacks the conventional training of architects, seeing it as one of the obstacles to effective urban regeneration. But this is not a new offensive; he is reworking ground already taken by Hackney and Brian Avery, developing a plea for an integrated broad-based training rather than a series of fragmentary professional specialisms each fighting its own corner. This marks the book as a product of the 1990s, and this will distinguish it in the future. "Community action was contentious because it challenged established attitudes, and community architecture has had to struggle for recognition for the same reason. That struggle, and the controversy surrounding it, is a political struggle, in the broadest sense."

Building Democracy is concerned with the problems of creating a place in the inner city where members of a community can feel at home. It is about the reworking of existing sites, often with a deskilled labour force, and the rethinking of the meaning of "innovation". It is about putting the theoretical debate between formal and informal style into abeyance, for the sake of the neighbourhood.

Above all it is about cooperation. Towers does not present solutions for all of the problems implicit in urban regeneration which he so carefully analyses, but his conviction that a positive harnessing of community energies is possible, is persuasive.

Maggie Giraud is curator of High Cross House, Dartington, and archivist, Dartington Hall Trust.

Building Democracy: A Casebook of Community Architecture

Author - Graham Towers
ISBN - 1 85728 088 1 and 089 X
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 254

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