Running a workshop is like walking a tightrope

David Rudlin remembers a particularly challenging community planning weekend run by John in the Hulme Estate in Manchester.   

When I was a local authority planning officer many years ago, one of our few treats was to be let out for an afternoon to do CPD, which meant attending a conference. Towards the end of my time there in the late 1980s I was allowed to travel to a conference in Liverpool where the stand-out presentation was John Thompson describing a community planning weekend. That was it! From that point onwards that was what I wanted to do and it led within a year to me getting a job with URBED.

It was not long after that John’s team was appointed to run a community planning weekend for Hulme in Manchester. At the time Hulme was probably the most politically charged neighbourhood in the country; a collection of squatters, crusties and new age travellers, mixed with a formidable traditional community and a bunch of ex-student tenant activists.

I had been the planning officer for Hulme while also living there and being a member of a local housing coop, Homes for Change. Inspired, as I had been, by the community planning weekends described by John at that CPD event, I had my doubts. The Lee View estate in Hackley may have been tough, but the Hulme tenants took it to as whole new level, the year before they had taken on and beaten the council and government via a six-week sit-in of the local project office. I worried about how a bunch of well-spoken southern architects go down?

The event took place in the Zion Institute in the middle of Hulme and was attended by hundreds of people with crusties and activists sitting around tables with senior officers and politicians. My son Luca was only 18 months at the time (he is now 33) so, because my wife Helene was also a tenant activist, we agreed that she would attend most of the event and I would come along with a well behaved Luca in his pushchair for the big presentation.

It was amazing how much everyone bought into the whole thing, from the most disgruntled tenants to the most senior officials, who worked together late into the night on the reports and the outputs. I recall one of the crusties doing a presentation on how a series of lay lines centred on Hulme and being taken seriously by the whole audience. The overwhelming response was enthusiasm, in an area where anger and distrust had been the norm.

This was not all down to John, indeed the fact that the council had commissioned John’s team was a symptom of an emerging détente between the council and the tenants. The City Challenge programme was seen as a new start for the area and the majority of tenants had decided to give it a chance or at least to reserve judgement.

Nevertheless, having run many workshops in my career, I can tell you that the atmosphere that John fostered was not a given. Running a community workshop is like walking a tight rope, it’s exhilarating when it works but you can so easily fall off. I don’t know whether John ever did (fall off), I certainly did on a couple of occasions. So, I can only admire John’s commitment to doing all of his work through community planning weekends whether it be in a second language in Russia, Germany, France or China or maybe even more dauntingly with a bunch of NIMBYs in the Home Counties, or a bunch of crusties in Hulme.

There are easier ways of making a living as an architect but maybe few as fulfilling.