Succession is a tricky proposition, especially when your predecessor has made the job his own. Witness the plight of Jonny Wilkinson, the wunderkind of English rugby, who has been handed the captaincy of his national side last week after an eight-month injury. He has the small challenge of getting the team back on the World Cup-winning form that it seems to have lost since skipper Martin Johnson retired last year. The same sense of expectation has hung over Richard Simmons since he became CABE chief executive in August. How will he match the impact and vision of Jon Rouse, who has transferred his formidable talents to sorting out the Housing Corporation?
As with Wilkinson, such expectations are unfair. Just as Jonny has inherited a weakened side, Simmons has the misfortune of joining CABE as its lustre is beginning to dull. It has lost the physical and intellectually presence of Sir Stuart Lipton – CABE’s counterpart to Sir Clive Woodward – in less than glorious circumstances. Question marks are beginning to appear over the body’s direction and effectiveness. And although the commission was broadly cleared of conflict of interest by a Department for Culture, Media and Sport report, it is set for another grilling by the parliamentary select committee that scrutinises the ODPM.
Simmons, interviewed in this week’s issue (pages 30-32), shrugs off the weight of expectation. He maintains that Rouse is an easy act to follow because he did most of the hard graft; all Simmons has to do is continue the work that he began. Yet Simmons will have to make sure that the body retains its reputation for realpolitik. Rouse talked about CABE picking the “right fights” in Whitehall in Building last year. The quality of housebuilding is fair game (see news) but aiming its guns at the Royal London hospital, as the body did in September, was ill-judged; in private, the Department of Health is furious at the attack. It was also ill-timed: CABE’s intervention came a matter of months before the £1bn project was due to reach financial close.
The biggest risk for Simmons and whoever replaces Lipton as chairman – interviews were held yesterday – is that CABE becomes too narrowly focused on housing and regeneration. There is no doubting the importance of the areas, given the government’s spending plans, but a balance has to be struck. The probable winner of tomorrow’s Stirling Prize, the Swiss Re, has shown that the value of landmark architecture extends beyond a building’s price per square metre to a whole city’s pride in its identity (another echo of the World Cup). CABE must take a strong line on architecture for architecture’s sake, particularly in the wake of the ditching of Will Alsop’s Fourth Grace and Daniel Libeskind’s Victoria & Albert museum extension.
Simmons wishes the body to communicate beyond the construction industry, but if it goes too far, the architectural community will become alienated. CABE has to make sure it remains a player across the full range of buildings and spaces, rather than pursuing laudable aims in just a few.