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people the vision thing

Peter Bell, architect turned client, combines vision with commercial realism, qualities which have helped transform the stuffy image of Lord's into one of the country's leading sites of contempory architecture

It was Michael Hopkins, recalls Peter Bell, who first put into architectural terms a view of Lord's which lay deep in the mcc membership's psyche. In an apparently bland aside, Hopkins said that Lord's was a collection of pavilions, not an arena; without knowing it, he struck a chord which resonated between architects and the mcc. And those resonances have continued echoing around Lord's, transforming that 8ha site in the heart of London into the most distinguished collection of contemporary British architecture. Now Future Systems' Media Centre joins stands by Grimshaw and Hopkins, David Morley's shop and cricket school, and signage by Cartlidge Levene, which 'cost as much as a building to implement', replaces 500 signs in plastic or gold-leaf on oak, and 'absolutely transforms the place'.

Hopkins' statement set one of several possible stages for great architecture, but it was one which fitted in with the views of the 'tremendously eminent' people who make up the mcc's membership. This was crucial, and gave Bell and his colleagues on the estates committee reason to support the strategy. Where Arup's submission for the Mound Stand, remembers Bell, was an arena which might have been 'designed by Albert Speer for the Berlin Olympics', Hopkins' tented design 'didn't cost more, seated more and reduced risk'; its design qualities matched its commercial possibilities.

Peter Bell is one of that elusive type, the practising architect who is also a client. Since he and Richard MacCormac 'ran out of work' in the early 1970s - they designed a couple of houses in Blackheath, to which MacCormac remembers Bell bringing 'great rigour' - he has run a small practice in North London. He also plays real tennis at Lord's three times a week, although he joined as 'a keen cricketer many years ago

. . . but I'm interested in doing things, not watching them'. He says self-deprecatingly that neither his work at Lord's nor his stint as a committee member for the St Pancras Housing Association cost more than a few hours a month. Those few hours at Lord's must rate among the most valuable in contemporary British architecture.

Bell recounts several anecdotes which show how important Hopkins' perception was. Lord's and the mcc is a tricky beast - 'I sometimes think Lord's is a pretty bad client, in retrospect', he confesses; 'the estates committee can be overruled by the main committee and we can't protect consultants from that.' Powerful individuals bring eccentric views and, once they take hold, they are difficult to change. So, for example, when Hopkins designed the Compton and Edrich stands, he had to avoid blocking a view to the trees in St John's Wood churchyard, even though that meant lower capacity and some awkward sightlines.

Architecture has to fit in with these prejudices. If it doesn't, however good, it doesn't stand a chance of being accepted. Bell recounts how Chris Wates, estates-committee member from the family of builders, 'came to a meeting and said, 'I met a fearfully arrogant man over the week-end'' - naming one of the competitors for the Mound Stand. Bell realised there was no point in supporting that firm, but, he says, 'I learned a trick'. He asked of another competitor, 'Didn't they do that awful building at xxx?' - and it sank too.

When Bell joined the mcc he found it a 'run-down, public-school outfit . . . one meeting was devoted to deciding whether to paint with rollers or paint brushes'. As an experience in British inefficiency it rated with his time at the London Borough of Merton, where, along with Frank Duffy, Peter Eley and Richard MacCormac, he built 2000 houses.

Lord's employed a different calibre of person to Merton, but showed similar potential for understanding the system and using it to achieve an end which it might not have expected. Bell worked with David Mayle, sometime rics president, who became chairman of the estates committee after Bell was himself blackballed by the administration. This was because he insisted that his view on the administration's inability to run a whelk stall be minuted. 'You have to risk being impolite,' explains Bell, who praises the present administration under Roger Knight. Mayle 'went to the library and looked for people who could achieve things', finding Ian (now Lord) Maclaurin and the eminent cricketer Doug Insole, who had also been a client of Foster's at Willis Faber. Another key player was Clyde Malby, 'God's own qs', who remembers Bell's courage with admiration. They set about 'trying to make Lord's better'. Bell has helped to steer them down a delicate path, using the enormous range of skills within a framework which, if occasionally obstreperous, is clearly not unreceptive to well-presented good design. The Committee is 'extremely knowledgeable, wise and wouldn't put a foot wrong in getting a mortgage or buying a car, but they wouldn't buy a Formula One car'. Still, 'as in chess, you give away pawns to win the game'.

With the Media Centre complete, the game is close to victory. Bell wants to get back on the estates committee, helping Morley to have 'a free rein to do more'; he is implementing a masterplan, 'a very cool, calm operator who makes life easy and brings things in on time and on budget'. This approach allows for risks: Morley was the understudy on the media centre, facing the committee with 'two schemes, one faultless and easy, the other brilliant, occasionally difficult, but offering enormous advantages to the mcc to have such a building'. Bell's attitude, borne out now in several schemes, is to get the best, the extra cost being 'meaningless if it can be used for other things', given the commercial leverage offered by advances in the media. If he gets back on the committee, the spectacles will not be over: 'We should be asking Foster, or Jan and Amanda, to come up with a waterproof skin, like a paraglider . . . to blow up like a bubble . . . it won't come easy and it won't come cheap, but that's the sort of study we should be doing.' And in doing so, he confirms the case for an architect as client; showing how vision can go hand in hand with commercial realism.

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