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Culture of blame has no benefit

editorial

You might think that our most high-profile architects, and some of their buildings, are jinxed. Sir Norman Foster's Hong Kong Airport needs substantial replacements of faulty glazing. Richard Rogers and other consultants/ contractors finally settle with Lloyd's over rusty pipes which cost £12 million to put right. Rogers has problems with glass in Bordeaux. Grimshaw has to put up with conflicting stories about 'failed' glass panels at Waterloo. No sooner does this happen than slapdash features, of the 'modern architecture always goes wrong' variety, spring into national newspapers like the Guardian. That newspaper, notorious for being littered with errors, published a photograph last week of Sir Basil Spence's Knightsbridge Barracks, claiming it was the Chelsea Barracks in King's Road and was about to be sold. Translate a little error like that into a glass-manufacturing process and see what happens.

The explanation for why things go wrong, offered on Radio 4 by the riba's Chris Palmer and our columnist of the year Martin Pawley, was pressure on budget and programme; buildings are like concept cars, but never have the research to bring them up to full manufacturing standard. I find all this highly dubious. For one thing, the technical failure in a manufacturing process is unlikely to have much to do with whether the architect is under pressure or using an onerous form of building contract. The manufacturer takes his own calculation of risk. For another thing, whatever Sir John Egan may imagine in his baa retail fantasy world, buildings are not like cars. They have separate sites. They need better servicing than your average garage provides. They have a symbolic as well as a functional purpose.

My final doubt about the breast-beating currently undertaken by commentators (not the designers, I notice), concerns the assumption that the architect's work is invariably to blame for any failure (a nonsense), and that 'traditional' ways of designing and building are error-free. A cursory glance at the workload of happy construction lawyers will tell you otherwise. Oh, and cars go wrong too.

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