Distributing Power: Jeremy Till on the Complex Necessity of Participatory Urbanism

Distributing Power: Jeremy Till on the Complex Necessity of Participatory Urbanism

As a profession with the power to alter people's cities and neighborhoods - and indeed therefore their lives - architecture is often a controversial business to be involved in; many members of the public have learned to be suspicious of any plans for development in places they care about, often turning architecture into a villain to be fought. One proposed solution to this conundrum is to include public participation as much as possible, but many architects are skeptical of such an approach. At a time when the responsibilities of architects are being eroded by engineers and project managers, what would be left to architects if the public is allowed control over the design? Seeking to understand this challenge, in this interview from MONU Magazine's latest issue on "Participatory Urbanism," Bernd Upmeyer speaks to Jeremy Till, a British Architect, writer and educator who has written extensively about the need to for architects to relinquish control and involve local communities in their design process.

Bernd Upmeyer, on behalf of MONU, spoke with the British architect, writer, and educator Jeremy Till. He is the head of Central Saint Martins and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts, London. Previously he was Dean of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, and Professor of Architecture and Head of School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Till’s research and writing concentrate on the social and political aspects of architecture and the built environment. His written work includes "Flexible Housing," "Architecture Depends" and "Spatial Agency." In 2005 he was one of the editors of the publication “Architecture and Participation” to which he contributed a piece entitled "The Negotiation of Hope." The interview took place on September 3, 2015.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

Architecture and Participation

Bernd Upmeyer: In 2005, you were one of the editors and contributors to the book “Architecture and Participation” that brought together, according to the summary, leading international practitioners and theorists, ranging from the 1960s pioneers of participation to some of the major contemporary figures in the field. Could you tell us a bit about these early beginnings? When and how were users first introduced in architecture and urban planning processes? Which of the projects that were mentioned in the book did you find especially interesting and successful?

Jeremy Till: The pieces that I found interesting about the history of participation were, for example, from people such as Giancarlo De Carlo.[1] We translated and published Giancarlo De Carlo’s seminal text, Architecture’s Public. De Carlo and others were using participation as a way to deconstruct what it means to be an architect or to be a designer. I find this aspect of participation interesting because it questions a lot of the premises on which architecture as a profession is founded - the premises of the individual author-hero, the premises of control, and the premise of expertise and so on. Participation undeniably challenges and upsets some of those standard conventions.

Giancarlo De Carlo during the opening of the Stylos lecture series “The Invisible in Architecture”, Delft, 1987.. ImageSpread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism"

BU: The 1960s were probably the years when participatory processes were first introduced, on a more substantial scale, into planning and design processes.

JT: Yes, this is when a lot of people, including N. John Habraken[2] and Giancarlo De Carlo, tried out new things. The 1960s to 1980s were the golden years of participation and of revolutionary ideas in general. Some of the most interesting participatory projects were reserving up to 20% of public budgets to be decided by public vote, so-called participatory budgets. In certain cities in Brazil, such as Porto Alegre[3], a participatory budget is part of their city processes. A serious proportion of the city’s budget is determined by open participative techniques, which include open meetings, for example. That is very interesting.

BU: According to the contributors of the book, what kind of new spatial conditions and new types of urban and architectural practices can appear when users are included in design processes?

JT: I think what appears in general is a stronger sense of the collective and a sense for shared and communal spaces, and spaces that are not pre-programmed. Again, this is different to standard architectural practice, which generally tries to control everything. I am making a huge generalization, but in participative practices one does move into new forms of the commons and shared spaces, because in good participative processes, inhabitation and use becomes much more important than in the standard architectural practice.

Residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil, gather for the annual Regional Participatory Budgeting assembly. Image Courtesy of Michael Fox

The Negotiation of Hope

BU: In your article “The Negotiation of Hope” that is part of the book “Architecture and Participation” you state that participation challenges established values and brings an awakening of the virtues of engagement, an awakening that might come as a shock to architects more used to a deluded detachment, but an awakening that is necessary if architecture is to have any future relevance. Why do you think participation is that relevant?

JT: I’ve really said that? That is quite provocative. I don’t think participation is the sole agency in that awakening. I wrote “The Negotiation of Hope” before “Architecture Depends,” where I argue that architects have to face their political and social responsibility, and that participation should be involved in the construction of that social responsibility. If architecture is going to become a truly collaborative, a truly social discipline, then participation, in the true sense of the word, has to be part of that whole new discipline. Other things we have to do as well, but the whole process of negotiation, the whole process of conversation, the whole process of communication is an important aspect in discovering a kind of social intent for architecture.

BU: Nevertheless, in your article you compare participation to the Olympic platitude that taking part is as important as winning, platitudes that are normally exhaled through the gritted teeth of the disappointed athlete. What is so disappointing about participating?

JT: What I talk about in the article is the way that participation can become a politically required token of democratic involvement. Many times it is a kind of fake participation, where architects, planners, or designers pretend to involve people. Here, participation just becomes a necessary part of a political process but it doesn’t actually engage the participants in any meaningful way. Participation can be used in a way by architects and planners to fulfill obligations but not actually reinvent or refresh the way of thinking about a project.

BU: Do you think that can be avoided somehow?

JT: Yes, but only if you commit, only if you take it seriously. And to do that, you have to relinquish control. I think this is one of the most difficult things for professions to do. I am not talking only about architecture, but all professions. Any profession is established on the basis of the expertise and the expertise is used as a form of control. In participation, you have to relinquish that control and become a different kind of professional. You have to acknowledge that your expertise is as good as the expertise of others, but different. However, the relinquishing of control is a real challenge to professional values.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

BU: But if architects and planners give away their power and start sharing and relinquishing their knowledge with and to the citizen, what will be left for them? According to Koolhaas, architecture has become already a domain over which architects have lost all control, a zone surrendered to other professions. Today, construction companies are trying increasingly to avoid working with architects by employing their own experts in their companies. So, if the architect somehow loses control in maybe the last thing that he has, namely his drawings, his technical skills, his expertise, what will be left for him? What will be his position?

JT: You put it well, because the whole area of control of architects has been more and more limited to an extent that what is left are the images of architecture, the only way by which architects can claim a little bit of the world. But by focusing on images, I would argue, you are becoming even more distant from the actual processes of architecture and its social aspects. But if we want to redefine architecture as a means of re-imagining the future - social and spatial futures - then I would say that we need to change the way architecture engages with its means of production beyond the image. We need to do this in a collaborative and shared way. Then there is still hope for architects, because they can still bring a special knowledge to the table, which other people don’t have. I absolutely believe that architects have a social form of knowledge, a spatial knowledge which they learned and which they developed through their education and through their practice. It is an incredible skill when exercised in an empowering way and using new forms of social constructions.

BU: Is this what you mean when you speak of the necessity of “transformative participation”? Does this happen when the architect becomes a bit more like a citizen, while the citizen becomes more like an expert so both can work together better?

JT: By talking about the citizen expert, or the expert citizen, I mean not so much that all people might become experts, but that the “experts” acknowledge the knowledge of the people and acknowledge that the people’s knowledge is as valid and relevant as the knowledge of the architectural expert. The knowledge of the people is just constructed in a different language. So, the means of communication needs to be adapted so that all kinds of knowledge can be brought to the table.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

BU: In planning projects and in architecture, in relation to other professions such as medicine, the gap between the knowledge of the experts and the knowledge of the citizen seems to be quite small, as everybody can easily have an opinion about a building or a city, but not necessarily about heart surgery. Participation is obviously something that cannot be applied in all the areas of our society and in all professions.

JT: Well, I don’t want any participation during my heart surgery, that’s for sure! There are certainly different levels of professional knowledge and traditionally doctors and lawyers are seen as the owners of a strong knowledge, and architects and some other professions as the owners of weak knowledge. That suggests a hierarchy between strong knowledge over weak knowledge, and architects try to move towards the strong end by asserting their knowledge as a form of control and authority. Part of this is to eschew others: by not involving a participative practice in architecture, architects try to remain autonomous. To remain strong, they try not to involve participation. However, as I describe in Architecture Depends, there might be a particular form of knowledge that the architects have, which is good in dealing with contingencies and particularly good in dealing with differences. Strong knowledge basically tries to get rid of these: it cannot deal with the contingencies and cannot deal with the differences. In medicine, the patient is seen, for example, as a passive body and doctors sometimes criticized for manipulating and misusing their power of strong knowledge.

BU: In your article “The Negotiation of Hope” you also say that participation is widely and uncritically accepted as a better way of doing things, especially in planning, but not so much in the field of architecture. Where do you see the difference of urban planning and architecture when it comes to participation? Is scale an issue?

JT: I think scale makes a difference. Planning, partly because of its democratic political demands and because planning the city always involves social processes, should involve others. However, particularly with our current government in the UK, planning processes don’t necessarily involve citizen participation.

BU: You further mention that participation as an unchallenged generic and overused term disguises the fact that in all participatory processes there are degrees of involvement ranging from token participation to full control of the process by citizen participants. And that full participation is an ideal, but an impossible one to achieve in architecture. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

JT: I think what I meant was that planning processes and architectural design processes are always processes that involve power, and you can never avoid this or completely dissolve the structures of power. The architect comes with a certain form of knowledge, and knowledge is power. So even if you start with the best intentions, there are always certain power issues that occur during participative processes and this leads to the fact that full participation can never be achieved. But when you acknowledge these power structures and deal with them responsibly, then at least participative processes can achieve some sense of honesty, rather than a kind of falseness.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

Limits of Participation

BU: Where do you think participation can be most effective? In which scales or in which projects do you thinks is it most applicable?

JT: I think participation works best in areas where people can bring their own knowledge. It thus probably works best for public spaces, because people know what a public space might be and everyone has an opinion about it. However, the scale should not be too big, because, frankly, there is an incredible complexity about the layers of a city, which makes it difficult to engage in participatively in a meaningful way.

BU: Where do you think lie the limits of Participatory Urbanism and how transparent can and should city-forming processes really be before things get too complicated and become impossible to manage and function? You yourself did not, for example, let anybody participate in the design of your own house in Orchard Street.

JT: Well, when designing your own house and when you are both the client and the architectural designer, you are communicating all the time and in an incredibly participative if rather internalized manner.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

BU: And where do you see the limits of participatory processes more generally?

JT: When thinking about the limits of participation, I often refer to what Gillian Rose once said about community architecture: "the architect is demoted; the people do not accede to power."[4] I think this is a fantastic quote. What she is saying is that if you take it too far, the architect is required to divest everything, including his knowledge (because knowledge is power, and power is untrammeled and therefore bad). And so, in the worst forms of community architecture, all architects are allowed to do is to push pencils (or now, the mouse) around on behalf of the citizens. But if the architects have lost the ability to deploy knowledge, nobody benefits and everyone loses. I think it is fine that architects bring a certain form of knowledge to the table, but only if they are prepared to receive knowledge back from the other side of the table.

BU: How I understand the quote is that the architect gives away his power, but the people do not take the power.

JT: It is not that the people don’t take the power, but that the people don’t benefit from the architect’s knowledge. This puts them in a very weak position and everyone loses.

BU: Don’t you think that people might also sometimes not be interested in taking power and actually participating? This might also be a problem.

JT: The real problem of participation is a social one and that generally only a certain percentage participates, generally people who have interests. You can never reach out to an entire community. But that’s not an excuse for not doing and trying it.

Spread from MONU Magazine #23: "Participatory Urbanism". Image Courtesy of MONU Magazine

BU: Typically, people that have more time available are more willing to participate in things.

JT: Yes, exactly. The worst thing is to try to see participation as a form of consensus. Markus Miessen[5] claims quite loudly in his books that participation, as a form of consensus, is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to accept that participation is a process of confrontation, and that the richest results are found in the processes of antagonism.

BU: Have you ever taken part in participatory processes yourself, where you were either the expert or the citizen? If yes, what was that like? What was, for example, weird about it and what made you laugh or cry?

JT: I am just at the moment taking part in one at the University of the Arts in London, where we are developing two new major buildings. I am on the client side of the table and the user side of the table, and not the architect’s side, and it is interesting to see how all control and power is distributed.

BU: Bringing more people at the table certainly does not make things easier. There are usually so many people involved already, even without participation. Things can easily get incredibly difficult.

JT: Yes! And also because so many buildings these days are actually simply financial practices, there is incredibly little interest from most developers or clients to engage more people, because it will all compromise the financial efficiency of their projects. In the end, processes of spatial production are controlled by the developer and by the project manager, and not by the user.

Assembly of the “Wiki House” in London. Image © Margaux Carron

BU: How do you see that continuing? Obviously, not all participatory architectural and urban projects can truly cultivate real democracy, increase civic consciousness, and boost transparency, accountability, and efficiency. Do you think the situation will get even worse or that things will change in favor of more participation?

JT: Well, there are some people, such as Paul Mason, who are arguing that the structure of capitalism is being challenged because of new forms of communication.[6] We have to be ready for new structures and formations. There are, for example, some emerging offices such as “Architecture 00” that are doing fantastic things using collaborative participative processes to create new forms of space.

BU: And what they do works well? Do you have the impression it is successful?

JT: Oh yes, amazingly. They’ve just done, for example, a new building in London. That came out of a participatory process. They have also developed the “Wiki House”, an open source, design system, using CNC cutting to make small projects which is de facto participatory because it involves an open access, collaborative process of design.

BU: As happened with “sustainable design”, participation in architecture and urban design is in danger, typically when young emerging office are involved, of being misused as a branding strategy and compromised, ruled and co-opted by the interests of communities, local governments, organisations, neo-liberal parties, etc. Do you see that happen with the projects of Architecture 00 and in the UK in general?

JT: They have their success and exploit that and they get their work, because they are experts in this field, but I think completely without cynicism. They work very carefully and everything is shot through with intellect and integrity.

BU: The weekly news magazine “The Economist,” for example, stated in one of its most recent issues entitled “Space and the city” that in order to provide more housing and especially more affordable housing in cities, policymakers should ensure that planning decisions are made from the top down. Because when decisions are taken at the local level, land-use rules tend to be stricter, ultimately limiting the growth of cities and the supply of new living spaces. Do you agree with that?

JT: That is bullshit. The Economist is a neo-liberal mouthpiece, and as such against anything that could stop the work of contractors and developers in the name of financial efficiency. But if you look, for example, into some Dutch forms of participation or some of the German systems, then you see participatory processes that involve people in a much more integrative manner. In particular, if you take a look at the Dutch participative building movement and the achievements of people such as N. John Habraken. Dutch “open buildings”, which are based on Habraken’s writings, don’t get people together in a classic participative manner but engage new forms of spatial production involving collaborative techniques.

Residential “open building” in Molenvliet, the Netherlands, 1977. Image © Stephen Kendall

BU: If you would have to give an outlook on the future of participatory urbanism, what would you say? Where do you see participation happening in the future, for example, more intensively and where will it be most useful and most influential?

JT: If I am having a good day, feeling optimistic and thinking about a less neo-liberal world, then I can propose different forms of social contracts, different forms of economic systems. Then I can imagine new forms of the commons and new processes of collaboration and participation. Then I can imagine a new collective and social future.

BU: The internet will obviously play a big role in participatory processes in the future as well, when it comes to city building, I guess.

JT: Yes, I mean, it is already all in control. Networks are already becoming quite powerful and new forms of communication will in the end begin to undermine the controlling systems, which capitalism sets up. Either capitalism is going to reinvent itself, as Marx says it always does, or else we need to seize the moment to direct it down a more socially and environmentally productive path.

For more articles and interviews on the concept of Participatory Urbanism, buy issue 23 of MONU Magazine from their website.

Distributing Power: Jeremy Till on the Complex Necessity of Participatory Urbanism - More Images+ 12

Jeremy Till is an architect, writer and educator. He is head of Central Saint Martins and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Arts, London. Previously, he was Dean of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, and Professor of Architecture and Head of School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. His written work includes Flexible Housing (with Tatjana Schneider, 2007), Architecture Depends (2009) and Spatial Agency (with Nishat Awan and Tatjana Schneider, 2011). All three of these won the RIBA Presidents Award for Outstanding Research, an unprecedented sequence of success in this prestigious prize. As an architect he worked with Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, and in particular on his own house and office, 9 Stock Orchard Street. He is also a trustee of the New Economics Foundation.

Bernd Upmeyer is the editor-in-chief and founder of MONU Magazine. He is also the founder of the Rotterdam-based Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD). He studied architecture and urban design at the University of Kassel (Germany) and the Technical University of Delft (Netherlands). Since June 2012 Upmeyer and his office BOARD are part of the group, led by STAR - strategies + architecture, that has been choosen as one of the new six teams of architects and urban planners appointed by the Atelier International Grand Paris (AIGP) to be part of the Scientific Committee for the mission: Grand Paris: pour une métropole durable. He holds a PhD (Dr.-Ing.) in Urban Studies from the University of Kassel (Germany). He is the author of the book “Binational Urbanism – On the Road to Paradise”, in which he creates a theory of binational urbanism, a term coined by him.


  1. Giancarlo De Carlo was an Italian architect. Libertarian socialism was the underlying force for all of his planning and design.
  2. N. John Habraken is a Dutch architect, educator, and theorist. His theoretical contributions are in the field of mass housing and the integration of users and residents into the design process.
  3. Porto Alegre is the capital and largest city of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. The city became famous for being the first city that implemented participatory budgeting.
  4. Gillian Rose, “Athens and Jerusalem: A Tale of Two Cities,” Social and Legal Studies 3 (1994): 337. For a development of this argument see Jeremy Till, “Architecture of the Impure Community,” in Occupying Architecture: Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill (London: Routledge, 1998), 61–75.
  5. Markus Miessen is an architect and writer. The initiator of the Participation Tetralogy, his work revolves around questions of critical spatial practice, institution building, and spatial politics. He is the author of The Nightmare of Participation – Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality.
  6. Paul Mason, PostCapitalism: a guide to our future (London, Allen Lane: 2015)

About this author
Cite: MONU Magazine. "Distributing Power: Jeremy Till on the Complex Necessity of Participatory Urbanism" 18 Feb 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/782319/distributing-power-jeremy-till-on-the-complex-necessity-of-participatory-urbanism> ISSN 0719-8884

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