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Deborah Saunt slams the Tesco-ification of profession

Deborah Saunt has hit out at the Tesco-ification of the construction industry, saying big firms were ‘hoovering up smaller, niche practices’ and ‘killing off smaller scale competition’ by bidding for tiny jobs

The co-founder of DSDHA was speaking last week at the AJ/Lend Lease RA dinner to celebrate the winners of the architecture prizes at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (AJ 02.06.11).

Saunt compared the industry’s Big Fish to supermarket behemoth Tesco which ‘having won the battle of the High Street [has] now determinedly set its sights on the corner shop too’. So-called Bottom Feeders were ‘hoovering up smaller projects to keep a foothold in the market’, putting at risk the future of ‘bespoke’ studios.

She said: ‘If this [trend] continues unabated there will simply no longer be any smaller practices other than those led by an elite from well-heeled backgrounds, or very small offices covering remote areas.

‘Clients might need to think before they go large and only use large international practices, with all the reassurance of the one-stop-shop. They need to take risks, and buck the trend so that they don’t kill the diversity of different scales of design practice on our architectural High Street.

She added: ‘If we want a sustainable legacy, let’s not lose sight of the fact that truly sustainable architecture is an art and that, at all costs, we have to keep creativity in the built environment.’

Saunt also attacked superficial, ‘skin deep’ architecture - in particular some of the recent skyscraper projects in the capital and residential high-rise blocks which ‘commonly look like corporate hotels without any sense of place [with] no visible signs of domesticity’.

She added: ‘There are a number of tower projects in London that embody some of the seriously questionable side-effects of not being wholly committed from start to finish to deliver sustainability beyond the green bling.

‘In so many cases, looking up the shaft of one of these towers, the cladding remains exactly the same from top to bottom. It is relentless and off-putting; it is simply a sealed skin to enclose the largest internal floor area possible. It doesn’t engender a sense of fascination or delight in its materiality, and fails to perform environmentally too – and you certainly would not want to go up and touch it.’

Deborah Saunt’s speech in full

Looking around me this evening, here in the Royal Academy, I feel as though I speak as an architect in a world of artists. But we must remember that the Royal Academy has also been a haven for architecture, alongside sculpture, painting and drawing. Since 1768, when George III elevated to the humble artist from craftsperson to a refined and cultured figure, architecture has rightly been considered as one of the arts.

Let us return to the ‘simple art of building’ - to buildings that are beautiful, timeless

So, cast aside the tenders, OJEUs, PQQs, lifetime homes forms, compliance monitoring, section 106 contributions, and CrossRail subsidies. Put down the programmes, planning submissions, SAP calculations and viability appraisals. And let us return to the ‘simple art of building’, to buildings that are beautiful, timeless.

The Royal Academy is a place to step beyond the normal, the day to day. The Royal Academy celebrates the combination of creativity and problem solving, and is just the place to consider the role of sustainability and beauty in a different light.

The Royal Academy fosters a particular space for creative architecture. It raises the arts up to full view, and here architecture becomes something else too, in its elevated position.  It becomes distilled. We can see more clearly the qualities of good design, and how sustainability is not a new concept, but rather a new name for an age-less quality.

Here you can sense architecture as a public art. It is shared and it is essentially social. Architecture can never divest itself of it one inherent quality - its ‘usefulness’. Like ceramics or fashion, crafts that manage to be considered arts too, architecture derives its meaning from how it is or might be used.

For try as it might, and despite the efforts of the paper architects and theorists to say otherwise, architecture is always related to a sense of occupation or the potential to be experienced physically, spatially, to be the backdrop for society, to be useful and meaningful. This is an aspect of architecture that really interests me. How to be both an art and a practical, useful enterprise to the service of a wider good? How does good architecture manage to go beyond just ‘building’ but to also enter a magical realm of imagination, of beauty, and to be both at once?  

This is where sustainability steps in, because it here that new forms of beauty emerge, new ideas are born, and new solutions found. The true beauty of a sustainable building is that it is forever. It can change and alter over time. New types of beauty can be discovered in a well-designed building. It is not only just because they hold their value, or that they are easier to maintain, or that they perform well technically. It is an emerging aesthetic language that redefines what we consider beautiful.

Perhaps this is in need of illustration, and here in Burlington House we find an example of a building that demonstrates, when all is said and done, that quality counts. It is a unique place. It is a simple, and ultimately sustainable, building, exhibiting all the qualities you might desire from a great project.

And it has proved itself to be so useful: it’s been a small villa, a large palazzo, a home; it’s been occupied by societies, an art school, an ever-increasing number of galleries, with many layers of additions and alterations. And soon the more recent adaptions by Foster and Partners will be welcoming changes and interventions by David Chipperfield. Above all, it has somehow managed to avoid being demolished. So it represents great value for money and in its simple construction, it has an inherent environmental performance that befits its use while allowing for future upgrades and improvements, as technology changes. It persists in a way that one cannot imagine many contemporary buildings being capable of holding their own in the future.

Burlington House persists in a way that one cannot imagine many contemporary buildings being capable of holding their own in the future

There are many old buildings like Burlington House being reinvented across London all the time, but one has to wonder – will our buildings of today be so adaptable and capable of change? And did the architects of the past consider the future as much as we might have to today?

Look at the Victorian period, for example, and think of St Pancras before and after its reinvention. It used to be dirty, dark, and with a menacing underworld under the arches – car repair shops, lock-ups and nefarious goings on. Do you think when William Barlow and Sir George Gilbert Scott built the mighty St. Pancras (pictured below) they could imagine it as a luxury hotel and shopping destination combined with international transport hub?  Well, I think they probably did.

This is because it was designed as a grand and proud piece of infrastructure and design – almost a flight of fancy colliding with engineering prowess – that was robust enough to be capable of adaption, but also an example of finely tuned transcendent architecture that caused as much wonder then as it does today. And we might ask how was this inherently sustainable architecture delivered? Was it through legislation or regulation?  On the contrary, it was achieved by a dint of sheer will and determination to make a better place that a more economically vibrant city was spurred on.

Great design can leave a legacy beyond its initial ambitions, and I think the Olympic Park will do just that. In a hundred years it will probably be just coming into its own because its design anticipates the future as well as the here and now.

So why is a well-designed building or public space ‘forever’? We are familiar with the rhetoric about how in well-designed buildings people are happier, healthier and less likely to vandalise. Even yesterday the RIBA produced its report ‘Good Design – It All Adds Up’ on the behavioural benefits of good design, and how, as John Penrose puts it, ugly architecture can “sink the spirits of those who have to live with it.”

One might remark that it is all very well championing the benefits of sustainability but how do we go beyond expectations in today’s straightened times? How do we take sustainability beyond the immediate green credentials we strive for, to something more holistic, more socially and economically sustainable, as well as environmentally?

We need to look beyond first impressions. We need to clarify that it’s not the newness of a building that counts, or its appealing new materials: a well-designed building just keeps getting better with age – the patina or weathering and wear.

It is, like plastic surgery, only skin deep

This is not, to quote David Hills ‘Botox architecture’ - glossy, taut skinned, and in full colour. The kind of building that disappoints as you approach, as you notice that its make-up has begun to slide and the gesture is a fixed grin. There is a great deal of this type of architecture today – think Dubai – where the structure has been ‘dressed up’ for visual impact without depth or humanity. It is, like plastic surgery, only skin deep.

There are a lot of examples, but I will keep it generic and focus on a typology that illustrates the point. There are a number of tower projects in London that embody some of the seriously questionable side-effects of not being wholly committed from start to finish to deliver sustainability beyond the green bling.

If we are to make really good sustainable design, it has to mean more than placing wind turbines at top of a tower. It has to be built into the design.  Design is a process, not a product and has to operate on many scales simultaneously.

In so many cases, looking up the shaft of one of these towers, the cladding remains exactly the same from top to bottom. It is relentless and off-putting; it is simply a sealed skin to enclose the largest internal floor area possible. It doesn’t engender a sense of fascination or delight in its materiality, and fails to perform environmentally too – and you certainly would not want to go up and touch it.

The sense of being a part of the city, of making a meaningful in the public realm is undeveloped

To go beyond this in terms of design means giving much more to the public realm, and trying to think about the impact on the people who have to live in its shadow, especially when we are talking about huge towers that overshadow parks and amenity spaces. When these enormous projects meet the ground it is all to often with a resounding thud. The sense of being a part of the city, of making a meaningful in the public realm is undeveloped.

In very few cases does the idea that people might live in this building become apparent; that this is actually someone’s home. They commonly look like corporate hotels without any sense of place. There are no visible signs of domesticity, and some even manage to forego visible balconies or winter gardens, so there are no signs of familiarity to comfort or inspire as you approach the front door.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I recently visited Bangkok and saw a fantastic illustration of good sustainable design at The Met Tower by Singapore-based WOHA Architects (pictured below) that boasts naturally ventilated apartments on all floors thus allowing you to live without air conditioning.

By re-imagining the traditional Teak House on stilts, the architects stacked the apartments one on top of the each other up to 66 storeys. Each apartment boasts abundant outdoor terraces and occasionally private swimming pools with views across the city. It stands in sharp contrast to the sealed skin of the other towers – all glass, no shading, no connection with nature, and consuming vast quantities of energy. How did they do it? After coming second in an international competition for new housing, an enlightened client took on their innovation and built it, to critical acclaim, proving that new ideas can pay.

So why is it so hard to make good sustainable design here? I think a great deal of the problem comes down to the process. In this, there are a few key issues we need to address.

1. Defending the best in architecture.

Today’s Designed In Britain is far from an anachronistic label one might find on a collectible Dinky Toy or old Bakelite radio-set. Designed In Britain is a clarion call. From Berlin to Boston, Masdar to Shanghai, it is ‘das Britischer Arkitekt’ who wins the day. In Guangzhou, there are only two buildings that deserve serious attention – Zaha’s Opera House and Wilkinson Eyre’s new International Finance Centre. But why is it that these architects flourish abroad but have fewer chances in the UK to work on this scale?

2. Nurturing talent and innovation

We cannot assume that the brilliance of contemporary British Architects will be repeated or sustained. We need to actively nurture research and speculation, fellowships and sponsorship. With university fees rising, it is going to get much, much harder for young designers to make the commitment to becoming an architect. If we want diversity we will have to actively support it.

 3. Supporting our built environment as a process

What can we do to keep creativity embedded within the changing shape of the construction industry?

Can this be maintained when we have a procurement system that labels architecture as a part of a ‘logistical supply chain’. Deadline-driven project management refuses to simultaneously consider design as a critical cultural production, on the level of a fine art, when in fact the two should not be mutually exclusive. If inherent sustainability is desired we have to ask how we can deliver or commission, procure or plan our built environment, so that it is not just a target driven exercise.

By having a greater understanding of the value of design and a belief in the role of architect, clients and project managers would need to engage in less ‘value engineering’ which ultimately erodes the value of a design.

4. Harnessing talent and keeping diversity

Most worrying is the long-term viability of the architecture profession and good design, given the rise of what I call the Tesco-fication of the construction Industry. Architecture cannot be considered an “off the shelf” product. It has to be a bespoke, designed for the specific needs of a client and a site, because that is what makes sustainable architecture. Buildings are not “products”.

There is a newly evident trend analogous to Tesco’s expansion plans that are being unfurled across the UK and across the globe. In having won the battle of the High St, Tesco has now determinedly set its sights on the corner shop too. The small, independent community convenience store is being wiped out of the market by a fleet of new Mini-Tesco’s that are blanket bombing the opposition. But one has to ask at what cost?

A similar phenomenon has been remarked on in architecture over the last few years. It is the Big Fish growing ever larger by hoovering up smaller niche practices to absorb their skill base. In tandem, this is complimented by the rise of the Bottom Feeder, recently observed in public procurement, which sees large practices making low fee bids for tiny jobs, hoovering up smaller projects to keep a foothold in the market, and (by accident or by design) consequently killing off smaller scale competition (and future competitors).

If this continues unabated there will simply no longer be any smaller practices other than those led by an elite from well-heeled backgrounds, or very small offices covering remote areas. Clients might need to think before they “go large” and only use large international practices (with all the reassurance of the one-stop-shop). They need to take risks, and buck the trend so that they don’t kill the diversity of different scales of design practice on our architectural “High Street”. If we want a sustainable legacy, let’s not lose sight of the fact that truly sustainable architecture is an art and that, at all costs, we have to keep creativity in the built environment.

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