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people making things happen

Rory Coonan is a facilitator who still has the civil servant's ingrained sense of social responsibility. He combines this with the belief that high standards in visual and architectural culture are central to the public good by jeremy melvin. photograph b

Raising expectations is Rory Coonan's raison d'etre. 'I make my living telling people what they might have,' he says, 'helping clients to become experts for the time they need to be so... those critical few months when, if they make the right decisions, things are more likely to go well, and if they've made the wrong decisions things inevitably go worse.'

In the last four years he has advised the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, and clients of a dozen competitions, most recently for Lambeth schools, and most dramatically for Hungerford Bridge, where his deft touch and familiarity with the mechanisms of power helped ensure that the architects would be retained through the project. Westminster City Council had been under the illusion that holding the competition gave it copyright; Coonan and fellow judges Alan Baxter and John Winter were able to demonstrate that it didn't.

Their success depended on the Copyright Reform Act of the mid 1980s - critical clauses of which Coonan drafted himself. The act was his first significant achievement in a stint of more than a decade at the Arts Council, culminating in the establishment of an architecture unit and the incorporation into the 1994 Lottery Act of Section 26, requiring design quality standards. 'As a result of those guidance notes I have made millionaires of several architects,' Coonan says, 'and fostered some very good buildings. It's amazing what you can achieve as a humble official.'

He terms his approach 'the Coleman's mustard principle - I always look for the things other people leave on the side of their plates.' He expands: 'When I start there is seldom a project to be managed, but you only have a little time, Jesuitically...and you're liable to be dumped, which is profoundly unsatisfying'.

When he left the Arts Council in 1995, Coonan retained the civil servant's ingrained sense of responsibility for the public good. When he came recently to advise Lambeth borough council on its selection process for four new schools it was partly from a desire to contribute to improving education - the new schools will, he says, have 'far superior spatial qualities' to private schools he knows (although not to his own alma mater, Pugin's Ratcliffe College, 'rather a good building'). It was also partly through a fortunate connection. Mike Hayes, whom he had interviewed twice when assessing candidates for the City of Architecture and Design, had become director of regeneration at Lambeth. Finding that the schools project had no design quality guidelines, he had known just where to turn.

In some ways Coonan embodies the Northcote - Trevelyan ideal: a public servant with an ability to use the network, but with a sense of social responsibility setting the aspirations. His mission also has a Newish Labour, joined-up-thinking twist: it includes architecture, design and visual thinking. For him culture is not just a badge by which members of the elite recognise each other, but a field of opportunities.

These beliefs can be traced back to his time at Oxford in the 1970s. Despite being a 'direct contemporary...I never saw Tony Blair at the Oxford Labour Club,' he says. Much more influential was his tutor, the brilliant young Terry Eagleton, who had just been appointed to Wadham college. Eagleton had imbibed a sense of the commonality of culture from Raymond Williams, but in his The Ideology of the Aesthetic had developed a theoretical slant drawing on German idealism to incorporate the visual into the predominantly literary British tradition. Indeed, so visual did Coonan's orientation under Eagleton become that he went on to study painting at the Royal College of Art.

The influence of his father was at least as important: a distinguished aerospace engineer, he designed the family's house in the early 1950s - 'it was full of titanium alloy and carbon fibre honeycomb'. Sir Harry Kroto, a Nobel prize winner who identified the chemical compound he termed Buckminsterfullerene, was another mentor.

With this background, Coonan's turn to architecture was only a matter of time. 'It's fundamentally where art and science meet,' he says. It is this concept that underpins the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), the institution Coonan devised to support intellectual workers with a capital endowment from the lottery which will provide £20- £30 million a year in perpetuity.

The day-to-day affairs of Nesta have passed to a chief executive and board chaired by David Puttnam, but Coonan delights in Chris Smith's public acknowledgement of his conceptual role. The core of the body's mission, as he sees it, is to support and encourage architects, designers and inventors.

It is now the next generation of capital programmes: pfi, public-private partner- ships and the £13 billion public procure-ment budget that Coonan has in his sights. Here he sees a specific problem: pfi erodes the distinctiveness of public institutions like law courts and libraries, as developers hedge their bets by making flexible buildings - ironically, just as policy has begun to favour public participation. Combined with our 'deep-rooted failure in education' to give children 'tools to talk about space' the outlook could be bleak.

Coonan has applied for an 1851 fellowship, an award from the invested profits of the Great Exhibition, to research the issue. Close to his heart is a proposal for creating a fund to promote understanding of how to create better environments. Construction could, he extemporises, learn from the racing industry, where a betting levy is a way of reinvesting to benefit racing - which, like construction, is a huge business, and like public space, one of the few activities where the classes meet.

Given the £56 billion contribution of construction to gdp and the £7 billion added by professional services, there should be plenty of scope for the Coleman's mustard principle here.

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