George Ferguson has thrown his hat in the ring in the forthcoming mayoral election in his hometown of Bristol
Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Mayoral campaigns are ideal opportunities to put retrofit and architecture on the political agenda, says Paul Finch
Architects rarely become directly involved in politics in Britain. For decades, the only architect MP was Sydney Chapman, who achieved fame for organising the ‘Plant A Tree In ’73’ campaign, serving as a backbench MP first in Birmingham and subsequently taking over Reginald Maudling’s former sinecure in Chipping Barnet, which he held for 26 years (until 2005).
For political influence, there has been no one to compare with the ultimate architect politician, Albert Speer, whose sinister influence still looms large in German architectural history, and whose name lives on because his distinguished architect son bears the same name. Speer’s life was an extraordinary one and, if you haven’t read Gitta Sereny’s biography, it is worth it, not least because of the ambiguities she explores in relation to good and evil, guilt and looking the other way.
In Britain, the most significant political architect of our times is Richard Rogers, partly because he has fought battles in public over his beliefs about public space and the importance of architecture expressing our contemporary condition. His chief contribution, however, was to persuade London’s first mayor, Ken Livingstone, that architecture and planning were not side-issues for political administrations, but fundamental to the success of that most important political entity in most countries these days: cities.
Livingstone acknowledged the importance of Rogers’ ideas, developed and promoted when he chaired the Architecture Foundation, when the then Mayor spoke at Rogers’ Pritzker Prize presentation in the Banqueting House on Whitehall in 2007. He had based his election manifesto on the urban ideas espoused by Rogers and was happy to say so. Indeed many of the ideas in that manifesto, in relation to everything from public space to energy and waste, are still extant in the current London Plan, Mayor Johnson having wisely retained many of Livingstone’s policies.
One important effect of architectural ideas being promoted in an election is that, once on the agenda, all candidates have to engage with what is being said, not least because the public is always interested in buildings and the future of their street, area and city.
So congratulations are due to George Ferguson, who has thrown his hat in the ring in the forthcoming mayoral election in his home town of Bristol (that city having voted in a referendum to go for a mayoral administration). As a prominent local architect, and campaigner for both new architecture and the saving of much-loved elements of the city in the face of dumb development proposals, George has no problem with public recognition. Moreover, he was an elected councillor for the Liberals back in the 1970s, so knows his political onions.
George spoke at the city’s Architecture Centre last week, where Rob Gregory has organised a good exhibition called Bristol: Retrofit City. I had the pleasure of chairing a discussion about initiatives currently under consideration in the city, covering everything from energy improvements in homes to propositions about how the city might look in 2050, including partly flooding the Avon Gorge. On the community front, the determined Redcliffe Neighbourhood Planning Forum (which has just become a recognised body under the Localism Act), is working on its own local plan to do something useful with waste land on either side of 1960s highways engineering which all but ruined the area.
Whether Ferguson wins or loses, it is clear the political battlegrounds in Bristol are being drawn with architecture and retrofit firmly on the agenda – as they most certainly should be.