An interview with associate Tom Dyckhoff

Would you define yourself as an architectural historian?

I find it hard to define what I do. My subject has become architecture, but more broadly its geography — how we think about space and landscapes, the environments we find ourselves in. I’ve drifted into architectural history, but I tend to career out and in again. I see architecture as the art of geography, as in it’s a distillation or concentration of ideas and thinking about space.

I saw on your Twitter recently an extract from Malcolm MacEwen’s  Crisis in Architecture (1974) and was interested in how you draw a parallel between his concerns and those of the present day — distorted social priorities and interest in profitability over community, for example. I’m wondering, what do you think has changed? How long have we been stuck like this?

As a historian I’m always interested in what’s happened before, and what’s amazing to me is how often we make the same mistakes. My book The Age of Spectacle (2017), looks a lot at how what we think is a current concern has often actually been going on since the 1950s — gentrification, for instance, particularly in major cities like London and New York, is not a new phenomenon at all. It’s interesting how easily we forget history.

I’ve been rereading MacEwen because he distills a lot of the 1970s worries around architecture. I’m constantly thinking about the 1970s, partly because it’s my childhood and most people are obsessed with where they came from, but also because it was a period when a lot of experimentation took place within urbanism and architecture. Most of the attention in recent years has focused on how presently famous architects like Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid came out of the 1970s, but it was a period concerned with how different people’s experiences of the city — regular users of the city, like you and me, and professional architects and urban planners — can meet in a much more equal, equitable way.

The city was rapidly changing; there was a reaction to modern architecture and the beginning of some kinds of participatory practice that was not only taking place as an experiment, but was actually enshrined legally. In the UK we had the Skeffington Report in 1969, which was one of the first kinds of quasi-official attempts to reinforce the idea that professionals like planners and architects needed to consult with the public. Different planes of knowledge were being taken seriously by the profession. Since I was young I’ve looked less towards what architects and professionals do and more towards the bodies of knowledge that lie with ordinary people — perhaps that’s why I’ve gone into jobs in mainstream and mass media.

To get back to the question: I think there are so many parallels that we’ve forgotten about, with all this critique of developers and of privatisation of space. Exactly the same questions were being asked in the early 1970s. We seem to have completely forgotten this language that we learnt, a bit like with council housing and social housing in the 70s — a real golden age. We learnt all this and it was completely discarded. I remember when I first came across it in the late 90s, it made me so depressed, thinking about how after 20 years we still hadn’t learnt these lessons, and I’m reading it again another 20 years later and we still haven’t learnt these lessons!

Do you think there is a way to get out of the rut, or do you think it’s about consciously looking back at things and trying to steer clear of this cultural amnesia?

I think we are going through a period, now, of extraordinary change in all sorts of ways: political, technological, economic… I’m sure every generation thinks they’re special like that, but there truly is a sense, now, of accelerating change. It’s like we’re all caught in a fast-flowing river; we’re trying to make sense of this maelstrom. I sense we’ve reached — and many people are thinking this — the end of an epoch or a moment of history. And maybe we have.

There’s an awful lot of nostalgia amongst my generation for the codes that they grew up with, understandably. In the 70s there was welfare; social housing; the NHS wasn’t under quite the great strain that it is now and so on. And with architecture, there’s a lot of nostalgia for brutalism and concrete and a kind of modernism. But you have to grapple with the present as well. To get the best of the past and try and reinterpret it in some way. And I don’t think we’re quite seeing that yet.

You talked earlier about some steps towards participatory practice in the 70s. Is there such a thing as a participatory practice within architecture?

Well, I think one of the problems that architecture faces is where power over space lies. Secondly, and really fundamentally, it’s a problem of communication. I think we all have architectural knowledge. Every single person has an understanding of architectural environments, but we are very often alienated from it because of the way that architecture is talked about. The nature of how our environments get built today is very excluding, as is the planning system, and I’m really interested in closing that gap. The question is how you do that. ‘Participation’, in inverted commas, does exist in planning. There are planning committees that the public technically can be a part of. There are ‘participatory’ methods that are routinely doled out as PR with developers and so on, having to ‘talk to people’.

Now we have a bit of distance from those early participatory experiments in the late 60s and 70s, how can we look back on them — and what has happened since — to show that participation creates social benefits, whatever those might be? Community cohesion, for example. We might assume that getting people involved in creating and designing their own environments improves people’s wellbeing, and there are actually plenty of sociological studies that demonstrate that. I’m returning increasingly to geography and social geography. If we’re going to have these vast cities with hugely diverse populations, what are the locations to form the civic hubs where we all come together? They might be physical things, they might be social things, they might be the corner shop…

One of the things I’m interested in exploring in the future is those very early self-build experiments that took place in the 70s, where ordinary members of the public were asked to create their own homes. Walter Segal was an architect who came up with a simple system that ordinary people could interpret to build their own homes and communities, and there was an anarchist planner in Lewisham council called Brian Richardson who set about the first proper self-build experiment in the mid-1970s. Now, 40 years on, we can look back and examine what impact they’ve actually had.

Participation is a very complicated term; we need to examine the basis of that participation. Where’s the balance of power in that participation? Who has the upper hand? Is it just a tokenistic thing or is it genuine? Where do we want to draw the line, I guess, particularly as users of buildings and users of environments, and how much involvement do we want to have in our own environments, homes and neighbourhoods? We’re all busy people, we all have pressures on our time. How much power do we want or need to devolve to professionals and how much do we want to keep to ourselves? I think at the moment we are incredibly passive in our approach to towns and cities. We just accept what we’re given. We’re recipients, consumers, I suppose, of spaces rather than active participants in them.

This whole discussion of the intertwining of architecture and power is really interesting. In what circumstances can this power be a positive force?

Well, architecture is inherently concerned with beauty, and that presents great problems for democracy. Inevitably, if you’re getting above and beyond a simple shelter, architecture requires many people to create it. It requires social organisation of some kind. Many people think that the very reason we came together in towns and cities and social groups beyond the nomadic hunter- gatherer, going back to 8000 BC, was because we started to create more complex buildings. Things like buildings to store grain, for instance, when we started to farm and store things for over the winter. So in many ways architecture is bound up with the invention of society as we know it.

We can’t have architecture without society; we can’t build something without many people coming together and being organised in some way. Until very recently this has been an incredibly hierarchical way: someone with a huge amount of power at the top; a king, a religious leader; a state; a corporation… And of course that has created amazing beauty. Nonetheless, architecture is deeply embedded in structures of power and it has been for millennia. It’s only really since the 60s that we’ve been questioning this authority and this hierarchy.

So I’ve been thinking, what might a democratic architecture look like? And that involves thinking about relations of power within the production of architecture. Who is in control? Is anybody in control? I’m interested in ideas of anarchism and architecture as well. Can you have an anarchist architecture? What does an anarchist architecture look like? It has a lot of ramifications because of the contemporary interest in self-organisation; the way the internet works; the way AI works. A lot of this is, in theory, bound up with how self-organisation works and has shades of anarchist behaviour.

I guess this power dynamic is also becoming really problematic with the complicity and enmeshment of local authority and private developers, which is so often talked about in dialogues concerning the problematics of contemporary urban regeneration. Is this inevitable? Can it be beneficial?

I don’t think it can be beneficial, to be honest, but I also don’t think that it’s inevitable. Again, we think that the complicity between local authorities and property developers is a new thing but it’s not at all — it was going on in the 1960s. The rise of the state in controlling development in this country came about as a direct reaction to what was happening in the 20s and 30s, during which time our cities vastly expanded. In every town and city in this entire country, you’ll always see this great fat ring of 20s and 30s semi-detached houses. That came about almost entirely by what was called laissez-faire development, which gave developers an almost free hand to develop greenfield sites. The first Town and Country Planning Act in 1947 was in response to this.

But those restrictions on development began to be loosened from the late 1950s onwards, and they continue to be. Today we’re worried about luxury residential developments springing up everywhere and remaining empty. The 60s equivalent was office blocks like Centre Point and Euston Tower — people didn’t really want to live in cities like they do today. There used to be a tax on this called ‘betterment’ — people are talking about restoring this today — so that when your land values went up you had to pay a tax on it. That was abolished by the Conservative government way back in the 50s and 60s, and the problem with that is that it just means more developers developing more land, time and time again.

In the 50s and 60s you saw local authorities and private developers getting into bed with one another. There were many investigations particularly in the early 70s. Very famously, T. Dan Smith of the Newcastle Council was prosecuted in 1974, along with a very famous architect at the time called John Poulson. It went right up to the top of government. Again, we’ve forgotten what we learnt in the past.

I’m thinking a lot about the blurring of private and public spaces, and how they’re becoming almost indistinguishable. There’s very little sense of belonging and ownership in a city like London, where residents are buffeted about and displaced, and denied common spaces. This has also got me thinking about practices of commoning and whether an aspiration towards the commons is feasible in a city like London.

As I mentioned, I’m interested in ideas of anarchist thought and how forms of self-organisation might happen in a space. There are so few spaces where that can take place in comparison to the 14th- or 15th-century ideas of the commons, which increasingly got frayed and removed with the enclosures and so on, right up to the privatisation of public space today. There are so few spaces which are common. And that’s why there’s such nostalgia for that post-war period — we’ve increasingly lost that sense of authority, of cities being invested with you or your identity.

But what is the basis of whether commoning will ever actually happen? I suppose we look at experiments that are taking place and you look at the greater interest, particularly amongst young people, in these alternative ways of structuring society. I wonder whether a degree of commoning already takes place in environments on the internet? Or co-housing in other parts of Europe? One of my favourite spaces in London is the Royal Festival Hall, because it’s one of the very last vestiges of social — almost state-organised — space which is relatively free. There are security guards and of course when you go in there you adhere to certain rules, but nonetheless the space is made by the people that occupy it, in all sorts of different ways. I’m not saying it’s the revolution, but it’s one of the very few public spaces in London where you can, within relatively broad limits, do whatever you want.

Today is a deeply worrying time but a deeply interesting time. For the first time in, I think, 20-odd years, people are having interesting discussions again.

I also wanted, of course, to ask you about your book. In a lot of socially engaged, community-led arts practice, the spectacular can be read as disingenuous; as a sign of superficiality. Can there be a reconciliation between the spectacular and socially motivated, sensitive, functional projects?

It’s a very complicated question in that it comes back down to power and the organisation of society. I think architecture only ever really reflects the conditions in which it comes into being — the economic, cultural and social contexts in which it’s formed. What the book is trying to critique, I suppose, is when the spectacular gets bastardised. When architecture becomes less about the empowerment of local communities and more about control over them. So it’s about controlling environments.

There’s a section in the book about these so-called ‘spectacular’ spaces, like shopping malls or what are called ‘brandscapes’, where the spectacular is used simply as a form of social control, to make you spend more money. In these we can see quite literal forms of control — of our eyes, our movements, our behaviour. Those are the kinds of environment that I’m critiquing in the book.

Of course you can have amazing spaces but again you have to look at the power relations beneath the architecture. It might be that we want to have spectacular buildings in our everyday environments, like a church hall, a church, a community centre, a civic hub, a library or whatever. But then let’s think about how that library gets created: what are the power relationships behind it? Who is involved, and what kind of ownership does the user-group of the community have over that space? This is my contention throughout the book. So much thinking within sociology and psychology demonstrates that having control over your environment and your space positively impacts your wellbeing. It fundamentally improves your sense of ownership and understanding.

I’m not against the spectacular, and so much of the architecture that I’m describing can be amazing — a lot of the work of Zaha Hadid or Daniel Libeskind, and that generation that came out of the 70s can be amazing. I even don’t mind Westfield shopping centre! But I suppose it’s the rubbish, the stuff that we get surrounded by which is most often of a poor aesthetic quality and over which we have very little control or authority, so we get the worst of all worlds.

I wanted to finish by asking about the Associates, and what it means to you to work collectively.

For me it’s interesting, because from about 2003 up until quite recently, I’ve had a period where I’ve worked mostly alone, as a writer or critic. And that suits me, to an extent, but what I’ve missed is a sense of collegiality. Now I’ve gone back into academia quite a bit, and I teach. One of the things I wanted to get out of the Associates is to be associated, to work in a more collegiate way with like-minded people. So that’s a personal reason for doing it. I really enjoy working in a collaborative way.

This interview was conducted by Chloe Carroll, a writer and curator based in London. She is currently on the Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, and is undertaking a research project with the Associates centring around participatory arts practice and urban regeneration.