we need to have good ground rules, writes Paul Finch
Blaming jetlag for his grumpy responses (and he hates flying), Frank Gehry told reporters that 98 per cent of what is designed and built is ‘shit’, and that reporters should not pick out the good guys to criticise.
He has a point. It is curious how it is the work of good architects which is so frequently lambasted by the media and by critics like Prince Charles, rather than the dross which flies below the radar, even in countries with strong planning systems like our own.
Instead of proper cities, we are covering land with what Saskia Sassen describes as ‘built density’, devoid of architectural or urban qualities. Meanwhile critics attack work by people who care deeply about culture on the basis of image or ideology, wilfully ignoring the real villains of the built environment scene. It is scarcely surprising that architects can become a bit thin-skinned when subjected to the sort of near-abuse that passes for commentary in some quarters. Although I do not find the work of contemporary classical architects to my taste, I can at least acknowledge that it can be done with skill and panache and, if somebody wants to commission buildings in that style, so be it. I find it disappointing that particular styles prompt Pavlovian reactions, whether it is ‘Modernists’ attacking ‘Classicists’ or vice versa. Robert Adam and Demetri Porphyrios were valued members of the Cabe design review panel, because they were fair-minded.
I have been on the receiving end of knee-jerk criticism myself when I, perhaps unwisely, said it had been a good thing that Prince Charles had not been responsible for procuring the design of Olympic buildings. Certain Classicists demanded I be removed from the chairmanship of Cabe. Francis Terry came to the rescue when he wrote a piece agreeing with my general sentiment, wondering why anyone would think it appropriate to have sports facilities with thatched roofs. The fuss died down.
One thing that can be said for Classicism is that it provides rules, which mean that not very good designers, or builders, can knock out passable buildings. As the Venice Biennale showed in several pavilions examining the impact of Modernism on regional traditions, Modernism all too frequently meant the imposition of concrete panel systems, which sometimes benefited from an architectural hand, but frequently didn’t.
In a world where housing quantity has become far more important than quality, it might seem that the AJ’s More Homes, Better Homes campaign is out of step. I don’t think so. The context in which we build is important for us, for future generations, and as a potential example of how developing countries can get better quality without sacrificing quantity. Decent planning helps, of course. But just as important are Building Regulations and standards. These have become the subject of debate and research following the government’s decision to standardise various advisory codes. The fear was that the work by people like Andy von Bradsky from PRP and Julia Park from Levitt Bernstein would hit the buffers of deregulatory philosophy and result in fewer or worse standards.
As was apparent at a breakfast meeting last week addressed by the DCLG minister responsible, Stephen Williams, this is emphatically not the case. The new national housing standard will be firmly based on that introduced into London by Mayor Boris Johnson. The standards coming our way are certainly not yet adequate in all respects, particularly in relation to the sizes of some houses. But they are an improvement, and it looks as though the trajectory is positive. There may yet be a happy outcome.