Amanda Levete's Full Speech for the Brexit Conference
During my time as an architect, I’ve seen how membership
of the EU has hugely increased the talent pool and how
we’ve thrived as a result.
I’ve seen how open borders have enriched our discipline –
because architecture feeds off diversity.
Attracting and retaining talent from across Europe has
helped British practices to become world leaders.
If we’re to maintain that pre-eminence, there can be no
compromise on free movement or the opportunity to recruit
In my practice, we have people from thirteen different
countries and over half are non-British EU citizens.
This is typical of most creative offices who work at an
The diversity brings different perspectives and different
cultural references – and our work is all the richer for that.
When we start a new project, we need to be agile.
Language skills are vital, but it’s also the local knowledge of
context and regulations that are essential when working on
projects across Europe.
Different educational backgrounds also give us a broader
On the continent, architectural training is more technical
and encourages different ways of explaining buildings. For
example, Spanish universities don’t allow students to
present their work in person to their tutors—everything has
to be in the drawing.
In the UK, it is very different and there is a much greater
emphasis on the student’s explaining their conceptual
We need both.
Today, British practices benefit from a virtuous circle – we
can recruit the very best people, work with them to realise
exceptional projects, and in doing so perpetuate our pre-
Any weak links in this chain – including barriers to
recruitment – will lead to a downward, vicious cycle that will
be difficult to escape.
And what will happen to those European citizens already
here? In my office, there is a fear that comes from
My team are exceptional people at a formative time in their
careers and they’re making a huge contribution.
Many of our young architects have made their homes here –
they’re putting down roots, getting onto the property ladder
and starting families.
They’re mobile and ambitious, but a sense of community is
extremely important to them.
An open community is a big part of London’s allure. It is
culture and diversity that has attracted young talent to our
But those talented young professionals who want to
contribute to the UK are starting to go elsewhere.
Migration of talent happens very quickly.
We’ve already had people leave to go back to their home
towns in Europe and we’re seeing a marked decrease in the
number of EU applicants.
Economies in Spain and Portugal are picking up. France
and Holland are looking like better alternatives. Their cities
are welcoming and more affordable.
The culture of the UK’s cities will continue to attract people
but we’ve been complacent in expecting it to be enough and
to always be there.
We’re losing our reputation for tolerance and diversity - the
very values on which our cities thrive.
There is a universality to creativity – the most talented
people can and will set up anywhere.
So, we need to send a message that young creatives are
welcome here and we need to send it fast.
The longer we hear only hopes rather than answers from
our leaders, the greater the psychological damage.
I would be derelict in my duty if I were not now exploring the
potential for having a base in the EU.
We are being actively encouraged to set up an office in
Paris and they’re making it financially competitive, because
they see the value that a practice like ours would bring to
But this is a distraction for us.
And it sends the wrong message – our studio and our
discipline have collaboration at its core. Having separate
offices for people with different passports runs completely
counter to those values.
In the 20th Century, Britain went from the position of being
the “workshop of the world,” when we sent finished goods
across the globe, to being the “workshop for the world”,
importing talent and exporting ideas.
If we can’t import the talent, how can we export the ideas?
Many people today will talk about the impressive
contribution that the creative industries make to our GDP.
But to talk about the creative sector only in terms of money
is to miss the point.
As an architect, I’m asked to design the very physical
manifestations of a nation’s identity – its buildings and its
Yes, we’re entrepreneurs— hundreds of thousands of
people are employed in the sector and it generates billions
of pounds in revenue. But this is about values that money
The creative industries are not just an economic success
story – we’re also ambassadors who help shape our sense
of who we are as a nation and communicate Britain’s
identity across Europe.
The EU is a visionary idea – a union that is social and
cultural as well as economic, one that came out of war and
intended to create a lasting peace.
But in the decade or so leading up to the EU referendum,
almost all our politicians failed to convey the ethos of this
That lack of positivity and the negative rhetoric about
Europe played out in both the “Leave” and the “Remain”
Very rarely was the focus on what we gain from Europe –
and even less frequent was the focus on what we have and
can achieve together.
In his excellent speech for the Federation a few weeks’ ago,
John Major said that “Brexit has been the most divisive
issue of our lifetime…”
We need to heal those divisions. And culture is better than
anything at repairing rifts.
We practice co-operation and collaboration on a daily basis.
We find ways of bridging divides, blurring thresholds and
building consensus. Our artists, writers and musicians
tackle some of the big existential questions of who we are
and where we’re going.
There has never been a more important time in society to
celebrate what unites rather than divides us.
I’ve worked across Europe and seen how respected British
creatives are when it comes to finding common ground.
In Berlin, two of the most important civic projects since the
reunification of Germany are by British architects: the
Reichstag by Norman Foster and the Neues Museum by
Both projects go to the very heart of German identity and
the painful reconciliation of the past with today.
My office has been entrusted with the remodelling of
Galeries Lafayette in Paris.
The department store is an icon of the city that has 37m
visitors each year—more than the 9m who go to the Louvre
or the 7m who go to the Eiffel Tower.
So this project is not just about the department store it’s
about “l’art de vivre à la Française” – in effect we’re looking
at what it means to be French.
Our client, a French family business, didn’t hesitate to give
this role to a British practice because they understood we
have empathy and sensitivity to the spirit and heritage of
both the store and its city.
Here in London, the museums and institutions of South
Kensington were the idea of a German-born, adopted Briton,
Last July, the V&A opened their largest project in over 100
years, the Exhibition Road Quarter.
Looking back on our six years of work there, I question how
such a project would be different in post-Brexit Britain.
We depended on talent and expertise from architects and
specialists from across Europe.
By way of example, the porcelain tiles for the courtyard
required two years of intense research with a manufacturer
based in The Netherlands.
Yes, we have great manufacturers in Britain.
But we cannot replace the expertise that we don’t have.
Tichelaar, is the oldest company in Holland and they’ve
been working with ceramics for over 400 years.
In future, Dutch tiles may prove to be too expensive and
we’ll have to use cheaper, inferior products for our national
All clients – and especially public institutions – need cost
certainty. But unknown tariffs and delays at customs will
give cause for alarm.
Rather than a bold new Britain, we will become more
cautious and risk-averse. And that runs completely counter
to creative thinking.
So, my message to our leaders is: Do not mess with this
It’s not just about trade and what we can extract, it’s about
culture and society. It’s about the exchange of talent and
knowledge and respect for each other’s nations.
It has taken decades to build this spirit of co-operation, but
it could be dismantled in months.
The rest of Europe is busy getting on with business as
usual and looking on with bemusement at our anxiety. They
will be fine without us.
This European indifference should be extremely worrying
for our leaders.
I will always try to work in Europe and continue to express a
commonality of ideals – of democracy, openness and
But I fear that it will not be so easy in a post-Brexit Britain.
The creative industries are engaged, enterprising and solve
problems every day. It’s what we do. We have a voice that is
listened to and respected on an international stage.
But loss of talent will hugely dilute our voice and the UK’s
pre-eminence in the creative sector.
We need to mobilise now and to hold our leaders to account
– so that Britain remains a creative nation - of hope,
diversity and tolerance.