An architecture policy would not guarantee quality, but it would set a welcome tone
What is required is an inclusive attitude to the many shades and drivers of architecture, writes Paul Finch
Ed Vaizey, who really does have an interest in, knowledge of, and liking for architecture, has taken a welcome initiative. His review of the state of British architecture, intended to inform a debate about the desirability of a national architecture policy, will focus minds and raise the status of architecture in Whitehall, possibly to the levels it occupied in the early 2000s.
In 2000, the Better Public Buildings Group, which comprised eight government departments under the chairmanship of Lord Falconer, produced a report (prosaically entitled Better Public Buildings) which set a tone for what was expected of all public bodies responsible for building procurement. It included a list of what they should stop and start doing. It wasn’t quite an architecture policy, but it pointed the way towards one, and attracted great interest from across Europe. Everyone wanted to know what the new organisation CABE was up to and, as the person who had drafted the BPB report, I attended several European boondoggles, where civil servants responsible for architecture across the EU gathered to discuss what we were all up to and what we could learn.
I think it is fair to say that at that time the UK was regarded with some envy by many other countries. There was clear support from the top of government for the idea that design quality mattered - and the prime minister’s Better Public Building Award, launched at that time, is still going with the support of successive PMs (AJ is the architectural media partner).
However, much water has passed since those heady days, with the lamentable depths being plumbed by Michael Gove, with his mendacious remarks about architects ‘creaming off’ funds from the Building Schools for the Future programme, and his suggestion that converting Tesco supermarkets would be a good way of providing schools for the children of the feckless. He himself went to a private school, of course, and quite a nicely designed one, judging by its website.
Though he has made no big issue about it, culture minister Vaizey does not share his colleague’s views on these matters. On the other hand, he is not a person who is going to launch a simple-minded campaign which assumes that architectural competitions are the only answer, or that one can divorce the question of architectural excellence from more general understanding of the cultural context in which architects operate. The choice of Terry Farrell to head the review is welcome; what is required is an inclusive attitude to the many shades and drivers of architecture which operate in the UK today. This is not about style, but about the hurdles and brakes which prevent design quality being universally expected, rather than being the exception that proves an unhappy rule.
As a significant urbanist, Farrell will be looking wider than the matter of individual building design, and that will be quite right. If a place is no good, then no matter how skilful a particular building within it, architecture will not be able to bridge the quality gap. When CABE was being created, Farrell was one of those who advised that it should not merely be a Commision for Architecture, but also for the Built Environment. Ed Vaizey gave Cabe support when in opposition, and had he been architecture minister at the time of the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, I doubt if the then culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, would have made his absent-minded decision to sever the department’s links with the mother of the arts. It is supposed to be a culture department. The Farrell review will help make amends for Hunt’s foolishness, and I hope the widest range of individuals and organisations will contribute to it.