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CABE's past and future

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As it marks its 100th design review, Richard Simmons lays out the story of CABE’s past and future

As Roger Zogolovitch has observed, it is better to give a client the architectural equivalent of the best kipper they have ever tasted, rather than third-rate lobster thermidor. Kipper or lobster, everyone dines at the architect’s table and the aftertaste of a badly cooked scheme can remain.

CABE celebrated a new milestone last Wednesday (7 November) – the 100th session of design review’s presentation panel. It was observed by Culture Secretary, James Purnell. You may be thinking that design review is a rather obvious object of political endorsement – the provision of free advice to encourage the creation of buildings and public spaces which work well and look good, regardless of their style. Actually, it has not always been so forthcoming. Our criticism of the Royal London Hospital, for instance, did result in a vital redesign but not without a few political headaches.

The government audit into public perception of conflicts of interest at CABE during 2004 resulted in two years of work to establish absolute transparency.

Since 1999, CABE’s design review has advised on almost every major strategic project to come forward in England. We have reviewed over 2,000 schemes. The recipients tell us that eight out of 10 schemes are improved as a result. Hard truths are told when necessary. Some people have even been big enough to say publicly that their review amounted to a fair cop, such as the developers of King Alfred in Brighton and the Royal Arsenal in south-east London.

What CABE’s design review brings to the drawing board is free, expert and practical advice. You get a lot of experience of comparable projects, and a focus on active collaboration between the parties involved. We have no axe to grind beyond design quality.

The UK has some real design achievements to toast this month as well as reasons to be very worried. Yes, the fabulous St Pancras International has opened. But further up the line, Corby railway station, a disappointing design which bodes ill for our future stations, has been granted planning permission. Our aim remains to make the best possible – and stop the worst from happening, especially when it is due to bureaucratic expediency or financial inflexibility.

So what are we hoping for from the next 100 sessions? More major housing schemes with real ambition for sustainability please. Well-informed, ambitious clients. More than one great hospital. A complete absence of single-aspect north-facing apartments. And more design review panels. We don’t mean local ones – we mean well-resourced, independent regional panels. Because every scheme, whether it is a public space in a city centre or a local community centre, should be well designed. By which we mean, it should be as it is because that is how it needs to be.

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