Local communities often aren’t empowered with the skills, tools, and time designers have to untangle problems and act on them. In this latest AAO Member Spotlight, learn how The Architecture Foundation and guest collaborators We Made That tackle the merits and shortcomings of recent Localism legislation in the UK. The solution: take the critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills that designers wield and open-source it to the community at large.
AAO: What inspired The Architecture Foundation to start the Open Call initiative?
Zofia Trafas, The Architecture Foundation (AF): The Open Call is an international competition for innovative, independent exhibitions and installations for The AF’s central London Project Space. Competitively selected through a jury process, the Open Call gives space to individuals or organizations to activate the AF Project Space as a testing ground for modes of exhibition and 1:1 scale spatial experimentation, an open studio, a public residency, or other diverse formats. Established in 2012, the Open Call is an annual part of The AF’s programme, selecting up to two projects per year.
The Open Call was established as a fulfillment of the central mission of the AF Project Space to be a versatile public venue for the discussion and exhibition of innovative positions in architecture, urbanism, art, and design. In offering the AF Project Space as a venue, the Open Call ultimately operates as an open platform for the dissemination of new ideas.
It is intended that Open Call projects complement and enhance The AF’s ongoing curated public programme of exhibitions and events.
AAO: How familiar would you say you were with The Architecture Foundation’s work prior to the Open Call that you answered? How familiar were you with AF’s experiments with its Project Space?
Holly Lewis and Oliver Goodhall, We Made That (WMT): We were already pretty familiar with The Architecture Foundation, having taken part in their UK-Australia Exchange in 2011 and having won one of their recent design competitions for the Three Mills Playspace. Honestly, though, I don’t think we’d ever had much contact with the Project Space programme prior to "The Open Office" taking place.
AAO: For the most current Open Call, you’re promising just a small amount of project seed money (approx. $1,500 GBP; $2,300 USD). How did you arrive at this amount?
AF: In principal, the Open Call aims to attract original and imaginative proposals of the highest quality that are able to work resourcefully within limited resources.
The £1,500 GBP (inclusive of VAT) of funding available from The AF is seed funding only, and it is understood that additional funding / in-kind sponsorship may be required to realize a project. As part of their submission, applicants are required to submit a draft project budget that includes an outline of supplementary income required, and any ideas for potential sources. Successful applicants needing to undertake further fundraising are by aided by the AF’s Director, Development and Marketing Manager, and Exhibitions Coordinator in seeking further resources and in-kind support for the exhibition project. For instance, in the case of We Made That’s “The Open Office,” The AF secured Openvizor as a lead sponsor for the project.
Time for fundraising is purposefully built into the annual Open Call programme schedule, so as to help ensure that successful applicants, together with The AF, have sufficient time to secure any additional resources required.
As a registered charity, The AF regularly carries out project-specific fundraising for its exhibition programme. It was felt that by making this a transparent process for the applicant to participate in, The AF is able to offer valuable professional experience, sharing strategies for project fundraising that may be of use to the applicant in his/her future work.
AAO: The Open Call speaks about the Project Space as intended as an “incubator.” What does that mean to you, and can you help explain how the idea fits within AF’s larger mission and the outcomes it intends to explore or produce?
AF: We understand the function of the Project Space as that of an “incubator” in the sense of it operating as a dynamic public venue that permits and encourages the presentation and discussion of new, experimental, and interdisciplinary ideas in architecture and urbanism. The term “Project” is core to our understanding of the Space’s function as not only a gallery-like formal exhibition venue, but also as a space that is open to being transformed into completely alternative formats and functions – from a theatre, landscape, and lecture hall, or a working office, as was the case in We Made That’s Open Office project. This conceptual flexibility of the Project Space fits strongly within The AF’s central mission of being an independent, agile, and influential agency for advancing architecture culture.
AAO: What influence, if any at all, did the Project Space exert when developing your idea? In other words, did the idea come first and the Open Call seem like the right vehicle, or was the Project Space part of the inspiration from the very outset?
WMT: Our ambitions to pursue a more explicitly urban agenda with our practice had been floating around for a while, but the Project Space Open Call seemed like a great opportunity to do this in an incredibly public way. The neighbourhood planning agenda in the UK is an emerging one and also something that we’re very interested in so, again, the opportunity of the exhibition was a prompt for us to explore it further. The idea that all this would be on public display certainly was a specific response to the Project Space call, though.
AAO: From an outsider’s perspective, an Open Call certainly suggests an invitation format, but could you please say a word more about that? Are these really turn-key projects, if that’s a fair term to use?
AF: The principle motivation of the Open Call is to open up The AF as a hosting site for new and experimental ideas, and as such functions as an invitation. It is also a form of competition – in that proposals undergo a competitive jury review by The AF’s Curatorial Advisory Board, and are selected via a detailed shortlisting process. We are open to receiving proposals both for new exhibitions, as well as existing touring shows, provided these haven’t previously been shown in the UK, and fit within the criteria of our exhibition brief.
In terms of delivery, the level of AF staff involvement really depends on the scale and nature of the project. New exhibitions will require more stages of development together with The AF, while other submissions such as touring exhibitions (previously realized elsewhere) may well be of a more ‘turn-key’ nature. That said, even in the case of touring shows, we would expect some level of collaborative development that would make the exhibition suitable/specific to the Project Space as an exhibition environment, and to the UK as an exhibition context. Ultimately, therefore, as “hosts” to the Open Call winners, AF exhibition staff remains closely involved in advising and delivering the Open Call exhibition project and works in partnership with the applicant on its realization.
AAO: Following up on the last question, has the AF staff learned anything over the years to help ensure these become productive working partnerships?
AF: The Open Call Brief clearly stipulates that the delivery of the project will be the shared responsibility of the successful applicant(s) and relevant AF curatorial team, who will bring their advice and expertise to all stages of the project’s realization, and advise the applicant, as appropriate. The Brief also includes a sample Memorandum of Understanding that outlines the principal roles and responsibilities within the project for the applicant’s reference, so as to make these responsibilities clear from the outset.
AAO: The Open Office project seemed well suited to what is an increasingly transparency-driven, participatory interested world. Did the program achieve its intended impact?
AF: London-based architects We Made That took up residence in the AF Project Space to run “The Open Office,” a new and lively practice for urbanism. Operating on a walk-in basis, The Open Office offered an approachable and dynamic forum for public discussions about cities, planning, architecture, and communities, in the particular context of the 2011 Localism Act in England. There were no closed cabinets, files, or notebooks, and the process of working with the built environment was on display for all to see.
Over the course of its five-week run, The Open Office enjoyed sustained visitor footfall, which was further complemented by well-attended weekly lunchtime “pin-up” presentations of the Office’s ongoing research projects, as well as very popular public evening events in the form of free lectures and a film screening. The exhibition succeeded in attracting a diverse audience that ranged from planning profession experts, architects, urbanists, and other design practitioners to a lay audience of “planning curious” members of the public who were interested in learning more about their powers within the planning system.
Through its successful mix of formal lectures, lunchtime discussion groups, and informal conversations with the visiting public, The Open Office explored not only new strategies for encouraging participation in urban planning discussions, but also made manifest the extent of the public’s responsiveness to these diverse means of engagement.
AAO: The Open Office project was inspired in part by the chasm between good planning policies and good implementation of planning policies. What were some of the larger lessons learned from The Open Office project?
WMT: We always described the project as a “fast and furious” experiment. We didn’t really expect to reach any final conclusions, but we did come away feeling more galvanized about the importance of fostering positive relationships between communities and the built environment. In our experience, there’s a huge amount of misunderstanding between professionals and non-professionals in this discipline, but there needn’t be. Neighbourhood planning in the UK has the potential to bridge this gap to some extent, but actually more positive conversations about planning for better places – rather than simply planning as development control – can happen anywhere.
AAO: The Open Office was meant to take shape over a period of weeks. Can you explain the general vision for this project and how you elected to order the line-up of weekly inquiries? Was any one topic a runaway success?
WMT: The Open Office operated on a walk-in basis, and was part “Citizens Urban Advice Bureau,” part functioning practice. By focusing on five study areas in London: Chatsworth Road, Croydon, Bankside, Somerstown, and Southall, we, along with our teams of specially recruited volunteers, were able to explore various facets of what the recent neighbourhood planning legislation in the UK means to communities, authorities, and built environment professionals. Specifically, the topics we explored were: the limitations of Localism in London, communication of planning policies, implications of business involvement in such unfunded processes, representation and preserving of diverse land use mixes through local processes. In many ways the success of the project was that it was able to bring together a wide variety of people to discuss a wide variety of subjects, so really each topic was successful in its own, different way.
AAO: What did the jury see in The Open Office proposal that made it stand out from the pack?
AF: The Curatorial Advisory Board was very impressed by We Made That’s proposal and its strong sense of timeliness and social relevance, characterized both by an original response to a contemporary policy situation and a particularly interesting mode of exhibition in the AF Project Space.
AAO: Any final comments for our readers?
WMT: The enthusiasm of The Architecture Foundation to be relevant to people beyond the “usual suspects” for an architecture exhibition was key in our applying to work with them. We think the kind of outreach they support is good for The AF, good for us, and good for the profession.