The last of Robert Adam’s seven deadly sins of architecture deals with profligacy – in other words, the tendency of big-name designers to put their artistic vision before their client’s wallet …
If you want to build anything bigger than a house, you need an architect. You might think it is a good idea to take on a big-name architect or at least an aspiring
big-name architect. And, unless you’re a millionaire or mad, you will watch your pennies. You might want the building to make you money, you might want to spend your savings on a pet project – if you’re the government, you’ll be spending money you’ve taken off everyone else. Now, put these things together – your precious cash and an architect who thinks he should be famous – and you’ve got a problem. Pretty soon your funds might fall foul of an architect’s devil-may-care attitude to costs.
Self-important architects aren’t really interested in their clients’ pockets except to make sure they get their fees paid. For them, buildings aren’t really for their clients at all; they’re for them to show off to other architects. And the client is only there to go along with these fantastical exercises in ego inflation and pay up. After all, it’s art, isn’t it? And it’s the building that’s left for posterity, not the client’s overdraft. To quote a well-known architect on his overspend: “People should look at the architecture – that’s what will be there in a hundred years.”
This is the art-at-any-cost disease. The symptoms are easy to spot: ignoring budgets until the masterpiece is just about to be built; an unhealthy obsession with useless but expensive details and throwing toys out of the pram at the very idea of value-engineering. The disease is caught from the infectious idea that if architecture is art it must be tricksy, off the wall and have lots of fancy bits. For architects, there’s no credit in a low-cost, simple and practical building. If it doesn’t shout out, people might not notice it and there’s no reputation to be made in economy and modesty.
Buildings aren’t really for their clients at all; they’re for them to show off to other architects. And the client is only there to go along with these exercises in ego inflation and pay up
High-profile projects with big-name architects are notorious for running away with costs. The granddaddy of them all, the Scottish Parliament, amassed a 1,000% over-spend; that symbol of Britishness, Wembley stadium, checked in at £35m over budget; and a symbol of British culture and history, Bath Spa, was notorious for costing an extra £32m.
Cultural buildings are often supposed to be made more famous by their star architects, but can just become showcases for wasted money. Glasgow’s transport museum came in at an extra 50% at its last count (it’s not finished). The Public arts centre in West Bromwich cost £12m more than the original figure and the one in Colchester cost so much more than expected that it was nearly abandoned. When the Architecture Foundation, which spends its time promoting prima donna architects, engaged Zaha Hadid, the star architect to beat all stars architects, she designed a structure 100% over budget, and the organisation couldn’t find a builder who would build it.
This overspend is too common to be just a coincidence. These are all buildings designed by architects who are so famous that their buildings appear in all the magazines, win all the awards and are the heroes of students and wannabe big-names. The profession don’t give awards to one another for coming within budget or completing a building on time. Many award winners are notorious for wild over-expenditure, so when architects hand out awards to their mates for over-priced projects they’re saying “sod you” to clients’ budgets.
The fact that the idols of the profession are often the worst overspenders does the profession no good. Getting buildings to the right cost is complicated and hard work but there’s no automatic link between good design and spending a fortune. The fact that fame in the profession too often goes to profligate show-offs is an insult not just to clients’ pockets, but to the thousands of hard-working architects that slog away to get good design in at a low budget.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects