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This government treats architects as political enemies

Gove’s absurd attack isn’t personal, but it deserves a fiery retort from the RIBA, says Christine Murray

How lucky that the previous Labour government used architecture to affirm the grandeur of its policies. The procurement was wasteful, the interlocutors profligate, but the alchemic buildings commissioned for schools, libraries, and children’s centres were billboards for the profession as an altruistic industry of professionals trying to make the world a better place.

Or how unlucky, now the current government has framed architects as the lapdogs of Labour: Over the past few months, the profession has been recast, from hero to whipping boy, by a government seeking to discredit its predecessor. Spin doctor logic is at work here: how obvious and transparent to attack Labour, how clever to attack its architects.

‘No-one in this room is here to make architects richer,’ said Michael Gove at a free school conference hosted, ironically, in AHMM’s Westminster Academy (award-winning, Stirling Prize-shortlisted, and commissioned under Labour). ‘We won’t be getting Richard Rogers to design your school; we won’t be getting any award-winning architects to design it,’ said Gove.

The public garrotting of the profession has created a new stock character – the rich, greedy architect, pockets full of public money, and the emperor BSF without clothes. Like all good caricatures, the portrait is based on a persuasive stereotype – architects earn far less than any other profession, nowhere near doctors or lawyers, and low-income architects are far more common than the ultra-rich. But the plight of the underpaid practitioner will not be heard by a public familiar only with starchitects and grand designers.

Gove’s attack isn’t personal; indeed it isn’t really about architects at all. This is a shafting of convenience; a simple case of guilt by association – absurd, but no less damaging to the profession.

In an interview on the occasion of receiving the RIBA Gold Medal, David Chipperfield told the AJ: ‘When you have government ministers saying we don’t need architects to design schools because they are creaming off fees, you’ve found yourself as low as you can go in the esteem of the forces that should be valuing your profession.’

Chipperfield believes the RIBA has been ‘too apologetic’ on behalf of architects, and could have been ‘more arrogant’ in its promotion, and defence, of the profession. ‘The RIBA has tried to sell architecture by reassuring the public that we are good value for money, which is absolutely correct… but isn’t that aiming a bit low – don’t we add value to society?’

The RIBA’s retort to Gove has been weak, but it’s not as if the membership itself is in open revolt. It has been a week of global street protest and revolution, but if architects are unhappy with the government, the RIBA, or anything else, the response is muted. You are free to act – either by petition or in protest – and as always, the AJ will report on matters of record. Speak, or be spoken for.

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