Moment: A year at The Bartlett 2013/2014
7 January 2015
The Bartlett Annual Review: A personal message from our Dean, Alan Penn
The Bartlett is a remarkable place. Things that have all the makings of a struggle go surprisingly smoothly. People rally round and stuff just happens. This year was a case in point. We restructured about a third of the Faculty to create The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources. This brings together and supports four of our Institutes: the UCL Energy Institute, Institute of Sustainable Resources, Institute of Sustainable Heritage and the Institute of Environmental Design and Engineering. A fifth Institute has also just been launched. The Institute of Global Prosperity is led by Henrietta Moore and will tackle some of the trickier challenges that living within our planet’s means entails.
We moved over half of the Faculty to new premises, the School of Planning and the Library to Central House, and the School of Architecture to a refurbished warehouse on Hampstead Road, its temporary residence while Wates House is rebuilt. And we managed to keep the whole operation running almost as usual the whole time. It comes down to a combination of planning, design and project management, of course, plus good communications, academic and professional management staff who work together, all laced with a healthy dose of pragmatism and good humour. This is not to diminish the hard work and stress involved; both have been tremendous, but given the propensity for bottom-up organisations (of which a university faculty must be the archetype) to turn ‘political’ in times of stress, the avoidance of hiccoughs is all the more remarkable.
I think that there are three main reasons for this surprising smoothness. The first is that when things are going well people tend to work together. And things are going well. The Bartlett forms, by a considerable margin, the largest concentration of built environment research in the UK and is now the largest recipient of research funding in the field (having risen from fifth place in 2008). This places us at the top level internationally. At the same time, The Bartlett is young. Nearly a third of those submitted to the REF2014 (the national assessment of university research) are ‘early career researchers’. Our taught programmes have never been more popular attracting students from all over the world. If The Bartlett’s share of the RIBA’s annual medals are anything to go by, these are amongst the best students in the country and probably the world.
Second, is a matter of ethos. I have noticed over the last few years an increase in confidence in holding an ethical position with respect to the built environment. This is notable across different parts of the faculty. Staff and students alike want to be part of something that matters. The built environment does matter, and Bartlett staff and students engage in that. Whether it is working to design and construct more environmentally sustainable buildings; or to help people participate in planning their own neighbourhoods; or to improve the conditions of some of the most deprived communities in the global south; or to help firms work more effectively and profitably in the way that they manage projects; what motivates people is to make a positive difference: taking part in something that is greater than oneself and that will outlast us all.
Third, is the ‘London’ factor. London is a global phenomenon of the moment. It must rate as one of the most stimulating, exciting and ‘liveable’ places to live and work in the world at the moment. The excitement and ‘can do’ atmosphere is as infectious as it is tangible. Like The Bartlett, London is young and culturally diverse. It is also at the top of the global league in almost every sense: the worlds’ largest financial capital, a cradle of democratic government, the world’s largest tourist city. In our field, it hosts the world’s largest cluster of architecture, engineering and built environment professions and firms. Its universities and cultural resources are second to none. All this contributes to an atmosphere in which people focus on the positive and get things done. Holly Whyte wrote about something similar in 1980’s New York. He noted how, when firms driven by escalating property costs decided to move out of the city to leafier and cheaper locations, they rarely maintained their stock market value and in most cases were no longer in business just a few years later.
This last, points to the real wonder of the age. A city is an engine of innovation and culture. Understanding this, explaining it and helping ensure that the positive benefits are not outweighed by the negative consequences of dense living, is at the heart of what The Bartlett is about. Our late, much loved and sorely missed, Peter Hall had a lot to say on the matter. His work on world cities, regional clusters and their strong relationship to transport accessibility was not only pioneering, but incredibly influential on planning practice. It is hard to think of anyone whose work has had a more direct influence on the way that cities and their regional connections are planned all over the world. His influence will shape our urban landscape for many years to come.