PFI schemes expensive, simplistic and insensitive
Back in the early 1990s, when the Private Finance Initiative (pfi) was just a fag-end leftover of Thatcherism, the complaint was of an insensitive, expensive, and simplistic mechanism for levering private capital into the public sector. But in 1997 the new government instigated a refashioning of this major procurement tool. At Pimlico School, we have lived through both eras, but the 'outputs' (to use pfi's favoured yardstick) are proving remarkably similar.
In 1995, we needed £7 million of work on maintenance and the replacement of an over-glazed external skin: but the Department for Education and Employment (dfee) guided our lea towards a pfi rebuild with the carrot of fully underwritten capital costs. Overnight, the building became irreparable and we needed an over-sized new one, with flats in the playgrounds to offset swollen costs.
But just as the school community first erupted in hostility at these proposals, the new government gave stakeholders a central role in appraising schemes. Meanwhile education policy increased the remit and financial responsibilities of school governing bodies at the expense of leas. Suddenly our views counted.
So, as governors became increasingly dissatisfied with key details, then requested a planning inquiry, and finally rescinded previous support for the scheme, we presumed that the sponsoring department would pull the plug.
Instead we have received four letters from the ministry, re-iterating departmental support, discouraging alternatives and seeking our re-consideration. The message is unambiguous: we're not interested in cheaper, more appropriate solutions, and we'll have it our way or we'll throw the school to the wolves.
Thus the pfi, at least in this case, is placed firmly alongside such discredited environmental strategies as comprehensive redevelopment and slum clearance, in that it is indeed demonstrably expensive, simplistic and insensitive.
Expensive because, at a cost of £25 million to the public purse, the Pimlico project is consuming many times more funding than can possibly be made available to other secondary schools, despite no real claim to such priority. Simplistic because, beneath a gloss of shiny newness, the proposed replacement has at least as many endemic faults as the existing structure. And insensitive in that visions of the imagined gains ignore the fate of the children who must continue their education on the site while the work is in progress.
Whither the promise of Rogers' urban renaissance? The pfi appears quite incapable of responding to the complex of requirements for sustainable urban development.
Pimlico School is a monument to the optimism of the post-war consensus, and especially to the late Sir Ashley Bramall. It may be an essential rite of political passage to demolish your predecessor's monument and replace it with your own; but it makes for lousy economic planning, poor education practice, and insecure architectural decision-making.
Rob Hughes (governor, David Gibson Architects)
Beverley Birch (governor)
Architecture wanders in academic wilderness
Having been away for some weeks, I am grateful to Paul Hyett for calling my attention to the article attributed to me, 'Getting other, not better' (aj 23.9.99). Although strangely flattered by its inclusion in your pages, its existence and content came as a complete surprise. This text was extracted, no doubt with honourable intent, from the body of an extended private paper offered some months ago as commentary on Colin Stanfield- Smith's interim report on architectural education, which somehow came into your hands.
Paul Hyett's own contribution, 'Education at the cross-roads', was, anyway, far more interesting. I applaud his necessary restatement of the obvious, that the high quality of much uk architectural production directly reflects the excellence of the education system from which our architects benefited.
How strange that persistent critics of the schools fail to recognise this truism.
Barry Russell (Letters, aj 30.9.99) evidently ploughed through the arcane piece attributed to me. Research was his theme. Leslie Martin it was who in Oxford introduced the principle of specialist, funded research as an essential ingredient of architectural education for both undergraduate and post-graduate programmes.
His motive, derived from science (which progresses by accumulating tested hypotheses which are fed into the discipline) was honourable but flawed. He sought the legitimation of architecture as an academic discipline in the university ambience.
Architecture, however, does not progress and get 'better', it gets 'other', as you flagged in the headline of 'my article'. Because architecture is not a science, the expectations of those funding agencies which anticipate a similar linear progression of research feeding practice and education are frustrated. Equating the research methods and conclusions of, say, the mathematics of the ideal villa, or the architecture of the well-tempered environment, with, for instance, those of particle physics, microchip technology or organ transplants, would be to invite ridicule, albeit Rowe and Banham (among many others) have exercised a considerable, if indefinable, influence upon architectural production. Research in architecture may be defined as 'to build knowingly', and not an academically recognised discipline. From such structural difficulties derive the problems of architectural research when it comes to earning brownie points in the funding rat race; and schools of architecture are in that chase up to their eaves. My long-held contention is that until architecture is recognised as its own discipline, not a quasi-science or quasi-art, it will wander in the academic wilderness. What a reward it will be if the defin- itive Stansfield-Smith report addresses such fundamental, unresolved and long-standing quandaries. But don't hold your breath.
Allen Cunningham, London NW3
Searching for the right Sao Paulo, Brazil
About a 100mm thickness of architectural magazines was recently passed down the office to me. Eventually I got round to giving them a brief glance and, while flicking through aj 22.7.99, the name Sao Paolo caught my eye in Mike Menzies' letter about a then-recent Martin Pawley article. I thought: 'Now that could just be Sao Paulo. But then, who knows - maybe it's the Spanish or Italian version. I wouldn't know.'
Further down the column, I noticed the word tourismo. I thought: 'If only that were turismo, I could almost be sure it was Brazil or even Brasil we were dealing with (Brah with a Cockney zeal).
Finally, still further down, I became totally convinced when I read: '. . . a fare between five and 20 reals'. Now I was absolutely sure that this was Sao Paulo, Brazil. Where else would someone use reais (re-eyes), plural of real.
Then, of course, I noticed the picture at the top of the page.
I couldn't find aj 24.6.99 with Martin Pawley's article though. I would have loved to have worked my way through all those extra clues.
Sam Curran, County Antrim
PS: even my word processor seemed to favour 'Paulo'.
Kaplicky betrays his arrogance in book quote
Does arrogance and ignorance always have to follow commercial success?
Astragal's quote (aj 7.10.99) from Jan Kaplicky's new book, 100 Sentences ('We take risks with every project - others just want a comfortable life'), confirms that he thinks he is a deity.
But please, for a sobering moment, let us reconsider the Lords Media Stand. Novel in its built form, but perhaps one of the most extravagant and wasteful buildings of the twentieth century. A look at Lords Media Centre's internal structure, as published in the aj (24.4.99), shows it to be sadly ponderous and clumsy at best.
Kaplicky is not the only architect to be sticking his neck out. Consider a small group of uk eco-architects, for instance, who have been flying in the face of fashion for two decades - only to be vindicated now - and their mission is not for fame, recognition and glory.
A look in your sister magazine, The Architectural Review, shows that there are numerous architects world-wide who are taking risks.
Kaplicky considers himself some kind of Brunelleschi or Buckminster Fuller.
I think that one of Kaplicky's friends ought to have a quiet word with him.
David Canning, London NW3
Hyett's August column had prophetic tones
You will no doubt recall the following article by Paul Hyett from aj 6/13.8.99.
Hyett wrote: 'New labour has arrived and made great promises, but nothing is happening. The new rolling stock that was provided isn't reliable. The signalling is not compatible with the trains and we have a donkey of a system. One billion pounds has been spent and it still doesn't work! Claiming that he cannot work under such conditions, he [the train driver] concluded, with chilling logic, that it is simply not enough for Mr Prescott to offer millions of pounds to transport - the issue is, who spends the money, how and with what competence.'
In view of the recent events at Paddington, it seems to have an added poignancy.
Jeanne Loader, Surbiton, Surrey
Please keep naughty words out of the AJ
I feel I must complain about the decision to publish the bad language that was included in Don Gray's letter, 'Mum always told me I lived in a tenement' in last week's issue of the aj. Gray's letter is interesting, but is it really necessary to resort to swear words to make a simple architectural point? Obscenity sits awkwardly in the pages of any professional journal, and especially in the highly respected pages of the aj.
David Suitor, West Yorkshire
Last week's page 15 news story on railway regeneration around Berlin's Anhalter Bahnhof mistakenly attributed the design to Graham Moss. It was in fact Graham Ross, of Wren Rutherford Austin-Smith: Lord.