In its scorched earth policy of slashing costs, the government thinks architects and design are almost entirely dispensible. It’s our job to convince them otherwise
So, the government either doesn’t get design or doesn’t want to get design. Michael Gove rants against “starchitects” creaming off profits while claiming that children don’t need good environments to be taught in; Cabe’s funding is slashed and hived off to the Design Council; Design for London is canned and localism is a Nimby charter ensuring that our ridiculously difficult planning system will make it impossible in some places for “modern” architects to get anything passed.
The coalition has decided that post-credit crunch Britain cannot afford good design and that architecture is a luxury. They want to jump on the bandwagon of the retail tin sheds - pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap (every little helps) and get together with the contractors, who speak their sort of language. The focus is cost – low cost.
Maybe a mea culpa moment for the profession is due. Architects rode the boom years designing wonderful, sculptural icons for their willing clients and became associated with the cultural agenda - to the exclusion, perhaps, of value. A candid evaluation of, say, the value of clusters of strawberry-shaped classrooms versus almost twice the space for the same price in a business park-like box would have done our reputation for common sense some good. But hey, that would not have got through BB98 and anyway, where were the “cost consultants”? QSs never take the rap.
Even last week’s RIBA’s Building Futures report predicted that architects will have to wise up and develop greater “financial nous and commercial acumen” - I would argue for clients as well as for themselves.
We have to be smarter about what we can do and, of course, communication is the responsibility of the broadcaster, not the listener. What our new ministers will not know is that there is a tradition of the best architects designing super cost-effective buildings. Henry Swaine led the Nottingham team that developed the CLASP system, allowing great mining subsidence-resistant schools to be designed in just in two days. Charles and Ray Eames’ fabulous case study house used off-the-shelf catalogue components to minimise costs. Powell and Moya developed both the Oxford and Nucleus systems of building hospitals. Hopkins designed the elegant Paterna prefabricated system and HKPA designed the (old) New Vic using second-hand blocks and gasometer bracing, at the total cost of an agricultural shed. In all of these examples, architects’ imagination and creativity delivered great buildings at rock bottom cost. Given the right brief, architects deliver.
But since the eighties, architects have struggled to be trusted with “grown up subjects”, like money, which has to be left to the surveyors or contractors. Even worse, architects are not trusted to determine what buildings are good for our country. Cabe may have been crawling with architects at staff level, but the bosses were a developer, a history graduate, an ad man, a planner and a journalist. They did a good job, but where are the leaders of the profession? The same is true at English Heritage. Now mini-Cabe is rolled into the Design Council, yet another non-architect can chart its path. You would have thought that the RIBA was a perfect vehicle to deliver a “big society” role and run design review for the nation. Apparently not.
But back to my original question: which is it, that the government either doesn’t get design or doesn’t want to get design? It’s a bit of both. Gove certainly doesn’t get design. He sees successful architects as a symbol of profligacy. Strangely he does not seem to be too fussed about contractors making money. Maybe he hasn’t seen Ray O’Rourke’s helicopter yet.
More broadly, the government is focused on getting the deficit down and has a scorched earth policy across all areas of spending. They want a quick route to slash costs, and architects and good design are not seen to be associated with that. This is set within a wider malaise: the UK is too expensive to be competitive on the world stage. Our infrastructure costs are 20-40% more than in the near continent (never mind the US or China) and construction has become more bureaucratic and slower over the past 15 years - we’ve lost our mojo. We need to wake up and smell the coffee.
We have a message to get over: “Architects, with our colleagues in the construction industry, can design better, faster, cheaper products for you, dear government. But let us tell you how, don’t you tell us.”
Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon