Oliver Wainwright

The Guardian

Over the last decade writing for the Guardian, Oliver Wainwright has redefined the role of the architecture critic, going beyond reviews of buildings to exposing the invisible forces that shape the built environment – and revealing in vivid detail the unintended consequences of the best laid plans. This year, he examined the overlooked side effects of America’s green energy revolution, travelling to the middle of the Mojave desert to find an area 10 times the size of Manhattan being carpeted with solar panels. While the Biden administration trumpets the energy claims, on the ground Wainwright found ancient indigenous sites being trampled, long-standing communities being forced out, and forests of thousand-year-old carbon-capturing trees being bulldozed. As an expert desert botanist told him: “We are removing the most efficient carbon sequestration units on the planet, and releasing millennia of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the solar panels we are replacing them with have a lifespan of around 25 years.” His reporting made national waves and led several US senators and congressmen to lend their support to the desert communities’ campaigns. In the UK, Wainwright took an eloquent sledgehammer to the construction industry, in a far-reaching piece that examined why Britain’s new homes are so badly built. He exposed a system that is rotten at every level: from the virtual monopoly of the few big housebuilders, and their iron grip over the limited supply of land, to the combative, buck-passing nature of procurement – laid out with such tragic clarity during the Grenfell Tower inquiry – to the lack of proper supervision on site, to the rapidly declining skilled workforce, a perfect storm has been created for a crisis of crap homes. Wainwright revealed how the industry’s business model provides a direct incentive to build the worst homes possible, showing how decisions in the boardroom cascade through the system into every wonky gutter and mislaid brick. Elsewhere, he focused on how one legal ruling could have an iniquitous knock-on effect on the future of public life in our cities. Following six years of legal battles (which Wainwright covered from the beginning), the supreme court ruled that the residents of the luxury glass-walled flats opposite Tate Modern’s viewing gallery face an unacceptable level of “visual intrusion”. In a searing opinion piece, he explained how the ruling could fundamentally shape the nature of how streets and public spaces are made, with the right to live without curtains trumping the enjoyment of a great public space for all – no matter which development comes first. The ruling, he argued, will only accelerate the phenomenon whereby the very things that make an area desirable, and prompt an influx of property speculators, are then cast as nuisances to be eradicated. In a field that can so often get caught up in obscure jargon, Wainwright’s writing is a breath of fresh air, explaining complex subjects with rare clarity, shedding critical light on the murky mechanics of how places are made, and most urgent challenges facing our era.