In the same way, should a champion for architecture be seen as an armoured St George figure, sticking his great culture lance up the fundament of some hapless client, to ensure that it gets the titanium-clad, fractal funhouse that the Kultur Polizei deems appropriate – or a figure like David taking on the Goliaths of the out-of-town-shopping centre? The new body is to continue the review function of the RFAC and extend it into the regions. It will encourage education and understanding of architecture, assist community involvement and promote good architecture. By "architecture", the government means the built environment generally, including urban design and planning. It also aims to encourage the commissioning of good architecture in the first place.
Up until now, the final word on all things building has been had by the RFAC, a body that famously moves in mysterious ways – and more reactive than active ways at that. The replacement body will have a wider regional spread and will seek to encourage good new architecture by raising public awareness of how it is brought about, improving standards of visual literacy and co-ordinating the activities of interested parties, including those that give grants.
I am curious to see who is going to head this organisation. In the same way that war is too important to be left to the generals, architecture is too important to be left to architects. I hope the champion will not be a practising architect, although he or she must understand how buildings are commissioned, and be able to recognise good architecture.
Architecture is created as much by the passage of time as by the efforts of architects, so someone with a sound historical overview would help. A colossal salary would probably help more, but as the budget for the whole operation is only £1.3m a year, the emolument is unlikely to tempt the prospective head honcho to give up the day job.
Should a champion for architecture be a St George, sticking his culture lance up the fundament of some hapless client?
How would this champion help toilers in the field? At my end of the built environment scale, we get precious little official help on the "promoting good architecture" front. The less I have to do with any kind of official interference, the better chance my clients have of achieving the architectural solutions we come up with together. In some departments, so-called "design officers" have taken over from planners as arbiters of the "appearance of buildings". These often unqualified people get their dreary amendments adopted for no better reason than the fact that clients do not have the time or the energy to go through an appeals process. Could I summon a champion to assist in my struggles with these autocrats? How does a novice builder find out what good architecture is? There is no architectural equivalent of Legal Aid or the NHS, and I would like the commission to fund a disinterested architect adviser who would be available at planning offices.
This is often the point where first-time builders confront the commissioning process. What the uninitiated often see is really crappy developments that have been approved, and so they think: "OK, we'll be allowed to do that." Often these "as-built" developments have been shorn of much of the architectural detail that was fought for at planning meetings, and all the charm is lost as a result. Unless the new commission can insist that the local authority holds a retention until buildings are completed to their satisfaction, it is hard to see how this state of affairs will improve. As in any successful design endeavour, details are not a luxury, they are the whole point.
Raising the profile of the profession might help, but making it more accessible will help more. So few people are in a position to commission architecture that the best way to raise public consciousness must be by example.
Commissioning good architecture, like charity, starts at home. As 40% of building work is still publicly funded, the champion should see to it that the commission sets its own example, and ensures that the driving force behind public procurement becomes value and not price. An intelligent, localised and spirited assault on the mediocrity and tat that represents most of the centralised expenditure on "street furniture" would be a good place to start.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in north London.