Lipton won the intellectual argument that good design wasn’t a luxury limited to an arts project backed by a patron with more money than sense
Cast your mind back 10 years, if you can. Compulsory competitive tendering was a way of life in the public sector. Design-and-build hospitals resembled a lot of site cabins bolted together; developers threw up office blocks that had the charm and civic presence of a shopping precinct. The role of architectural watchdog was filled by the Royal Fine Art Commission, chaired by the acerbic Lord St John of Fawsley. It fought quixotic campaigns against schemes such as the London Eye and City Hall, but kept its real venom for English Heritage, which it hated with a passion usually seen only in Italian operas.
Then along came a man who understood why good design made good cities, and had the natural authority to make clients, Whitehall and the industry at large take notice. Sir Stuart Lipton, the first chair of Cabe, had a vision. In his own words, that was to “get quality, love, care and commitment into the bloodstream of everyone involved in architecture … and convince architects, clients, planning consultants and agents that good work should be the norm”. With his equally forceful chief executive, Jon Rouse, Lipton did make design, functionality and public spaces integral parts of the procurement process, and in doing so won the intellectual argument that good design wasn’t a luxury limited to an arts project backed by a patron with more money than sense. Rather, that design, as practiced at, for example, Broadgate in the City and Stockley Park by Heathrow, adds value.
The watchdog is now celebrating its 10th birthday in uncertain times (page 24): the Tories are threatening a bonfire of the quangos and Labour will shortly be looking down the backs of sofas for lost change. Nevertheless we must remember, and value, the cultural shift that Cabe has brought. Of course, there have been criticisms. It has been accused of elitism, and it has seldom found fault in the work of Great Men. But the fact that we’re getting school buildings that we can be proud of, and no more hospitals designed by contractors, is a testament to Lipton’s principles. Sensibly, shadow minister Grant Shapps hints this week that the organisation is likely to face cuts rather than annihilation if his party wins power. The £12m a year it now receives is 10 times the funding it started with, but that is still peanuts to the government. And as the Olympics media centre shows, a fair number of clients would happily revert to cheap and nasty if allowed.
Incoming chairman Paul Finch must now take stock of Cabe’s first 10 years and plan for the next. He could do worse than play down its enabling role across government departments and refocus the commission on Lipton’s vision: creating public demand for good design. Ten years on, that is as essential as ever.
Denise Chevin, editor
Use your imagination
Short of standing on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square and unfurling a CV, as 23-year-old Alex Kearns did a few days a go, what’s a graduate to do to get a job? Our first annual graduates survey confirms what we know in our bones: this recession is creating a lost generation, and an incipient skills shortage, just as the last one did (page 34). There are no magic solutions, but that doesn’t prevent the industry from using its imagination. How about tapping into the government’s Talent Pool programme? Could more firms support graduates taking a year out? At the very least, could it maintain contact with those who have left, with a view to hiring them once the economy improves? None of these moves will allow students to pay off their loans, or act as substitutes for a real job, but they are all better than forcing graduates to sell themselves (however artistically) in public.