Speaking at the Architecture Foundation's fundraising event last week, Nicky Gavron, Lord Rogers and Chris Smith were effusive in their praise for architecture centres, and it is presumed that the Urban White paper, due out in November, will give plans for a network of regional architecture centres strong support.
Regional architecture centres have been effective in various different spheres: the Kent architecture centre has shown its worth in an advisory capacity, working with development agencies and similar organisations, while CUBE in Manchester has proved particularly adept at staging exhibitions. Both are instances of a lively, committed bunch of people working towards a better understanding of architecture. But are they also proof that Britain needs a network of regional architecture centres? Advisory work can be carried out by committee; meetings between, say, planners and the public can take place in the community centre or the town hall; exhibitions can be held in cinema foyers, libraries - or existing galleries. So is it really possible to justify the cost of setting up and running a dedicated building administered by full-time staff?
Architecture centres are only of real use if they act as a catalyst for initiatives or conversations which would not otherwise have happened, nurturing interaction where no formalised relationships exist. In other words, they need to operate in the cracks between the existing networks of committees, exhibitions and events. They need to be able to attract a wide range of interested parties, so that a counsellor might strike up conversation with a student from the local school of architecture or an architect is likely to come across a member of the public.
But to be successful, it is essential that such centres are properly resourced. It takes a rare talent to establish an environment where such diverse groups of people feel at ease, let alone to convert constructive dialogue into action. Staff of the necessary calibre are unlikely to be tempted by the drudgery of incessant fundraising and penny-pinching. And however worthy the intentions of all concerned, under-funded organisations swiftly become defensive, depressing, and exhausted by the constant battle of day-to-day survival.