Designing in the public sector

Vincent Lacovara (Architecture and Interiors, 2002) and Finn Williams (Architecture, 2007) are partners on the design team at Croydon council responsible for imagining and creating the future infrastructure of the area. They feel that architects and designers have a unique role to play in the public sector and local government, which are often overlooked in favour of careers in private practice. Here, they talk us through their work at Croydon, and the broader context of design careers in the public sector. 

How did you start working together? 

Vincent Lacovara: I started working at  the Placemaking Team at Croydon Council about 10 years ago, having graduated from the RCA in 2002. Finn joined Croydon Council in 2009 having graduated from the RCA in 2007. We hadn’t worked together before that, but were aware of each other through the RCA connection and because Finn had been doing a piece of work on Croydon’s public realm for a company called General Public Agency, which we had met up to discuss. I had seen Finn’s RCA ‘Place Faking’ project which he went on to exhibit at the NLA, which I thought was brilliant.  

Finn Williams: After leaving the RCA I knew I didn’t want to end up working for an architect who was forced to come up with answers to the wrong questions. I suppose the way I was taught at the RCA made me want to go further upstream to where the critical decisions were really being made. It seemed to me that councils are hugely influential in the way our built environment is shaped, but aren’t often seen as places where a designer’s way of thinking can be applied. I’d heard that Croydon had an unusually progressive urban design team partly because of Vincent, and partly because they had a new chief executive who had come straight from CABE, Jon Rouse. Of all the councils in London, Croydon seemed to be the one where urban design had the most potential to make a difference, and where urban design was most needed.

You combine a joint endeavour with running separate individual practices. How do you find time for both? What kind of challenges has this way of working produced, and what are its advantages?

FW: After being used to working nearly 100 hours a week at architecture offices, the council’s 36 hour week suddenly had me feeling at a bit of a loose end! I used that extra energy for my own independent practice called Common Office, which is really just a platform to bring together everything I end up getting asked to do alongside Croydon. That ranges from being the chair of my local charity, the Friends of Arnold Circus, to teaching at various architecture schools, giving public talks or doing bits of writing. I’ve also used holidays for residencies and research projects, often with ex-RCA students from other disciplines. I see Common Office as a healthy antidote to working in a large organisation like a local authority, and think it would be good if more councils actively encouraged people to move more freely between private practice and public service – of course as long as there are no conflicts of interest.

VL: There are definitely advantages to working this way. My work at the council is enriched by the knowledge and experience I gain in private practice and teaching, and vice versa. Moving between two or more different jobs keeps you on your toes and gives you rare and valuable critical distance. The challenges are significant though: there are only so many hours in the day and although stimulating and rewarding, it is also difficult and exhausting to constantly switch from one set of projects to another; from one culture and mindset to another.

FW: That process of switching mindsets from the bureaucrat to the critic to the more traditional idea of a designer teaches you to become a sort of polyglot, where you use different languages and ways of thinking in different situations. It helps you understand the point of view of the person on the other side of the table.

What, in your opinion, are the specificities of working as a designer in the public sector, or for a local authority in particular? Should more designers look at this field, and if so, why? 

VL: I absolutely think that more designers should explore opportunities within the public sector, within local authorities, despite the fact that the public sector is suffering cuts. Designers are trained to think in a very unique way that is unfortunately rare within local authorities, in my experience. The abilities that designers have to think laterally and make connections between and synthesise apparently unrelated information to generate positive solutions – sometimes apparently creating value out of nothing – have obvious value in local authorities, whose role is to meet complex needs with fewer and fewer resources. However, few graduate designers consider working for a local authority.

In few jobs would you get the opportunity to think about planning for the future of a place 30 years in to the future, and then have the job to turn the plans in to reality.

There are of course characteristics to working in a local authority that make it very different to private practice. A council is a political organisation and our masters are the councillors that have been elected to serve their communities. One forgets this at one’s peril. Increasingly tight finances and what can seem like overly bureaucratic processes can be frustrating; but then so can working long hours for unpaid competition work in private practice.

FW: Of course I agree that being a designer in a local authority is an incredibly privileged position – though many wouldn’t see it that way. I sometimes think of the Placemaking Team as a bit like a small design practice, only we have a guaranteed flow of work, the luxury of being able to think long-term and make decisions that are genuinely for the public good rather than private profit, and the advantage of being able to really get to know one place and its people over a long period rather than parachute in and then duck out when a contract comes to an end. As an urban designer at a local authority you can call on your colleagues in housing, education, parking, or economic development to work with places in a much more integrated and sophisticated way.

How do you find a balance between your own approach as designers, and the necessities of working to commission? 

VL: Our preferred design approach is not as much to do with a particular aesthetic, but about working together with people to understand the culture of the place of which they are part, imagining and articulating its future and then trying to enable that future.

FW: I think we were both taught, or found ourselves believing, that the best way to approach a place is working with what you’ve already got. That means learning to look with fresh eyes at what’s right on your doorstep, and find out what’s amazing about it. I suppose that’s why we’ve both sort of fallen in love with Croydon, as a place that is already brilliant in lots of ways. We just need to work on how to reveal that to everyone else!

Looking back on your time at the Royal College, what was most useful in preparing you for the career you've had since?  

VL: The freedom to think outside the obvious strictures and parameters of the subject that I had applied to study. Studying Architecture and Interiors at the RCA in 2000 was more than learning about how to design buildings, it was about trying to understand the culture that produced buildings in the first place, trying to imagine what that culture could or might be in the near future, and then using design to help articulate, accommodate or enable a version of that future that would be beneficial to someone or something: a community, an individual, a company, an economy, an ecosystem. This is actually very similar to what I am doing now at Croydon Council.

FW: I’d agree that the RCA taught me to look beyond buildings and question how and why they came about. Students weren’t just churning out designs that looked good, but were using design to fundamentally challenge existing conditions. I guess that taught me that design didn’t necessarily have to be about making something beautiful, it could also be about making bad things a bit better.