What is it about the UK that spawned the likes of Rogers, Foster, Hopkins, Grimshaw and Farrell?

Andrew Whalley

Last week the third part in the BBC 4 documentary series ‘The Brits who Built the Modern World’ completed a fascinating analysis into the impact a small group of British architects had, not only in the UK, but also on an international scale. Of course they were not the first; this accolade probably rests with Lutyens and in more recent times Stirling.

It was an excellently crafted documentary that managed to carefully edit a great deal into three hours. However it could only hint at the other part of this fascinating story; particularly that of the collaborating consultants, British engineers and national construction companies who also helped shape history.

In the first instance, the key aspect of this story is a very British approach to architecture. It has roots with the great engineers of the Victorian era such as Brunel and Paxton. This group has had an influence in Europe, the Americas and Asia, commanding a global stage. But when looking at the five architects profiled in the documentary - Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Terry Farrell, Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael Hopkins - we have to ask the obvious question; why were they successful?

It is this culture of innovation that has made British consultants particularly well-suited to the demands of modernising and growing within a global market

The sphere of British influence of course extends far beyond the construction industry and runs almost through the full spectrum of the creative industries: product design, automotive design, graphic design and fashion. Some would argue the common threads can be found within our particular education system. However, most developed nations have their own well-resourced educational systems.

It is important that we recognise the relevance of this at a time when our education system is being questioned and funding is sparse. The generation featured in the documentary (and in fact even youngsters like me!!) had access to a wholly funded higher education system; a system which was well-resourced. The relatively long time it took to train professionally did not present the same financial strain it does today. In today’s system some of these Lords and Sirs might well have chosen a different route, or indeed would have left college with such financial commitments that their initial years would have been spent focused on debt repayment. Yet despite this dwindling support and spiraling student debt, the British influence goes from strength to strength.

Therefore the key component must be the more intangible common psyche that was explored in the documentary: invention and ingenuity, ingredients which can be traced all the way back to the emergence of the industrial revolution, creating an approach and culture that permeates all design fields.

It is this culture of innovation that has made British consultants particularly well-suited to the demands of modernising and growing within a global market. They are ideally placed to take advantage of the new design challenges thrown up around the world; new transport infrastructure requirements for air and rail, new work place environments, urban design on a city-wide scale.

During the lifetime of ‘the Brits who Built the Modern World’ the global population has quadrupled, creating a fresh set of challenges when attempting to build a truly sustainable civilization. It is up to us as world leaders in our field to draw upon this tradition of innovation and rise to the challenge. This will take a truly pioneering approach.

Andrew Whalley is deputy chairman at Grimshaw