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We seem unable to treat designers with the credit they are due

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: why was there no reference to the architects at the London 2012 opening ceremony

I had the privilege of watching the final dress rehearsal of the London 2012 opening ceremony, and enjoyed the television follow-up with almost as much pleasure. A tribute to British creativity across many areas was widely admired across the world but, as usual, the missing bit was who designed what.

The BBC just about managed to acknowledge that Thomas Heatherwick had devised the extraordinary ‘cauldron’ for the Olympic flame, but I heard no reference to the stadium architects, despite the venue’s starring role in the ceremony.

Having spoken to several architects responsible for many elements of the Games, it has become embarrassingly apparent that they have been treated as being useful as long as there was a job to be done, but not thought of as major contributors to the success of the Games thereafter.

The scandal of suppression in relation to what the designers can say about their buildings, masterplan and landscapes (unless they are paid-up Olympic sponsors), should surely result in legal actions in respect of restraint of trade. What is particularly galling about the Stalinist control of information and publicity is that it affects the designers of buildings that we, the British public, have paid for. The more we have paid, the less we are entitled to know about who has actually done the work, it seems.

Then there is the simple matter of good manners. You might have expected that the Secretary of State for Culture would be gracious enough to ensure that the architects and designers of the various Olympic buildings were invited to key events being staged in their creations. In reality, most have had to join the internet queues, like everyone else. In the same way, the process by which certain architects were chosen to market design virtues to visiting dignitaries was shrouded in a cloak of mystery and information black-out. You might have thought the whole gang could have been involved. They deserve to be, especially those who have not thus far worked abroad.

In the end, all the ‘commitments’ given to using younger architects turned out to be largely baloney, with some honourable exceptions from unlikely clients like Coca-Cola. They, at least, had the sense to look to future generations. Meanwhile, let’s give a hand to John Sorrell and Richard Simmons for the support they gave to the use of Heatherwick for the UK pavilion in Shanghai, regarded by the Establishment as highly risky. He proved that design works. That is the spirit which
should have been adopted across the entirety of British design procurement.

There is something in our culture which seems to disregard the significance of architects in the creation of great buildings (at least until they are dead). Years ago a splendid dinner was held on the newly completed Waterloo Euroterminal platform, in the manner of the 19th century dinners celebrating one of Brunel’s latest works. The minister present gave a valedictory speech saying how wonderful it all was, new relationships with France, and so on. The one thing he didn’t do was say anything about the architect, Nicholas Grimshaw. In France he would have been awarded the Légion d’Honneur on the spot.

Imagine the impact on the world if our architects and designers had been invited to take a bow at the opening ceremony, with images of their creations on the giant screens. It needn’t have taken long; but justice would have been done and export prospects escalated. As it is, there is not even a comprehensive guide to the designers of the 2012 Olympic facilities, in and outside London, despite their outstanding achievements. Why not?

Readers' comments (1)

  • As you say Paul, quite apart from the simple fact that the various Architects and designers deserve praise which they have so clearly earned; the impact on exports and jobs would have been incalculable. It has time the government - of whatever party - realised how much British design earns abroad and helped rather than hindered the cause.

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