But this warm publicity masks a malaise. The nation’s programme to rebuild the physical structure of its public services is hobbled by the way the architecture profession is organised. As outgoing RIBA president Paul Hyett has warned, there is a mismatch between key projects, such as large hospitals and bundles of schools, and the best architectural practices, which are too small to take them on. The charge is that architects have become so bedazzled by glam projects, they’ve ignored the rise of procurement systems such as PFI and prime contracting (pages 32-41).
Not before time, the RIBA is addressing this mismatch. Hyett urged architects to form practices on a scale commensurate with the projects to be tackled. His successor, George Ferguson, has come up with a subtler alternative – that small practices should form consortiums to tackle these projects while preserving their convivial office ethos. At the same time, clients could do more to make procurement more architect-friendly. They could prioritise design as a criterion for selecting architects over the more mundane matters of experience and quality assurance. This requires clients able to make value judgments, rather than jobsworth box-tickers.
If architects do not regroup, they will find themselves slipping further down the pecking order, and further depressing their earnings. But the issue is of much greater importance than their wellbeing. To limit projects to a few large practices stifles competition and the spread of expertise. It produces McArchitecture, with no sense of place or delight. Worse than that, project teams that hold their architects in low esteem are in danger of producing buildings that are not fit for purpose. And remember that we are talking here about healthcare buildings and schools that play critical roles in all our lives. So don’t be seduced by the look-at-me architecture you see every day on the television. The real architectural stakes have never been higher.
Martin Spring, architectural editor