Tabitha Pope is an architect and lecturer, with a specialism temporary structures and participatory architecture and a passion for work that sits at the boundary of art and architecture. In this episode, produced in support of International Women’s Day, my colleague Lucy Barber interview Tabitha about:

  • What is participatory design and what benefits does it offer us in the climate emergency.
  • Challenging power in order to make architecture a more inclusive space for all under-represented groups, not just women.
  • How her practice of carpentry allows her to intervene in the design process in a different way.
  • Establishing a nature connection to help designers and citizens alike tackle the biodiversity crisis.
  • Stepping into a space of vulnerability in design in order to do things differently.
  • Creating spaces for joy and encounter to tackle loneliness and build resilience in communities.

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Two training courses related to episode

Full show notes

Participatory architecture

00:56 What is Participatory Architecture and what does it meant to you?

It’s about giving more more people the chance be involved in the design and even the construction of spaces. In my studies I learnt to design beautiful spaces but leaving university I realised that was design for the 1%. Not really helping people who can’t afford to employ an architect. I wanted to do something different. Public is place where you can make more a difference. Within that, as an architect you have power to shape that space, but why should it just be me that has that power. I don’t what everyone’s space is – it is about getting those voices into the room in the early stages of the design process.

It’s a challenge because everyone is busy. They don’t necessarily have the time to participate. Asking do you want the swings to be green or blue but that isn’t very exciting. How do you make it engaging and fun in the process?

04:00 LB: Can you give some examples of participatory architecture in practice.

TP: I designed the Greenpeace Field at Glastonbury for five years using a participatory process. We’d have a creative design weekend where everyone involved with running and using the space and we got them in a cottage for a weekend and brainstormed together what we were going to do. We had a design brief, and then from that we could all decide in smaller groups how we were going to meet that goal. Greenpeace had a particular theme for the field and every year it would change. One year it was save the Arctic, so we made the field look like the Arctic sea and the stuctures were islands of ice. Within that theme we could design separate elements in it. And because everyone had agreed what we were trying to do, it made it a lot easier because everyone is on the same page. You didn’t have to have everone in every meeting, becasue everyone knows what is going on.

5:05 With a traditional building as an architect, I have to design every element. But in a festival context, it’s easier because the requirements are less demanding, but that freedom means I can give a carpenter a sketch and say, how would you do this… The carpenter on site will notice things that I wouldn’t have known about the site as an architect. When you are building something it is so much more instinctive and you can change things as you go. But our whole construction industry is not set up in that way – it is not set up to allow for creativity in construction, it is a lot more tied up, with contracts, and is less freely creativty. I really love working festivals because you can be more free in your work and more creative.

06:39 – LB: The Participatory aspect starts with from the relationships with the people you design with, it goes into the people you build with and the participation continues with the people who use it. You interest is the art and architecture boundary, and your work is providing that space. And also because it is temporary, there is a chance to be more playful, and that brings in certain qualities in the design process and in the experience for the user.

07:30 – TP: We are all participants, as well as being designers and makers, and a space that has been lovingly crafted has a different quality, and people can pick up on that. When you enter a space that has had a lot of care and thought put into it you are aware of it and it can create a nicer feeling. We tried to create spaces that were encouraging of interaction – climb up and get inside – because people love interacting with things. Having people interact with your building is so exciting.

Meanwhile spaces

09:18 OB: it sounds like an absolutely stimulating work environment – how do we bring that home into other projects?

TB: – Festivals are expensive – it’s not part of daily life. I want to channel that creativity into our towns. It is happening with ‘meanwhile’ spaces – pop-up spaces. It is part of the development process. There is a lot empty space and developers are realising it is better to use this space rather than to leave it empty.

10:27 – OB: On the episode 16 of this podcast, Bengt Cousins-Jenvey talked about the circular design requirements of the London Plan, and he suggested one of its consequences could well be that we will see more ‘meanwhile’ structures. Does this lend itself to more participatory architecture?

TP – That’s exactly what we have to do in a festival: we have to take it apart and store it. So it’s much better in terms of material sustainability. Designing for re-use is exactly what we have to do. Everything is flat, it is all bolted together. It is all stacked. We have 100 palettes of material that could put into a shed each year and re-used. The idea is not everything has to stay in its current form for a long time – you can re-use the materials. Things change and they are more adaptable to different uses.

Everything is flat, it is all bolted together. It is all stacked. We have 100 palettes of material that could put into a shed each year and re-used. The idea is not everything has to stay in its current form for a long time – you can re-use the materials.

12:00 – OB: Tabitha was there on Monday when Lucy, Bengt and I were running our first ‘Training on what to do after declaring a climate emergency‘. It is fascinating to think about, if we reached a time in the construction industry when we realise we actually have to stop building stuff out of concrete and steel then some of this wisdom around temporary structures might suddenly become very important. It’s now a tool kit for doing something very different. But we have this know-how.

TP: It’s quite a different way of thinking. We design for longevity because it is more work to take it apart. But we might decide that demountability is more appropriate to what the design brief is. And society changes. What we design now might not be loved in the future.

Stepping to a space of vulnerability in design

13:11 LB: How do you feel in that space? That requires something from you to drive it forwards in a non-traditional way. How do you feel about having the courage to push boundaries, to step into that space of vulnerability? Having the courage in your belief that we need to create this more temporary architecture? Potentially also to send out messages, to educate people about other possibilities, ways of being?

TP: One of the things I got out of the course was the importance of conversations, the dynamics between people. Being honest and being brave. If you don’t something is right then say something about it. Once you speak out you realise a lot of other people agree with you. It’s that kind of collective strength – oh you think that too – it’s not just one voice.

Stepping out into the unknown is ok becuase once you do it other people come out with you.

15:00 – TP: Stepping out and leaving an architecture firm is unusual. My peers thought I was crazy. I’ve been fortunate to find a way to make it work.

Gender and diversity in architecture practice

15:40 – LB: You identify as a woman, and we are releasing this podcast around the time of International Women’s Day. What are your thoughts around gender and diversity in your practice?

TP – The profession of architecture at the top is very male and white and middle class. It’s strange that it hasn’t changed. University intake and the first few years of practice is very equal, but women don’t seem to be getting further up becasue of the work ethic. It is so intensive, long hours, on a computer, it is very competitive. There are a lot of architects chasing very few jobs. You can do that in your twenties if you don’t have other commitments but if you want more balance it’s just not compatible and women tend to drop out when they choose to have children. It shouldn’t be that way. Men also have children and want to spend time with their children. I don’t think its about men and women, it’s about more equal opportunities. It’s not just a gender issue, it’s about class and background and race and we need to recognise that people have other things going on in their lives other than work. Everyone needs to slow down a bit. If we all did it together it would be fine. But because of the competitive nature of capitalism we all feel compelled to do more and more and more. I don’t know what to do about it but we need to do something.

17:57 – LB: The theme for International Women’s Day is Each4Equal and that equality isn’t a women’s issue it’s a business issue.

18:16 – OB: It sounds like you do have some ideas about what to do about it. As you describe you have sought a balance, and you are seeking to do something quite different.

TP: It is about challenging power. It is about saying, no, we don’t have to do things the way we always did. Collaborative design is interesting becasue you don’t have the boss saying what you have to do but you have lots of different voices depending on their own experience and the challenge is to tease that out.

Activism as a space for showing positive alternatives

19:00 – OB: One of the things I’m quite interested in is how can activism not just say how things shouldn’t be and rather how things could be more positive. in XREngineers we are thinking about how do we actually start to celebrate, co-design and support the people who are actually painting a positive picture of the future, and with practical suggestions, and part of that might be about the process. I wrote down earlier that activism is a space for co-design.

TP: If you occupy a space and so something with it you are creating a new way of being and what the values might be.

OB: There is an expectation from the people involved that it should be delivered in a way that is line with the change that we want to see.

TP: Co-designed, non-hierarchical. I worked as a facilitator for management consultants and they use these sorts of tools to get lots of people in a room to make decisions about how they are going to work differently, and we can steal some of those tools. As Bengt was saying, take the tools of the corporate world and use them to our ends.

20:48 – OB: I collect tools like these. Can you share any practical tools?

TP: Breaking a group down into smaller groups. Breakout groups of 5-6 people. Fishbowl conversations where you have a group in the middle and a circle around the outside. And people duck in and out of the inner circle. So if you have something to say, you can go into the middle. If someone goes in, someone else has to come out. So it is a way for everyone to have a chance to be in the conversation with a lot of people listening at the same time.

OB: one of the techniques we use in problem-based learning is that we do an interview with someone that everyone listens to. [Guided plenary]

TP: It’s about breaking down ego. The reason why things don’t happen, is often one person has the idea and owns it, and if people dont’ think they have the authority to challenge that then things go wrong. So it is about creating a space in which egos can be tamped down.

It’s about breaking down ego. The reason why things don’t happen, is often one person has the idea and owns it, and if people dont’ think they have the authority to challenge that then things go wrong. So it is about creating a space in which egos can be tamped down.

22:17 – LB: What I’ve observed in participatory activism in the last few years is that creating the art, music and spaces enable you to make a connection in the public that may have resistance to what you are trying to share. We’ve seen examples of that through Extinction Rebellion. What I’ve observed is that you can get passed the ego and get to the heart in order to open up the space for conversation. From the heart space you you can have a conversation in which the ego feels less prevalent. You are enabling them to share their views and you can do the same but you’ve enabled them to come at it from a softer approach. As opposed to a very direct.

If I picture a building I see something very structured that would permanent, whereas these kind of temporary buildings with a softer edge, less permanent, enable you to have these conversations.

Bringing people together

23:50 – TP: I worked on a temporary pavilion for the National Eisteddfod, which is the National Festival of Wales. A circular seating space called Agora where people could come together and talk. We had a brilliant conversation in there about Brexit. It was a loose space, with moveable seating. Working with a brief to create a space for conversations was really interesting.

24:39 – LB: You talk about ‘joy’. It would be great to hear more from you about that word. It’s a word you are very connected with.

TP – It’s the thread that ties everything together. What’s the point in doing anything if you are not enjoying it; what’s the point in creating spaces that people aren’t going to enjoy. It is something worth pursuing, not just a frivolous extra. If you can enjoy your walk to work then do. Can you create spaces in their every day lives where they can meet their neighbours. A lot of the loneliness that we experience is because people don’t have the opportunity to get know other people in their environment – in their communities. I really believe we should be creating more spaces where people can encounter each other.

26:10 – TP: I really love the work of Jan Gehl who studied how people sit in public squares. Even the opportunity to sit on a bench with a stranger there is more chance that you will have a conversation with that stranger. So creating a space where people can stop and meet and talk with strangers is really important if we are going to have resillient communities.

26:40 – OB: Being in a shared space brings about a shared responsibility to each other. You both have to be civil. Trolling is down by people on their own, not sitting next to the person on a bench.

27:15 – OB: How much to buildings and also the digital services we use force us apart rather than bring us together. It is hard to have space to come together that isn’t commercial. But it goes further than that. I recently went away to the Jurassic Coast with my family and we wanted to stay in a youth hostel but we ended up in an AirBnB, and I thought, how many people must there be in this town tonight all staying in separate rooms. The service forces us apart and potentially undermines sales of the the service – the hostel – that might bring us apart. There is a joy in coming together but we are being pushed apart.

TP: It makes me think about meanwhile spaces that work really well, like the Dalston Curve Garden. It has been there for ten years now. It is a loved space. Surely that is more valuable for the community than a shopping mall. We need to put a value on that.

Bringing your values into your work

LB: Do you feel how you feel in your personal life really helps you make decisions about work? Actually we hold personal values that don’t neglect in work. From a spiritual perspective, impermanence is the only thing that exists. It is interesting that translates into what makes effective and inspirational practice for you.

TP: I really value the shared experiences I’ve had with friends, and I’ve worked with friends on projects. Being yourself in your work is really important. When I worked in an office I couldn’t be myself. I had to be smart and quiet and at my desk and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t making the most of my life. Freelance feels like a more continuous version of life.

The value of building things yourself

LB: A transformation was going into a community in Wales and getting your hands dirty as a practitioner. Tell us more.

TP: I worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology, after doing my bachelors at the University of Shefield. I did a carpentry course as part of a timber construction course. It was so much more fun to bulid something. You’d stand back at the end of the day and get instant gratification. If you enable people to make something, that’s really empowering.

Woodland Tribe, in Bristol, gives tools to kids to build their own adventure playgrounds. It is fantastic seeing what the children build. Everyone should have the opportunity to build things. A lot of my female friends are saying I want to learn how to use a drill. We are not really encouraged to build stuff as women. It’s good for your mental health, it’s good for resilience. Making stuff is an important part of my journey and I can talk to carpenters and builders and not feel out of my depth.

33:50 – LB: There is an unknown in enabling people to do things for themselves. There are some builds in Bristol where people finish the projects themselves, only, what actually happens is that you help your neighbours. Some people are uncomfortable though becuase they are worried about trusting someone else to work on their own home.

OB: Example of long houses built by First Nation Canadians 200 years ago where everyone helped each other’s buildings. They paid each other by helping each other when it was time for their own house to be rebuilt.

TP: Example of Hedgehog Homes project in Brighton in which unemployed people were given the opportunity to build their own homes using the Walter Segal method. Through this method they got to know each other. They all ended up getting jobs at the end of it. The same ten families still live in those houses. Why don’t we have more projects like that? Self-build is definitely popular. The biggest challenge is getting access to land. There are no self-build registers, where people can express their interest and the council have to pay attention to it.

36:50 – LB: We’ve been enjoying the book ‘From what is to what if’ which talks about when do we lose it, when do we begin to conform. And actually we need to step into a space of vulnerablity to offer something different.

TP: You can’t co-create unless you are willing to play. You have to allow yourself to go into an unknown space. You have to relax, you have to play. IF you can’t then you can’t design.

OB: In engineering the training is about the convergent thinking rather than the divergent thinking. In fact we are running our first workshop in which Eiffel Over, the Engineering Clown will emerge into an engineering practice and see if we can trigger more play.

TP: Exactly, because how can we explore the unknown without playing.

OB: As adults we have filters that allow us to not stop and wonder at every thing that we see. It helps us make progress through our day, but it takes away that curiosity. One the roles of art is to remove those filters. It is important to remfamiliarise ourselves with the wonder of the built environment around us.

40:53 – OB: We are interested here at Eiffel Over is what we call Surface Travel, and in particular, getting ways by the route-less-travelled: cable cars, municipal ferries, underused bus routes. And also figuring out how to get places on bicycles.

Surface travel