Leeds International Festival of Ideas – Living in a Future City: George Clarke

George Clarke’s work with Channel 4 has widened understanding of architecture, restoration, home design and the importance of social housing. His excitement about interacting with a live audience at this LIFI event, after months of zoom calls, was palpable.

Leeds Corn Exchange was the ideal venue to host George Clarke. Cuthbert Broderick’s nineteenth century building was designed to make the most of a irregular shaped plot and to provide light year-round. The twenty first century updating has maintained the building’s historical integrity whilst replacing the leaking glass roofing with durable polycarbonate panels. The building seemed an embodiment of one of George’s key messages: the need to preserve our past while updating the urban environment to meet modern challenges.

George Clarke is a passionate speaker who clearly cares deeply about how people live. He talks about how he is an advocate for the home, recognising the personal and societal importance of where you live. He is not an architect who is obsessed with aesthetics, although he clearly appreciates attractive design. Instead, he wants buildings that enhance lives and communities.

The central message of his presentation was that growth is a real danger to the planet. Part of his presentation was about population growth, but he linked this to economic growth; locating danger in a world system which constantly creates more, in an economic system that is based upon profits rather than need.

His future cities are not science fiction ideals. He showed us images of some imagined eco-cities, pointing out that no such things exist. He asked the audience what a future city should look like. The answers he received – green spaces, energy efficient, pedestrian friendly, good public transport – demonstrated that we all know what needs to be done. The challenge is how we get there.

He explored the enigma that is China. This is the one country that has the infrastructure to build eco-cities and states that it intends to do so. A state run economy and full coffers make it a possibility. Yet China has been involved in city building programmes that have used more concrete since the millennium than America did in the whole of the twentieth century.

George is clear that the answer does not lie in building cities from scratch. The future should be about making use of the buildings we do have in a more socially responsible and eco-friendly manner. Yet we live in a system that moves against this.

One frustrating example of this is taxation in the building industry. He explained how VAT is levied on refurbishment projects but not on new homes; encouraging building firms to demolish and build from new rather than adapt what already exists. This situation has existed since the 1980s. Housing ministers who have challenged this or advocated building council housing have not lasted long.

Photograph by Tom Martin

George highlighted two of his personal heroes. Neither is an architect.

The first is Yvon Chouinard, the mountain climber and environmentalist turned billionaire businessman. His company, Patagonia, is run on ethical grounds in terms of how it treats its staff and the environment. It was one of the first companies in the world to introduce a crèche and the canteen serves healthy, mainly vegetarian food. Raw materials have been changed over the years to make them more environmentally friendly, such as switching to organic cotton. However, it is the way that the company has refused to adapt a growth mentality of striving for higher and higher sales that really appeals to Clarke. Patagonia runs repair, re-use and recycle services and makes products that are designed to last.

The second, perhaps an icon to many of us, is David Attenborough, a man whose commitment to our planet becomes greater the older he gets. Both George and David repeatedly remind us that we only have one planet, and something has to change. George talked about his respect for nature, how we can learn from the natural world, and credits Mother Nature with the title ‘world’s best architect.’

George is a builder. His family were builders and he is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. However, he recognises an issue with the nature and image of the construction industry. He wants to see a future where women will feel welcome. He foresees a future where the move to off-site construction will enable a more diverse workforce, including those with physical disabilities.

One way that George attempts to engage young people with the future of the built environment is through the charity he founded, MOBIE (Ministry of Building Innovation and Education). This engages with schools, colleges and universities to present new concepts of home and to involve young people in designing future homes.

The last part of the evening was given over to questions from the audience. From the people who took the microphone it was clear that there are people who want to see change in Leeds, and are making it happen in small ways. People involved in renovation projects, social housing and community building all spoke. In his answers, George told us a bit more about himself.

It was suggested that he could be to housing what Marcus Rashford is to food poverty. In response, he explained how difficult he finds it to make an impact upon government. Robert Jenrick turned down numerous requests to meet with him. Having promised to ‘ build back greener’ following Covid, the government’s green grants home scheme was scrapped after only six months.

He talked about the difficulty of getting the Council House Scandal series made. It took five years of pushing before Channel 4 took up his suggestion. In the end, it was not his persuasive manner but an anniversary that swung it. 2019 was the 100th anniversary of the first council housing. George points out that people often assume that housing was required to meet the needs of people coming back from the Great War. Yet so many fewer men returned than went. Rather, it was concern raised by officers about the poor health of soldiers at the front and the understanding that poor housing was a major contributory factor. The same is true today – poor housing means poor health. We need to tackle these issues together, not separately.

Asked how he made the transition from the building trade to media personality, he explained that he had been working as a builder and academic and wanted to get a book published, He found an agent who turned out to be a media, as well as a literary, agent. She persuaded the reluctant George to take a screen test for Channel 4 and the rest is history. Clearly, she recognised the charisma and passion that was apparent to us last Tuesday evening.

His presentation was not perfect. He tied himself in knots with some statistics, having had no time to commit figures to memory. He clearly did not have time to get his slides proofread either. No one cared. The points he made were coherent and impassioned. We parted company with George Clarke, more aware of the issues, glad that there are people challenging the status quo and perhaps with hope that our cities really can change.

Cover photograph: Debbie Rolls.

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