A comment by David Chipperfield as published in full in The Architects’ Journal 31 March 2016.
The European Union is a political, social and cultural project. In the UK our politicians have always been reluctant to articulate this; therefore the rhetoric has for tactical reasons been limited to commercial criteria and has avoided explicit philosophical and political debate. This has allowed us to pretend that we don’t need to be ideologically engaged in this project.
The discussion about Europe is too narrowly focused on issues of trade and economy. Economic statistics can be produced to support both positions. Who knows the truth?
Fortunately, it seems clear that there are strong economic arguments in favour of staying within the economic union, but I believe that neither the debate nor the decision should pivot on this argument. Does it profit our profession to stay in or leave? How do you measure this?
The arguments for European unity are much more profound than just immediate economic considerations. The European Union is a political, social and cultural project. In the UK our politicians have always been reluctant to articulate this; therefore the rhetoric has for tactical reasons been limited to commercial criteria and has avoided explicit philosophical and political debate. This has allowed us to pretend that we don’t need to be ideologically engaged in this project.
Having maintained the symbols of sovereignty, and reassured our Eurosceptical tendencies that there is nothing deep in our engagement, we are free to argue about the commercial pros and cons. To confirm this secular approach, the prime minister – while we weren’t watching – surrendered without fuss the ‘ever closer’ commitment, a basic principle of European unity. While this tries to deal with Eurosceptic tendencies, it robs the argument of its strongest weapon and denies an articulated conversation about the true potential of European unity.
Unless we embrace the reality of European Union in all its potential and stop imagining that we can pick and choose what takes our fancy while leaving out those bits that we don’t like the look of, we cannot be taken seriously in Europe.
To be honest, even our current lukewarm participation makes us look very weak from a European perspective. Our cultural connections are real, we share a history and, whether we like it or not, we share a future. The English Channel can no longer ‘protect’ us from the Continent.
We have a lot to offer our European cousins, and they have a lot to teach us; the unique collaboration between the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Latin cultures in close proximity is the extraordinary fortune of Europe.
It is apparent that the connections made by what might be called the cultural community (including design and architecture) are both substantial and significant. Indeed it is difficult to imagine how our cultural institutions could function without these intellectual and practical connections, and how isolated our profession would become, detached from the influences and inspiration of our continental colleagues.
We have an unhappy record of underestimating the importance of culture as an international language. This is short sighted both in terms of our external influence and in terms of our own psyche. We are so wedded to the idea of commercial viability that we see no other measure. From my own experience this is totally different to the attitude in Germany. (The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, went on a recent mission to Riyadh and Tehran and filled his small plane not with ‘leaders of industry’ but with people from the world of art, film, museums and literature, with the reasoning that they are the people who best contribute to international understanding.)
We know that manufacturing is no longer the base of our wealth; we also know that the financial sector is an unreliable animal and are continuously told that we will depend increasingly on our creative abilities in all sectors. If this is the case, the idea of insularity doesn’t seem compatible with our future either from a commercial or cultural perspective.
If we accidentally complete our isolation from Europe, please don’t let us imagine that this creates a new openness to the rest of the world – isolation is isolation. We would not only give up the distinct practical advantages of collaboration but the social, political and intellectual advantages too. We cannot continue to maintain the attitude that ‘Europe’ is Brussels; a faceless bureaucratic administration legislating on the length of bananas, because it is clearly first and foremost a continent linked together by a common history, committed to sharing political and cultural visions.