By Collaborating We………Co-create (A personal reflection on collaborative practice by Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord)

By Collaborating We………Co-create (A personal reflection on collaborative practice by Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord)

“Vivendo discimus. Pesando creamus.” – Patrick Geddes

It has often been suggested that cities are humanity’s greatest achievement; furthering civilisation by the exchange of ideas and innovations through collaboration, enabled by proximity.

Architecture, urbanism and planning are fundamentally collaborative disciplines. The design and construction of buildings rarely occurs without collaboration. Place-making and place-mending at a neighbourhood, town, city or regional scale demands it.

I was first introduced to the life-work of Patrick Geddes in my late teens and was immediately struck by the apparent timelessness and resonance of many (though not all!) of his ideas to our contemporary world. I continued to research his work throughout my architecture studies in Edinburgh and Berlin. At that time I was extremely fortunate to regularly work with several artists inspired by Geddes, notably George Wyllie and Kenny Munro. It was a formative, creative experience which reinforced the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration.

As an architect, planner and urbanist, always mindful of Geddes’ life-long advocacy for interdisciplinary thought and action, I have actively sought the creative opportunities that emerge from immersive collaborative working, through practice and design research. This has involved numerous collaborations with other architects, artists, designers, engineers and, most significantly, clients, end-users and local communities.

At Austin-Smith:Lord we have a long-held ethos of working as a ‘creative collective’ – seeking to co-create designs through the open sharing of ideas and pooling our shared knowledge and experience. This approach is encapsulated in our recent and current work in town / city / urban regeneration; fusing our architecture, landscape architecture, conservation architecture and urban design practice with expertise from (many) others.

Our recent public realm project in Helensburgh Town Centre clearly illustrates collaborative practice; moving from theory through design process to delivery. Austin-Smith:Lord, WAVEparticle (artists), Argyll + Bute Council (client) and other team members facilitated an array of public and stakeholder consultations from the start of the design process. This intensive, iterative and collaborative approach revealed hidden opportunities.

Helensburgh Community Consultation: Futurewalk
Helensburgh Community Consultation: Futurewalk

Helensburgh Community Consultation: Gazebo Day
Helensburgh Community Consultation: Gazebo Day

The local community desired a town museum; a focus for their town. Our remit was to redesign the main town square, principal streets and seafront esplanade. Through collaborative discussions between architects, landscape architects and artists ideas were shared, tested and refined and the concept of an Outdoor Museum, integrated in to the town square, quickly emerged.

The granite street bollards could become plinths to present the town’s social history. It was a neat way to enrich the design, meet our brief and respond to the community’s requests. The square has become imbued with the collective memory of the town.

Outdoor museum 2
Helensburgh Outdoor Museum

Scotland’s first 24/7 Outdoor Museum was unveiled in 2015, curated by WAVEparticle, and features the work of numerous artists and artefacts from local people and was executed in close creative collaboration between WAVEparticle and Austin-Smith:Lord. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The square has become a focus for events and festivals, and plans are progressing to extend the Outdoor Museum to reveal more of Helensburgh’s story.

The increased awareness and application of Geddesian thinking is exemplified by the recent emergence of the design charrette in contemporary Scottish planning and place-making practice. Over the last five years Austin-Smith:Lord have worked in very close collaboration with Doug Wheeler (regeneration consultant), Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle (artists), Ryden (property advisers) and Transport Planning Ltd. on charrettes throughout Scotland.

Collectively we have evolved and developed an array of charrette techniques to enable the local communities (young and old, usual and unusual suspects) to fully engage, guide and take ownership of ideas through co-authorship of the emerging whole-place plan for their town or neighbourhood. The local communities are the experts on their place and our team seeks to facilitate and reveal the possibilities for their place. This work is always framed within Geddes’ temporal progression of understanding the place’s Past, to comprehend Present challenges and explore Possible future opportunities for positive change.

Public Consultation
South West Johnstone Design Charrette

We often augment our charrette team with our peers, including Fergus Purdie Architect, to challenge and refresh our approach from time to time and to continue to learn and develop our collective practice, processes and proposals through authentic and reflective collaboration.

This ethos also underpins our forthcoming work for Glasgow City Council on the City Centre Districts Regeneration Frameworks being taken forward by many of our charrette team in an international collaboration led by MVRDV and involving Space Syntax.

This fusion of international and local practice – Geddes’s ‘Think Global Act Local’ manifest in a design team – is founded on integrated, interdisciplinary, international collaboration.

Our methodology has a significant focus on intensive citizen engagement through face to face dialogue, charrettes, pop-up in-situ events, proof of concept / prototyping, social media, interactive websites, Smart City techniques and the development of an ‘urban room’ – a compact 21st Cent. version of Geddes’ Outlook Tower.

It is hoped that by combining big data analysis with the intuition and wisdom of the local (expert) communities canvassed via real and virtual engagement we will enrich the future vision for Glasgow City Centre through participative, interdisciplinary collaboration.

Hopefully Geddes would approve. And perhaps we could be bold enough to extended his sequence of oft-cited mottos;

By leaves we live,

By living we learn,

By creating we think,


By collaborating we…!

Graham Ross, Partner at Austin-Smith:Lord

Tweet @Graham_M_Ross

This article features in the book accompanying the ‘A Botanist Looks At The World’ exhibition about the life, work and influence of Patrick Geddes. The exhibition runs until Sat 29th October in Perth Museum and Art Gallery as part of the Festival of Architecture 2016 and was curated by Fergus Purdie Architects.

Links below to further details: