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OSA Review: Charlie Edmonds on activism in architecture

By Ashling Wall

Charlie Edmonds walked into Brookes with a clear warning of explicit content and the promise that unionisation will be discussed. Edmonds got a chuckle from the audience and set a tone for the rest of the talk, asking all who may be offended should consider leaving and stop reading this review. His passion and knowledge for political activism within architecture were clear as the talk explores past activism and highlights how students today can be a catalyst for positive change in the industry.

Edmonds is a Brookes Alumni, having studied at the school for his undergraduate degree. He has since completed a masters and worked for the Urban Think Tank Civic Square and initiated an impressive online movement, noticed by the RIBA themselves, with the establishment of the ‘Future Architecture Frontier’. FAF was defined as ‘A very millennial form of political engagement within architecture’. They have highlighted the exploitation of young architectural workers and endeavoured to expose misconduct in the industry through the use of social media.

Edmonds is the Co-Founder of Future Architect Front

Edmonds begins the talk by highlighting the history of inspirational, significant architectural political figures and movements such as Raoul Wallenberg of 1944. He gave Wallenberg significant air time in this talk as his work is not well known but extraordinary and deserving of our attention. Edmonds used the word ‘astronomical’ in Wallenburg’s use of his architectural skills during the time. Wallenburg was a figure who was born into privilege who chose to study architecture in the US and become a businessman/ diplomat in the midst of the Great Depression. Wallenburg travelled to Hungary (occupied by Germany at the time) and used his position to create positive acts to help the vulnerable Jews. Wallenburg hired hundreds of Jews to prevent them from being sent to death camps, claimed buildings and redesigned them to accommodate seven times its capacity and created counterfeit Swedish documentation so that Jews could claim safety as part of the Swedish government under diplomatic immunity. Wallenburg is estimated to have saved 100,000 lives and is revered today as a great man.

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Edmonds shared this quote from the Israeli Attorney general of the time ‘’ … I feel that in this age when there is so little to believe in so very little on which our young people can pin their hopes and ideals – he is a person to show to the world, which knows so little about him. That is why I believe the story of Raoul Wallenberg should be told and his figure, in all its true proportions, projected into human minds.’’

Moreover, he draws attention to the quote above and although it was said at a different time, he draws parallels to the current day and the general turmoil that is happening all over the world both on a macro and micro scale. Using the examples of the climate crisis, generational inequality, the housing crisis, but also on a more local architectural scale, there is exploitation in the form of unpaid work and sub living wage salaries. Questioning what can young people pin their hope on?

Why is it so rare for Architects to engage politically?

Edmond’s answer to this is ‘Apathy’, as illustrated in the RIBA council election which only received a turnout of 9.6%. As an institution that claims to be a representative of the architecture world, we are ‘violently’ disinterested in them. He looks at privilege defined as having a parent in a managerial or upper management position and how members of the architectural world are largely privileged. He suggests this correlates with the lack of political engagement in the architectural industry as if the majority of people are ‘comfortable’, why would anything need to change?

Another factor is how politically relevant architectural work is. In 1976, 49% of all UK architects worked for the public sector, contrasting with only 0.7% of 2017. This suggests that an architect didn't depend on private clients to finance projects and an architect could be employed by the government to provide Council housing, public urban design, public infrastructure or communities so architecture used to be equally an aspect of public spending, as it was private spending. Yet, in what was referred to as batches 11-year war against the local council the amount of funding for Councils to build and create more Council housing and public communities was reduced significantly, and so we began to see architects excluded from the realm of public spending.

What has come before?

Edmond redirects our focus to how architects have engaged politically in the past. In the 1940s, He speaks of a few significant political groups such as what he labelled as the ‘eclectic’ Design Research Unit. They made a huge impact on the urban design of the post-war period, offering their multidisciplinary services during the reconstruction period of London. Another group considered ahead of its time in the ’70s was named ‘NAM’ (New Architecture Movement) who kicked off the calls for unionization and opposed the lack of autonomy that coincided with RIBA. A third important group was the Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative who deployed the word feminism in the professional sphere at the time. They focused on relevant issues such as safety in urban spaces and campaigned for inclusive policies that are reflected in UK policy today. Now with a relatively solid understanding of past movements and change, Edmonds moves on to somewhat recently established politically active practices.

What is happening now?

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Edmonds goes through these groups such as Public practice with the aim of creating a more inclusive public workforce. Architects Climate Action Framework organises networks of architectural workers to create a stronger presence for Climate action through protests and workshops. Sound Advice focuses on racial and spatial equity within the profession. He specifically points out UVW – Section of Architectural Workers as a group that all would eventually join. Established in 2019 and already has achieved significant milestones. In their first year, they won £75,000 in employment tribunals for their members. In an effort to balance the power between employers and employees and create a kind of justice in what is a frequently unfair profession.

What have we done?

Refocusing back to FAF, they gained popularity through the use of memes and created the RIBA open letter. They re-examined the profession and questioned if they were happy with how the industry was today and found out if others felt the same. Actively, they reached out to students and members of the industry, querying if they were happy with certain aspects of the industry such as ‘do you feel supported by RIBA’, there was a resounding 95% of people who said no. This inspired the use of the RIBA as the focus for their first campaign and developed the RIBA Open letter. The Open letter included 10 pages of people’s experiences of exploitation within architectural practices which resulted in 5 key demands that were distilled from the experiences that people shared.

Extract of lecture slide - activism through memes

  1. End Unpaid Overtime

  2. Oversight for the Architectural Assistant Role

  3. Transparency in RIBA Budget and Spending

  4. More Representative Governing Body

  5. Accountability for Exploitative practices

Within the space of a few weeks, the letter had reached an overwhelming amount of support with over 1800 signatures. Ultimately, the letter led to the mainstream knowledge of FAF, and an AJ investigation into the exploitative nature of the industry and a meeting with prominent figures of RIBA at the time.

The responses and data received drew a common consensus that architectural education needs to change but the route to how is very much undecided.

What is next for FAF?

Excitingly, FAF is working in collaboration with UVW to develop an open letter, aimed at architectural job boards, discussing the topic of paid salary transparency as exploitation that largely happens in the industry is in the form of underpaying employees. In an attempt to place pressure on big job boards within architecture to follow this policy and in turn, allow greater accountability of practices that have an exploitative business model.

Lastly, Edmond closes the talk by emphasising the power of online spaces and using them as a tool for positive change. How in a way it is quite ‘easy’ to organise a generation of change? Along with leaving the audience to simmer with two quotes. One touches on Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till which says ‘we should refuse the portrayal of architects as powerless victims of the process of building products and other global forces. And instead, become our own agents of progressive politics. The second one says ‘architects have to work from a political base and if there isn't one you have to start it.’

Hopefully, talks like these will not only inspire but empower the future of the profession to leave behind archaic and exploitative practices, to produce a better architectural environment.

Thank you to Charlie Edmonds for hosting and to find out more you can follow FAF on Instagram @fa.front.

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