Praise and criticism both revealed how architectural intentions can be miscontrued, but prompted me to seek work were they can be clearly expressed, says Lee Ivett
April and May 2018 proved to be utterly transformative in the way I practiced as an architect and designer. In the space of two months I was savagely criticised in a Scottish tabloid newspaper for exploiting conditions of poverty for financial gain, and then lauded in the international architectural press for my role in delivering Scotland’s contribution to the 2018 Venice Biennale. I had already begun to rethink all aspects of the way I worked and sustained myself but these extreme lows and highs in such a short period of time made me realise that a significant change was required if I was going to continue a useful involvement in the types of projects that interest me without completely ruining myself mentally and financially.
The tabloid article picked apart my work engaging and collaborating with marginalised communities, representing it as exploiting poverty to milk public money for personal gain. Although written by a journalist, the main instigator of the piece was an activist and community member from the north of Glasgow. He had, rightly, become concerned and angry at the repeated influx of experts, consultants, strategies, and money that had appeared in and then left his community without noticeably changing the lives of those in the most need.
The tabloid article picked apart my work, representing it as exploiting poverty for personal gain”
I sought out his phone number to query the content of the article and explain my own point of view. After some back and forth over the phone I decided to go over to his house and continue the conversation there. We spent seven hours talking about what we did, what we had done and why we did it. I wasn’t looking for sympathy or an apology; I just wanted to explain why I had chosen to practice architecture in the way that I had and genuinely wanted to know how I could produce work that I thought was ethical, healthy, impactful and sustainable. I learnt more in those seven hours than I had in the previous ten years, and a mutual respect emerged out of that conversation that later resulted in him getting me involved in an amazing grassroots project in the east end of Glasgow.
During this same period, I was developing and preparing for the delivery of ‘The Happenstance’, Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Biennale. The project was a collaboration between the disciplines of participatory art practice and architecture where my practice Baxendale’s role was to work with curators Wave/Particle to create a physical and spatial framework that artists, architects and the Venetian public could use as a catalyst for producing their own programme, activity and interventions.
Top: Installation at Govan delivered by Baxendale with artist Ben Parry, which received both positive and negative press coverage.
Above: The Happenstance at the 2018 Venice Biennale, designed by Baxendale.
The project was well received by the local community and the architectural press who considered it to be a healthy riposte to Biennale culture and more aligned with the curatorial theme of ‘Freespace’ than most of the other work being presented. This good press created an unwanted opportunity and pressure to market and monetise what we had done, and think about it as a ‘product’.
Along with the misrepresentation of my work as being exploitative for financial gain at a point when I was losing lots of money, the pressure to capitalise on the success of our work in Venice was the trigger for finding a new context within which to consider, conceive and produce work. I needed access to a more diverse range of support, I needed more critical and more diverse conversations more of the time, I needed help – I maybe even needed a ‘boss’.
In October 2018 I accepted a position as undergraduate course leader at the Grenfell-Baines Institute of Architecture in my home city of Preston. At the interview my new employers expressed surprise that I wanted to give up doing ‘interesting’ things that were gaining recognition to accept a full-time job in academia. I suggested that I had started to define my work as research, and was looking for a place to work where practice, research and teaching could be delivered in a mutually beneficial way rather than a set of competing interests. It’s only been 10 months but I already feel happier in myself and thankful for the opportunity to be more considered and considerate about what I do and the way that I do it.