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Points of review

CABE's design review committee publishes its first annual report this week, commenting on proposals it has seen and trends it has noticed. Here, AJ editorial director Paul Finch looks back on more than four years of chairing the committee, on some lessons learned and the purpose of design review.

Chairing CABE's design review committee for the past four years has been an immense privilege. Listening to the views of the twodozen assorted professionals who give their time to reviewing schemes has been an education, not only in respect of the importance of constructive criticism but also in how architects develop and present their ideas.

What lessons, if any, might be drawn from that four-year experience? And, given the impossibility of reviewing more than a tiny fraction of planning applications, what leverage can design review use to have a more general positive effect in addition to what it does for individual schemes?

For me, there is a key indicator to whether a proposal is robust or clueless, and that is the extent to which the designs on the boards support the stated aspirations of the client and the architect, and the way in which the designs reinforce or dilute the design intention. To some extent this is a question of choice of design team. The more ambitious the project, the more one expects to see a team that is evidently capable of producing the goods. This does absolutely not mean that everyone needs to have designed lots of a particular building type in the past; what it does mean is that an inexperienced client needs consultants who can fill the experience gap. A serial client, on the other hand, need feel few qualms about a design team that has never attempted a particular building type before, but may bring something special and new to the project. The client provides the experience.

Counting the cost The next question is whether the resources being devoted to the project look appropriate. By and large you get what you pay for in construction, as in other things. If you want an expensive building, ask for marble and bronze; if you are tight on budget, go for brick - in either case, the design can enhance or diminish the perceived value of the materials. The dumbest thing a client can do is to assume that it is a smart idea to try to get design on the cheap; all it means is that you will get diminished design brainpower. If you are tight on budget, you need more design ingenuity to get a great result. This does not mean cheeseparing on fees or using lower-quality design teams.

So much for the client - what about the architects? They too can let themselves down by telling a wonderful story about a design which, on examination, proves to be a letdown. This is generally because over-elaborate intentions cannot be matched because of the real nature of the programme, or the limits of cost and/or client aspiration. As the architectturned-developer Roger Zogolovitch has sagely observed, it is better to give a client the architectural equivalent of the best kipper they have ever tasted, rather than third-rate lobster thermidor. In other words, inappropriate architectural ambition can be an enemy of a first-rate answer to the real programme.

Good schemes by good architects are almost inevitably examples of architectural narratives that reinforce the fundamental principle of the design in relation to programme. Things are as they are because that is what they need to be, not because of arbitrary choices. The detail contributes and relates to the whole. The elevation relates to the building's organisation. The section relates clearly to the plan. The parts relate harmoniously to the whole, and the whole relates to the context. And when this happens, you can admire the skill with which a project has been designed, even if the particular design style leaves you cold. In other words, you can apply objective criteria to the success or otherwise of particular proposals, well set out in Design Review, the CABE publication that encapsulates the way in which the design review committee has interrogated designs over its (albeit brief ) history. Of course, there is room for disagreement, but by and large our committee meetings have been remarkably consistent in their assessments of the merits or otherwise of the widest variety of architectural propositions.

Minding the gap Disparities between the claims made for schemes and the reality of the material presented are not confined to poor designs and poor architects. Good schemes by good architects can be capable of improvement in design evolution. Moreover, from observation both of schemes at DRC and in relation to competition presentations, there can be a disparity between the quality of thinking that has gone into a proposal and the skill with which it is conveyed. Sometimes it is apparent that all the lateral thinking and energy have gone into the architecture, and very little into how that is communicated to a committee or judging panel.

The lesson, whether in relation to design or to presentation, is that discrepancies, disparities and, at worst, contradictions (why does the plan show one thing but the section another? ) are indications of design brainpower operating at the wrong frequency.

The best way to check if this is so is, of course, to conduct the pre-emptive crit in the privacy of the design office. And early enough to be able to do something about the gaps that may emerge.

But what about the gap between schemes at the better end of the design spectrum, which is what CABE tends to comment on, and the generality of buildings, which take place across the country? How can the effect of design review programmes make an impact on the broad church of the built environment? This is, it must be said, difficult territory. There might be a case for saying that CABE should review the worst types of architecture and design (some volume housebuilder estates; retail warehousing developments, etc), rather than coming to judgement on some of the biggest and/or most significant schemes around.

The first point to make is that the CABE design review team deals with many hundreds of schemes referred to it, mainly by local authorities, during the course of a year, with only perhaps a hundred being subject to formal full-scale review. Advice is on a broader front. Another important point is that for an advisory body, you give advice to people who (a) ask for it and (b) who are likely to do something with it, rather than imposing it on all and sundry. And to be fair to the housebuilding sector, for example, many do indeed seek advice.

Knock-on effect The more important case for design review is, however, that over a period of time and by a variety of means, the promotion and publication of good examples of particular building types will have a knock-on effect on the generality of development proposals. An example of this, from observation, is what has happened in respect of in-town shopping centres, either new schemes or upgrades of existing centres. It is now unusual for the design team not to provide a decent urban design analysis of the site in its broader setting, and it is generally the case that efforts are made to take on ideas about urban grain, permeability, relationship to public transport, and so on. Just because issues have been addressed, it does not guarantee they have been addressed successfully, but it is an advance on the thinking that gave us so many unsatisfactory centres (from an urban perspective) in the '60s and '70s.

It used to be said that a good building needed a good architect, a good client and a good site; one might add a constructive and committed planning regime. Subtract one element from this quartet and any scheme could be in trouble; one advantage of a design review programme is helping to identify a potential gap and advising on how it can best be filled. In that sense, the best examples of design review at work are often not publicised, because they take place pre-planning, when design is at a fluid stage. It is unfortunate where comment is invited only after an application, since change is likely to be costly and any criticism may be taken by any (or all) of the parties involved as a pronouncement by an aesthetics magistrates' court.

Having said all this, the main purpose of any design review programme, whether in an architect's office, conducted by a local panel, or at CABE, is to try to make things better if it is felt necessary. This is a necessary ambition for anyone interested in the built environment, and one which the vast majority of architects who have dealings with CABE are more than happy to support.

The Design Reviewed document published this week is part of a CABE 'family'of publications, which began with Design Review, published in 2000 (for details go to www. cabe. org. uk).Both attempt to show how the design review committee has assessed proposals, and in doing so provided the tools by which designers, their clients and indeed planners, can examine the design credentials of individual schemes. In addition, the CABE digital library now has a good number of illustrated examples of buildings divided by type, and assessed independently on a common basis.Documents on masterplanning, high-density residential development and shopping centres will be published soon.

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