Architects split over Thatcher's legacy: 'Right person' or 'mostly detrimental'?
Architects have issued a mixed response to the death of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher whose deregulating government radically transformed UK business
Ex-RIBA president Owen Luder described Thatcher, who died earlier today, as the ‘right person’ to lead the country during the early 80s recession – while Alfred Munkenbeck of Munkenbeck + Partners said her impact on the profession had been ‘mostly detrimental’.
Luder, who was president of the institute between 1981-1983, had a much-publicised meeting at Downing Street with Thatcher in 1982 heading up the cross construction industry organisation representing contractors, architects and unions known as the Group of Eight.
He said: ‘In the early days of the Thatcher government the construction industry was in dire trouble.
‘A meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Number 11 had not gone well. But I spoke to Alfred McAlpine about the importance to the construction industry of meeting the Prime Minister and three or four days later we got a meeting.’
‘In a pre-meeting I said we musn’t allow her to get amongst us and keep a united front. So we walked down Downing Street to No 10 in our hard hats and then she endeavoured to get us fighting.
‘I had the temerity to interrupt her and say it wasn’t like that and we had a very combative meeting.’
She was absolutely the right person at that time to stop the problems
However he added: ‘But she was very determined and was absolutely the right person at that time to stop the problems.’
‘She was a very straight talker and a positive conviction politician.’
However Munkenbeck said that while Thatcher had saved Britain ‘from the dangerous unions’ the effect on the profession had been ‘mostly detrimental’.
He said: ‘For ideological reasons, she abolished the GLC which once employed thousands of architects. In the early ‘70’s about half of all RIBA members worked for councils… the public sector. Thatcher was having none of it and today almost no council hires architects [in-house] as such.
He added: ‘Architects by nature, need control. Good architecture needs totalitarian regimes and benevolent patronage whether left or right wing. Thatcher had absolutely no proclivities in that department. The free for all of the marketplace rarely puts aside the time and effort needed for great planning or “Grands Projets”. Thatcher put her faith in the unfettered marketplace. Abolishing “Recommended” (not mandatory) fee scales was idealogical ridiculousness. They harmed no one and helped many.
We will never again see public architecture of GLC quality again
He concluded: ‘We will never again see public architecture of the quality of the old GLC again… Public architecture had a hey day with the UK Universities and imaginative housing in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. As with all buildings, the majority of public architecture was not great but there was greatness which requires society to foster it.’
Alan Wilkinson of Suffolk-based WPP Architects said: ‘Ever since Thatcher’s government removed the mandatory fee scale, fees for architectural services have been pushed down and down. Many clients now seem to choose the designers of their buildings far more on price than on the quality of their work or the service they offer.
Small businesses are squeezed out, I am sure this suits the Thatcherite model well
‘This gives large firms an advantage as they can, and do, price smaller firms out of the market. We have just lost a project in just that way, where a large firm has put in a price way below ours and the third firm, at a level that is simply not sustainable and at which a professional service cannot be delivered without making a loss. I call it the Tesco effect, where small businesses are squeezed out and I am sure that this situation suits the Thatcherite model well.’
Her cabinet was too wet to put up a counter argument to Prince Charles
Chris Williamson of Weston Williamson said: ‘I don’t think she was at all interested in architecture and the arts. Some of her Cabinet were but probably too wet to put a counter argument against Prince Charles.
‘Her government created the enterprise zone at canary Wharf without which the Jubilee Line probably wouldn’t have been funded.So as a Practice we have something to thank her for, but speaking personally - the last thing you do at the end of a war , won or lost is rejoice- but sadly that was typical of her.’
Chris Boyce of Capita Symonds said: ‘If a period of social history can be defined by its political leadership, or even by a leader, then the Thatcher years must seen from two opposing angles.
‘The ethos of “selfish success” blew away the notion that hard work was boring, leading to the birth of the converted loft and Porsche 911 generation, and unwittingly to a legacy of new city centre dwellings reinventing “cool” in fit out fashion and furniture.
‘However at the same time deregulation in city planning, and the deliberate destruction of the North of England’s heartlands and industries almost totally destroyed their respective communities and left a post modern soulless landscape of dull public spaces, lazy, shiny pseudo Chicago office towers and endless “strip” developments by World of Leather, Aldi and Frankie and Bennies.
Schools were left to rot, retail went out of town and public architecture of merit didn’t happen
‘Architecturally the 80’s left our towns little of value, schools were left to rot, retail went out of town and down the pan whilst public architecture of merit….well it just didn’t happen.
‘If it wasn’t Rogers Renault Centre or the Lloyd’s building in the city very little of merit would have happened at all……even the best “post modern” 80’s Stirling buildings didn’t get built till the 90’s or got built abroad.’
Roger Hawkins, of Hawkins\Brown, met Thatcher after his grandmother married the politician’s father, Alfred Roberts.
He said: ‘I only met [Roberts’] daughter a few times, but on one occasion in the early 1970’s when Thatcher was leader of the opposition I was doing the washing up with her (you do the drying and putting away dear, as you know where things go. She was wearing rubber gloves and very much in charge.)
‘She asked me what I wanted to do after leaving school. I said I’d like to be an architect, to which she replied “good luck dear, the Country needs to build new schools and invest in universities and research”. Perhaps the current Prime Minister could listen to this advice.’
Love her or loath her, we are all Thatcher’s children
Peter Morris of Peter Morris Architects said: ‘Margaret Thatcher’s death is the end of an era. Love her or loath her, undoubtedly we are all Thatcher’s children. Her policies heralded massive changes for architectural profession. The effects of which we are living with today have created opportunity for some and catastrophe for others
‘There was no middle ground with Thatcher. Putting it in to context the country was on it’s knees at the end of the seventies. She privatised local authority services and gave people the right to buy their own council properties, creating a gentrification wave across London.
‘She deregulated the UK’s stock exchange, re-establishing London as a financial centre. This created a flurry of new development within the City for a new yuppie culture, with post modernism at the helm. Love her or loath her I can’t see another politician having such an influence as she did for some time.’
Brian Waters of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership agreed about the huge impact of the Thatcher-led de-regulation of business. The former ACA head said: ‘Thatcher presided over not just the liberation of the British economy but also the liberation of the architectural profession. She created the environment for that to be possible. My first job in the 1970s was in County Hall, housing division B ,where apparently 10 per cent of all architects were working at the time.
‘Now we have a flowering of a privatised profession which exports large parts of its service and is widely respected worldwide.
‘She had a hand in that transition that many of us enjoyed.
Evaluating Thatcher’s architectural legacy, former Cabe chief executive Richard Simmons said: ‘The drive to deregulate had a very specific impact on design when her government introduced planning Circular 22/80, which was an attempt to diminish local planning authorities’s aesthetic control powers, on the basis that the market would optimise design quality and developers knew best. My experience at the time was that it was, in fact, a contributor to dumbing down design, especially housing design, because it became less necessary to use an architect.
Thatcher’s influence is written on the skyline of London
‘Secondly, Big Bang in the City opened the way to the office building boom on London. Canary Wharf, skyscrapers, Broadgate etc., all got a boost from the deregulation of financial services and the need to provide large floorplate trading buildings. Thatcher’s influence is written on the skyline of London.’
He added: ‘Thirdly, also as a result of deregulating planning, out of town centre shed developments gathered impetus. I certainly recall it being much easier for supermarkets and other retailers to get their big boxes through under the Thatcher government. Thatcher’s liberalisation probably didn’t lead directly to the Portas review but we surely got there faster thanks to her.
‘Fourthly, it took a riot, to quote the great Michael Heseltine, but she did eventually let him loose with radical regeneration policies which changed the face of London Docklands, Liverpool and many other cities. Thatcher’s government had enormous strengths in property-led regeneration and No 10 certainly took a direct interest in our work in Docklands - culminating, you may remember, in Thatcher travelling up the construction lift on the outside of 1 Canada Square. Tough men in her party quailed at that ride, but not her.’