Yeoryia Manolopoulou, Niall McLaughlin, Michiko Sumi
The recent campaign and referendum on Scottish independence produced a level of engagement and political debate that is unprecedented in the modern era. We had begun to imagine that political apathy was a permanent feature of our modern democracies. It was striking that very few of the participants viewed themselves as Nationalists in the accepted sense. The discussion was focussed on cultural identity, social equality and distribution of wealth. What is clear is that this debate will leave Britain changed forever. More people are likely to ask for regional autonomy and the ability to control funds within their own regions. Some of these regions will have a clear and long-standing identity; but other areas will be linked by new ways of sharing resources and generating prosperity. Britain may well turn in to a federation or association of smaller political entities with new ways of competing, co-operating and expressing communal values.
It is evident that the London-centred model of politics and economic distribution has drawn much of the life out of Britain’s great second cities. Lacking economic power and representative status, these once thriving hubs have withered and their architecture has suffered as a consequence. The great German or Swiss cities, operating within a Lander or Federal system, have continued to flourish as cultural capitals of their own regions. Meanwhile countries such as Spain and Ireland have developed strong architectural cultures as a direct benefit from regional distribution of democratic power. These issues remind us that architecture is primarily a public representative art. It has a duty to embody communal values in civic space. Is it possible that, if democratic power is distributed more evenly in the country, new cities might spring up; or forgotten cities might acquire new significance?
We chose Leicester as our site, a modest but also particularly complex city that has the highest ethnic minority population in the United Kingdom according to its size. We imagined how such a community in its hinterland would choose to express their social, cultural and political values through new democratic institutions. We looked at how history, resources, technology and landscape can inform design and how social ideas and built outcomes would have a meaningful relationship with each other. We designed individual public buildings within a shared urban plan, asking how architecture might find its vocation as the built embodiment of communal identity.
Nearly 30% of Leicester’s population originates from India. Our fieldtrip combined underdeveloped rural areas in Gujarat and the extremely diverse and populous Mumbai. We saw fantastic temples, neighbourhoods and communal water buildings in and around Ahmedabad; seminal buildings by Kahn, Le Corbusier and Doshi; inspiring craft, textile and print workshops; and an entirely different lifeworld.