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Honouring our unsung heroes in a dumbed-down age


There's nothing like a good poll to get people talking. The BBC has just published its list of 100 Greatest Britons, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel the nearest thing to an architect to appear. Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) didn't make the cut. Nor did Robert Adam (1728-92). Or John Nash (1752-1835). Neither, for that matter, did Lords Foster or Rogers. But in a list which places Michael Crawford (1942-present) above Geoffrey Chaucer, and Julie Andrews above William Caxton, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at what appears to reflect a public which favours the soundbitey showbiz personality to the genuine historical figures who shaped a nation.

Another of this week's surveys, from Whitaker's Almanac, found that the nation is indeed dumbing down. Its evidence? That one in 10 Britons cannot name a single world leader but can list up to five characters in EastEnders. Phil Mitchell, it appears, is better known even than Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who's been in the news a bit recently.

So does this matter to architecture? Well, yes and no.

No, because to CABE, which commissioned yet another poll of its own this summer, the fact that the public cannot get a handle on the figurehead personalities involved in designing a building does not matter nearly as much as the need for them to insist more on design quality. (In its MORI poll, CABE also found that 'living' architects cited included Sir Christopher Wren, Basil Spence, and James Stirling, and that people had great difficulty putting names to projects, even with highprofile ones like Foster's wobbly Millennium Bridge. ) But yes, because a public which failes to engage with history will surely become divorced from designs which deal with historical precedents and contexts, and is less likely to demand an architecture 'of its time'.

So it's refreshing that Debra Shipley MP urges this week that architects should raise their profile (pages 16-17).

Awards such as Stirling and the BCIA do the same, with the Bristol City Learning Centre honoured by Tony Blair this week (see pages 6-7 and supplement). True, Blair's favourite is not a grand gesture likely to make any 'greatest' list. But such everyday buildings are vital, just the same.

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