What Follows: Oliver Domeisen


23 February 2017

“Brexit means Brexit.” This mantra has been repeated by the British prime minister Theresa May ever since the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016. The exact form that this disentanglement from the EU will take remains unclear.

Post-referendum, Disegno collaborated with the designer Faye Toogood on a series of portraits reflecting the contribution of non-UK nationals to London’s diverse creative industries. The portraits, published in Disegno #13, were accompanied by a short text from each sitter, reflecting on what the rhetoric of Brexit means for them. Many of the featured practitioners operate internationally, but each is based out of London and each has been affected by the Brexit vote.

The project was developed in conjunction with London-based designer Faye Toogood, whose work is currently the subject of a solo exhibition on display at Friedman Benda gallery, New York. Since 2013, Faye and her sister Erica have also operated Toogood, a unisex brand whose garments are inspired by the workwear of traditional professions.

To highlight the practice of the sitters rather than their nationality, Toogood created a series of garments in calico that represent the various trades in abstract terms. The garments are archetypes. They celebrate the knowledge, skills, and culture that non-UK citizens have brought to London’s creative industries, as well as acknowledging the absence their loss would precipitate. Their execution in plain calico is an act 
of dislocation: a means of moving perception away from nationality and onto a person’s contribution.

On the occasion of Faye Toogood: Assemblage 5 opening at Friedman Benda, Disegno is delighted to publish an extended version of one of the reflections, penned by architect Oliver Domeisen. The reflection is accompanied by a portrait of Domeisen, photographed by Kevin Davies in the library of the Architectural Association, London.

Oliver Domeisen, council member of the Architectural Association and lecturer in Advanced Architectural Studies at The Bartlett UCL

It is 23 years since I left Switzerland to study at the Architectural Association and then work at the office of Zaha Hadid. The fact that the world’s best architecture school and one of the world’s most exciting architecture practices – both with a profoundly international outlook – were then based in London was a mere coincidence; one that resulted in happily spending half of my life in the UK. I have subsequently taught many European students in London and British students in the EU, seeing first hand how productive and beneficial it can be to engage with people inclusively as individuals rather than as nationalities.

I remember with unease the period before the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU in 2002, when I had to renew my visa every year. It is a humiliating and destabilising process, which makes long-term career and family planning very difficult – for the self-employed almost impossible. It makes no sense to me that young creative British people might now give up their right of free movement. Especially considering all the stress, uncertainty, expenditure on legal advice and dependency on corporate sponsorship that working or settling in another EU country will incur.

To those who suppose that a reduction in EU immigration will generate an economic benefit worth sacrificing your freedom of movement for, I would point out the following: the population of Switzerland is over 23 per cent foreign citizens (17 per cent from the EU) compared to the UK’s 13 per cent (7 per cent EU), but the average income in Switzerland is double that of the UK. Having adopted free movement 14 years ago it is still, per capita, one of the world’s wealthiest countries. It should be clear that the responsibility for economic inequality rests firmly with a country’s government and not the minorities that are regularly being scapegoated to mask that government’s incompetence, or apparent lack of interest in the common good.

But proving that xenophobia is never entirely an economically motivated phenomenon, Switzerland, cajoled by the far right, has also narrowly voted against free movement in a recent referendum, creating serious problems for its own government that have to be resolved with the EU by February 2017. What we already know is that the EU almost immediately excluded Swiss students and universities from the Erasmus Programme, from European Research Council Grants and sidelined them from the Horizon 2020 funding programme. The same fate may befall UK students and institutions.

This academic year we’ve already seen a fall in student numbers, resulting in financial losses and cuts in spending; and Article 50 has not even been triggered. Higher education in the UK faces very difficult times if Theresa May continues to sabotage the sector by clamping down on student visas in order to attain lower net migration numbers and score party-political points. Maybe the saddest aspect of this is that it was brought about unnecessarily and for the wrong reasons, by self-interested people with myopic goals. Surely a successful Europe is in everybody’s interest, be they inside or outside of the Union. The practice and teaching of architecture have nothing to gain from leaving the EU.

As an architectural historian I know that the profession’s most accomplished achievements have always been the result of periods of relative political and economical stability, peace, mobility and collaboration. The turmoil we find ourselves in as a result of Brexit is certainly not conducive to the professional, academic and artistic excellence we should be striving for. For the first time in 23 years I look at my adopted country with a heavy heart. It seems to me that British people have been misled onto the tracks of history by some very foolhardy demagogues. I just hope they will come to their senses before they are pushed under the oncoming train.

The practice and teaching of architecture have nothing to gain from leaving the EU. As a profession we have no choice but to counter the Brexiteers’ incessant demands for compliance with the majority with vocal opposition, informed dissent, mutual respect and a celebration of the benefits of diversity.