Whether Britain will continue being a key player in shaping contemporary architecture and design mainly depends on the terms it reaches with Europe.
The Shard, a glittering spike of glass soaring into the sky, the new Tate extension, a twisted, off-kilter pyramid are just a few examples of incredible architecture in London. These masterpieces are not only iconic buildings that go to the heart of British identity but they just happen to have been designed by European architects.
The rise of modern architecture in the late 20th Century in the UK was greatly fuelled by the open borders. While the world was shrinking, ideas were spreading across Europe. Now it seems like Britain is doomed to travel back in time to isolate itself with thousand of copycat rows of Victorian houses and Prince Charles’ beloved ‘traditional’ architecture.
There is no beating about the bush. “Leaving the EU would mean the ‘Guernseyfication’ of the UK, which would then be a little country on the world scale. It would isolate itself and become a trading post and arbitration place at Europe’s border,” France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron said while discussing Brexit. But it is time to realise that this isolation would not only affect economics.
Can you think of any great architect that comes from the Channel Islands? Nothing comes to mind. And it is mostly because the last time Guernsey produced a great artist was in the second half of 19th Century, such as Victor Hugo who wrote Les Misérables while in exile.
Inevitably, the government must ensure the freedom of movement for architects to avoid the ‘Guernseyfication’ of modern architecture. A narrow vote for Britain to exit the EU has sent shockwaves throughout the country, especially in the capital where all great architects reside. City bankers and insurers have already called for passporting rights, architects should demand it as well since architecture will be central to post-Brexit future.
Open borders are essential for collaborations and discovering talents in creative industries. Architecture is not only a national industry – it’s global. Architect David Chipperfield, known for his modern minimal design such as Berlin’s Neues Museum, admits that it is hard for him to imagine how isolated his profession would be if he becomes “detached from the influences and inspiration of continental colleagues”.
He also points out funding as a key concern: “From a personal perspective, I couldn’t have done the work I’d been involved in over the past several years had it not been for substantial European funding – for which there was, and is, no equivalent in the UK.”
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in its Brexit Policy Briefing emphasises that the UK contributed €5.4 billion to the EU research budget between 2007 and 2013, and received around €8.8 billion of direct funding in return for research, development and innovation, including architecture. RIBA is demanding the UK government an access to research funding to protect the industry when the country leaves the European Union.
At the same time, 60% of British creative businesses happen to be outside the UK. In order to protect the strong link between international architects, London-based architecture and design magazine Dezeen in the wake of the EU referendum has launched a Brexit Manifesto, endorsed by a large number of creatives, especially architects. The manifesto calls for government to support student exchange programmes, open recruitment possibilities, protection for intellectual property and most importantly to keep the strongest ties possible with Europe.
According to a poll conducted by Dezeen, leading UK architects voted overwhelmingly to remain in EU referendum. Actually there is not even a single one architect who has come out publicly as a Brexiter. Studio Egret West has even showed its support for the Remain campaign by painting its windows with the slogan “We love EU”. Many creative offices said that their work would be directly affected as they employ 40 to 75 per cent of their staff from across Europe. Richard Rogers from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, an architect behind the Neo Bankside apartments in front of the Tate Modern, whose staff is 40 per cent non-British EU citizens, believes that these individuals “stimulate and enrich our practice through diversity of perspectives”.
Jay Osgerby, co-founder of Barber & Osgerby, has signed the Brexit Manifesto not only because of the skills crisis but mainly because of possible restricted movement. He argued: “Our work is probably across the studio 80 per cent international, and 90 per cent of that is based in the EU. I spend a day a week travelling within the EU, and for me, for us, the freedom of movement and services is fundamental to the way that we operate our businesses in the creative industries.”
Creatives are frustrated about the future of architecture in Britain, taking into account that the UK is home to many of the world’s most famous architects. Designer Tom Dixon claims that a Brexit vote could damage London’s status as the centre of design. These concerns are also reflected in the first RIBA Future Trends survey since the referendum that found losing confidence levels among architecture offices for the first time since 2012 recession. Implementing exclusive passports for European architects would rebuild lost confidence and prevent the fall of contemporary architecture.
And there is no need to wait when the Article 50 trigger will be pulled – negative impact on creative businesses can be already seen across the British capital. Modern housing architect O’Mahony Pike announced it would have to close its London office, while Grimshaw is shedding staff as projects have been delayed due to the uncertainty caused by Brexit.
If architects will not have a chance to freely express themselves on the London landscape, the capital will certainly lose its viability for future architecture projects. Then the UK will be no more significant than mono-ethnic, mono-cultural rain-soaked land of Guernsey, stuck back in the fifties with its dull, hideous buildings.