As the Western economies falter under a burden of debt, the East is ascendant. But our intellectual capital could save us yet, if we can rekindle the British buccaneering spirit
When Spain was the world’s superpower, Henry VIII commissioned England’s first warship, the Mary Rose, to defend our interests on the high seas. This small step, followed by the first Elizabethan buccaneering age, laid the way for centuries of British international trade. Trade and travel is therefore in our cultural DNA. We’re going to need this to survive in the second Elizabethan age.
Now, after a few hundred years of the success of the West, it is the Middle and Far East that have proved to be visionary, strategic and prudent. Like a ratchet, every time the West falters, the East buys a little more of it. Jaguar Land Rover, Barclays, British Steel and dozens more have Eastern investment. True, the East needs a prosperous West to purchase its products, and true, the East still uses our expertise. So there is mutual interdependence. China will not cash in its US treasury bonds for fear of destabilising its best customer base.
So like the old cold war there is an (economic) pact of Mutually Assured Destruction. But the East is far from content to be the West’s sweatshop and it is successfully developing its own sophisticated knowledge industries out of its fine universities. Their growing middle classes will spawn vast internal markets.
There are towers in the East being designed by architects with less talent than some here doing back extensions to terraced houses
What is striking about the East is the scale of its ambition, which beggars our own. They are building new civilisations for billions of people. Europe could be relegated to become one large museum piece peddling culture and luxury goods. It could be the region of the haves and have-nots as there will be little work for the uneducated and the low skilled.
But we’re not there yet and meanwhile, we have capital to spend, intellectual and human capital. We have halved our manufacturing base over the past 25 years to a rump of around 13% of GDP. Germany still delivers 23% of its GDP through industry. Perhaps they realise that cars are built by robots and robots are just as cheap to run in Germany as in India, that it’s good to have design close to manufacture and anyway, not everyone can be a knowledge worker.
In the UK knowledge industries are the preeminent motors of our economy. Our biggest earners are finance, pharmaceuticals, and the creative industries.
Fortunately for the readers of Building, architecture and its attendant disciplines (engineering and management) are some of our most successful creative industries. This is no accident; we have some of the best schools of architecture and engineering in the world, attracting the brightest students, and we have the world’s best institutes of architecture and engineering.
As we see the future emerging “through a glass darkly” and the East recovers just a bit better than the West, we are well prepared through our culture and our skills to promote our practices on the world stage. We already have great British international firms such as Foster’s, Rogers, Atkins, Arup and RMJM. But we need a lot more buccaneers. There are towers in the East being designed by architects with less talent than some here doing back extensions to terraced houses.
This is why at Pringle Brandon we have chosen this moment to open in Dubai, just when others are leaving. Some say we are crazy; we’ll see. The Middle East’s project is to turn finite oil reserves into a permanent built civilisation for generations to come.
The Middle East is a crossroads, a node on the new silk route from East to West and a regional centre with a billion people within a four-hour plane ride. It surely has a fascinating multicultural future.
So, we should protect our education base, support our institutes and continue our international trading tradition.
Meanwhile back in Blighty my practice is completing its design for the new home for Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, with Wilkinson Eyre, which will soon celebrate the completion of its 103-storey tower in Guangzhou. The circle is complete.
Jack Pringle is a partner at Pringle Brandon