So Cabe is going to vet public projects to make sure they don’t look completely awful. Well, that’s a good thing of course, but we should ask ourselves why it’s become necessary
When I first started moonlighting, my remit was usually to design a little extension and then negotiate planning permission and building control approval. My clients would then sort out everything else with the builder. One day, one of my customers rang up to say they were having a little barbecue and would I like to come along and see my handiwork in action?
I said I’d be delighted and set off with my camera and a pocketful of business cards to hand out to the guests who would no doubt be begging for me to do something just like it for them. It was a real shock when I first saw it, as it appeared to bear no resemblance to what I’d designed.
I suppose my client didn’t think the builder had changed much. But he no longer had a pair of rubbed brick arches, he had bright red soldier courses on Catnics. He didn’t have a sash window to match the one above, as there wasn’t one in the catalogue. So instead he had a Heritage-style window with glazing bars as thick as cucumbers and the opening adjusted to suit. Nor did he have a four-inch reveal with a concrete sill so as to match the others in the Victorian terrace; rather, the clever builder had managed to find a window that already had a sill in it. Oh, and the french window was made from a PVCu door with the “glazing” bars fitted between the panes.
It has never occurred to me that such small changes could make such a big difference to the way the thing looked. And the longer it stood there, the worse it would look. “I was told you were the architect,” said a well-turned-out man who, in another world, might have been a prospective client. “Looks to me as though the builder designed it.”
I suppose my client didn’t think the builder had changed much. But he no longer had a pair of rubbed brick arches, he had bright red soldier courses on Catnics
That’s the problem with putting builders in charge of design. They don’t really know why everything has been designed the way it has, but they often suspect it could be improved by making selected items a good deal cheaper.
Which brings me to the government’s idea that Cabe should have the power to impose minimum design standards on public buildings. Everybody should be in favour of better design. The whole process of developing, commissioning and constructing a building takes so long, and involves so many people, that if what you end up with isn’t worth having, you’re going to be stuck with it for a long time. It’s not like the remake of the Italian Job, which only required a few people to go to the cinema and check that it was really as bad as they all thought it would be, after which everyone could forget about it. A failure on the scale of the Tricorn centre is more difficult to forget. And knocking it down probably cost as much as building it in the first place.
Cabe is clearly a force for good, especially as more and more public projects are under pressure to go down some form of design-and-build route. Unfortunately, once these projects enter the build bit of the equation there is a tendency for the design part to be marginalised. What Cabe does is to take on the role formerly filled by the concerned client: that is, to give a damn what the thing looks like. The key difference is that formerly the concerned client was the one paying for the work. Now we have one group of people commissioning it, another operating it (amazingly, these are not always the same people), a third telling the designers what to do, and then a fourth lot (formerly known as the builders but now known as Toshabillion or whatever) not bothering to do it.
Anything that can be done to add some muscle to the designer’s position has to be encouraged. Public sector developers have more or less abandoned (or delegated) their roles as clients, and if Cabe has taken their place, then that’s better than nothing. At present it seems to be the only organisation that can strut the “design is important” stuff in Whitehall. No doubt, like any government body, it will become atrophied by bureaucracy, but as long as it continues to shake planners and builders up, and make lazy architects try harder, its role is to be encouraged.
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell.