Legacy, according to Jonathan Meades, is “what is not yet”. We cannot guess what will happen in a generation or 100 years since “the future is completely unreadable”. Who for instance could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union or the resurgence of religion today?

Although “talking about legacy has become a kind of fashion” according to Meades, it has a certain importance, particularly in the context of the built environment.

Government-led building projects make a statement about a country’s status. They are a way to show the nation’s modernity, to move away from the past, perceived as dirty and messy, and display historical heritage to future generations.

To illustrate this last point, Meades compared the concept of architectural legacy in Paris and London. Paris is a static, museum-type, uniform city whose centre has not changed since Haussmann’s renovations at the beginning of the 20th Century. London never had the autocratic will to launch a big intervention in the city and rebuild it according to a specific plan. Today, all its districts are different from one another, resembling a collection of villages. For Meades, this is what makes London’s greatness and what allows the city to transform its built environment according to its time.

Legacy is linked to the built environment because architects want to fix the future in place. To a certain extent, they want to ensure that their constructions will be used for their original purpose. Yet, according to Meades, we have to accept that the purpose of a building might change between the moment it is constructed and what it could become in 100 years. We are under the illusion that architects make cities, yet it is the people who define the character of buildings and consequently their future use.

Meades also warned that “everything becomes redundant very quickly” and suggested it might be time for architects to create spaces and buildings that can be transformed - if they wish their constructions to survive the future. He concluded by saying that architects should not try to create legacy, as so few people ever succeed. Only the next generations will know the truth about the future uses of the built environment.

The discussion was moderated by Hywel Williams, Senior  Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

Video—What Does Legacy Really Mean? Interview with Jonathan Meades

Video—What Does Legacy Really Mean? Full Discussion with Jonathan Meades and Hywel Williams

Video—What Does Legacy Really Mean? Introduction with Sian Hansen, Executive Director, Legatum Institute

Podcast—What Does Legacy Really Mean? Full Discussion with Jonathan Meades and Hywel Williams


About the Architecture of Prosperity Series

The Architecture of Prosperity, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, evaluates the impact of the built environment on human wellbeing and the capacity for creativity. The series of lectures, seminars and conferences address the central question of why some forms of architecture promote prosperity while others are linked to vicious effects.