A Question of Identity

Identity (noun): the characteristics that determine who or what a person, thing (or place) is.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? We recognise people, things and places by their identifying and sometimes unique characteristics. While we might not spend much time thinking about it, we all, to some extent or other, shape our own identities not only as individuals but also as members of wider groups and organisations through the roles we take on.

What we wear, what we say and do, the values and beliefs we hold, the interests and hobbies we follow, how we vote, where we live, where we work: all are part of our identity. Some of these characteristics are mutable, changing over time with the passing fashions (as we give ourselves a bit of a makeover) or because of changes in our circumstances. Meanwhile, other aspects of our identity are such an intrinsic part of our nature that they just are: the colour of our skin, our eyes and the (natural) colour of our hair, for example. Taken together, all these aspects of our identity affect not only how we see and understand ourselves but also how others see, and know, us.

Developing brand identity

This is also true for organisations and businesses where branding, design and marketing play such a large part in establishing the identity and reputation of the goods and services they have to offer. However, in an increasingly global economy, making sense of a brand’s identity can be more complicated than it first appears. You only have to think of famous British car marques such as Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar, none of which is any longer British owned, to see the problem. Does foreign ownership, and possibly foreign manufacture (even if only of some of the parts), make these brands less British? Do the name and brand transcend such factors as ownership and place of origin, or do foreign ownership and manufacture trammel any claim to Britishness?

Like for Like – but is it the same?

The loss of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building to fire in June 2018, just a few months ahead of its scheduled re-opening following the earlier fire of 2014, was a terrible blow, not only to the institution and the city but also to anyone who admires the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). As we now know, some parts of the surviving structure were so badly damaged that they were deemed unstable and had to be taken down. The good news is that there appears to be sufficient enthusiasm (and presumably funding) to see the building rise from the ashes yet again. But will it be the same: will its ‘identity’ survive or will the new building and its contents be no more than copies of what was lost?

The Mackintosh Building isn’t the first ‘heritage asset’ to be damaged by fire and no doubt it won’t be the last. When significant buildings in the public eye are damaged, undertakings to rebuild and restore often follow, subject to money being found to cover the costs – and those costs will be substantial – vide Notre Dame Cathedral. Re-instating architectural features takes time and craftsmanship which can be hugely expensive; repairing, re-making or sourcing suitable replacement furnishings, fabrics and artworks likewise. Inevitably, people ask whether or not the expense is really justified, particularly when there are so many other causes that require funding and investment.

The National Trust suffered a major fire at Uppark in 1989 and initiated a major restoration project. When HM The Queen suffered her own annus horribilis in 1992 culminating in the fire at Windsor Castle, a restoration project was launched – and the result is possibly better than the original. However, after the fire at Clandon Park in 2015 (also National Trust), a decision was taken to rebuild and reimagine the property, rather than to faithfully restore it, at least in the short-term.  

While there is a strong case to be made for rebuilding and restoration after serious loss, we need to keep in mind that what we are left with after restoration work is completed won’t be what it was before. No matter how carefully the work is done and no matter the trouble and care taken to source authentic materials and to use original building methods, the newly restored building or artefact will to some extent be a copy of what was there before. It might look the same, it might even be better than what was there before, but it won’t be the same as what was there before. What does this say for the historical significance of the building (or an artefact) that has been restored? Can it claim to be what it once was? Is its identity intact or has it in some way been transmuted?

Antique or reproduction?

The antique trade is a mix of authentic antiques, copies (which may themselves be antique in origin) modern reproductions and, occasionally, fraudulent fakes. If you know what you are looking at, all is well, particularly if you’re thinking of buying it. The problems arise when modern copies (or fakes) are passed off as originals. Sometimes, a reproduction or copy will suffice for our needs, especially if the item is offered at a big discount over the cost of an original item. And copies can achieve their own identity: Michelangelo’s sculpture of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is probably seen and photographed more frequently, despite being a replica, than the original which has been located in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873. Visit a stately home and it’s not unheard of to find yourself looking at a copy of an artwork, the original having been auctioned off to raise funds for the family that once lived in the house or to pay for restoration work to the property.

A new broom

There are different versions of this ‘thought experiment’ but they raise the same basic conundrum about identity. In the simplest terms the discussion can be based on what happens with a yard broom. If the head wears out and is replaced, it’s still the same yard broom and good for a few more years. But what happens when you eventually need to replace the handle as well? Is it still the same yard broom when it has acquired both a new head and then later a new handle? Is it the usage that gives it the provenance rather than the parts? What if you kept the old head and then attached it to the old handle so you had a second broom made of the original parts: which one is the more authentic yard broom?

Genius Loci

The identity of a place arises in part from its geography and location, and in part from its history and traditions, often made visible through its architecture, street layout and so on. People imbue a place with cultural and social resonance (and sometimes, dissonance): they give a place character, memory and personality. Collectively, these factors create what we might call local distinctiveness.  But such qualities change over time. As traditional skills and industries wain and perhaps disappear or demographic change occurs, our towns and cities change and evolve too. They always have, and they always will. Old buildings get demolished or repurposed, new housing gets built, sometimes on a massive scale, and new infrastructure is laid out.

Local versus Global

Within the civic society movement, I’d like to think that we have a role to play in shaping or maintaining the local distinctiveness of the places where we live – but it’s not getting any easier! Is it even possible to preserve the local distinctiveness when national housebuilders seem intent on using the same standard designs right across the land, or when high streets and retail parks feature the same identikit store chains, each with their own national and sometimes international branding? One Ikea warehouse looks very much like any other Ikea warehouse with their blue sheds and yellow lettering wherever they are built in the world.

In fact, as we accept the benefits of global consumerism, should we just give up on the idea of local identity and distinctiveness? Should we be prepared to forsake the notion of local identity and admit that the new vernacular isn’t local but global?

After all, the general population, and I count our civic society members among them, seems willing to drive cars that look the same across the world; to wear globally branded clothing; to rely on a few big international companies to supply their technology; and their tastes in food are increasingly cosmopolitan, as evidenced by the range of foodstuffs that are now available on the shelves of our supermarkets and the variety of restaurants in our high streets that offer culinary styles from around the world.

Yes, let’s make life easy for ourselves! Let’s abandon notions of local identity and, in accepting that we are all part of one human race, embrace an international design code, even if that means one town or city will increasingly look like the next? If all our towns and cities look alike, at least we’ll no longer need to travel to see them all, which should do wonders for our carbon footprint!

[This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the Summer 2018 edition of Society Insight, the newsletter of YHACS, the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies.]

Are Civic Societies ‘Cultural Organisations’?

When was the last time you participated in a ‘cultural’ activity? My guess is that, as a member of a civic society, you are more likely than not to have done something that might be regarded as cultural – after all, civic society members are sophisticated, discerning, erudite individuals, aren’t we?

Draw up a list of all the ‘cultural’ activities you’ve taken part in recently. What’s on that list? Trips to the theatre and cinema, perhaps? Surely you have visits to art galleries and museums, yes? Maybe you’ve been to a lecture or a concert, perhaps an exhibition? All these things comfortably fit into our shared understanding of ‘cultural’ activities. But are there any civic society activities on your list? Did you recognise that attending a civic society talk, a blue plaque unveiling, or a guided walk might also be thought of as doing something cultural?

The reason I’m asking these questions arises from discussions I have been having in Wakefield recently about the role culture can play in creating jobs and opportunities and thereby helping to support or even trigger economic regeneration. As I am sure readers will know, Wakefield is now home to The Hepworth Wakefield, a modern gallery that opened in May 2011. It has proved popular with many, but not all, local residents and has been a big draw for visitors to the city.

Across the Wakefield district, we also have museums (Including the National Coal Mining Museum for England), cinemas, theatres, castles and art galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Nostell Priory. So there’s a lot going on yet, surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by an independent research company for Wakefield Council, some 41% of local residents surveyed said that they ‘never take part in art/culture’.

I personally find this statistic astonishing but it did get me thinking. What was the definition of culture used in the survey, I wondered? And did respondents’ own perceptions of what counts as culture affect the way in which they answered the question? What were the barriers to entry that put people off taking part in cultural pursuits?

Now, for what it’s worth, my view is that the definition of cultural pursuits should include things such as reading, doing family history research, taking part in guided walks and so on. I’d even include watching some television programmes such as documentaries, plays and so on (but we could have an interesting discussion just around that, I’m sure!).

There’s a Facebook page called the Wakefield Historical Appreciation Society which has over 13,000 members: that’s 13,000 people who share an interest in Wakefield’s architectural and social history. There’s a lively Historical Society in Wakefield (and others elsewhere in the district), six civic societies across the district and no doubt dozens of community and church groups, Rotary Clubs, WI associations and so on. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Wakefield, including performing arts, and at least one concert society; even the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is based in Wakefield! I’m sure there are many other societies, organisations and individuals contributing to the cultural mix that I’ve overlooked or am not even aware of.

All this cultural activity is made possible by people who work in the arts – whether they be the creative artists and performers or the management and enablers, the support staff both ‘front of house’ and behind the scenes. Also important in enabling cultural activities are the people who commission performers, writers, artists and so on and, of course, the people who provide the funding, either through grants and paid commissions or through audience participation and the purchase of tickets.

So, why is the relevant to us? Well, I often find that when I talk to people about what’s happening culturally in the city, the work of the civic society doesn’t usually get a mention and I have to keep asserting that we are a ‘cultural organisation!’. OK, we’re not a big player, we don’t have the money, but we are a frequent and reliable provider of talks and walks, occasional film screenings and blue plaque unveilings. We’ve written booklets and even occasionally commissioned creative work from others. But have a look at our constitution and you’ll find no mention of culture! There’s mention of architecture, design and town planning, but nothing specifically about culture. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t actually market ourselves as a cultural organisation – and if we don’t think of ourselves as a cultural organisation then it’s not surprising that others don’t either.

I think it’s time for us to think hard about how civic societies position themselves. I appreciate that some smaller societies won’t have the resources or capacity to organise the events and activities that we are able to put on in Wakefield, but many societies will and some may even do more. If we start seeing ourselves as part of the cultural offer of the place where we live, it might just open up opportunities to work with others, to establish new partnerships and maybe even open up new sources of funding. If nothing else, it might bring in more people to our events if we shift our traditional mindset of how we market the things we do.

Let’s bring a bit of show-business pizazz to our programming; let’s turn down the house lights, raise the curtain and put on a show!

On Beauty

Warwick

According to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness”.

We all need some beauty in our lives. Beauty, in whatever form, can make us happy. It can improve both our mental and, indirectly, our physical wellbeing. It can cause the spirit to soar and the heart to quicken. No wonder we seek it out. But how do we know that something is beautiful in and of itself? Is our appreciation of beauty something that we learn through others or is it something instinctive, something innate? Does my view of what is beautiful consist with yours? Is it possible to agree universal criteria for what counts as beauty – and would such criteria persist over time and across cultures? Or is an appreciation of what is beautiful entirely idiosyncratic and no more than a matter of personal taste?

I’ve been asking myself these sorts of questions for some time, (not altogether altruistically as I’m preparing a new talk on the subject) but with the government announcing the setting up of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission last year, trying to find answers to these questions has taken on a greater urgency. One of the aims of the Commission is “To advocate for beauty in the built environment”, in effect to test whether or not communities will be more likely to accept new housebuilding on their doorstep if the resulting developments can be said to be beautiful.

One of the ‘occupational hazards’ of civic society membership is to find oneself drawn into discussions about new developments and whether or not they are of good design. If your society is engaged in giving out design awards, then those discussions will be particularly relevant because you will probably need to justify your society’s conclusions to others: something I am very familiar with – been there, done that, and on an annual basis!

As I’ve argued before, I think that good design is something which can be assessed using objective criteria but can such objective tests be applied to a definition of beauty or is beauty very much in the eye of the beholder?

When we talk of beauty, we are really talking about aesthetics, not just visual but about the appeal to all our senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We might also conceive certain behaviours such as self-sacrifice, kindness, generosity or bravery to appeal to our sense of ‘moral beauty’, while a poem or a piece of prose might be described as having a form of ‘intellectual beauty’.  Even the love of one person for another can be described as beautiful.

“How do you spell ‘love’?” asked Piglet.

“You don’t spell it,” said Pooh, “you feel it.”

A.A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

It is clear then that, in our search for the meaning of beauty, we have to go wider than just visual attractiveness. My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1988 – yes, that old!) defines beauty as:

“That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to the senses, [especially] that of sight, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties.”

So, when we search for beauty, we need to explore all the world around us; from that which occurs naturally, as in a flower, a face, a sunset, a landscape, via that taken from nature but which is crafted and improved by man (or woman), such as a precious gemstone, cut and polished and perhaps set into a piece of jewellery, or a landscape shaped and perfected by the likes of Capability Brown, to that which is entirely ‘man-made’, an artefact such as a painting, a sculpture, a written work, a piece of music, or a building, and not forgetting the behavioural forms of beauty already mentioned.

If these then are at least some of the various the types of beauty we might find in our lives how do we recognise such beauty when we come across it? In his The Analysis of Beauty published in 1753, the painter William Hogarth distils the essential visual aesthetic quality of beauty down to the serpentine line, the S-shaped curve line found both in nature and in art as well as in architecture (for example in the ogee arch). Such analysis attributes the property of beauty to being an intrinsic quality of the actual object itself whereas other theories suggest it is in fact the pleasure response in ourselves that confers beauty onto something. If we accept that an object can be beautiful in itself, even when it is unobserved or unexperienced, then it might be possible to derive certain formulae that will allow the objective assessment of what beauty is. However, if we think that beauty exists only in the relationship between the thing observed and the person experiencing it, then it will be much harder to agree that X is beautiful but Y is not for we are entering the realms of personal taste with all its variety and mutability.

Let us assume that a state of beauty only exists when something is experienced and that the appreciation of beauty is something we can learn and, therefore, something that we can be taught. We enter life with the capability of recognising what is beautiful but we need to be guided by others to interpret and value beauty when we encounter it. Our parents and teachers will have a role to play in helping us to see the world through their eyes and to formulate our own responses to the natural and artistic world. They will help us to hone our critical faculties. As importantly, experts and opinion formers will also guide us in our pursuit of beauty; they will direct our gaze to what is delightful and help us to evaluate what is good. It is important though to keep a grip on our critical abilities and not to follow others blindly for fear of being considered uneducated: it would be at best disingenuous to claim to perceive beauty when we don’t feel its existence just because others tell us that something possesses the quality of beauty – shades of the Emperor’s new clothes and all that. Nonetheless, when there is critical acclaim, and that acclaim endures over time, it becomes ever harder to justify a contrary stance.

Perhaps this helps to explain why traditional architecture is valued more highly than more recent styles. Georgian and Victorian buildings have just been with us longer. We’ve grown used to them and, crucially, they have had time to accrete a reputation for excellence and beauty through the eyes of generations of experts and critics, whereas modern buildings just haven’t yet been around long enough to amass such critical support.

On the other hand, what if beauty is not something that we learn but is something that is innate: we are born into the world with a natural ability to discern and discriminate; to recognise the presence of beauty and know when it is absent. We don’t need to be guided – we just know. This suggests that our appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary response. Why might this be? Well, how about sex?

For the human race to survive, reproduction in necessary and for reproduction to take place, the laws of attraction apply. This is true throughout much of nature – think of birds whose colourful plumage, usually found in the male, serves only to attract a potential mate: those exotic colours serve no other purpose – you certainly don’t need colourful wings to fly. Even plants which rely on insects for pollination display colourful flowers (offering sweet treats) to tempt the bees towards them. Human beings are much the same although we tend to think of beauty as being a feminine trait whereas the male of the species is more usually described as handsome, good-looking or, perhaps, ‘rugged’. But beauty also plays another role in the continuation of our species: why do you think babies are so cute? Why are puppies and kittens so loveable? Arguably, it’s part of an evolutionary response to ensure that offspring are cared for and fed so as to guarantee their own survival to breeding age.

There are implications here for our discussion about beauty in architecture.  If our appreciation of beauty isn’t a learned behaviour but is in effect bred into us, then our apparent fondness for traditional architecture might somehow be a natural response. The original architects sought to create perfection in their work and we instinctively recognise that perfection in the inherent beauty of that work. In an equal and opposite reaction, our aversion to modern architecture might be a survival technique of its own: be wary of the unknown, let others experiment while we sit on the side lines to see whether the modern stuff stands the test of time and that is safe to live in. We know that, although not without its proponents, modern architecture has fewer adherents than for traditional and classic styles.  

Now, I’m not immune to the charms of traditional architecture myself. The architectural hierarchy epitomised in a Palladian mansion, or a finely proportioned Georgian town house, or a Victorian villa property, show just how beautiful traditional architecture can be. I can understand why people would want to live in such properties with their elegant façades, high ceilings and spacious rooms. Such aspirations are, however, probably outside what most of us can afford: not least because there simply are not enough period properties surviving to accommodate everybody who wants to live in one. This means that original examples hold their value well, making them both desirable and expensive. The closest most of us can get to this would be to live in a modern house but built in something approximating to the styles of the past. Fortunately, many of the mass housebuilders are apparently catering to this need: if you want period features, there’s plenty of choice!  

Except that the choice is illusory. To do traditional styles well, you need space, good materials and craftsmanship and these are all expensive, so the housebuilders compromise. Plot sizes are minimised and in consequence interior space is limited. Rooms are often small and ceiling heights low; standardised materials and components are used and the detailing found in the original is usually missing so what we end up with is a sort of pastiche in a somewhat bastardized style. They are perfectly all right: in fact, they are probably easier and cheaper to run than an original period property would be and will come with all mod cons built in. But I don’t think we can call them beautiful. One unfortunate effect of this trend is that we see similar house types spreading right across the country. (Anyone remember “Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same”? What we might regard as local vernacular styles giving way to what we might call national piacular style?

And this is where I return to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. I have been asked by Civic Voice to join the panel pulling together a response to the Commission on behalf of the civic society movement. Should the panel argue that we need more homes built in the traditional style, albeit with more thought given to choice of materials and individual design based on local context, or should we be saying that to meet the housing needs of a rising population, housebuilders need to build in a more contemporary style that maximises the efficiencies of modern construction techniques, possibly through prefabricated designs created on a factory production line and which can then be rapidly, and hopefully cheaply, assembled on site? Does modern housing have to be beautiful to be acceptable to the local community or is it more important that it is functional and affordable?

And if people are naturally resistant to modern schemes because of their design and, to some at least, an apparent lack of aesthetic appeal, is there anything that we, or anyone else for that matter, can do to help change perceptions of what beauty really is (and needs to be) in modern housing developments?

Of course, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing that can be done to change individuals’ perceptions of what is beautiful and what is not, then it’s just possible that we are wasting our time even trying to change people’s minds. Perhaps the question we are asking is the wrong one and no more than a distraction from the real issue. We should forget about beauty, and focus on design? (For which, see my previous article….) 

Natural Beauty?

Good Design Rules!

Design is my theme and I’d like to ask you to consider the subject from the perspective of four different quotes that I shall introduce to you shortly. For me, there is a difference between matters of design, which I think it is possible to assess using objective criteria – design rules, if you like – and matters of taste, for which there’s really no accounting! We often talk about our favourite books, music, food, colours, cars, holiday destinations and so on but when it comes to favourites, these are matters of personal taste. Good design might in some cases have led to something being a favourite, and, indeed a favourite of many, but taste and design are not the same thing.

Before I start, I should make clear that I really writing this for fellow civic society members. I’m not an architect or designer but, like many lay people who volunteer their time to serve on the committees of civic societies, I often find myself drawn into debates about good design. For civic society readers, it is the design of the built environment that will be your main priority, but when it comes to design, some rules are universal in their application.

Let me frame this article by reference to four quotes I’ve selected (not quite a random) from the internet:

Quote 1: “Form ever follows function, and this is the law” Louis Sullivan

Sullivan (1856-1924) was an American architect sometimes referred to as “father of skyscrapers”. The design of any item should take account of its function – there is no point in designing something, no matter how beautiful, if it doesn’t work well. The stylish shoes that give you bunions; the smart alarm clock that is so quiet when it goes off that you have to be awake already to hear it; the  boutique hotel room so over-designed that you can’t find the light switch – I could go on….. The same considerations must surely apply to buildings and to public spaces. Is a building ‘legible’ – as you walk up to it, can you tell where the entrance is? Is its purpose obvious – or do you have to work out what it is from the written signs? Are streets safe for pedestrians as well as vehicles to use? Do buildings have active and interesting street fronts that make them pleasant places to walk by? Are public spaces laid out in such a way that they invite people to tarry and wander, or are they unpleasant places that make you want to scurry through as fast as you can?

Quote 2: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Eliel Saarinen

People often criticize new buildings because the design doesn’t “fit in”. The concern here is that the new development takes no account of context. I remember someone telling me (although I can’t remember who it was) that when the designs for St Pancras Station in London were first put forward, there were people who complained the new building wouldn’t fit in. Arguably, it still doesn’t but it is majestic enough not to need to fit in: it makes a statement of its own that is aesthetically appealing and a delight to see. There will be times when new buildings will work better if they blend in, but there will be occasions when gateway, or landmark, buildings are required to stand out, to make a statement and to shout about local distinctiveness. Which is right will depend on … er … context.   

Quote 3: “Decisions on artwork by committee end up being made on the premise of not turning people off rather than turning people on.” Paul Attwood

For ‘artwork’ in the above quote, you can also read ‘design’. The planning sub-committee of my own society met a while back to look at a new proposal. We were happy enough with the concept but it was rather ‘safe’. We felt that for what was quite a prominent site in the city centre, something a bit more exciting would be better. We went to see the architect and explained how we thought the design could be improved. He listened patiently then reached for a folder from which he removed his original drawings for the site. Guess what, they were almost exactly what we were looking for! We asked why he’d toned down his original scheme for the rather bland design that had been submitted for planning. He said he had compromised because his clients had made some changes and then the council’s planning officers had asked for further changes to be made.

In effect the vision of the architect had been watered down by a committee of first the clients and then the planning officers. This must have been frustrating for the architect but it also short-changed the people of Wakefield who are perhaps more willing to embrace bold new designs than the planners allow. As a civic society, we sometimes have to campaign for innovative design, something that might just upset the applecart, and developers and planners, as well as members of the public, are sometimes surprised about how adventurous we’re prepared to be.

Quote 4: “We are all designers, the difference is that only a few of us do it full-time.” Sabo Tercero

And this probably sums up why we, both as individuals and organisations, are so often dissatisfied with the new developments going on around us. Rather like when it comes to questions of how to run the county, we all have a view – and we all think we could do better!

When I lead guided walks around Wakefield, the design of the Hepworth gallery often crops up. Some people love it, others hate it. Having met the architect, David Chipperfield, and heard him speak about the design and how he arrived at it, I think it is quite an exceptional piece of architecture and one that is perfect for its purpose.

When people criticise it, I offer to give them a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to draw me the gallery they would have designed. It would have to allow light into rooms that could be controlled to avoid direct sunlight falling on some rather valuable artworks. It would have to provide hanging space for paintings and floor space for sculpture and circulation space. You’d have to avoid lots of pillars as they obstruct sight lines, prevent free movement and make it more difficult to place and exhibit work. Rooms and openings would have to be high to allow for larger works. And you want people to flow through the gallery without having to double back on themselves to reach the exit. Oh, and if you are going to build it next to a river that sometimes overflows its banks, take account of the potential for flooding in your design. Finally, have some regard to context, please, whether that be the adjacent buildings – do you want to stand out or blend in – or topography and landscape – do you level the ground or work within its contours?

Interestingly, no one has yet accepted my challenge! But what if they did? Would they come up with anything radically different, bearing in mind there would also be budget limitations to work within? In fact, if I press people a bit harder about what they don’t like about the Hepworth, it often boils down to the colour of the external walls: they don’t like grey! (“Which colour would you paint it then?”) In other words, we’ve distilled the argument down to one of personal taste rather than whether the gallery is a good design, which is where I came in.

Design is a fascinating subject: for an easy-to-read but thought-provoking study, I’d like to conclude by recommending a book by Matthew Frederick – 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

All Civic Societies need an ‘Elevator Pitch’

So, imagine the scenario. You have a chance encounter with someone who could help change your society’s fortunes for the better. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your society. You have their attention, they’re looking you in the eye, they’re ready to listen but you don’t have long. Fluff this moment and you’re history. What do you say that will capture their attention and make them want to learn more? This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ is vital.

Coined in the USA (hence elevator rather than lift), the idea behind the term is that, to succeed in business, you need to be able to encapsulate in no more than a few sentences who you are, what you do, and, most importantly, why the conversation should continue. As a lift journey can last as little as 30 seconds and even in the tallest buildings is likely to last no longer than around two minutes, you have to be cogent, articulate, and to the point. With luck, you’ll engage the attention of the person to whom you are speaking and they will be curious enough to want to learn more, to continue the conversation over coffee when you step outside that lift.

This sort of scenario isn’t that uncommon. OK, it might not happen in a lift, but it could happen at a business event, a networking opportunity, or just in the street where you bump into someone, and it can happen at any time. You need your elevator pitch ready and to be willing to use it at the drop of a hat.

When I first became president at Wakefield Civic Society, I had to represent the Society at all sorts of meetings and stakeholder events. Often, having introduced myself as the president of the Society, I’d be confronted with the question “What’s that then?” and it was clear that many people outside the Society’s own membership had never heard of us. Being asked this question so frequently really made me think about what the Society did and how best to describe it in the proverbial nutshell. Much to my surprise, and consternation, it was actually quite difficult to summarise the essence of the Society, its values and its activities in just two or three sentences, partly because, at base, the Society’s activities are centred on a number of different concepts.

Reflecting on the question and how to answer it also started me thinking about why anyone would actually be interested in what we do. How do you sell an idea and captivate an audience so that other people can see the value in what you do to the point where they actually want to engage with it and support your work?

I began by writing down the sort of things we do in bullet points, starting with the charitable aims described in the Society’s constitution. Like most civic societies, our principal interest is in the built environment. Our aims say that we exist to “promote high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield, to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the city and its surroundings, to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest and to pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature”.

That’s quite a mouthful! And if we go back to the elevator pitch, it won’t work because it’s actually a list of things: connected yes, but each part of that list conveys a different idea of what we do – and what if the person you are speaking to isn’t interested in architecture, planning or preservation and development? Even if they do express an interest, these terms have a wide range of possible interpretations and spin-off implications so it would be easy to get side-tracked while narrowing down the points on which you want to focus.

In the end, I decided to think about the value we add to the city and to find something which would (or should!) grab the attention of anyone with an interest in Wakefield. This is what I came up with: Wakefield Civic Society is an organisation dedicated to making Wakefield a better place in which to live, work or relax – or do business.

You may or may not like this – but it’s easy to say (and remember) and, sometimes with slight variations to wording, can be used in printed documents, on line and in presentations. In other words, the phrase has become part of our brand.

When I tell people this is what we are about, it piques their interest and, if they really do care about Wakefield, they quite naturally want to know more about us. Using this phrase tends to open up a different sort of conversation from the sort I used to have when I spoke of our charitable objects related to architecture, planning and design.

You might not think of your charity as a business but when it comes to marketing and branding, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a few ideas!