In Conversation with Alison Brooks

The interview is based on the issue of globalism and contextualism.  For Alison Brooks, we have selected globalism / contextualism because she has a range of projects across the world from Ulaanbaatar to Vancouver to predominantly UK.  



How do you position your practice and work in the context of globalism and contextualism in today's terms? 


Contextualism is a fundamental premise of not only my practice today, but many practitioners today or architects today that I think distinguish what we do from previous generations, like the 20th C paradigm of modernist ideology that has a universality that can be implemented anywhere irrespective of context.

That kind of “contextlessness” of many approaches to architecture and practice is something that has historically created quite a lot of damage in urban design, urban renewal, the sort of universalizing tendencies of big ideas of architecture and urban planning, and in a way taking an alternative approach, which is to try to understand and respond to context in a way that is more sensitive or it's more about a relational approach to a place rather than an “impositional” approach to a place. I think it a futile ground for invention and for discovery of new answers.

In a way, not falling back into a lazy approach, which is, one answer fits every place in every culture, because every place in every culture is different and every client is different and in every place of the kind of cultural memory, collective memory and technological potential that needs to be explored.  


Do you think your practice or your design ideologies are influenced by your education? 

I think it probably did emerge from my experience from the North American city.

The conditions of suburbanization, that kind of loss in the 60s and 70s, mainly of the amazing historic fabric in cities like Toronto or every city in North America even without a war like in Europe, had to create sort of destruction of “the sort” of historic city.  

In North America there's been examples of that destruction and loss which is felt by everybody, not just architects and planners, but by society. The sense of impoverishment of the built environment through the eraser of historic forms or urban grain, ideas of scale, and then then  experiencing the European city, when I studied at University of Waterloo, where every class studies and works in Rome for four month and that was crucial,  the opposite of the hundred year old Canadian city is the 2000 year old Roman city and absorb the lessons of Rome and the depth and richness of cultural content, and artifacts of each era that are layered, one upon the other, it's an experience of city form and of course, architectural expression, period styles which create this incredible jumble.  

So I think that kind of total experience heightens your awareness of what we are in contemporary cities, and also made me super-critical of the condition of urban renewal and of zoning and the segregation of demographic segments of society based on the form of division and boundary that is imposed by class or race or income, that those kind of boundaries between things or something that I felt should be challenged. 


Could you elaborate on your understanding of urban renewal? 


I don't know urban renewal. It was this terminology that made everybody think it was really important to sort of wipe the slate clean and renew, just start over again, the kind of tabula rasa approach to urban civic growth, and I think it’s a misguided paradigm as a of many factors, it's political, economic, and recently started to become environmental.

But historically, lot of it was to do with political motives and money and transactions going on between various stakeholders, but did not necessarily respect, communities, history, memory or sense of place, which is a innate human right to feel an attachment to a place and what are those elements that allow you to form attachments to a place and when we lose those things, that it's a deep loss, that’s much more than a visual one. 



How do you challenge the existing zoning policies in terms of how you approach projects which high density multiple-use developments? 


It's tricky because that's all there is, its zoning policies. That's the missing factor in the development and growth of places like Vancouver, which have exceeded this city center boundary, like the island of a core of Vancouver, and now they're developing satellites centers, like Richmond and Surrey (London). 

But there's a zoning policy and a design code in terms of street types, but there don't appear to be urban design strategies or master plans that mediate between the large-scale zoning picture and the specificity of an individual plot and what you can achieve on the plot.

So there's a lack of resolution, “it's very low res”, the definition or the vision or the parameters of developing these new dense urban neighborhoods. 

 The problem with that is you end up with the kind of monoculture, with urban blocks that have between two and four towers on a block and then a bit of single family townhouses in between, and that is the default scenario for new development to extract value from the land, obviously pay for the land costs, which is inflated, because of a very high FAR because of the zoning policy, and so it generates one type of development and it gets repeated around these new centers.

And what's unfortunate about that is that those zoning policies usually are very prescriptive in terms of uses, where a whole zone which has a sort of FAR (e.g. FAR of 4.6) zoned residential, and so it’s preempting the other uses happening at street level.

The problem is that there's no master plan that actually sort of delves into the grain of things and how to stitch blocks to each other, and how to introduce diversity and kind of tolerance of unusual things happening, for example to have a block with some leisure or café or food-use but also some really fundamental services, like dry cleaners or drug stores or news agents or pub or a post office or just things that people need in their everyday life.

If they're not in the zoning strategy for that neighborhood, even though it's not permitted.

We're working hard to provide generous adoptable spaces in the ground and first and sometimes second floors of our project there, to allow them to be adopted in the future to other uses.

We have managed to get nursery into a part of the scheme and some co-work spaces in the bottoms of all of our buildings which are part of the foyer.

So we are trying blur the distinction between just a foyer and the building and to a workspace which is an alternative for people from home they can work in the lobby of the building where there’s no need to sign up to a workspace provider model. It is actually just part of your building and it's a service you could say allows residential buildings to be understood as actual workspaces which is what they are. Every flat and every apartment is a workspace and a potential start-up. You need places to convene when you are working from home and inverting the thinking about type and typology.

 I like to think of our residential buildings as office towers with people living in them.

If you think of it as a different building type of people living in it, it makes you think completely differently about the quality and proportion and generosity of what you're designing, because it breaks the mold of the kind of expectation that that use in the kind of space that it is associated with it.

And then we're also, on our site, creating a kind of urban corridor with a lot of different building typologies and the entire ground plane is public realm. It's not gated in any way and it's completely permeable.

The whole site, since it’s quite a big block, we are trying to create a of civic space which has a variety of building types of scales that becomes part of a pedestrian experience and creates opportunities for stuff to happen in the public realm.

Even my clients I work with, they know that I am always trying to inject other potential uses and types of spaces into the products I'm designing in a way it adds a complexity to the product because then the immediate reaction (of the developer) is “who's going to look after that?”.

And, you sort of say, well if there is a concierge who's sitting there all day anyway, all you need is one pair of eyes and a bit of a CCTV and a kind of honor system. And I don't know make it a place that people love. And it just happens now anyway, if you make a big space that has places for people to sit and sockets, they will start working. 

So why not actually create a kind of space that celebrates that activity, makes it visible to the streets. And in the future, maybe it could be commercialized. Maybe it could become a shop or something, but it's kind of designing in that resilience and that generosity and that robustness so that alternative futures can happen to the one that we kind of impose on our design briefs.


How do you put yourself and straddle with the two polemics of Globalism and Contextualism in your teaching and how do you approach the influence of rapid urbanization in the academic setting?  


I'm very aware, also with my travels and kind of global context in which I'm increasingly working, that the kind of crisis of housing, affordability and quality of life in cities is an epidemic.

It's everywhere, and it's not just in London, Vancouver, Toronto, Boston, New York or anny global city. It is a problem every city suffers from.

And the crisis is based in a development and zoning model and the issue of global capital being very liquid and looking for a secure home, secure investments, and our work is often a product of those forces, and of the economy of cities, but also the global economic late capitalist scenario we inhabit.

 How do we operate in a kind of ethical and conscious way in that realm? We rely on clients, yes. and we need to build.  

The problem is one of supply and demand, like if supply is kept low and the demand is kept high, prices stay high, and investors are happy.

There's a fundamental contradiction in the model that exists now, there's a dis-incentive for developers to supply houses because that will depress prices.

How can you rely on developers to solve the housing crisis?

They will never flood the market with thousands and thousands of homes. That's against their business model and it's what I'm increasingly seeing.

It is the importance of urban governance, planning policy and zoning policy and land use policy. And the way those regulations are implemented in terms of urban development.

That's where all the power lies.

That's the source of everything.

The regulation of land values comes from planning and zoning and land use policies.

So the only way we can create a kind of anchor for development to happen which is not geared towards either the super-rich or the red tier class, we need urban governance or state mechanisms that mediate these forces and actually allow housing supply to happen at a much more incremental level.

It doesn't have to be all huge sites. It doesn't have to be all super high density, for example, if the land value is relatively low, you don't actually need to build really high, which means you can build a more affordable lower maintenance typology and one of the things we're exploring in my studio is the principle of a new kind of land-use zoning policy that integrates light industrial manufacturing space with residential and other cultural and mixed uses.

And if you have a zoning policy where the land will have space on it that doesn’t generate huge values in comparison to residential sales, this is a different formula for the land value.

 The there is also the question that, “does the State sell the land, or do they lease it to a developer or a co-op that actually is interested in developing a super mixed-use topology that integrates productive space, creative space, industrial manufacturing, as well as other uses within parts of the city that are also good for residential development?.” 

It is a super integrated mode that actually, by coincidence aligns with the Mayor of London’s (Sadiq Khan) new strategy which are a kind of policy, which is that “there is to be no more loss of industrial space within the greater London's urban boundary and any new developments anywhere in the city.”

If there is an industrial space on that plot, that space must be provided within the new development.

There’s a whole lot of things that came up and enlightened us, pretty much all the things that happened in those big sheds out on the edges of cities is light industrial. There’s not enough of it left in London.

There's real problems with transportation and footprint of logistics of trucks going in and out from long distances. And there's a realization that local employment, local manufacturing, local production distribution is good for the city and for the environment.

The Mayor of London has a new policy which imposes that rule and suddenly that's the way forward and everybody's just dealing with that problem and coming up with ideas.

The directive literally just came out in June, and the developers are fine with it, and now they have to re-provide this industrial space, come up with the project that includes, for example, 200 dwellings per hectare, some amenity space, commercial use and light industrial.

Yes, and everybody's just getting on with it.

But without that sort of directive from the mayor's office it wouldn’t have happened.

It would have been pure residential, if there was no height limit, it would be all towers and, nobody would be able to afford to buy any slots in those towers.


Then were you influential than this policy? Or how can one advocate for influencing such policies? 


Well, I'm not sure. I didn't have any sort of direct audience with the mayor. But over several years, I've been giving talks where there have been people like the Deputy Mayor or various people from the GLA (Greater London Authority) sort of organization where I talk about the facts that we must completely rethink the way we fund and finance housing and the way that the State and the City utilize their land.

And somehow in the importance of diversity and complexity and resilience, and I have been going on about for years and maybe it infiltrates their decision making.

 We'll just have to keep saying what we believe in, and somebody might hear and position it within the mayor's design advocates panel.

 The statements you make, and the issues you champion are in a way validated or appreciated by the city government and, the tricky thing is for them to out us collectively is to figure out how to make those changes.