The Blair years began with wonderful attractions and tube stations, continued through drab PFIs and ended with creeping paranoia, says Gus Alexander
The Blair building epoch started off well enough with the Millennium Fund and the National Lottery. The UK quickly found itself with some high-quality arts buildings, delivered at an unprecedented rate.
What these projects had in common was that each had an identifiable driving force behind them – what we used to call a client. Most of the institutions involved, such as the Tate, National Portrait Gallery and Somerset House, knew about building procurement. They had full-time staff on the case, and
full-time fund raisers. They understood projected footfalls and mission statements, they knew how to get their hands on matching funding and they were used to organising work around the money supply.
When Camelot’s largesse came along they were ready for it. They had some good architects in waiting, they briefed them properly, and as a result some good quality arts buildings have entered the nation’s cultural consciousness.
Okay, the Dome was not a great success, but that was more to do with what went on inside it. On the other hand, the extension to the Jubilee line that served it was a brilliantly conceived project. At an early stage a decision was taken (and stuck to) to have a different architect for each station. The jobs had been doled out on a horses-for-courses basis and the result was an inspired piece of public patronage in a network that was being held together with string and sticking plaster.
All I’ve seen of the Olympics is a few masterplans with acres of rolling grass and a Zaha Hadid swimming pool that seems to get smaller each time I look
I personally knew architects who had worked on about 10 of the stations, but I know nobody who is working on the Olympics. Nor have I any idea how the commissions are being doled out. All we seem to hear about the project is how the budget has been underestimated by 200%. I’ve seen a few masterplans with acres of rolling grass and a Zaha Hadid swimming pool that seems to get smaller each time I look.
Lord Rogers was able to bend New Labour’s ear early in the administration, and it is easy to forget that the sort of urban regeneration we take for granted now was pie in the sky 10 years ago. Even in the nineties, Newcastle upon Tyne was more Likely Lads than it was Baltic and the Sage.
An interest in things architectural has moved beyond Pevsner into the repertoire of the mainstream glossy mags. The success of Grand Designs and the Stirling prize demonstrate that the public has an appetite for finding out what architects do. When new-build starter flats were indistinguishable from retirement homes it became
cutting-edge and hip to live in lofts made of derelict light-bulb factories. Now new blocks of flats are designed to look zippy and industrial from the off.
The implementation of PPG3 has meant more derelict urban infrastructure has been absorbed into the public realm. Urbanisation and brownfield were words that barely existed under the Major government. Canary Wharf had been made from nothing, but it is miles away from the Eden project.
At a more workaday level there are a lot of drab, badly designed and ugly buildings coming onstream through the PFI, which threaten to leave a mediocre legacy from the biggest public sector building programme since the sixties. And it’s expensive, too. The PFI seems to be everything the Millennium projects were not. At least with the Tate you knew it was Nicholas Serota and his team at the client end and Herzog & de Meuron doing the design, but who knows what drives PFI?
There are new handrails everywhere, and ramps, and guards, and adventureless playgrounds and other manifestations of the overweening obsession with health and safety
Although it began as a Tory initiative, the PFI has become much more representative of the smoke and mirrors aspect of the Blair administration and its urge to prostrate itself before big business. Spin, focus groups, sofa government, nobody taking responsibility, nobody seemingly in charge of colossal sums of money… In 20 years it will be apparent that much more of the family silver has been flogged off than anyone realises.
I recently saw a presentation by Sunand Prasad, RIBA president elect, comparing 10 pairs of PFI projects that shared proximity, function and financial value. The good ones were quite good but some of the bad ones were absolutely awful. School libraries with no windows, nurseries with no playgrounds,
medical waiting rooms with no daylight. The people who have to run these places must feel that they’ve been left with the shitty end of the stick, and that everything has been done for the builder’s convenience.
In fact, even the builder is a long way down the procurement chain, and when he’s gone he’s really gone. What the users thought was an extension to a hospital turns out to have been a long-term development strategy for a pharmaceutical consortium in Texas. I never trusted big organisations much in the first place and after 10 years of Tony at the tiller I trust them even less.
At the micro end of the scale, new Labour has been playing Big Brother. Not so much the narcissism of Jade Goody and her chums, but as begetter of the Orwellian version who is looking out for us (on Tony’s behalf, and for our own good). Everywhere you can see CCTV cameras, and radar
checks, and voiceprint speakers, and we’ve come to take it as read that “this call is being recorded” every time we telephone anything governmental. Everywhere there are notices telling us what we can and cannot do. And just in case speed cameras and “danger” signs aren’t enough of an indication of just how carefully Tony has been looking after us, there are new handrails everywhere, and lumpy nosings on stairs, and ramps, and guards, and adventureless playgrounds and other manifestations of the obsession with safety.
Perhaps all political administrations arrive as beaming great white hopes and leave in ignominy. The trouble is that the building business is so slow that the visible changes in the environment are usually half an administration out of date. Who knows who will be cutting the ribbon when the torch is carried up the Lea Valley?
Gus Alexander runs his own practice in Clerkenwell, London
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