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What the battle of Finch and TAG is really about

This ‘style war’ is nothing more than a skirmish – the real conflict is over the spoils of localism, says Christine Murray

I’ll admit it was nice to see the Architects’ Journal take over page three of the Guardian on Monday, when it covered this week’s ‘style war’ skirmish. The full-page story on Design Council CABE chair Paul Finch’s London 2012 comments bemusedly took precedence over coverage of the US debt crisis, pushed back to a lowly page six.

But what the Guardian failed to illuminate was the power struggle lurking underneath this latest iteration of the age-old style-war debate.

If you’ve been on holiday, the story began with Finch’s AJ column expressing his delight at a wholly contemporary Olympics, not designed by Prince Charles’ favourite architects. This prompted an angry letter of retort from architect Robert Adam, and then a fiery letter to ministers Jeremy Hunt and Eric Pickles from the Traditional Architecture Group (TAG) emerged, which bizarrely, was not sent to the AJ, demanding of Finch both a retraction and an apology.

So let us draw aside the curtain of bluster. If you will pardon the pastiche of Romeo and Juliet: two households (DeCABE and TAG), both alike in dignity, under localism where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, under the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The draft legislation revealed last week, which reduces 1,000 pages of planning law to 52, stipulates that ‘local planning authorities should have local design review arrangements in place to provide assessment and support to ensure high standards of design. They should also, when appropriate, refer major projects for a national design review.’

This means a potential bonanza of work in enabling and design review for organisations such as DeCABE, The Prince’s Foundation, Open-City and the remaining architecture centres, who have been jockeying for position to secure the work that will ensue once localism becomes law.

Enter this so-called ‘style-war’ slanging match, which must be read in the context of a race for primacy in enabling and design review under localism. Among architects, there is fear that design review providers will hold undue influence over the stylistic preference of planners – hence TAG’s plea that Hunt instruct councils to ignore all DeCABE design reviews on the grounds of ‘clear and unacceptable bias’.

Surely TAG would support work undertaken by The Prince’s Foundation under localism over DeCABE, while I can think of several architects who would push for the latter over the former. Stylistic preference should not inform design review, but nevertheless a new turf war sparked by localism is just beginning.

The AJ Buildings Library this August

There are just two issues of the AJ in August, but extra content will appear on alternate weeks in the AJ Buildings Library. Log in to AJBuildingsLibrary.co.uk on Thursday next week for drawings, details and images of Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre, our building study the following week. Access the AJ Buildings Library once your subscription is activated on TheAJ.co.uk

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