There is much we should learn from decades of successful British architecture
The traditional British attitude to overseas markets, which is to be internationalist, is alive and well writes Paul Finch
Has the worldwide success story of British architecture over the past four decades taken place as a result of conditions in this country, or despite them?
At first glance one might assume the latter. After all, we have: a relatively non-visual culture; a hostile planning environment; political mindlessness (eg Michael Gove); Royal opprobrium, since 1984; relatively little export support; a boom-and-bust economic context; a media that is, at best, neutral and still obsessed with Prince Charles; and a building-of-the-year award that is no longer regarded as suitable for television. The profession looks generally weaker now than it did in 1973, subjected as it is to competition from contractors, planning consultants, cost consultants, project managers and other flotsam and jetsam who claim to be able to do everything except actually design buildings - that being a minor technical matter, which can be tendered out on the basis that the lowest-fee bid will represent the best value.
And yet… the reputation of British architects across the globe can never have been higher, thanks to the likes of Foster, Rogers, Farrell, Grimshaw, Hopkins, Chipperfield, Hadid, Alsop, plus the more corporate firms like Aecom (London office), Aedas, Benoy and UK-based multi-disciplinaries such as Arup and Buro Happold. If you look at the AJ100 and count the number of UK firms that generate more than £1 million in fee income each year from overseas work generated from this country, you will see that we have architectural success in depth as well as breadth.
Is there something Darwinian about the flourishing of UK practice despite all the difficulties? It is tempting to think so, especially as we approach the anniversary of the oil price crisis of late 1973, which put paid to construction prospects in the UK as fuel prices went through the roof. Smart firms started looking abroad - particularly to the Middle East, which was suddenly the source of extraordinary new riches. It is not so different from what is happening in Asia today, as we discovered last year when we moved the World Architecture Festival from Barcelona to Singapore. Rather than discouraging UK architects from attending because of time/cost, there was a real appetite to join us in the move, either because of existing client relationships in Asia or the desire to develop them.
In short, the traditional British attitude to overseas markets, which is to be internationalist rather than narrowly European, is alive and well. It is the attitude of free spirits - exactly the opposite of the pettifogging bureaucracy that the EU, at its worst, has come to represent. Architects don’t need EU permission to trade across the globe. (Incidentally, ‘access’ to EU markets does not require EU membership, as the activities of Japan and the US make clear.) Those free spirits are replicated in the sense that many organisations in the UK exist free of government control, standing for independence, knowledge, expertise and ethics. I don’t say these institutions have necessarily created the circumstances in which British architecture has flourished and grown, but they have contributed to a culture of freedom and enterprise unconnected to state subsidies.
So, whatever problems they may have, and however imperfect their behaviour on occasion, we should salute bodies like the RIBA, Royal Academy, Royal Society of Arts, Architecture Foundation, Architectural Association and Design Council CABE (charity-owned). Each keeps the architectural flag flying, representing a contribution to British public life that deserves, at least, tacit government support - partly for export reasons but, more importantly, because of architecture’s signficance to society at large.