10 September 2021 — Writing

Inviting communities to think big

by 7N Architects

An illustrative image showing a close up of white postcards with handwritten notes with the words I wish written on a dark wall in the background
Credit: Alan Richardson.

This article by Ewan Anderson, 7N Architects, was originally published in Scotland on Sunday, 12 May 2021.

Every two years, architects from countries all over the world exhibit thought-provoking ideas at the Venice Architecture Biennale, and it was a great honour for my practice, 7N Architects, to be commissioned by the Scotland + Venice partnership to represent Scotland in the latest edition of this global festival.

The Biennale’s curator Hashim Sarkis set the theme for 2020, asking “How Will We Live Together?” Little did we know how much this would resonate during a year of Covid lockdown.

Our response to the Biennale’s theme was to consider how architects can work more closely with the people who use the buildings and spaces they create. It would become an exhibition called What if…?/Scotland.

Creating places

The process of creating places has become complicated and distant from the people who will use, live and work in these places. Architects are deeply embedded within this cumbersome system. However, I believe what motivates most architects and designers is a desire to create places that make things better for those that use them and this is what we wanted to do for What If…?/Scotland. Our ambition was to re-discover the essence of the civic role of architecture by engaging architects directly with citizens and communities – architecture unplugged, if you like.

Back in early 2020, we brought 25 architects and designers together with 25 citizens from five communities across Scotland: Wester Hailes in Edinburgh, Paisley in Renfrewshire, Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, Elgin in Morayshire, and Lerwick in Shetland.

Pairing each citizen with an architect or designer we asked the citizens to share one hope, dream or wish to make their place better. In response their architect/designer created an idea – What if… we did something like this? In each place the collaborations started with a walk to share thoughts, experiences and possibilities for that location.

Engaging conversations

For me this is the essence of being an architect. It’s about listening to what people need or desire and coming up with a creative idea that satisfies it and adds something more. It was just us and the citizens, a sketchbook and a pencil and a series of engaging conversations about ambitious wishes and ideas for the future.

In one place, a teenager in care simply wanted a bedroom they could decorate themselves so they felt more of a sense of belonging. In another place there was a wish to create a boatshed by the river where older people could pass on their boat-building skills to the younger members of the community. We saw creative ideas for connecting people – physically and virtually, and a strong sense of civic pride.

The themes which emerged showed how important the climate emergency is to people, along with their town centres, having places for young people and the need for a sense of community spirit and belonging.

Most striking of all was the energy, enthusiasm and innovative thinking generated by the creative conversation between the architects and the citizens. As we emerge from the pandemic those stories and lessons can help us harness the creativity of our citizens and designers to tackle these urgent issues.

Biennale postponed

The voices of the citizens and designers have been captured in a series of films by Bash Art Creative, which will be available to view alongside the sketches and ideas in the exhibition.
In early March 2020 the team at 7N Architects were making final preparations for our What if…?/Scotland exhibition. It was due to open at the Venice Biennale in May 2020. The following week everything changed. With Europe in lockdown, and the Biennale postponed, we didn’t get to Venice.

As 2021 and the new Biennale dates came closer, we had to rethink our approach. Instead of opening the exhibition in Venice, the opportunity arose to bring it directly to Scottish and visiting audiences at V&A Dundee. We soon got over the disappointment of not exhibiting at the canal-side venue in Venice as we realised exhibiting at Scotland’s centre for design was the right place for us to be at this time.

After a dislocating and unsettling year for most people, it feels entirely appropriate to present the wishes, hopes and ideas of people from communities across Scotland at a home venue where it can inspire people right here in Scotland, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. It has also allowed us to add Dundee to the five original What if …? places through an ongoing engagement programme with communities in the city which will be displayed in the exhibition.

Cloud of Dreams

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Cloud of Dreams. It is inspired by Scotland’s clootie wells and Yoko Ono’s wish tree. The wishes of all the citizens who have taken part are written on cards. These will be suspended above the room, alongside those of visitors to the exhibition, to form the Cloud of Dreams. Please try and visit V&A Dundee to add your own wish to the Cloud for how the community in which you live could be a better place.

So how can all this really make a difference? Surely the complex bureaucratic systems that shape our towns and cities will render such wishes and dreams an irrelevance? I would disagree. The planning system has seen a steady shift towards more community engagement over the past decade. There is a significantly heightened appetite and awareness, post-pandemic, for living and acting locally and the quality of the places in which we live. We already see this in changing patterns of work and policies such as 20-minute neighbourhoods. The pandemic has fast forwarded attitudes that might have taken 5 or 10 years to change, in just one year.

A key lesson of the past year of extraordinary challenges, individual endeavours and collective achievements is that the naysayer’s phrasebook of “it’s too difficult”, “this hasn’t been done before” and “you’ll never get that to work” is now obsolete.

It feels like it’s time to dare to wish and to ask What if …? We look forward to sharing the exhibition with you.

This article was originally published in the Scotsman on 12 May 2021