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What unites us? A sense of agency

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The Bartlett turns 100 in 2019. This is an opportunity to reflect on our role for the next 100 years, says Dean Alan Penn.

In the corner of my office sits a bust of Herbert Henry Bartlett. A civil engineer and building contractor, his donation to UCL of £30,000 in 1911 funded a new building for the School Architecture and chairs in both that school and planning. Something of a shy man, he remained anonymous until 1919, when he finally consented to his name being used. 100 years on and here we are today.

I’ve been Dean of The Bartlett for the past 10 years. One tenth of its history, as it turns out. But I’m also an alumnus. I started here in 1975 to study as an undergraduate in architecture and then for a master’s degree. After a few years as a contract researcher and occasional tutor at the School of Architecture, I secured a lectureship in the School of Planning. I founded the Space Syntax network in 1987 and, when I stand down this year, I’ll return to my research there. So my past and future are bound up with The Bartlett.

The Bartlett, of course, isn’t one thing, but rather the sum of 12 different parts, some of which precede the faculty itself. I’m not going to pour over our timeline here – you’ll have to wait for that – but we started as a School of Architecture, founded in 1841. Planning followed next in 1914. Today, we are a faculty that combines architecture and planning with energy, construction, data modelling and analysis, heritage, public policy, and more. Along the way these schools, institutes and centres have celebrated their own anniversaries as they’ve developed. Bartlett 100 is the first time that we’ve marked one as a faculty.

Today, we are a faculty that combines architecture and planning with energy, construction, data modelling and analysis, heritage, public policy, and more.

Alan Penn

It is always tempting to look for a steady linear progression when you reflect on a milestone like 100 years. But The Bartlett’s development hasn’t been that – and we aren’t going to try and paint it that way. Rather, The Bartlett has grown around research questions, the projects that have come out of them, the people that have led them, and the alumni that have taken that learning out of the faculty and continued to extend its impact in practice.

What unites us? A sense of agency

A bust of Sir Herbert Henry Bartlett made by Charles Leonard Hartwell R.A. (Sladmore) in 1922.

A better description of The Bartlett is that of an ecology: one that allows us to embrace change rather than recoil from it. As we’ve investigated our past, we’ve found that it has always been concerned with the future: what unites us is a sense of agency – a belief in the role of structures, both built and institutional – as critical factors in generating, not just new physical forms, but in facilitating the emergence of new social forms.

The journey of the built environment is in many ways the story of The Bartlett. We became known as the Faculty of the Built Environment at the end of the 1980s. It was a time when people were just beginning to realise the impact of urbanisation on the planet and it became clear that some of the major challenges that we face were going to affect the way we design, model and build our buildings and cities.

As humans appropriate new technologies, they also develop new institutional structures. The digital marketplaces and social networks, which today are transforming our high streets and political forums, are the precursors for more far reaching transformational change. If it is the role of the built environment professional to envision a world never before seen, then they must also be equipped with an understanding of the technologies, environmental systems and socio-political structures that these futures will consist of.

100 days, 100 stories

This is the first of 100 pieces that we’ll publish over the next 100 days. This project, which is an experiment in itself, will offer 100 different ways to access The Bartlett. From past projects and archive material to current research and alumni interviews, every day will be a different moment in time, a different part of The Bartlett, a different perspective.

The process of research and curation itself has prompted us to reflect on our purpose: why are we here? To put it simply: we’re here to build a better future. This in turn has given us a starting point to explore a new vision for The Bartlett and for the built environment disciplines. It is this vision that will be the subject of our forthcoming exhibition in May, ‘The Next 100 Years’.

I hope that you’ll join us over the next 100 days as we explore what has been a century of radical thinking, research and collaboration at The Bartlett.

The Bartlett is UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment, comprising 12 multidisciplinary schools, institutes and centres. Find out more:

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