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From Tropical Architecture to Development:

The Inception and Evolution of UCL’s Development Planning Unit & its Influences within International Development Policy

Architectural Historian Mark Crinson viewed Tropical Architecture as an intermediate space between colonialism and globalisation. Recent developments in British politics would support this assessment, including the current focus on Global Britain as a replacement for International Development and the ever-increasing emphasis on global trade rather than development aid. If this is the case, then is it fair to say that Tropical Architecture has lost its place in the world? For all intents and purposes the objectives which were collected under the heading of Tropical Architecture are now redundant – the idea of designing for a climate has been largely accepted by the global design community so no longer needs advocates, and the function of disseminating knowledge abroad has been made significantly easier with the advent of the internet and the increasing affordability of air travel.

Clearly, the problems that the DPU were set up to address no longer exist in their original form. However, novel, and related issues have materialised in the decades since. There is a much higher level of global conflict than before the Second World War, and weapons have continued to advance, which have created a need for a new method for post-conflict reconstruction. Inequalities have also continued to widen alongside technological advancement develop while disaster management has continued to evolve to face the ever-growing threat of climate-related natural disasters. Poverty continues to persist, exasperated by worsening housing crises and growing populations, and many countries are suffering from outdated infrastructures and urban plans. These create numerous new architectural problems which need to be resolved however, to a broad extent, the DPU has moved on from built development and left a vacuum in its place. So where does this leave us with regards to architectural aid and built development? Aid funding for architecture and built development is practically non-existent in the UK, with a focus instead on broader urban development and/or infrastructure development. There also remains a wider concern with development policy in that the narrative continues to focus on poverty alleviation rather than development as a tool for security or stability.

The history of the DPU demonstrates that Government is willing to respond to and support innovative industry initiatives. This admittedly requires the relevant structures and relationships to be in place, but architectural modernism clearly influenced technical assistance and built development policy in the 1970s and there is scope for greater influence in the future. The difficulty then is how to design sensitive architectural solutions and administer (and/or assess) them in a positive way. This could be developed by the DPU (which today is far more established) supported by a much stronger network of development institutions and organisations than have ever existed before.

The one thing that becomes clear through the history of the DPU is that Government assurances that changes to the Machinery of Government, such as merging departments, won’t affect quality of development are highly questionable. The DPU has been disrupted at each point by departmental restructurings and this is likely indicative of similar issues within other organisations. In order for the DPU to be successful, it must operate within a Governmental structure which is stable and supports its work.

The early strength of the DPU depended on its significant tripartite engagement with world-leading architects, government officials and, elected representatives. This put it in an ideal position to innovate internally and influence Government, which is perhaps a model that should be reconsidered now as one to aspire to. One key evolution is that the DPU now emphasise their students as one of their key exports. Although as a Unit it has moved away from consultancy to focus on research, the students are taught practical knowledge which they are encouraged to apply to real world situations after they graduate. This creates a strong network of DPU alumni who continue to ‘consult,’ despite the formal consultancy element’s absence from the institution. They also created a separate organisation, DPU Associates. It is made up of ex-DPU members who operate at an arm’s length while still being associated with the institution. Since the DPU is no longer financially independent from wider UCL, this resolves some of the issues related to funding and income of consultancy projects. Combining this with their previous approach to Government influence may constitute a way forward for the DPU.

Aggregate, the Architectural History Collective, believe in “the idea of architecture governing conduct—mediating power—through networks and norms, frames of action and possibility that flow through all scales from the body to the home to the city to the globe, at the hands of not just the state but also individuals and institutions.”[1] For some of our current global problems to be resolved, institutions like the DPU need to recognise their influence through architecture, both domestically and abroad, to help mediate power and continue to develop a more equal, less imperialist world.


[1] Daniel Abramson, Arindam Dutta, Timothy Hyde and Jonathan Massey, ‘Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century,’ in Governing by Design, ed. Aggregate Architectural History Collective (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), p. 7.

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