Developers stand accused of employing superstar architects to hoodwink planners – and then dumping them for lesser designers. How can we stop the dumbing-down of architecture?
Trojan horse architecture has hit the headlines. On Radio Four's Today programme last week, Sir Stuart Lipton, chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and Westminster's chief planner, Carl Powell, slammed the developer's trick of commissioning big-name architects to win planning permission, and then selling the site to a new developer, which appoints production-line architects to build a lower-cost version.

"They sack the original architect, switch to a lesser-known chap and produce a dumbed-down version," said Lipton.

He then called for a change in the law to link planning permission to a particular developer and architect, so that a change in either would require a new planning application. The next day, Lord Rogers protested in The Times about developers using famous architects' design skills and reputation as a smokescreen to smuggle projects past the planners.

The quoted example in Rogers' piece was Banque Paribas at Marylebone, for which a Michael Hopkins & Partners scheme won planning permission, but which was built in an allegedly coarser form to detailed design by the Whinney Mackay-Lewis Partnership.

Lipton is most concerned about developers switching architects on controversial skyscrapers. In London a rash of towers by superstar architects is being planned. "There are probably 10 examples in London alone," he said. "It's a trend which we want to stop now." More recently, Irvine Sellars, the man behind what could be Britain's tallest building at London Bridge, has been interviewed three times by CABE because it is so concerned that he might ditch superstar architect Renzo Piano if he wins planning permission. Piano was called in to design the tower after the original architect, Broadway Malyan, was deemed unlikely to win permission.

However, the issue is wider and less clear-cut than big-name architects being jettisoned after winning planning permission for prominent central London office buildings. The issue of changing architectural designs after planning permission has been granted also concerns provincial housing developments and public spaces. And the problem can occur before a planning application is submitted.

David Levitt, director of architect Levitt Bernstein Associates, has been so concerned about dumbed-down design that he raised the issue with planning minister Nick Raynsford in a briefing held by the National Housing Forum last month. His practice has been at the receiving end of such a process over the redevelopment of the Lamport housing estate in Portsmouth by a consortium of three housing associations.

They sack the original architect, switch to a lesser-known chap and produce a dumbed-down version

Sir Stuart Lipton

"We won detailed planning consent and received a positive ballot from tenants," he says. "But it was procured by design-and-build with a different employer's agent. I didn't recognise the completed scheme." One of the most widely publicised cases of architect-switching in recent years took place in the government's showcase urban regeneration scheme, the Greenwich Millennium Village. HTA Architects resigned as executive architect – and was simultaneously sacked by its development partner, a joint venture between Countryside Properties and Taylor Woodrow Capital Projects – after winning the competition for the site, but before gaining full planning permission.

"It's a very big issue in major urban regeneration schemes," says Bernard Hunt, managing director of HTA. "The design concept is increasingly seen as the key concept with which the developer can win the site.

But developers resist getting into formal arrangements for delivering the design concept, as was the case at Greenwich." Town planners have a different perspective on the problem. "Planning authorities are concerned about the dilution of architectural quality after schemes win planning applications," says Kevin Murray, former president of the Royal Town Planning Institute and chairman of urban design consultant EDAW. "But it is not our job to protect big-name architects. Many up-and-coming architects can do splendid work too." Last week, CABE held a seminar of planners, developers, architects and lawyers to discuss the problem of delivering design quality. Although Lipton floated his idea of linking planning permission with the name of the architect, the seminar was more persuaded by the less radical option of trying to make better use of the existing planning system. Currently, CABE is drawing up terms of reference for a research project on the subject.

The need to deliver architectural quality unites government departments, planners and architects. But do they all mean the same thing when they talk about "architectural quality"? To planners, the basic issue is creating places with a sense of identity. According to Murray: "There should be a clear urban design concept drawn up by the architect which the developer or housebuilder should adhere to." For architects, on the other hand, the devil is in the detail. Levitt says: "In social housing schemes, the contractor, with the permission of the registered social landlord's development manager, plunders the architect's specification for any savings. They pull out the nice balconies and parapet details that give quality to a scheme." Levitt proposes that, in design-and-build housing contracts, the original architect is retained in a supervisory role. Such an arrangement was used on the Montevetro luxury housing development in Battersea to the stated satisfaction of Richard Rogers Partnership, even though the practice's scheme was executed by a different developer with Hurley Robertson & Associates as architect novated to the design-and-build contractor.

For government, the problem is being tackled by appointing ministers to instil an appreciation of the value of architectural quality into their departments. But Jane Priestman, who is advising departments on achieving architectural quality, believes that such "architectural champions" are not enough.

Priestman, formerly British Rail design director, says: "I would like to see departments appointing full-time directors of architecture and design. The government talks about joined-up thinking. What we want is joined-up action." All these concerns may involve different safeguards, whether by extra vigilance on the part of planning authorities or new planning legislation.

Six proposals for preventing Trojan horse architecture

1) The extreme option New planning legislation should link planning permission to the name of the architect – proposed by Sir Stuart Lipton, CABE chairman. 2) The expedient option Planning authorities should make better use of existing planning legislation – proposed by Jon Rouse, CABE chief executive. 3) The arms-for-planners option Amend planning legislation to give planning authorities a stronger legal basis to enforce compliance on design issues – proposed by Kevin Murray, RTPI president. 4) The prohibitively-large-architect’s-fee option Planning applications should entail detailed architectural drawings at 1:50 scale – proposed by Piers Gough, director of CZWG Architects. 5) The contractual option, mark I In urban regeneration schemes, a structural arrangement should be agreed between local authority, developer, contractor and consultants to deliver architectural quality – proposed by Bernard Hunt, managing director of HTA Architects. 6) The contractual option, mark II In social housing projects, the scheme architect should be included as part of the employer’s agent in a design-and-build contract – proposed by David Levitt, director of Levitt Bernstein Architects