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Designers of risky projects need another string to their bow

Nobody thinks any less of Branson Coates because Sheffield's pop centre faces the threat of closure, and it would clearly be absurd to sneer at Future Systems, Feilden Clegg, or any of the other talented practices which have been associated with commercially shaky lottery projects. Problems have been blamed on over-optimistic assumptions about visitor numbers, an issue beyond the remit of the designer. It is simply not viable to expect an architect to examine the minutiae of the business plan, assess it with expertise, and possibly to voice a suspicion that the figures are less than realistic. In an ideal world we would all aspire to Cedric Price's old adage that the architect has a responsibility to question whether the client needs a building at all. But in a world where commissions are thin on the ground, it's simply too much to expect anybody to put an opportunity to design a high-profile public building at risk.

Perhaps a more realistic approach would be to demand that buildings for enterprises with uncertain futures, should, from the start, be accompanied by a realistic suggestion for an alternative use. This would mean additional work for the project team, which ought to be paid for. But the sum would be negligible when compared with the enormous financial liability of ending up with a building which nobody wants to use. Exceptional one-off buildings which prove resistant to change will doubtless prompt vague calls for future buildings to be 'flexible'. But flexible space all too often means anonymous space, and in most cases simply isn't realistic. It is difficult to imagine, say, the Glass Centre in Sunderland as housing, or commercial space, but relatively easy to imagine how its highly idiosyncratic blend of factory space, cafe space, exhibition space and rooms could suit the needs of Sunderland University which currently occupies the adjacent site.

Making a fixed 'Plan B' an essential part of any competition process and a prerequisite for funding makes practical sense, but it is also a means of preserving some of the exuberance of recent British architecture. One of the greatest legacies of the lottery-fuelled building frenzy is a landscape littered with weird and wonderful shapes.

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