New CCA exhibition explores social role and responsibility of the architect

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) presents What About Happiness on the Building Site? On view in the CCA’s Octagonal Gallery until 14 May 2017, the exhibition emphasizes the social role and responsibility of the architect by rethinking traditional field practices and pursuing strategies to initiate social progress through critical research, new tools and experimental attitudes.

The exhibition offers a reading of the early 1970s McAppy report, a witty proposal by the British architect, thinker and radical innovator Cedric Price (1934–2003). The two-volume report combined with a Portable Enclosures Programme (PEP) proposed how to improve labour conditions, assuring happiness and well-being, both mental and physical, for employees by prioritizing a low-stress, boredom-free building site.

In 1973, following the strikes that beset the British construction industry during the early 1970s, Alistair McAlpine commissioned a design program for his construction company, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons, that aimed to increase production efficiency and improve labour relations. McAlpine, a friend of Cedric Price and a prolific businessman, also financed the London art and architecture gallery, Art Net, which was founded by Peter Cook in 1974. Art Net would become an informal anchor for the debate about architecture in the following years.

Cedric Price accepted McAlpine’s design challenge “based on the assumption that the construction industry in general is in a bad state” and with the intention of “improving the present situation” by “suggesting beneficial future procedures and activities.” Faced with outmoded regulations and deteriorating conditions at building sites, Price’s survey of McAlpine’s work practices and organizational policies generated a design strategy that would be applied and tested by the company. Price’s project took the format of a two volume report (one published prior to action and one with final recommendations after testing) and a Portable Enclosures Programme (PEP), to be piloted at the Angel Court construction site in London.

The McAppy Report is a comprehensive analysis of the organization of building sites, covering logistical and organizational topics that include workers’ safety and well-being, labour rights, communication at multiple levels between workers and technicians, and efficiency and economy in construction processes. Furthermore, Price proposes comfortable clothing, protective equipment, cleaner toilets, on-site entertainment, and even the ideal lunch menu for the working day. To qualify labour on building sites, Price acknowledged the need to reframe the relations between the multiple actors involved, from government to service suppliers, from technical staff to workers’ unions. He often stressed the importance of communicating to everyone, from the workers to the administrative personnel, the purposes and goals of the report, introducing “a participatory form of Company planning” and resisting the tendency for decision making to be “too top heavy.” While the report presents a critical view of building sites, it also demonstrates Price’s ambition to go beyond the immediate brief, employing architectural knowledge and thoughtful design to respond to pressing societal issues and human necessities.

The exhibition explores the full scope of the McAppy project, showcasing the two volumes, its elements and stages, Price’s research and testing methods. It features texts, quotes, photographs, sketches, drawings, diagrams, models, letters, news clippings, Union handbooks and assorted trade catalogs. It further includes an interview with Will Alsop, a key figure in the McAppy Report, and at Cedric Price’s firm in the 1970s.

The exhibition is curated by Giovanna Borasi, Chief Curator at the CCA and André Tavares. A selection from the McAppy project, drawn from the Cedric Price fonds at CCA, was presented in the exhibition Building Site curated by André Tavares as part of the fourth Lisbon Architecture Triennale The Form of Form in 2016.