'Good clients = good architecture', the RIBA's Dublin conference title, is a safe statement of the obvious.The title also oversimplifies: good clients help make good architecture, but you also need good planners, good constructors and, of course, good architects.
Good clients follow intuition; expert or not, they have an interest in, and a commitment to, architecture and will pay fees for its provision.Some work is done to encourage more good clients, by attempting to quantify the value of good design and by giving it awards, but ultimately it is still about the individual client's belief that design has a value.Good planners are professional, inquisitive, responsive and offer a vision of the situation that confronts them.They are, however, rare: the system of development control is one of control not design, so there is no real encouragement for good.
Good constructors are encouraged by a myriad of bodies, slogans and new-fangled contracts that promote engagement in, even leadership of, the process of making buildings.Progress is made, but at the mucky end: on site; when things go wrong, old entrenched attitudes to the management of time and money swiftly and expensively reappear.As with all the above, good architects are encouraged with plenty of awards; their problem is finding good clients, planners and contractors to help them discover how good or bad they are or could be.
As excellence is rare and mediocrity common, it is worth considering an alternative and indisputable title for the conference: 'Bad clients make bad architecture - regardless of planners, constructors and architects.'A dark event that recognises the full horror of so much of what is produced and identifies the culprits, including many bad architects producing shocking buildings.
The 'stars'of this alternative event would be the government, the inventors of the PFI and LIFT processes, and an independent professional institution, the RIBA, that has to date failed to condemn this nonsense properly.Despite supposedly possible good intentions, PFI and LIFT encourage the bastardisation of projects.There is no opportunity for consortia to advise clients that they are building the wrong building on the wrong site, or that their brief is too large or small.Or, on a more detailed level in hospitals, that 'clinical adjacencies', saving doctors'shoe leather, are not a design idea; in schools, that corridor and canteen do not a building make.
In short, that buildings without intelligent, powerful clients will be driven by monolithic cash-starved bidders who, at the key early stages, are desperate only to win the cash opportunity.The procurement route is fundamentally flawed; the cash is inserted too late in the process and the vast majority of emerging buildings look to be hitting the lowest possible common denominator; where the only evidence of an idea is in the financial design of the winning bid.
Why are so many architects embarking upon this route?
Because it is the only way they can get involved in these key buildings.This is despite the fact that the fee payment structure in these projects is so appalling that the only thing that 'cascades through the supply chain' is a set of cash-flow problems;
bankruptcy should be on the risk register. The whole basis of this non-idea needs to be attacked and the RIBA should do so.What better way is there to demonstrate that the RIBA is about architecture and not just architects? Yes, it will upset government, but it needs to be said by the profession and not by isolated individuals.
The last time we hit lowest-possible standards in architecture and construction was in the '60s and '70s in the mass housing market.The aftermath was that professionals got blamed, not the politicians. It may not make for quite such a jolly conference but it would show real vision and courage. And it would be a lot more interesting in the bar afterwards. .