One man's PFI is another man's poison
Private Finance Initiatives get a patchy press this week. Michael Wilford has announced that he is fed up with working in the UK, citing the prevalence of PFI as one of the main sources of dissatisfaction (pages 20-21).
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has reiterated its conviction that PFI can produce exemplary buildings by praising Bennetts Associates' and Lomax, Cassidy & Edwards' proposal for Brighton Central Library as 'an exemplary private finance initiative'. So why is it that the PFI is encouraging one of our leading architects to seek work abroad, and allowing another to thrive?
The successful implementation of a PFI project is dependent on a responsible client, and CABE has, rightly, been quick to praise Brighton local authority for its commitment to the library project. But it is also a procedure which suits some architects better than others.Wilford has built his career on a series of close one-to-one relationships with long-standing clients, who invariably have the will and the resources to give him a relatively free rein. He is a design architect of the old school, infinitely more interested in realising a vision than in the day-to-day grind of administration and management. Bennetts Associates, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense organisation, adept at navigating the intricacies of governmental bureaucracy, and equally at home with commercial clients. In architectural terms it is a Blairite dream: a practice which relishes the prospect of delivering the best possible result within economic and time constraints - while keeping the paperwork up to date.
Bennetts also has a certain bullishness, which may prove particularly useful in the future. One of Wilford's gripes about PFI is that, while it is relatively simple to persuade a client to accept a decent design, it is rather more tricky to persuade them to accept the specification. It is excellent news that the designs for Brighton Central Library are so good - but maintaining quality at the pre-planning stage is the easy bit. For the architects and for CABE, the real challenge lies ahead.