The live events industry is one that has been very directly affected by the global pandemic. Through necessity, trade shows – which very much fall within this category – all but cancelled the planned live events they usually offer. But there were some that could be adapted, at least in part, to a digital format. One such show was the London Festival of Architecture, an event that is ordinarily grandstanding in scale and ambition and very much about people interacting in spaces. So how do you transform such a show into something that works online? I caught up with Programme Director Rosa Rogina to find out how the organisers responded to the pandemic and what plans they have for this year’s show which will happen under the appropriate theme, Care.
JB: How did you adapt the format of the show in 2020? Presumably, there were a number of challenges to overcome, but how did you tackle the conundrum of transforming what is normally a show about spaces, and people getting to physically visit them, into something that was still informative and exciting?
RR: The UK nationwide lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak happened just as we were preparing to launch our 2020 festival programme, which meant we had to react fast. Our initial reaction was to postpone most of the already planned activity to later in the year when it would be safe and appropriate to do so. At the same time, we were overwhelmed by the response from our festival’s friends and supporters on the idea to do something different in June. Every year our programme of events is conceived and delivered by an eclectic mix of more than 300 independent organisations and individuals. We felt that it was important, probably more than ever, to respond to current circumstances and to offer to our community of event organisers an alternative platform for architectural experimentation, practice and debate. A few days later an open call for the LFA Digital was launched and the rest is history.
JB: Amongst many more obvious ones, ‘digital’ is certainly a 2020 buzzword. What shape did it take for the festival?
RR: As a festival team we like to experiment and the LFA Digital was entirely in the spirit of our wider work. As we have all witnessed the world shifting to a digital existence, we knew we had to adapt our offer to the ‘new normal’ of being 24/7 at home. While some elements of the digital programme of over 200 events were what you would normally expect to see on London’s streets during the London Festival of Architecture, there was much more DIY content for people to get creative in their own homes. From digital design surgeries and sketching sessions to our festival favourite – the annual Architecture Bake Off that featured over 80 sugar-replicas of some of the most famous London’s buildings, all made at home.
JB: Do you think the Power theme gained even greater significance given the unforeseen circumstances that led to you losing so much of the usual freedom and power you would have in putting the show together?
RR: That’s a really excellent question. When thinking about the theme of Power, I was always fascinated with how people’s movements such as Extinction Rebellion are destabilising the established order of power. And in a way, the pandemic did the same to the events industry. With a sudden shift to the digital arena, previous advantages such as having a big lecture theatre or a sophisticated ticketing system became almost irrelevant. Now looking back, it was actually smaller grassroots organisations and individuals that were able to put together digital activity first, in most cases fully free of charge. In terms of LFA, I would say that the open-source nature of the festival (being a city-wide event that is run by many different event organisers) has proven to be quite resilient and showed us one more time that it is not us but people who run the festival events that hold power.
JB: Lockdowns and the pandemic aside, have these changes shifted the show’s thinking in terms of future formats? Does digital work well enough to keep it or are you desperate to get back to the previous, physical, format?
RR: While our digital departure was responsive in its nature, from the beginning we saw it as a transformative process that will undoubtedly influence the future editions of the festival. For example, London Festival of Architecture always had an international section in its programme, yet 2020 allowed us to be much more creative (and carbon neutral) when planning international collaborations. Some of my favourite events in our digital programme were actually organised abroad – from a talk streamed from a heritage site in Aleppo, Syria to guided virtual tours of a number of brutalist structures in Tel Aviv or Adolf Loos’s Villa Winternitz in Prague. During the pandemic, there was also an apparent shift in the way people consume cultural content. It became less about the time and place in which an event happens and more about creating a permanent resource for people to view it at a later stage from anywhere in the world. While we are confident some of the festival’s physical formats will back in the 2021 programme, we are looking to curate a lively mixture of both physical and digital activities.
JB: How did you come to this year’s theme Care?
RR: The theme Care emerged from our first-ever open call asking the festival’s network of event organisers and supporters to submit theme suggestions and was selected by the festival’s 2021 Curatorial Panel. This was a really fantastic process that will certainly help us in our ongoing mission to radically democratise the debate about architecture and our city. There were of course a few other great theme contestants that were debated by the Curatorial Panel. However, there was a consensus that after a year that has highlighted so many existing inequalities in addition to creating new ones, the proposed theme of Care posed an important challenge to us all of how we can care better for each other, our cities, the environment and ourselves.
JB: And what do you think we can expect from entries to this year’s show?
RR: For me personally, the theme of Care opens questions of our civic duty, both as professionals and individuals, to challenge existing social systems and to demand the creation of more equitable and inclusive places and policies. There are unfortunately many examples illustrating considerable lack of care within the built environment, from inaccessible playgrounds to implementation of hostile design strategies and poor-quality (or fully inadequate) building material. Events such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests not only show a systematic lack of care but also how different social inequalities are too often built into our cities and surroundings. We can definitely do better, and I would like the festival to be used as a vehicle to address some of these challenges by rethinking existing and formulating new practices of care within the built environment.
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