Code words favouring a certain architectural style are creeping into government policy and guidelines

Robert Adam

The government is quite clear in the new National Planning Policy Framework: “Planning policies and decisions should not attempt to impose architectural styles ..”  In fact, versions of this have been in government policies for decades. For some time, however, radical architects feel they have been victims of a public taste for tradition when they come up against the planning system, so they lobby to get a special note. And sure enough, after this clear statement about style they managed to persuade the civil servants to put in note especially for them: “policies and decisions … should not stifle innovation, originality and initiative”.

Architects know that “innovation” and “originality” are code words for Modernism; maybe the civil servants didn’t.  That’s the clever thing about code words.

When you look further you find the same thing in local policies and guidance. Take two important historic cities: Winchester and Chester. Winchester has a policy that says: “new development should complement but not seek to mimic existing development and should be of its time. The council will encourage a contemporary approach to new designs ..”   Chester even has a “Manifesto for Contemporary Design” that says: “the boldest and most successful designs are those which clearly express the ethos to which they relate, and do not refer to the language of earlier periods.”

The use of code words for style cleverly disguises their intention from government inspectors and innocent members of the public.

This has even spread to heritage protection, the one place where traditional design might be understood. English Heritage said in a recent consultation in an historic city that: “the architectural design … is in a very mixed historicist style and we believe in principle that an opportunity to create something more contemporary and of a high design quality … has been lost.”  A conservation officer in Bath regrets that a proposal is a traditional design, describing it as “hybrid”, and says that “high quality contemporary architecture would be appropriate.”

Solihull has policies for the historic environment that say that the town “does not expect a pastiche of existing designs and actively welcomes good examples of contemporary design”. Even rural Ayrshire is not free from the style diktats of planning. The council is looking for “good quality contemporary solutions” and doesn’t “promote proposals that are pastiche .. but promote[s] architecture of its time.”

I could go on. The same code words appear again and again. “Contemporary” has two definitions, “now” or a style; if it means “now” then it’s impossible to be anything else, so unless it is meaningless it must mean a style. The same goes for “of its time”.  “Innovative” and “original” are just ways of saying “different” or “unusual” and are meant as a contrast to traditional architecture that is, by definition, a continuation of the “language of an earlier period” and which can pejoratively be described as “mimicry” or, worse, “pastiche”.

The use of code words for style cleverly disguises their intention from government inspectors and innocent members of the public. “Mimicry” sounds parrot-like and “pastiche” is worse – like a bad pastry. These are contrasted with positive-sounding “of its time” and, better, “innovative” – which is what manufacturers are constantly chided to do. It all seems to be just about positive design but - in this context and to anyone in the planning and architectural professions - the meanings are very clear: traditional bad - Modernism good. And traditional and modernist architecture are clearly distinguishable and identifiable; they are styles.

This is all part of the creeping institutionalisation of Modernism. For half a century it has been the style of the architectural establishment. It is now becoming the style of the bureaucrats. The irony of the institutionalisation of what still claims to be radical seems to have escaped practitioners.  Maybe, like established classicism in the 30s, institutionalisation heralds the end. Perhaps it is the traditionalists that now need the special clause: “policies and decisions should not prevent continuity, retrospection and tradition.”

Robert Adam is a director of ADAM Architecture