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Even Mies would have trouble making a success out of PFI


The increasingly complex and legally fraught business of commissioning, designing and procuring public buildings is often cited as justification for the downgrading, even exclusion, of architecture.Design is presented as an optional extra, a bolt on - nice but not essential.The reverse is true;

design is the creative process that models, anticipates and facilitates new futures.While we need to survey the individual propositions that new public procurement processes produce (the evidence), our primary focus must be on the review and redesign of the process that shapes them.

By project 'shape' I refer to the context that generated the building and not the current vogue for fulsome forms.Not that shape cannot be a driver; I just wish someone would say they did it because they wanted to, because the design and production software has made the easily imagined, but technically difficult, possible - just as the mountaineer climbs Everest because it's there and he can (and the oxygen tanks make it possible).

There is a story of a Mies van der Rohe lecture in London where he spoke of his work at the Illinois Insitute of Technology and for Seagram: of steel columns encased, for reasons of fire, in concrete then rearticulated on the skin of the building by the steel that supports the glazing.The room was in awe of the inventor of a new construction vernacular; Mies drew on a cigar and concluded 'but of course, actually we did it like that because we liked the way it looked'.

I like to imagine that he might also have considered the formative impact on architecture of the design of the Form of Contract.Those who worked for Mies have told me otherwise;

that he was unsure of proportion, relying on a gut reaction, and that his best work was done in pre-war Germany - the latter confirms that proximity does not guarantee insight.

Clearly heroes exist for us to construct as we want them to be, and it's best not to meet your heroes. (My father turned down the chance to dine with Groucho Marx - observing that the potential delight was not worth the risk of disappointment. ) So 'My Mies'had a stonemason for a father and a solicitor for a mother (a construction law specialist).So, would My Mies have willingly and wittingly embraced Partnering Contracts, Framework Agreements, PFI and LIFT? His mother would have made him wary of both the legal experts who facilitate the process and their colleagues who hover waiting to pick over the carcass of contractual failure; however, the answer must be 'yes'.He would have listened to his mother but carried on, keen to build - just as in 1930s Germany.

So, is considering what My Mies might have done today a pointless illustration of a fascination with the mythical status of 20th-century figures? The answer, of course, is 'yes'.But the vital issue is not whether Mies would have undertaken a PFI project, but, if he had, whether it would have been any good.

My conclusion, based on experience of PFI 'outcomes' to date, suggests that even in the case of the Mies myth the answer would be 'no'.

So why are we now in the process of staking billions of pounds on the gamble that schools and hospitals will somehow be okay?

Because the short-term returns are the very presentable statistics for the provision of huge numbers of new facilities.

It's only the long-term prospects that are poor - and when does anyone in government or construction think long-term?

The mistaken view is threefold: that the value of design cannot be measured so it is not needed; that we won't make the mistakes of the past; and that the future is someone else's problem.

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