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Time for a reality check: for us and the TV property experts

Cities can heal themselves from within, with commerce as the catalyst and planners nowhere to be seen. So says Tony Siebenthaler of urban agent Downtown Liverpool I recently spent a few days away from London, borrowing from one of the many guardians of our heritage, at small cost, a rural retreat - an 18th-century coastguard's cottage. Though immediately struck by the efficiency of the one-up, one-down layout, and the easy way it accepted 19th-century additions dealing with sanitation, I also noted that while being an elegant and economical response to its dense siting in a wooded coastal valley, it would fail today's regulatory criteria. The site would be too dark, the windows too near its neighbours, and its arrangement of doors and stairs would cause health-and-safety consternation. Nevertheless, it functioned delightfully.

As well as a wood-burning stove, the building offered me full access to the dubious delights of terrestrial TV. Although I am fortunately out enough to ensure that the rhythm of my life is only controlled by TV on a Sunday (Antiques Roadshow), far from home the TV fascinated me. Most viewing until at least after midnight - when decent films are scheduled - was fantastically poor. Classic and new-wave soaps, 'docusoaps' and 'dramadocs' dominated. Everything, regardless of subject, claimed to be 'real' - real story, real life, real footage. 'Real' seemed to be the sign of quality; for 'real', read 'good'.

Yet it struck me during my intense exposure that, in fact, the greater its claim to be 'real', the further a programme is removed from any reality;

for 'real', read 'bad'.

The second striking thing was the plethora of property makeover programmes that exploit our commitment to home ownership. We are now, it would appear, more a nation of homeowners than of animal-lovers. We are keen on homes near and far, our purchases defining the new EU boundaries. We don't just buy them either - we do them up.

Apart from these brave adventurers, the programmes largely focus on the home market. The nearer to home, the greater the increase in value and the better the TV, or so BBC2 would have us believe. The winner of 'worst reality TV show' must be The Million Pound Property Experiment. Justin and Colin - two unqualified incompetents very much in love with each other, the cameras and the drama of the deal - are apparently on a compressed 'real-time' property adventure. Starting with a modest property, they are demonstrating how they can, with the help of their design savvy, an honest builder and project manager, trade up until they own a million-pound home - doing in a few years what most of us dream of doing in a lifetime.

Their 'costings' included surprisingly high architects' fees, which further demonstrates the fantasy of reality TV shows. And in the show I saw, the architect involved was not deemed worthy of TV exposure. This supremely irritating experience did confirm one thing: as well as our well-recognised problem in gearing up to deal with the mega-commissions swamping the health and education sectors, we architects also have a problem dealing with small-scale jobs.

We are, judging by TV, not doing enough to adjust our offer of services in the small works category so that we can demonstrate our design savvy. More than 60 per cent of RIBA members work in practices of five or fewer and, from what I saw on BBC2, the more the better. Let's get out there and compete with Justin and Colin, and while we're at it, let's charge fees based on our increase to the property's value rather than the cost of bricks and mortar - or in their case MDF and curtain hooks.

'There's no such thing as cultural regeneration, ' says Tony Siebenthaler, co-director of a new urban ideas and lobbying organisation, Downtown Liverpool. Hardly a viewpoint that would endear him to most local authorities or government agencies at the moment, especially in his native Liverpool where public and private sector are committed to a mammoth culture-led redevelopment of the city centre and waterfront in time for the city's European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008. Yet Downtown Liverpool, set up by Siebenthaler and Frank McKenna, a former leader of the North West Regional Assembly and deputy leader of Lancashire County Council, is gaining currency and growing in influence.

Siebenthaler argues that for a city to thrive, development has to be diverse, chaotic, nonprescriptive and commercially rather than culturally led. Too many British cities have landmark cultural buildings in search of content. They should be demand-led, says Siebenthaler. Inward investment, zoning, planning, and restrictions on height and highways kill creativity and urban dynamism. 'The notion of planners trying to shape a dynamic city is absurd, ' he says. 'Planners and designers need a new skillset.'

In Liverpool, Downtown has already clashed with the controlling agencies about Will Alsop's Cloud, and the planned Grosvenor Henderson retail development.

'We're not saying commercial buildings are better than cultural ones. Both statements can be made, but you can only retain cultural diversity where there is a high-density city centre that supports creative people and small businesses, not one that sweeps it all away for a large-scale stilted firetail experiencefl. Culture can be a catalyst, but every two-bit city is going down the cultural regeneration route. If you want a landmark cultural building, Liverpool already has one - St George's Hall.'

Downtown stepped into the debate around Alsop's Cloud, not by opposing its existence but by calling for it to be not a museum but a business powerhouse, acting as a focus for the city's emerging entrepreneurs and microbusinesses. The larger issue for Siebenthaler is about wresting control from the public sector.

'I like the Cloud, though personally I'd move it right to the waterfront without the walkways and urban parks, which I don't see the need for. We certainly needed a contemporary design that broke the stranglehold that the Liver Building has on the skyline, and the Cloud does that. But it should be a point of departure rather than something fixed and fundamental. Liverpool desperately needs to make a commercial statement that it is back in the world, still here, still moving. I have nothing against museums, I'd have 50 museums, but do they send out that message to the world?' Forget the Guggenheim factor, he says, cultural buildings can't regenerate a city.

'Business creates wealth and shapes the dynamic city and its cultural worth. The public agencies have a value, but should not have a controlling role to play.'

Siebenthaler points to New York as the consummate city; a human ecosystem where vibrancy is rooted in the existence of SMEs and micro-businesses, with architecture an expression of its modernity and savvy. 'What cities deliver is potential. One tragedy of the Twin Towers, apart from the human cost, was the loss of all the small, indigenous New York businesses and their support structures. All that expertise and irreplaceable local knowledge was wiped out. The big firms and the blue-chips can go anywhere, but the city's bedrock is small businesses and entrepreneurs. It's the same in any city, and it's how Liverpool used to be. It was a city built on entrepreneurialism, and all its best commercial architecture was built for home-grown companies: Martin's Bank, the Liver Building, the Royal Insurance.' It's no coincidence, he says, that the big multinationals produce the blandest architecture. 'I worry for Liverpool's architectural future because modernity was our tradition right up until the 1970s.Now it's got this twee lustre because we've sat back on our behinds for 30 years.'

Siebenthaler grew up on a tough estate on the outskirts of Liverpool and has always been fascinated by the way cities work. 'My strong early memories are of the thrill and the buzz of going fidowntownfl. That's where people went - hence our name. I thought Liverpool was a metropolis on a par with New York, ' he laughs.

Reality did little to dent that illusion, and though he left school at 16 and worked in various jobs, mainly in the building trade, he always intended to study architecture or planning.He did finally do an urban studies degree as a mature student. 'Buildings and cities were the common thread. I knew I wanted to be involved in Liverpool's revival and not part of the mass exodus, ' he says.

Siebenthaler loves the resonance of history but hates the dead hand of heritage, and Downtown has clashed with English Heritage on several schemes in Liverpool.

Liverpool is trying to steer a course between progress and the development demands of Capital of Culture, and the World Heritage Site status it has been recommended for. 'We are in danger of driving ourselves into a diversity cul-de-sac if we go with the heritage industry, ' he warns. 'The heritage viewpoint is ideologically extreme and narrow, and you will end up with soulless pastiche that uglifies and celebrates the mediocre. There are too many restrictions, particularly on height.

A good contemporary design is not the same thing as an obtrusive building, which can be two or 200 years old.'

What Downtown is advocating is the repopulation of the city centre, not just with the young and retired who can afford to live there, but families as well. 'This would create massive potential.' The creation of the new towns, which emptied city centres of their populations, had a fundamental flaw, says Siebenthaler. Over 30 per cent of the British population moved out of cities in the 1960s. 'City centres were not viewed positively because of the horrific conditions, and it was considered that the only way to tackle the problems was to move people out. But it was the social conditions and the slum landlords that were the problem. City centres are inherently good because they maximise the potential to share, create and improve the quality of life for everybody. You can have a framework, New York had its grid plan, but then, like a child, you let it go.' Ebenezeer Howard had a lot to answer for, he laughs.

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