Give Britain’s best architects the final say in what gets built. Amanda Levete explains why this modest proposal is neither elitist, utopian, nor politically impossible
As the parties are entering full election mode, now is a fine time to begin thinking about the ways they might use their muscle and their minds to improve the built environment.
Just about everyone accepts that planning legislation and the planning process are deeply flawed. Extracting a consent takes far too long, is often unpredictable and is very costly to the public purse. This would matter less if most of the resulting designs built were of high quality, but there is an all round sigh of despair as one mediocre building after another rises from the ground.
As it stands, planning officers make a recommendation to councillors who are certainly not elected on the basis of their knowledge, education or experience in the field of design. The councillors have the power to overturn the considered opinion of their officers. You can call this local democracy and power to the people, but democracy is not an end in itself, particularly when it is used for party advantage, and in doing so misses the big picture and bigger opportunities. The recent fiasco over Richard Rogers’ design for an extension to the British Museum is a case in point. The officers’ opinion was ignored, public money was wasted, seemingly without accountability and to no good end because what finally got through was almost unchanged, only re-presented.
Cabe is a force for the good but its Achilles’ heel is its lack of power. The make-up of Cabe’s design review panels is impressive but if their views are not taken on board, what’s the point?
Architecture is not a sport. In virtually every other cultural field, be it literature, theatre, film or art, work is judged (by and large) by critics who are respected in their field. That does not prevent popular opinion expressing itself in the form of commercial success but what it does mean is that the work that is the most significant, the most meaningful, the most resonant is (by and large) recognised, and its place in contemporary cultural history is assured.
What I don’t understand is not why there are so many mediocre architects, but why we have not evolved a planning process that weeds out mediocrity. If architects and their clients insist on making mediocre buildings then surely it falls to the planning process to raise the standard of what is acceptable.
Everyone talks about architecture being so subjective and so much to do with taste, but among the doyens of architecture (and in terms of style, I’m talking cross-party here), there is a consensus about what is good, bad and mediocre. If you play the game “name the 10 greatest buildings in the world” or “name the 10 most recent lost opportunities in planning consents”, you may have a spirited argument about the last two or three, but you will reach a consensus and pretty quickly, too.
Experience, talent and intellect allow us to be judgmental in a positive and confident manner, much as critics in other fields are
Experience, talent and intellect allow people to be judgmental in a positive and confident manner, much as critics in other fields are. So why not make better use of the fantastic resources we have within our midst as arbiters of quality?
Cabe is now a recognised force for the good but its Achilles’ heel is its lack of power. The make-up of Cabe’s design review panels is impressive but if their views are not taken on board, what’s the point? And what of the applications that are never presented to Cabe? An advisory body is better than nothing but perhaps what we need is something like an architectural Supreme Court, made up of architects and advisers whose pre-eminence is undisputed, that passes binding judgment on those schemes that have the potential to enrich our cultural legacy – a body whose remit is to allow only the best design through, where good enough is simply not good enough.
This could be very streamlined; indeed it would have to be to attract the right calibre of people. Once it got going, imagine how powerful the message would be to architects, clients, developers and planners – and you know what? To the public as well. Because, like it or not, we want to be led by people with vision and confidence. It’s an urban myth that we want to be the arbiters of all things. But what we do want is to understand, and that is what we should ask of our political leaders. What happened on X Factor last year was a salutary lesson. Without the raw talent the result becomes distorted to the point where everyone loses interest and the very process that was supposed to be so engaging eats itself alive.
If ever there was an apposite moment to consider a radical overhaul of the planning system, it is now. What I hope politicians will be giving serious thought to over the next few months is how a demand for quality can be built in. Nobody can be against quality, so this could be a vote winner for the party that really takes it on board.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects