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'Trophy' architects' protestations show missing sense of proportion

Interesting, isn't it, that practically all the prominent supporters of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment's scheme to bypass clients by making architects the effective owners of the schemes for which they have obtained planning permission are architects who have been associated with big cost overruns.

Lord Rogers'practice heads the expensive list, having clocked up gobsmacking increases in cost at the Millennium Dome and the Welsh Assembly project, but this has not stopped RRP's Marco Goldschmied announcing - using the royal plural - that: 'We want planning permission linked to design and not land.' This slogan - once you decipher what it means - would not have gone down well at the signing of the Magna Carta, let alone with the focus groups.

Next comes Sir Michael Hopkins who, seemingly untouched by the parliamentary row over the cost of Portcullis House, confesses to having had his practice 'written into planning applications'. But without success, however - he complains that 'any planning barrister can drive a coach and horses through it at a public inquiry'.

Shame. But what about the omission of any reference to cost cutting in all these expressions of support? This is curious in view of the claim by CABE's chairman Sir Stuart Lipton that the whole phenomenon of 'trophy architects' has come about because developers have been hiring famous architects to get planning permission for big projects and then booting them off so members of a hitherto unknown sect, called 'architects of lesser ability', can nip in, take a chainsaw to the twiddly bits, and deliver twice the floor space at half the price in the same profile.

If there was such a tribe as 'architects of lesser ability' who could do this they would be in great demand and worth their weight in gold. In reality, what we have is a coterie of firms intoxicated with self-praise and the glory of their own reputations on the one hand; and a tight-lipped, button-down group that believes in salvation through service to clients on the other. The first lot take exception to any suggestion that costs should be cut at the behest of anyone except themselves. The second inherit the jobs the first lot are too proud to do.

This is a peculiarly English, not to say European situation, born of a culture so marinated in the art historical value system that it has lost all sense of proportion where the ownership, value and purpose of buildings is concerned.

That the buildings cited so far in the 'trophy' allegations are all commercial buildings is no accident. Commercial buildings are the circuit boards of the economy and the guiding principles behind their design should be entirely functional. They should provide the largest area of serviced accommodation at the lowest cost in the shortest time.

Of course, they can, and often do, exhibit 'good design', but in an increasingly parasitic environment of advisory panels, conservation bodies, skyline studies, sacrosanct views of St Paul's Cathedral, onerous new regulations, spatial development strategies, prescribed materials, 'masterplan madness', callings-in, rulings-out and other encumbrances to a clear relationship with a client, this too is becoming something to be negotiated rather than a creative task.

American architects could teach our prima donna 'trophy architects'a thing or two about dealing with this situation by sticking to the primary client relationship and avoiding involvement with politicians, pressure groups or advisory bodies of any kind. Luckily, the chair of the RIBA planning committee - unlike the institute's president - appears to understand this too.

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