The recession is turning us, and our politicians, into mean, short-sighted people. And this is exactly the right way to make sure it lasts a long, long time
There is a short but most extraordinary line in the US Financial Stimulus document published this year. It says: “No money is to be spent on beautification.” This is of course apropos money being spent on buildings and infrastructure, not about the cosmetic industry. Now I am, along with everyone else I know, a huge fan of Obama, and I know he has a lot on his plate, but this is a very worrying line – particularly as what starts over there usually finds its way over here.
What does it mean, exactly? Does it mean that when selecting an architect you make sure to pick one who specialises in ugly buildings because beauty is just skin deep, and is something we simply cannot afford right now?
How misguided was the individual who dreamed up that particular sentence? Short it may be, but it is potentially devastating in its fall out. Presumably it was penned by someone who has not the faintest idea how good architects design; someone who takes comfort in the mediocrities who churn out the same formulaic, poorly conceived work; someone who believes such buildings must, by default, be cheaper in terms of fees and construction because that’s how they look.
Nobody has the courage to say MPs should be paid at a wage level that means they do not have to top up their salaries by making absurd expenses claims
It must be someone who has never witnessed an architect battle to make every penny work; who has not experienced the thrill of a project driven by passion not commercial gain; someone who probably would not recognise beauty if it were staring them in the face and someone who is oblivious to the financial and functional benefits of clever design.
I know this is all quite obvious but while we continue to plough through the recession there is increasing political hysteria about money being spent unnecessarily. And it focuses not on the really big money, the bonuses and pay-offs to the bankers who got us into this mess, but on the little things. Like the fiasco of MP’s expenses. This petty domestic issue has been blown out of all proportion because nobody has the courage to just come out and say MPs should be paid at a wage level that means they do not have to top up their salaries by making absurd expenses claims. And by the way, better paid MPs might even have the added benefit of attracting more interesting candidates, and that surely would be worth something.
Or take the furore over the idea that the public’s money is going to be spent on private air travel for our foreign secretary. So we expect him to leave the table early to get the last scheduled flight home if international negotiations go on longer than expected? Or maybe hitch a ride back with other foreign ministers in their private planes? Or perhaps we could be really frugal and have a foreign secretary who didn’t travel at all?
Presumably the line, No money is to be spent on beautification, was penned by someone who takes comfort in the mediocrities who churn out the same formulaic, poorly conceived work
It is vital that we are not ground down, either by the crisis or by petty thinking. This is the moment to be bold, to think big, to think diagonally, to be creative about how we value value and to be visionary when thinking about how we spend money. A crisis can be exhilarating if you chose not to participate in the gloom that accompanies a recession.
With creativity goes entrepreneurship. Remember, Shakespeare was a rich man when he died and Damien Hirst is even richer. Look at it this way – students. for example, are always poor but they still party to the farthest limits of their overdrafts. They may have a problem finding a job in an architect’s office, but that could open up a whole new world.
We cannot cut corners if we are going to build our way out of recession – although curved buildings can of course, cost more! “Beautification”, although not a word I like, is actually what we need most at the moment.
Postscript. I had been tempted to write about the latest fiasco involving the Prince of Wales and the planning process. We all know that what he has done is wrong – an abuse of royal privilege – and that the idea that he represents the common man is a contradiction in terms, but to respond with indignation is simply to give more airspace and credence to his ill-thought-through notions.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects