The first of three blogs on the role of architecture in the modern econony examines the causes of the profession’s fall from grace

Ben Derbyshire

Stephen Hodder, newly incumbent president of the RIBA, is reported to have begun a new year campaign aimed at contractors and politicians to make sure architects have wider clout in the construction industry. He wants the next RIBA Council to map out its main policy concerns ahead of next year’s elections and says that the number one issue is housing.

This intervention could not be more timely. Why so? I will examine this over the course of my next three blogs, exploring first the background to this timely intervention, then the key moves to reposition the architectural profession as a voice, and finally the new role I envisage for architects as an integral part of the development-industrial complex.

Unfortunately we must start with the fact that over the last two generations neither architects’ professional bodies nor architectural education have managed to keep ahead of the dramatic changes that have taken place. A couple of years ago, I took part in an Architecture Club debate, seconding the motion, “Architecture in Britain today has lost its social purpose”. I was particularly critical of the RIBA for its lack of leadership.

In terms of social purpose, the profession’s heyday was surely the period of post-war reconstruction when building the welfare state, the health service and social housing created a clear sense of direction. This was a time when the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had an in-house research team, cities had their own architecture departments and RIBA conferences were an annual tribal gathering of vast hoards of earnest optimists sporting the berets and goatees that gave rise to Louis Hellman’s lasting iconic caricature.

The establishment limped on with declining public patronage and a disastrous business model, selling professional time at a mark up in an increasingly competitive market

Richard Crossman’s diary (minister for housing and local government under Harold Wilson) records a cabinet committee in June 1966 discussing 500,000 housing starts, split equally between the public and private sector (contrast with barely more than 100,000 a year since 2011). This era gave rise to movements in social architecture like Team 10, CIAM, and the search for “a utopia of the present”; an heroic epoch that saw Chamberlin Powell & Bon’s Golden Lane estate of 1952, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens of 1972. Huge projects were conceived by young and idealistic teams in public and private practice. Social experiments brought out the best and the worst, meaning there were some spectacular failures - portents of trouble yet to come.

Then the RIBA lost its battle with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1978 and the social compact that justified scale fees and a ban on advertising was gone forever. The Prince of Wales delivered his “Carbuncle” attack in 1984. Penguin Books published Nick Wates and Charles Knevitt’s Community Architecture in 1987 at the height of the Thatcher years. It was a cross roads, as the reputation of architects and planners was challenged by the social and economic failure of much of the post war reconstruction - reported by Lord Scarman after inner city rioting of 1981.

There was a moment, 30 years ago, when the profession should have changed course, and redefined its relationship with the public, but it failed to do so. There were token gestures; a community architecture resource centre at the RIBA, Rod Hackney as president. But the establishment limped on with declining public patronage, a dwindling market share in the design of buildings and a disastrous business model, selling professional time at a mark up in an increasingly competitive market. Bizarrely the profession continued to encourage its members and its clients in the practice of commercially suicidal and incompetently run competitions, which further devalued its status. And the profession was hobbled, then as now, by the divisive split between RIBA and ARB.

There was a brief Indian summer in the New Labour era when design quality once again found political favour, CABE flourished and published a plethora of good practice guidance and research which, with local architecture centres and design review panels, created the space for a dialogue about good design. But this edifice, much like the economic policy that supported it, was not sufficiently embedded in a sound and growing private sector. Undermined by suspicions of conflicting interests, the “mandarins of taste” became an unaffordable public expense, CABE was cut free and whole warehouses of guidance was pulped when the coalition government embarked on cutting the deficit.

Thus a once noble profession reached its nadir. Those of us who have survived the years of recession to this point can surely look forward, with Stephen Hodder, to better times. In my next blog, (Renaissance) I suggest the key moves the profession must make if it is to re-establish itself as a voice in the development industry.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design