The Olympics is a triumph of contemporary design
Paul Finch’s letter from London: One of the great things about London 2012 is that none of it is endorsed by the Prince of Wales
The latest RIBA report on the value of design is both welcome and depressing. Welcome, because it is always useful to have ammunition to hand when some gormless public figure tells you that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ or asks ‘how can we measure good design?’ in a tone of voice that implies it is impossible.
But it is the fact that this sort of report needs to be published at all that is depressing. These case studies only go to show that all the work done in this field by CABE, RIBA and others has a temporary effect, forgotten as soon as a new minister arrives or a new Treasury guideline appears.
The rules of procurement still favour bids that offer the lowest cost, rather than the best value, even though government policy for the past decade, endorsed by the National Audit Office, has been that value, rather than cost, should inform procurement decisions. The really crazy thing about hiring architects on the basis of a low fee bid is that you diminish your chances of getting the best design intelligence to guide the outcome, both in terms of the construction cost and project value.
Reports that show how much design can make a difference are a prequel to the question of how you appoint the architects to make that difference, especially for public buildings.
We have been round and round the houses on this issue for as long as anyone can remember. Design competitions are no longer touted as the answer to everything, or possibly even to anything. PFI procurement has been thoroughly discredited, because of the way it was stifled in red tape.
We carry on muddling through with the really good schemes always being exceptions that prove the rule. The planning system still has a malign radar, which results in good designs getting beaten up while the mediocre slip by unnoticed. Culturally, style battles remain ready to break out at the drop of a Daily Mail headline. Heritage trumps everything.
Or does it? One of the good things about the 2012 London Olympics is the realisation that we have a set of great buildings produced not by Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, John Simpson, but by Hopkins, Hadid, Populous, Make, Heneghan Peng et al. None of it endorsed by the Prince of Wales, none of it to do with heritage, and all of it produced under a cost regime which isn’t exactly parsimonious, and certainly wasn’t about just being ‘good enough’. The designs had to be great; and they are.
Moreover, just to emphasise the point that modern British designers are world-beaters, think about the main stadium for the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar. The challenge to Foster + Partners and Arup Associates was to produce an environment in which neither spectators nor players would collapse in the summer heat.
The task, one that had to be undertaken before Qatar could win the bid to stage the event, was to prove that it was possible to almost halve the external temperature inside the stadium. Air-conditioning, you say. But that would not be acceptable unless it was able to be zero-carbon.
Well, the designers have done it. And at a conference on Qatar infrastructure projects in London last week, Michael Beaven from Arup and Alistair Lenczner from Foster’s demonstrated exactly how it will work, following a prototype test-run, in a masterly presentation utterly removed from the pitifully narrow confines of what passes for cultural procurement in the UK. Does anyone imagine that these designers were hired because they produced the lowest-fee bids? What they provide has undeniable value.
If we want to get better value from construction in the UK, we will need to deploy the best design brains to help the process. Government needs to play its part, but it will need to discover a proper design champion if it is to have a role other than that of ineffectual, hand-flapping, wimpish spectator.