A City of Ages – Phil Coffey for BD

Coffey Architects Phil CoffeyjpgThis article was originally published on BD, 5/4/2018. Read it here.


Kevin McCloud once said to me rather pointedly over a Grand Designs judging table… “Phil, you aren’t young any more.”

As architecture currently works to sort out its gender balance (I’ve just returned from Mipim, which seemed significantly more progressive this year), I think we should also ask, “What about the young people?” Forgive the generational generalisations, but here we go…

There are the baby boomers, with assets, with wealth. They can afford to work alone; why would they need others to succeed? Thankfully, however, many buck the stereotypical trend and share their wealth, bringing younger architects into larger projects to enhance their position in the architectural family tree and to bring freshness to their thinking and studio cultures. Many give their time for free at university crits, offer advice when asked and support others by offering jobs of all scales to the smaller practices… but they still lead out on their own, they still have a singular vision… we know who they are, and they have produced some of the finest works of architecture we have.

Then we have the millennials who are struggling to buy a home, to make ends meet in this ever more expensive and exclusive society. They see working together in collectives as a natural and progressive way to forward their impact and make our cities more vibrant and equitable places to live. Co-working, co-habitation… it is in their genes to connect; to live, work and think together. Their attitude is to build a community, to build a new structure to fight for their place in this world. They are the future, scraping at the perimeter wall of development. Not so much a singular artistic vision, but a wider-based design process, both professional community and project community. Granted, they are probably too young to have produced their seminal buildings just yet… but what will their architecture look like?

And there, the piggy in the middle, is Generation X, as I believe we are now called, trying to connect the two. Are we trying to make an architecture that sits between a singular vision, fighting the diluted position in our industry, and a trend to a more equitable, community-based architecture?

Back in the day, architects led the construction industry. Clients came to them first. They built briefs. They designed buildings. And, yes, they even administered contracts, successfully. Did they make better architecture?

These days architects in many projects are consultants, part of the process. Should we aim to get back to where we were kings? Or should we accept our diluted position among the other valued members of a design team? Learn to work together. More cohesively… this is a team game, didn’t you know?

The relationship of procurement, life attitude and the architecture it produces is profound. Sole owners, companies, employee-owned trusts all have a significant commercial and intellectual impact on the architecture that organisations, that groups of people make.

Top down, bottom up and something in between is now how our cities are being made. Maybe it has always been the same… but there is a sense that this time is more critical. Life-change is accelerating, disruption is here… and we better get used to it. Quick.

While the lubrication of the profession is happening, it is important for our cities that the younger generation of architects is encouraged to take part in the making of cities. And please note, I don’t mean by being given a golden kiosk with timber benches on the corner of a street while others eat up the quantum and the associated fee of the Cat B offices and housing blocks behind. To build the cities of the near future, the younger generation needs to be involved in the big conversations because they feel the change, they understand it… and for those who don’t engage with the ways they are thinking of living their lives, they will perish as the pattern of habitation, tenure and work life changes.

On the other hand… let’s hope that the seminal building that raises spirits, that touches souls and lifts communities, that is the work of a talented architect that can truly inspire every generation, isn’t lost to procurement routes, community engagement and the loss of leadership.

Our cities should be a balanced conversation between all ages seeking the ultimate aim of what we all do – making better architecture, better cities, both singularly and collectively, whatever our generation.