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Client culture must change

Or more really will mean worse, writes Paul Finch

There has been a spate of stories recently which have one theme in common: clients regarding architecture and design as a necessary evil, which they need to stuff into a box marked ‘handle with care’. From Crossrail suburban stations to Birmingham New Street, we hear the same dreary litany. We are lucky to be getting anything at all, so don’t moan if the design isn’t up to scratch. And it is never the client organisation’s fault - it is ‘government’ or ‘Whitehall’ or ‘the Treasury’. But, unless you have a robust client culture, which not only understands but actively encourages and promotes good design, it is all too easy for politicians to stick the boot into the idea that design can make a difference.

Even more worrying is a situation where a major public body supports better design standards but sees the forces of reaction closing down on it. Thus it is with the Greater London Authority under Boris Johnson. His admirable attempt to impose minimum space standards on new housing, an increase on the old Parker Morris standards shamefully abolished by Michael Heseltine, is now itself under threat. Why? Because of the standards review being carried out to rationalise the admitted plethora of guidance and informal standards that are said to be inhibiting house building across the country.

Let’s hope that the review will not result in a lowering of standards but a serious attempt to raise the bar where it is simple and appropriate. Minimum sizes are just such a standard, where the improvements the mayor has introduced should not only be applauded, but adopted across the country through Building Regulations.

Right-wing free marketeers, who justify building rabbit hutches on the grounds that people will buy them, have underwritten the self-fulfilling prophecy that ‘more means worse’. These people make me feel almost physically sick, especially as they invariably enjoy living conditions that the poor can only dream of. It is a big fat lie that you cannot combine quality with quantity, but certain elements in the housing sector continue to blame anything intended to improve design (planning, regulations, minimum insulation standards) for the current shortage in some parts of the country.

What is particularly galling is the prevalence of this argument in relation to buildings and infrastructure that the taxpayer is funding, directly or indirectly. I have yet to hear an answer to the question asked in this column before: if there is a minimum design quality threshold for proposals seeking Lottery funding (which by the way is not based on what might just scrape through planning) why don’t the same standards apply to all buildings funded by the public?

We invented a financial mechanism to rebuild Britain, that is to say the Private Finance Initiative. Yet when it came to design, all the potential advantages of buying schools or hospitals on a mortgage (ie getting what you wanted but couldn’t afford at the time) were abandoned. Initial cost rapidly resumed its dismal leading role in determining final outcome. The weighting given to design, in this and many other forms of public procurement, has been pitifully low.

The casual rudeness of building owners to the architects who created their products is now almost inevitable: Manchester City Football Club felt no need even to call James Burland, whose brilliant Arup Associates design in Manchester created the stadium the club is now busy extending with a new architect.

How have we become experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, of making quality and quantity false opposites? Not because decision-makers have a better alternative to design culture, but because they have no culture at all. They have tick-boxes.

 

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