Tony Blair also made a speech at the event in which he said he wanted people to look back on the first half of the 21st century and say “they did something very special”. The reception was given to launch a government report called Better Public Buildings.
Blair told Building afterwards that it was essential that the new design champions had the authority to veto projects on aesthetic grounds.
Whitehall sources said that the government would favour top designers such as Lord Foster and Lord Rogers for major projects in preference to untried architects. But the sources also emphasised that the make-up of the whole design team was important, not just the architect.
Terry Pawson, a partner at medium-sized practice Pawson Williams Architects, said the strategy could create problems for smaller practices. He said: “Every large public building still has to be advertised and we’ve often beaten bigger practices on that basis.
“But the real problem is that the people making these decisions don’t generally know about architects or design and will inevitably look for the safe option.
“You wouldn’t want to appoint someone fresh out of college to design the Scottish parliament but at the same time it’s up to institutions such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and the RIBA to educate the government and ensure they understand the standard of work of all architects.” Blair, who has written a strongly-worded foreword to the report, said the government aimed to engender greater civic pride in Britain through well-designed public buildings.
And he said that the Holly Street Estate in Hackney, east London, was an example of what could be achieved. He said: “It makes an enormous difference to children and how they learn if schools are designed in the right way. Design is an important part of the law and order policy and the education policy and the entire social policy of the neighbourhood.” The report says that all government departments and public bodies must appoint a champion, with the aim of ensuring the use of good designers, allowing enough design time in project programmes and including whole-life costs in the value-for-money assessments.
Among the design champions appointed last week was Nick Raynsford at the DETR.
Whitehall sources said the design champions would vet the selection of design teams on public buildings and review design proposals before they go out to tender.
They cited as an example of what they wanted to see the case history of the Inland Revenue headquarters in Nottingham, where the then financial secretary to the Treasury, Francis Maude, blocked a design-and-build proposal in 1990 and ordered a competition, eventually won by Sir Michael Hopkins.
Even though the report sets out clear objectives for improving public sector design, civil servants say they are still struggling to find practical ways of ensuring that the quality of design is given equal weighting with cost. However, officials accept that the aesthetic judgement of ministerial design champions and senior civil servants will play a role, probably aided by advice from CABE.