Our economic cycle, constantly revolving between feast and famine, will never encourage good, sustainable architecture. It is time we found a better way, says Jack Pringle
Feast and famine are occupying my mind, with the excesses of Mipim just a couple of weeks behind me and a week of sponsored abstinence looming - I have to eat and drink for £1 a day for aweek for the Article 25 charity’s Live Below the Line campaign.
I’ve also been thinking about the economic equivalent of feast and famine, boom and bust, which has been the scourge of the construction industry, including architecture, for decades. From the sixties to the eighties, our industry was consciously used as an economic regulator, controlling growth in booms and cutting public spending in busts. Of course, Gordon Brown then famously put an end to boom and bust, and we all know what happened next.
time: anticipate and don’t underestimate what’s about to happen, cut staff as quickly as possible, trim salaries for everyone, stop bonuses, papers, flowers - anything that is not absolutely necessary - and chase all new work from a cupboard to a cathedral. I remember one day in 1989 when I sold six company cars for a fraction of their worth.
We don’t do company cars now.
When the market wants, let’s say, bespoke schools in every shape and style, we hop to it, grateful of the work, rather than say, hold on, there is a better way
The systemic effect is appalling. Let’s take talent. I run careers talks in schools and in the office. The young audience gets enthused by the wonderful stuff we all get up to. Then they ask about salaries: “You must be kidding - two degrees and seven years training to get paid the same as a bus driver?” Then the perceptive ask about job security - that’s the coup de grace for some.
When a recession hits, swaths of young architects are washed out of our offices. The best of these don’t hang around until a recovery - they go abroad (in 2005, I came across a whole cadre of housing architects who had left London in 1990 to work in booming Hong Kong) or jump ship to other professions, such as advertising, film or management. So a generation of talent can be lost to the UK profession.
Such regular and violent instability undermines the ability of our practices to grow and to invest in research and innovation. When every decade there is a period of survive-at-all-costs, it’s difficult to build large, strategically planned practices - never mind integrate with others. Our profession is opportunistic rather than strategic by necessity. So when the market wants, let’s say, bespoke schools in every shape and style, we hop to it, grateful of the work, rather than say, hold on, there is a better way. We should be designing and delivering better, faster, cheaper, greener buildings - that’s difficult to do when survival is the name of the game and the market is over-competitive.
To boot, many of those made redundant take their newly acquired nest eggs and start micro practices as the basis of a new “lifestyle”. While I have nothing against small practices (I had one myself once), the profession has too big a proportion of them and they don’t map onto the needs of our client base well.
Economic stability, like in boring old Germany, is the holy grail of commerce, allowing businesses to be planned and grow sustainably, intelligently feeding the needs
Talking about feeding, that brings me back to Live Below the Line. As one of Article 25’s founding trustees, I’ve witnessed the great work the charity has done providing shelter and design solutions where they are needed the most. Live Below the Line is a challenging campaign where I will only be able to spend £1 a day on food and drink from 7-11 May. By taking part, I will be raising awareness of the restraints of extreme poverty and reminding myself and others why we must continue to invest in improving the lives of those in need.
So, no coffee, tea or nipping out to the pub or supermarket, it’s going to be ultra basic fare for me for a week. Please sponsor me at www.livebelowtheline.com/me/jpringle
Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon