Judging the RIBA/LSC (Learning and Skills Council) Design Excellence Awards (see pages 16-17) has been both illuminating and disturbing.
The sheer volume of building work - some £4 billion worth over the last five years - is impressive, and it is hard to take issue with the LSC's aim of having 90 per cent of 17 year olds in education or training by 2015. But one cannot help but feel that the funds are being spread a little too thinly.
Colleges constructed under the LSC initiative can be built for as little as £1,200 per m 2, much less than the average expenditure on universities or schools. Busting the budget is not an option.
All LSC projects come in on budget for the simple reason that it refuses to acknowledge overspend.
A handful of tenacious architects have managed to make it work, but they are the exception rather than the rule. John McAslan's South Trafford College is an accomplished essay in elegant simplicity, but a rare instance of a very straightforward brief. Walker Simpson's MANCAT succeeds by combining college accommodation with a public library, thus securing access to additional funds. But there is rarely time to explore complicated partnerships or to indulge in lateral thinking: with political pressure for speedy results it is commonplace for an entire campus to be dreamed up, designed and delivered within a couple of years.
With an emphasis on vocational as well as academic training, many of the LSC colleges contain valuable community amenities; not just provision for evening classes, but hairdressing salons that are open to the public, and functioning restaurants where catering students hone their skills. These could, and should, be fascinating and sophisticated building types, the basis of integration between education and the community; mixed use, high-density projects which make a real contribution to the public realm. But not for a knock-down price.