Matthew Weiner on identity


Think back to your childhood and the influence that buildings had on you as you grew up. Perhaps without even realising it.

The home in which you lived, the school in which you studied, perhaps the place in which you worshipped or the football stadium in which you cheered on your favourite team, and booed the referee.

All will have played a role in shaping who you are today: your identity. So will the place in which you spent your formative years, the community that surrounded you, the streets and buildings that were home to the people who also shaped your identity.

Given the importance of the built environment in shaping lives, we as developers have to take seriously our role in understanding identity. Some would argue that those who were responsible for some of the worst concrete tower blocks of the 1960’s had put too little thought into how those buildings would shape the lives of the inhabitants; while others could point to any number of examples of a well-considered development that has produced a community that encourages people to live and work together harmoniously – with the obvious social benefits flowing from that.

That is why we have tried to explore the issue of identity in the latest edition of our thought-provoking magazine, MATTER. The purpose is, in part, to consider how we, as makers of places, use our influence wisely. But MATTER also – and always – seeks to take us away from just thinking about the property sector.

To understand identity, we need to ask not only what it is – but also what are the other things that shape it. It is a complex topic, as the myriad of factors are almost too numerous to explore fully. But realising that it is complex is half the battle won. Some of the factors we explore in MATTER are race, gender and the very meaning of home. Of course, a key and fascinating new factor is the influence of social media and other technologies, which is certainly playing a key role in shaping the identities of the next generation. How will artificial intelligence shape future identities? Will it perpetuate old prejudices, or generate new ones?

We may not have all the answers, but at least we are exploring the questions. And in embracing the whole issue of identity, there is one interesting challenge that we as developers need to think more about.

I think it is fair to say that society is more fragmented than, say, thirty years ago. More people are leading their lives more differently than others. Social groupings with different identity traits and behaviours proliferate. Which means more people want more different things. We have to think this through.

Thirty years ago, almost every male who went to work in an office wore a suit and a tie, and the women wore dresses. So an office building needed to cater for a broadly similar social identity. But now the same block can house smart-suited private equity types on the top floors, and a sneaker-wearing host of internet start-ups on the lower ones. With perhaps a law firm in the middle, that is naturally suit, but wants to be sneakers. How do we evolve the way we create places to accommodate such a diverse range of identities in a way that helps them work together and feel at home? If we can answer that question, we can help people strengthen their identities, which will increase their sense of confidence, of citizenship and of wellbeing. That has to be a goal worth aiming for.