How do the retail kings fare as supporters of good design?
I have often talked about the threat of risk in our society and how it militates against architectural innovation and new thinking; and the rise of the project manager and the QS whose prime responsibility is to stem the notion of pushing at the edges. They do this by overpricing elements that, as yet, have not been properly exposed to analysis - evidence that Thatcher's, and now Blair's, children are ultra-conservative and see only profit as the prime objective. I am therefore interested in how the top entrepreneurs of the UK fare as supporters of good architecture. How many of them see that what we do is important?
How many see that whatever they do has responsibilities beyond profit?
The most surprising thing is that the top private 'risk' takers have only £80 billion sales and employ only 750,000 people.
One of the most celebrated is Philip Green who bought BHS and increased its value sixfold. God knows how he did this, as it continues to sell complete rubbish that displays the least commitment possible to design; to say nothing of the stores themselves, which continue to be locked into an idea of low budget that completely disregards the talent that resides in the UK or Europe. Littlewoods, with its catalogue sales, is yet another lowbudget retail king not noted for design patronage. Not even the catalogues give any lip service to graphic design. Its strategy would appear to be that 'dumber' is better.
I am very fond of Virgin and Richard Branson. His airline has carried me comfortably on numerous occasions. It offers a genuine door-to-door service and has managed to make my life of air travel better.
I can never understand why other airlines have not copied 'eating when you like'or sitting areas, or a bar on board. These are welcome treats on what is a fairly mundane activity. However, I have never seen Virgin convert a building, or build a new one, with any architectural ambition. It is as though the company is like Melvyn Bragg; it just doesn't get it. A blind spot.
Kwik-Fit is not architecturally correct. It tends to locate in edge-of-town industrial estates, in the apparent anonymity of what are often considered non-public areas - nonpublic in the sense that no one goes there unless they have a broken exhaust. I contend that these areas need not exist. They could be incorporated into the genuine map of the town, with public space and places to view others at work. Kwik-Fit could occupy better buildings at a little extra cost to the advantage of both themselves and the public.
How is it that the average capital spend on our numerous coffee chains is £150,000 per outlet, when good restaurateurs often spend one or two million on a single restaurant?
Surely our coffee shops can not only afford to do better, but they could also lose their love affair with veneered MDF, which needs to be reworked every five years. Why coffee drinking is linked to dark 'wood' is a mystery.
A high spend with design quality would give a 10 to 15-year life. The impression is that these companies are not there for the long haul; they will simply sell at some point and move on to some other nasty scam or retire to the beach.
No faith in the future is the most damaging message companies give. It is unsettling and breeds insecurity in employees and public alike. This in turn costs the country a lot of money for healthcare and other social services. The companies I have mentioned and hundreds of others are not friends of good design practice and are, therefore, public enemy number one - except for project managers, jobsworths and QSs.
WA, from a boat on the Ionian Sea