Clare Melhuish reviews Chris Smith on the lottery of urban aspirations
Chris Smith MP, delivering the annual Jane Jacobs lecture at the LSE, went to some pains to convince his audience that the 'bottom-up', grassroots vision of urbanism promulgated by Jacobs could be satisfied by the new cultural monuments of the Lottery age, which might otherwise be thought to represent a rather 'top-down' idea of urban renewal.
Introducing Michael Lynch, the new cultural supremo faced with the unholy challenge of pulling off something at the South Bank Centre, Smith was full of enthusiasm and praise for the SBC's new-found commitment to 'working with the community', which, to date, has succeeded in erecting insuperable obstacles to its rehabilitation in the eye of the international arts community.
Certainly there was no heckling from the campaigning denizens of Waterloo at this lecture, as in the past. But perhaps there might, and should have been a voice raised in protest on behalf of all the architects who have served the Lottery, and other grand ambitions, at great professional and personal expense for often precious little reward, and rarely the satisfaction of a realised project.
The South Bank is one case in point, with an impressive roll-call of architects summoned to and thrown off the job, with barely a whisper of recognition.
But it was 'the problem of architects' vanity and status' that was raised by this audience during question-time, rather than the problem of architects' wasted hours and commitment, and this certainly wasn't an issue for Smith to address in the course of his elegiac evocation of the cultural regeneration achieved via the major Lottery-funded arts projects since his time as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (1997-2001).
As to the other problem, whether such projects really serve the interests of ordinary people rather than those of an affluent minority of 'culturevultures', Smith was adamant that the economic activity generated by new buildings such as the Lowry or Tate Modern justifies their claim to promote positive urban development and enhance the quality of life for all in today's cities.
He was also full of praise for the vision and bravery of commissioning bodies, such as the local government departments responsible for the Lowry initiative, which many condemned as 'mad'.
Yet it paved the way for both Libeskind's war museum, which not only did not draw on Lottery funds at all but also embodies an 'even better' architectural concept, and a major new hotel in the vicinity, and ultimately worked wonders in making 'people feel proud about their city'.
Smith had little to say directly about design quality, or the procurement process, but did stress that the key to success is 'a clear and powerful artistic vision', and that architects should have scope to be 'inspirational'. If that is the expectation, they deserve the support of their clients.
Chris Smith delivered the Jane Jacobs lecture last Thursday on the subject of Culture and Regeneration, at the London School of Economics