The New Architecture Movement (NAM)
“NAM has consistently been the only pressure group within architectural politics in Britain to grasp issues beyond the scope of self-interest, and to combine its suggestions for reform with some deeper understanding of the relation between architects, the construction industry and the general public”. Andrew Saint, The Image of the Architect, Yale University Press, 1983
Context and formation
In the early 1970s many architects, while working in offices during the day were also providing free design advice out of hours to tenants and residents groups who were threatened by large and unsuitable comprehensive redevelopment schemes. Both sides were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional means of building commissioning and procurement, and these unofficial working practices revealed the benefits of having a professional design service accountable to the people who use, or are affected by, new buildings and large local redevelopment. Other architects and building design staff were developing misgivings over the way the profession was governed, as well as their own working conditions.
To develop these initiatives the New Architecture Movement (NAM) was founded in November 1975 at a national congress organised by the Architects’ Revolutionary Council (ARC) – a small pre-existing group of architects, teachers and others originating in the Architectural Association, London. The objective was that through the collective action of architectural workers, building design support staff, educators, students and others a radical critique of the architectural profession and building industry would be developed and carried forward through a programme of action in a diverse range of spheres or ‘campaigns’. Over the following five years the New Architecture Movement became a progressive force for accountability and democracy in architecture. NAM sought to ensure that tenants were involved in the design of their homes, that the practice of architecture became more inclusive and the public interest was better recognised by its governing institutions. Additionally, the Movement was concerned to develop an alternative analysis and understanding of the basis and role of the architectural profession in society as a whole.
NAM’s objective was to work towards reforming the existing system of patronage and power in architecture, campaigning on such issues as the organisation and modus operandi of architects’ offices in both the public and private sectors, the education of trainee architects, the relationship of architects with building users and workers and the wider community, the avoidance of hazardous materials and working practices, and the institutional governance of the profession itself.
At the first congress in Harrogate, the women persuaded delegates to structure NAM like the Women’s Movement, which in retrospect was one of NAM’s great strengths; ie groups of people interested in particular issues would come together as necessary and not at the diktat of a higher body so we didn’t spend our time in procedural nit-picking, as would have been the case had we agreed to the centrally controlled body that ARC wanted. So NAM began as a network of semi-autonomous local groups and the different campaign groups had members from all over the country committed to furthering the shared agenda according to each group’s local priorities. For example, the NAM Public Design Group had members from the London, Sheffield and Nottingham groups.
The network was coordinated by a National Liaison Group, (elected at each annual congress) responsible for coordinating and furthering the Movement’s progress at annual congresses. Over a period of 5-6 years the Movement pursued a range of campaigns and produced a wealth of reports, papers and other documents including 17 issues of its own newspaper – “SLATE”. Altogether NAM groups were established in Central London, North London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Cheltenham and Birmingham. The Movement’s thematic agenda (listed below) drew members from a variety of these local groups.
- Alternative forms of architectural practice – cooperatives, multi-discipline structures, etc
- Architectural Education
- The Feminist Group
- Professional Issues (NAM members became elected councillors on ARCUK – the Architects Registration Council aiming to reform it into a public interest body.)
- The Public Design Group – redefining the organisation and operation of public sector design and building offices
- Trade Unions and Architecture (The NAM established a Building Design Staff section within the AUEW-TASS union)
- “SLATE” (the Movement’s own newspaper, which ran to 17 issues over five years.)
Over the following five years (1975-80) NAM developed ideas and positions on the above themes and sought to implement them in practice. Membership numbered some 150 participants at the height of the Movement. Thereafter, from the early 1980s, the Movement began to disperse as members became absorbed within their various areas of primary interest.
Yet as the above quotation from Andrew Saint’s highly regarded book suggests, the Movement had by then become recognised as a significant critical voice within the profession and many of its ideas still continue to resonate with successive generations of architectural students and others in the field.
The Archive project
Almost all of NAM’s original material survives and has been preserved in the individual collections of some of its former (now mainly retired) members, but being created in the pre-digital age it exists only in ‘hard copy’ form. The more recent engagement of some of these former NAM members with various educational institutions and other groups has revealed a growing interest in the causes and issues with which NAM was concerned, both as a subject of historical research and also as a stimulant for new initiatives by the current generation of young practitioners, teachers and students seeking to reinterpret NAM’s radical ideals in the context of todays’ environmental politics.
Over recent years a NAM Archive Steering Group has accordingly been meeting to discuss and develop the Archive Project to a) progress the systematic organisation of the surviving material as a physical archive, and b) enable it to be professionally digitised for wider accessibility. The conversion of this considerable collection into digital form is seen as key to creating a freely accessible web-based resource for historical research, academic study and wider pedagogical use. The evident interest amongst students and young architects of today indicates that such a resource could have considerable educational as well as historic value. The NAM Archive Project now enables the release of this unique record from recent history into the public domain.
NAM in its own words
An easy way to get a broad overview of NAM’s wide-ranging activities would be to look at the NAM Handbook which was produced in 1978/1979 at the height of its activity. This provides a concise synopsis of the way the Movement operated and the range of campaigns it was pursuing. Having studied this document, the structure and content of the website will be clearly revealed.