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Colin Stansfield Smith’s public-spirited modesty was the antithesis of today’s starchitecture

Stansfield Smith’s death has been described as the end of an era, says Christine Murray

The people’s architect, Colin Stansfield Smith, died last week. It is sad news, as we mark not only the passing of a man, but of an ideal: architecture without vanity; the successful combination of common sense and good design; the local authority architect working on behalf of the public; property without profit-making; architecture for everyone.

This ideal is the antithesis of Howard Roark, hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In Stansfield Smith, we had not the singular artist, the starchitect, with his artistic conflagrations wilfully polarising public opinion. The work of his office was not grand designs, but good schools, built to last, and yet to inspire.

His death has been described as the end of an era, of a time when architects commanded authority without courting celebrity. The architects of today are associated with the luxury property market and its fads, or with tiny flats hidden behind colourful cladding, of fairground experiments, or silly buildings on the TV; and design is valued for increasing the value of assets and investments - not for fulfilling a humanitarian need for quality buildings, space and light.

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It’s an ideal that lured many people into practice - and it will not be buried with Stansfield Smith. Hampshire County Council lives on - indeed, the office would rank about 45th in the AJ100 if it took part in the survey, meaning they employ more ARB-registered architects than Hopkins or Populous.

And there are still architects working in government, though there are fewer of them. It was not so long ago that Richard Rogers was advising the Mayor of London. George Ferguson is the Mayor of Bristol. The age of the local government architect may yet return, but perhaps without the modesty of Hampshire County Council - we live in an age of stars and starmakers. As long as there is good work to be done, there will be architects who want to do it. Whether our education system prepares students for this kind of work is another matter.

As for Stansfield Smith, we are lucky that he wrote books and shared his thoughts with a timeless eloquence that we can revisit. Here are his words on school design, published by the AJ in 2011, shared in tribute:

‘The issue that really matters in school procurement is the quality of thinking and the relevance of ideas in a particular context. Architects are good at this, but they have lost their status, and clients do not necessarily identify some architects’ talent and inspiration. I say some architects, because few demonstrate the intelligence and design skills needed to make buildings work.
‘We should believe in educational environments that improve over time. The motto “Long-life, loose-fit, low-energy” still provides the best motivation.

‘This inevitably brings me to examples of the most revered independent schools in the country like Winchester, Eton and Harrow. Each is set in an integrated context and represents an urban, rather than a suburban, culture. I do not seek to recommend we could extend such privilege, but it seems important to remind ourselves that such lovely environments exist, and have a sense of permanence.’

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