ADS2: The Popular
The ‘popular’ is one of the most contested terms in contemporary culture. Within the last few years, its political meaning has shifted from referring to a democratic corrective to elitist conventions, to referring now to the lowest common denominator of politics. If we once imagined popular politics could save us, now we fear that — reframed as populism — it will be the end of rational government, political discourse and indeed truth itself.
In recent years, public authorities have increasingly surrendered agency and decision-making to partial or inadequate measures of popular opinion. Public engagement has become concerned with ticking boxes and neutralising opposition, rather than fulfilling its potential to embrace or confront the public, let alone serve the ‘public good’. Recent UK government thinking argues that securing public support for house-building depends on development ‘reflecting local public will on issues of building design and style‘. Politics is increasingly in thrall to the popular.
Popular activity – often in creative or productive tension with official and statutory processes – is responsible for a great deal of the built environment. Over 98 per cent of global construction output does not involve an architect. In response, the built environment professions have often resorted to a conception of the popular in order to re-establish an ethical or aesthetic position. Architects have always studied, romanticised, championed and borrowed from popular construction, whilst typically removing it from the popular realm through appropriation. Just look at Venturi & Scott Brown’s peddling of pop to their high-end clients.
This year ADS2 will try to understand the role of the popular in creating the contemporary world. We will develop strategies and tools that deploy the popular as a means to produce the built environment in new ways. In the context of a rebirth of interest in the public sector, we will look more widely at the public itself. Many critiques of the state – from arch-conservative to anarchist – have focussed on the failure of the state to meaningfully connect with the public. In order to reimagine the public as a political idea, we will begin by exploring the role of the popular in how our built environment is made and unmade. Can we, or should we, rebuild the public in a way that values the popular?
Since 2013 ADS2 has explored the politics of development, while taking a particular interest in the role of the state and the popular in creating the built environment. We encourage projects that are unconstrained in design and political ambition and use architectural agency, form and language critically and with character. We think big, but recognise that to think big involves working through means that are complementary to – but distinct from – architectural design.
We encourage work that has a relevance and impact on the issues and forces at play in development and in society. We are interested in producing architectural research and design that is not only useful beyond academia, but which also exploits the potential of studio research to challenge the world in which architects operate. This year, we will work collectively to define the popular in spatial terms in the context of the recent Policy Exchange report ‘Building More, Building Beautiful’ (June 2018) and its advocacy of ‘local public will’. Our live project will be a collaboration with Russell Gray, known for aiming a military tank at Southwark planning department, and will explore the complex role of the public in urban transformation in central London.
ADS2 work to build a collective research agenda that allows powerful collaborations and conversations to take place across projects, regardless of year of study, and we encourage individual, distinctive thesis projects. There is no house style. Students are expected to: design across levels and scales from policies to objects; to work collectively to generate definitions of the popular, popularity and populism within the ADS; and to draw on this research in individual thesis projects. In the tradition of the studio, publishing and working ‘in public’ are part of the process. We are interested in communicative architecture in the broadest sense.
Teaching typically takes the form of weekly tutorials, sometimes undertaken outside of the RCA in the form of day-long field trips. We run tutorials every Thursday and the teaching day regularly involves collective sessions, as well as individual tutorials. David and Diana teach weekly, with Finn attending crits and running a termly workshop that is designed to connect projects with the wider world and foster a critical and creative engagement with the constraints of practice. Invited guest critics and lecturers include lawyers, activists, publicists, developers, journalists and politicians, with the explicit aim of using architectural thinking to shape the forces that shape development.
In previous years ADS2 have explored the Metropolitan Green Belt and the New Towns as examples of large postwar public spatial ideas that had become both ubiquitous and critically under-explored in recent years. Since then we have pursued a series of big, unfashionable themes with a view to radicalising them for the present and immediate future. In ‘Sprawl’ (2015/16), we redefined the term to include the neoliberal built environment as a totality in order to explore new definitions of global sprawl. In ‘Conservation’ (2017/18) we argued that, far from a conservative practice, conservation is in fact a function of change and therefore a radical proposition. Students each developed radical strategies through reimagining and re-radicalising conservation practices. The Popular is another in this series of ‘big’ words we believe urgently needs a new focus within architectural discourse.
David Knight is a designer and author, and founding co-director of DK-CM, an architecture and research studio based in London. David has exhibited, lectured, taught and published internationally, including twice at the Venice Architecture Biennale. His PhD research at the Royal College of Art represented the UK at the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism & Architecture.
Diana Ibáñez López is a tutor at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martin’s and a visiting professor at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. Born in Spain, she studied architecture at Cambridge and the RCA, transnational literature and linguistics at Münster University and Huelva University, and has practiced in Rotterdam, London, Cairo, Cologne, and San Francisco. Before joining David Knight and Finn Williams on ADS2, Diana taught an MA studio at The Why Factory in TU Delft and lectures on Urban Design & Planning at UCL.
Finn Williams is co-founder and CEO of Public Practice. He previously worked for OMA, General Public Agency, Croydon Council and the GLA. Finn sits on the Raynsford Review Task Force, Labour Planning Commission, PAS Board, RIBA Planning Group, and the ‘Working in the Public Interest’ Advisory Group. He is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Innovation & Public Purpose, a tutor at the RCA and was co-curator of the British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.