Jumping on the bandwagon of delivering verbal punishment
Does anybody remember a time when architects agreed not to supplant or criticise one another's work? It wasn't very long ago, but today it seems as remote as a frozen mammoth in the tundra. Now even those who still tirelessly promote the idea of 'banging the drum' for architecture must be disconcerted by the speed with which all the quangos, foundations and committees that result seem to have taken to banging it on the head instead.
Only fifteen years after it tried to close down its own schools, and less than ten years since it ceased to groan under the lash of the Prince of Wales, the profession finds itself at the mercy of a regiment of self- created Prince Charles understudies sprung from its own ranks, ready to continue the verbal punishment indefinitely.
In the lead are the conservation bodies, secure in the conviction, that the people who look after the past are the best people to look after the future. Then come the new-style architectural administrators, advisors, foundations and institutes, ranging from the raging hormones of lpac down to the dog-eat-dog volunteer preview committees that, in every part of the country, advise the planners on what to pass and what to reject. These alone would be enough supercargo for any hardworking profession to carry, but there is more. Now there is a commons select committee demanding that the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (detr), make sure that everybody involved in putting up buildings 'shares the vision of the urban task force and the Prince of Wales'. Better yet, the desperately serious team at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (cabe) springs into e-commerce with its own pathetically undesigned website. The most born-yesterday of all the post-Modern era's new talking shops, this one clearly cannot wait to see action. Of the £90 million Foster scheme, opposite Cannon Street station, the three architects on one of its committees declare, 'It needs a fairly fundamental reappraisal'. The reason? Because it displays a 'lack of concern for its surroundings'. Which is odd, given that its 'surroundings' do not merely consist of Wren's St Stephen church, but also include the monstrous Bucklersbury House that occupies the whole of the opposite side of Walbrook, for which it shows a great deal of concern indeed.
The same lofty dismissal characterises cabe's attack on rhwl's Guinness project in Park Royal. This time, like an arbiter of manners so grand as to consider detail superfluous, the review committee baldly states that the scheme displays 'the wrong tone'. Apropos of which one hopes that the committee's deliberations about the 'right tone' for Park Royal have been recorded, for they must have been richly comic.
Despite the opprobrium that should attach to the membership of committees convened to raise the quality of the built environment by attacking the performance of those who add to it, there has never been a shortage of volunteers for these adjudicatory positions. Membership of the old Royal Fine Art Commission used to be akin to membership of the most exclusive club, with the most courtly ritual attending the members' appraisal of one another's work. What has replaced this? The unedifying spectacle of individuals working off old grudges against competitors and previous employers? Or the dismal fact that every holder of a United Kingdom passport believes they have died and gone to heaven if their opinion is sought, be it only by a clipboard person in an airport lounge.
If only they could all be invited to pontificate on the eight-figure projects that are part of the superstructure of the city and the lifeblood of the economy.